Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Holiday Movies

Below find TMWA's Very Special Holiday Movie Guide, being a guide to things that I have found on my television during that Holiest of Shopping Seasons. I love the Christmas season. (Yes, I'm an atheist and don't celebrate anything religious. But check out the post "Next you’ll be telling me the 'War on Christmas' is a myth designed to make the religious majority go on a pity trip" by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon for more.)

I love to sit around eating cookies, drinking hot chocolate or egg nog, and watching festive movies. Seriously. And during this time of year, they can be holiday themed movies.

So here they are, the good, the bad, and the weird:

Arnold's Christmas: I love "Hey, Arnold!", and am forever dissapointed it's gone and never to return. That said, the Christmas episode is good, but not one of their best.

Call Me Claus: Silly made-for-TV movie from a few years back featuring Whoopi Goldberg as a cynical producer who gets tapped to be the next Santa Claus. It's cheesy and it's fun.

A Christmas Carol: The Patrick Stewart version, of course. This is fantastic; my favorite version. It really is true: I just might pay to listen to this man read from a phone book.

Franklin's Magical Christmas: I love Franklin (children's TV show with a turtle as the main character), so I thought I'd like the Christmas special. Unfortunately, in what is normally a very down-to-earth and reality based show (albeit with talking animals), the main plot centered around real flying reindeer who shuttle people back and forth near the end of the show. It left me sort of cold.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas: Classic; you sort of have to love the cartoon, and I get such a hoot (or is that "Who"-t?) out of the new Ron Howard version.

It's a Wonderful Life: I love this movie. You have to feel better about your life when you watch George suffer. Family tradition: Yell contrary advice every time George decides to stay in Bedford Falls. Just recently bought my own copy of this. (Interestingly, I remember the first time I saw the movie, it was a re-make which featured Mary Bailey as the main character, but I haven't seen anything about that in years.) When I saw it in college with friends, I remember when Mary tells Violet "You like all the boys", and Violet responds "What's wrong with that?" all my friends turned at looked at me. Fun fact from the DVD: Did you know that the main street of Bedford Falls is a large set? I always assumed this was an actual street somewhere.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus: Up for something weird and haven't seen this before? This is based on a story by L. Frank Baum (who wrote the Oz books), and we all know what freaky stuff he wrote. (If you haven't already actually read some of the original Oz books, you owe it to yourself. It's worth bearing in mind that Opium was still in vogue around the same time.) I've seen two versions of this: a stop-motion and a traditionally animated version. They're similar, and both fun.

Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas: Very cute stories with the Disney characters; I like this a lot. Unfortunately, can't see it this year, as my local cable does not carry Disney channel. I thought about getting the DVD, but despite being a few years old and running on the Disney channel multiple times, they still want $20; so far I've decided not to spring for it.

Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas: Everything I said for Once Upon a Christmas, except I have trouble getting past the "new" 3D computer animated Mickey and pals.

Miracle on 34th Street: Love this, even though I dislike the premise of "believing things that aren't true is good for you." I like the original much better than the remake. It's sort of an interesting Rorschach test of a movie, too; there's nothing in the movie that actually suggests that Kris really is Santa Claus (even within the confines of the movie), but I've seen reviews that mention he really is Santa Claus, as though that had been established. Just bought my own copy, which includes both the original and the colorized versions in one set.

A Muppet Christmas Carol: Fabulous, and a lot of fun. And hey, here's a review. (If you like the review, it's part of a 40-part series covering every version of A Christmas Carol that the guy could find.)

Olive, the Other Reindeer: How can you not like all the name puns, starting with the title and continuing through "Round John Virgin" and "Richard Stands" (he's in the Pledge of Allegiance)? I'm with Olive on loving Christmas "the best of them all." And for some reason I have a tendency to hum "We're Not so Bad" all the time.

The Polar Express: Finally saw this on TV. A little long, not all that interesting, and kind of weird looking. I'm with the critics who said the North Pole had a creepy fascist vibe, but it's not completely overpowering while you watch it at least. This one gets an office "Meh" rating.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and the Island fo Misfit Toys: Watch the dates on these, kiddies! This is a new Rudolph, using the old characters, but done with "3D" computer animation. It's official: Computer animation has gotten cheap enough that anyone can produce off-the-shelf drek on a moment's notice, and this is a case in point. (Not that the original Rankin-Bass works were masterpieces or anything, but I think they were cute.) This is almost painful, and a poorly done rehash of parts of Toy Story II.

The Santa Clause: Very cute. I haven't gotten around to the second one; I would have caught it this year, but it was running opposite the Simpsons, and there are some principles I won't compromise.

Santa Claus: The Movie Seriously, what were they thinking?

A Very Merry Muppet Christmas: Pretty mediocre version of It's a Wonderful Life with Kermit as George Bailey and Whoopi Golberg as God. Doesn't go anywhere. Meh.

Walt Disney World Holidays: Hosted by Samantha Brown. Have you seen Samantha Brown? She did the "Great Hotels" and "Passport to Europe" series for the Travel Channel, and I absolutely love her. She has a great sense of fun and wonder, and you feel like you get to go right along with her. Combine this with Disney World and Christmas and what could be better? (Note: Not to be confused with Holidays at Walt Disney World on the food network hosted by Raven Symone which focuses on the food at Disney World, which is also cool.)

Hmm... now what have I missed?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Finally Done

Grades are finally filed. From now on, nothing but opscan tests. Or maybe I give up on grades altogether. It takes too much time and all it does is depress me when I find out what my students understand. Did you know that "Maslow's Hierarchy" is one of the problem solving strategies we discussed earlier in the semester? I didn't. Maybe the student was suggesting that they were too sleepy to fully focus on the problem, since it was an eight am final. Well, it was an eight am final except for the student who came a little after 10.

Actually I had an astonishing number of students who came late to finals. Other than the one who came two hours late, they didn't really have an excuse or ask for extra time, they just wandered in anywhere from 5-30 minutes late and started. It obviously doesn't affect me, but why would anyone do that? What if you actually needed that extra 15 minutes? Of course, I'm always amazed by how quickly some students finish. I had one who turned in the exam without doing the last page (worth 30 points). When I looked over the rest of the exam, I wondered why he had bothered to come.

Of course, there are plenty of students who keep coming about whom I wonder "Why?" The very first semester I taught, I had a student who wrote on a start-of-semester survey that he liked to go clubbing. I think he must have done a little too much of it that semester, because he rarely showed up to class. (When he did, he was late.) He turned in few assignments and did very poorly on the tests. I think he had about a 40 average. When the final exam started, I looked around and discovered he wasn't there, which I actually considered reasonably wise; I figured he realized he couldn't pass, and opted to focus on other classes. No, he just opted to come 45 minutes late. I was speechless, and just handed him an exam. He worked on it for about 20 minutes, turned it in, and left. He actually lowered his average; I think he got a 17 on the final.

More interesting to me is the student who had a page that the photocopier had cut off: One problem was missing entirely, and the other had the actual instructions lopped off, but still listed three functions, without any question about them. I didn't find this out until grading, because she apparently didn't think there was anything wrong. I gave her credit for the missing problem, but had no qualms about marking wrong her answers to the other problem. How can you not realize that there is no question?

And as usual, I also noticed that (with some exceptions), the midterm grade is a great predictor of the final grade. What if I just offered everyone their midterm grade if they like it and keep coming? Wait--that would encourage only the failing students to stay. OK, bad idea.

I'm slightly appalled really by the high failure rates in some of our basic sequences. I was having shocked conversations with the other new hires about how poorly some of our classes were doing, until we found out that our rates were about what the department was used to in those classes. The department knows it's a problem and keeps trying to find ways to fix it, but apparently with limited success. We have too many students coming in too weak. We have a lower level remedial course, but in essence, the remedial course is trying to correct a deficit that has been building up for most students for 10 years or more. (Yes, it starts with integers and fractions.) How do you make up for 10 years in a semester? Maybe we should invest resources in a time machine so we can go back and catch these students when they first start having trouble in math. (Of course, what I really want to ask is who let them through fifth grade with this deficit, much less graduate high school.) Thankfully, I have not yet taught the remedial course, so mine have all either passed it or tested out. But even if you have passed the one-semester course which substitutes for 10 years of math classes, how well prepared are you really for algebra?

Oops, sorry; bet you wondered why I stopped typing for a while, right? You say you didn't notice? You're sweet to say so, but it really was a while... I just had someone come by to inspect my furnace. Turns out there is a very small gas leak, but they're going to replace some kind of of hoobie-joobie and make it stop. (On some things I'm not very technical.)

I'll have to catch up more here at some point. It's been a long semester, and I was beginning to wonder if I'd make it.

Monday, November 06, 2006


I did as usual and wore horns for Halloween this year. These were fairly good, but the effect didn't come of as well as I'd hoped. (The latex didn't blend quite as well with my skin as it could have.) It was however somewhat appropriate; I gave a test to my Algebra students on Halloween. (I gave them candy too. I'm a nice demonic being.) Actually I had three people in my department who did not initially notice that I was wearing horns at all, which makes me wonder.

And of course I got home as soon as possible after my office hours to give out candy to the trick-or-treaters. I wasn't sure how many I would get, and I planned to give some to my students too, so I got a ton of candy. Turns out I'm now left with a ton of candy. (And I didn't even have to hide in my apartment with the lights off eating candy and pretending I wasn't home this year.)

I think I did pretty well with the decorating this year 'though, for having limited time:

I'm not sure you can really see the ghoul on the door, but you can see it in the entry picture below pretty well:

However, I probably have a ways to before I get as good as these people, whose house I passed when leaving the parade party earlier in the week:

Friday, November 03, 2006

Pre Halloween

Last weekend I got to see "the largest night-time parade in Pennsylvania", which is a Halloween parade held not far from here. My friends live on the parade route and hosted a party. We alternately stood inside (to get warm) or stood outside and "Woo"-d loudly for whatever group was passing by. (Well, OK, so the county Republican group only got an "Ah, yes.... Hello" and a polite wave from us, but most groups got a "Woo". I'm not sure why, but it was fun. I took a few shots of the parade going by:

Look! Here comes a skull! And Snoopy...

And a tiny car, for some reason:

It was an interesting parade, but sometimes kind of odd. A lot of the parts of the parade seemed to consist of trucks, possibly with a sign or people in the back waving. There were some floats, like this one:

In a number of cases, I couldn't really identify what the float was supposed to represent. (As near as I could tell, there was a float about satellite television at one point.)

There were a number of school marching bands, but they were riding inside school busses and not playing instruments because it was raining.

In any case, the party was fun, I met some nice people, and I even won an award for the best scary costume. I went as a Dementor:

(If you haven't read Prisoner of Azkaban yet, what are you waiting for? :-) )

As it turned out, the hood and gloves were fairly useful when standing outside in the cold.

That Darn Tree

I was pretty worried yesterday when all this white stuff started falling out of the sky. I was thinking it was snow, and went to ask why no one told me it snowed here. He assured me that it was not snow, but rather the leaves of a large, white tree outside. I was much relieved. Thankfully, I won't have to worry about snow this winter.

Unfortunately, he does tell me that the leaves from the tree really pile up like you wouldn't believe all winter long. And those fools at K-Mart don't even know what a "big white tree leaf shovel" is; I'm going to have to settle for what they call a "snow shovel."

Monday, October 23, 2006

The probability is rapidly approaching zero

I've been teaching a class for students planning to be elementary and middle school teachers. Recently, we've been learning about probability. It's a very hands-on class; we meet in a room with nice big hexagonal tables instead of standard desks and do lots of activities. There are two big cabinets filled with wonderful manipulatives. (Note for non-math-education sorts: Manipulatives are physical objects used to teach mathematical concepts. They include items like plastic chips or other counters, different shaped tiles and blocks, and a variety of interesting and creative tools people have come up with. They're a lot of fun to play with.)

Naturally, I try to lead students to discover important results, then hilight and review the results. I'm however realizing that conducting experiments in probability with students who are not so good at following directions is often a recipe for disaster.

A typical day consists of me giving them an experiment to conduct and record results from. (Perhaps rolling dice or flipping coins.) I explain and briefly demonstrate what they are going to do, then set them to collect data. When they are done, I smile like the Buddha and ask them what they found.

They tell me.

Then I say, "You got what? How--wait, what exactly did you do? That can't be right..." Then we proceed to go over the procedure until I find the mistake.

Actually, after the first experiment, I had way to much faith in my students. I recorded their results on the board, looked them over, and declared that this was a very unusual outcome. Something you would only expect to see maybe one in a million times, but nonetheless possible. But after all, I explained, that doesn't mean it can never happen. That was when a student asked "Wasn't that how we were supposed to do it?" And that was when I discovered we had not had a one-in-a-million event, but actually what turned out to be closer to a nine-times-out-of-ten event*: They had written down what they thought should happen instead of what actually happened. This tends to produce results that can politely be termed "wonky".

So new problem: What is the probability that my students will understand and follow all of my directions?
* Granted, Terry Pratchett does point out that one-in-a-million chances do come up 9 times out of 10.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


The Chaos and Fractals course is on! Apparently, it was even pretty popular at the University level committee, and there is some interest in transforming this into some sort of permanent course offering. Still not much success in finding a book that I really like.

However, I did find the following quote, which I like a lot:

A dictionary definition of chaos is a "disordered state or collection; a confused mixture." This is an accurate description of dynamical systems theory today--or of any other lively field of research.

Morris Hirsch

I'm in the process of trying to collect some more quotes, plus cool pictures and so forth to try and advertise this course. I need to make sure I get sufficient enrollment. Of course, I've always liked the following by Terry Pratchett from the opening of Witches Abroad, but it's too long to fit on a flyer:
...the universe was full of ignorance all around and the scientist panned through it like a prospector crouched over a mountain stream, looking for the gold of knowledge among the gravel of unreason, the sand of uncertainty and the little whiskery eight-legged swimming things of superstition. Occasionally he would straighten up and say things like "Hurrah, I've discovered Boyle's Third Law." And everyone knew where they stood.

But the trouble was that ignorance became more interesting, especially big fascinating ignorance about huge and important things like matter and creation, and people stopped patiently building their little houses of rational sticks in the chaos of the universe and started getting interested in the chaos itself--partly because it was a lot easier to be an expert on chaos, but mostly because it made really good patterns that you could put on a t-shirt.

(So maybe I should call this 'Fermat's Review': "I have found a wonderful quote about this topic, but the flyer is too small to contain it.") If I recall correctly, I did put up this quote at my dissertation defense, 'though. When people ask what I study and I say "Julia Sets", I can always follow up with "the mathematics of T-shirts and coffee cups."

The Pratchett quote also seems to be about as close as we come to a criticism of chaos or fractals. I was hoping for a long list of quotes, at least one of which would have someone kvetching about it being some sort of abomination, but nothing so far. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Algebra Exams

Grading Algebra exams* a few weeks back left me with the conclusion that my students don't understand functions.

For example, they are given that f(x) = sqrt(x) (i.e., "square root of x"; no square root symbols on this keyboard) and that g(x) = x + 1. When asked to find the domain of (f+g)(x), the two most popular answers are "all real numbers" and "sqrt(x)". The following are answers to the domain of the composition f(g(x)):
  • all real numbers
  • all real numbers except x = -1
  • (sqrt(x))(x + 1)(x)
  • {f < x < g}
  • I don't know what I'm doing.
The last answer I can't really argue with. Should I give that a point?

Now, almost two weeks later, I gave the students a bonus quiz as an opportunity to make back some points. After having notice for some time that the quiz would cover the same material they bombed on the test, I'm not sure I see evidence that most students did any better on the quiz. In fact, I saw pretty much the same answers on the quiz.

I'm told that the failure rate for this course is somewhat high, so it seems my results are not atypical. But it leaves me wondering: What goes through the minds of my students? How are they studying? Do they think it's working?
*Yes, this is a somewhat math-y post. If you didn't take/don't remember algebra, you may not know why I find these answers funny.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Longevity Advice from the First Emperor of China

I recently saw an interesting documentary on the first emperor of China. (Which refers to the man who originally unified all the different parts of China. "Unified" being a euphemism for "conquer", or in other words, kill everyone who says you don't get to be Grand High Poo-Bah.) He's responsible for both the Great Wall and the famous terra-cotta warriors, which were set to guard him in the afterlife from all the enemies he made from doing all that "unifying". (Does that make him a "uniter", not a "divider"?)

Interesting thing is, while his tomb was being built, he apparently decided he'd rather just stay in this life, and was in search of immortality. While he searched, he wanted to at least prolong his life as long as possible. Advice from his doctors? Have a lot of sex and eat a lot of mercury. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that the doctors were secretly trying to kill him, either.

What strikes me is this: What will people in 2000 years think of our longevity advice? You know, all this stuff like "exercise", "eat lots of vegetables and fiber", "avoid sugar, salt and fat", etc. What if this is all considered just as ridiculous someday? Who wants to take a risk like that?

Think I'll have a pizza for dinner.

Friday, October 06, 2006

In how many ways can you teach permutations and combinations?

I think I've discovered that over the past week and a half. But after about four days spent on permutations and combinations with my elementary ed class, today they got it.

We've talked about choosing the first item and the second and the third, and so on. We've done examples and written down lists of choices. We've played with reorganizing manipulatives in different ways. We've used formulas and related these to the ideas we've already discussed. And we've done so many problems I've mostly run out of problems to assign from the textbook. (There weren't all that many to begin with, 'though.)

But on Friday, they understood. We checked the homework, we discussed how to lay down groups of different colored markers in a row, and we even discussed how you could count the number of possible ways to get five heads and five tails when you flip ten coins. And they got it. Very few people said "I don't understand." Hardly anyone asked "Why did you divide by ___?" I could have sung when I left the room. I think I did.

The only thing that worries me: As we get ready to move into geometry, do I have four days on perimeter and area to look forward to?

Of course, this was all Friday. Today, we did a few more examples, and these were a little weaker. Oh well; on to geometry.


I'm back. It's been a busy semester. Somehow this feels busier than when I had 400-500 students, possibly because I have four sections and three different preps, all of which are completely new to me. (I have taught an algebra class of sorts 12 years or so ago, but I don't have anything from then anyway. Nor would I use it if I did, probably; I was pretty green at that point.) It also doesn't help that I may have arranged to do too much grading in my classes. My ideas about expectations for grading in what I now consider "small" classes may not have been in line with the school as a whole. Live and learn.

Anyway, some updates on what's happening here:
  • I finally have all of my furniture, including a lovely and comfy leather couch and armchair. Pictures may finally follow if I can declutter the place enough.
  • Looks like I'm getting to teach a special topics course in the Spring semester. I've got a proposal in for consideration to make a course on chaos and fractals. (If that doesn't get approved, I could do complex or numerical analysis.) The course is to be dual listed for students in the math ed masters degree program as well as an elective for advanced undergrad math majors, which means I may get to have a lot of fun with it. It may lend itself to a lot of interesting class activities, and I may not be expected to be super-technical all the time. I'm currently hunting for a textbook I like. The ones I've looked at tend to either be too technical, too vague, or cover only one of chaos or fractals, with sparse discussion of the other.
  • Interesting note about my spring schedule: I have three classes which meet one day a week for three hours. I've never taught one of these before, and I'm not sure what I'll think of it. I may like it for the ability to have large chunks of uninterrupted time to do activities and link different ideas together before anyone has a chance to forget them. Or I may hate trying to cram a week's worth of material into one night and feel completely exhausted at the end of each. I'll let you know.
  • I've given all of my first exams. I think I may have been overly easy in the course for majors; the grades came out extremely high. It was balanced out by my algebra classes, where the students completely bombed. I'm offering a "bonus quiz" next week to raise scores a bit, since I desperately need these students to understand things like what the domain of a function is, how to graph, and how to simplify exponents.
  • I seem to have some cold that was floating around for a while, but I'm not doing too badly. Just a sore throat really. So I'm wearing a scarf and carrying hot tea everywhere. I've just run out of green tea and honey this morning, too.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Treating Math Anxiety: How Not To

I found a copy of a textbook for teaching math in elementary and middle schools in my mailbox, and while flipping through it, I came across a table of suggestions for how to treat different symptoms of math anxiety. For example, physical symptoms could be treated with "Physical exercise before, during, and after study." This sounds reasonable.

Then I got to the symptom "Lack of Attention", which suggested as treatment
Shock treatment: wearing a clown nose and wig during lessons, staging slapstick demonstrations
I was utterly horrified. If the kids weren't anxious about math before, they will be after you start making them wear clown noses and wigs for not paying attention in class! "Now Jimmy, maybe if you pay attention today, you can take those off and the other students will stop laughing at you tomorrow."

I mean, it's bad enough when the kids are anxious about... what's that you say? Oh, you meant the teacher should wear the clown nose and wig. Oh, that's quite different. Never mind.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


I bought a TiVo this summer. I'd been thinking about this as a productivity booster. No really; stop laughing. Here's my reasoning: For the past year or two, I noticed that when I came home from work or otherwise felt exhausted, I would channel surf looking for something to watch. There often wasn't anything non-sucky on. But at other times, I would watch TV because there was something on that I liked. The theory was that I could move the things I liked to the times I wanted to veg out, and not end up surfing stuff I didn't like anyway. I'm not sure if I've really tested the theory, but I'm enjoying my TiVo. (One possible hole in the theory is that the TiVo is letting me find more things I like.)

It's nice to just look at the listings, pick out any movies, series, or documentaries that look cool, and let the box just picks these things up for me as they go by. It's nice that it will snag things I would never have caught, because they're playing at 4:30 am or something. Plus I get to see the Daily Show and Colbert report every day. (I heart Stephen Colbert.) Additionally, the pause/fast forward/rewind functions are just dreamy compared to a VCR; you get instant response. I pretty quickly got in the habit of just pausing anytime I felt like getting up to get a drink, check my e-mail, or whatever else, and skipping over the commercials completely.

It had some difficulties getting set up initially. I noticed on about the 12th of July that it said it would next connect to the service on the 10th. I had to reset the whole system, but after that, it didn't seem to have trouble updating regularly. I also had some difficulty in the first week with it recording the wrong channel, but I managed to go through a manual reset of the tuner, and it seems to be working now. A more difficult problem is that not everything runs when it's supposed to run. I have occasional problems with the beginning or end of a program getting cut off because it started early or late. There is a setting to start or end a recording early or late by a fixed amount, but it would have to be set for each recording.

Interestingly, TiVo apparently sends you "messages" after some updates. I assumed these were messages covering new features or other changes, but mostly I seem to get occasional random messages telling me about features that were already mentioned in the manual and the intro videos that came on the box. (These are getting less frequent.) I suppose the idea is that people probably didn't read the manual or watch the intro videos, but you can still train them to use the box if you sneak the instruction in little by little through little e-mail type messages. Perhaps I should adapt this approach to my classes. I wonder if it would help if I occasionally sent out e-mails to my class like the following:

To: Sammy Student
Subject: You can now multiply binomials!

Did you know you can use the power of algebra to multiply together binomials? It's true! Just distribute the terms of one binomial across the other, then distribute again:

(a + b)(c + d) = (a + b) c + (a + b) d = ac + bc + ad + bd

(You can use FOIL, too!) For more information, see section 2.3 of your Algebra Book.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My Trip to the Fair

(Why do I feel like the next line needs to be "by TMWA's six year old alter ego, little TMWA, or tmwa."?)

Scary looking carny rides, lots of animals, and tons of junk food. Not having been to many fairs, I had to sample quite a bit. Started with "Garbage Fries", which are french fries with cheese, chili, sour cream, jalepenos, ranch dip, salsa, onions, and who knows what else. Then had a fantastic rib dinner from the local fire department, and finished with a funnel cake. (And before you ask, no, I did not sleep well that night. But it might have been worth it; the jury is still out.)

There were also animals, like a very fluffy bunny:

Or a bunny which thought it was a sphinx:

(You can tell I like bunnies.) I didn't get a picture of the cow which sprang a leak just as we were walking behind her. I had no idea those things were full of water! I hope they got it plugged up; I'm sure at the rate it was going, there was just going to be a flabby cow skin on the floor in a few minutes.

Oh, and ponies. Ponies are cool too. Not as cool as bunnies, but cool.

And then there is the large tent where almost a week earlier various produce won awards. Of course, a week sitting outside in the heat doesn't really set well with produce, which at best was getting pretty wilty:

You should have seen the blackberries. Just a pile of little nodules in yuck and a puddle of sticky juice.

I'll definitely have to go back next year. But find a way to eat smaller portions. (Of the junk food; I wasn't sampling the wilty produce. Even I have standards. And yes, I know I ate the Garbage Fries.)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

1,720 Miles in Six Days, or What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Here I post the brief log of my trip last week down to see my partner M, that others may be edified.

Tuesday, 8/15, 11:00 am: Left home no more than an hour behind schedule, which I feel is doing good for me. Have seven hours to go, but will see M tonight, so I can be moderately happy.

11:30 am: Remembered what I forgot at home. Did not turn around.

7:00 pm: MapQuest got me to Kentucky, even past a section of highway which turned into a 35 mph road through a residential area, but on finishing the last leg, I am in the middle of nowhere with no Day's Inn in sight. I look for a place to turn around on a road which is now two lanes each way with a median, and eventually find my way back to the hotel. I have to go past quite some way again until I can cross to the other side and come back. My partner later tells me that the correct way to do this is to go over the concrete median, which does in fact have moderately sloped edges to make this easy. I spend the rest of the trip jumping these medians somewhat guiltily, although everyone else is doing it.

11:00 pm: Am coming to realize that sharing a full-size bed in a motel (M's house will not be vacant until Friday) means that I will not be sleeping tonight. Will get hotel tomorrow. Will get nicer hotel. Holiday Inn Express down the street looks good, although we have not yet found a way to get to the parking lot; it seems to be surrounded by fences on all sides, but there are cars in the lot.

Wednesday, 8/16, 9:00 am: Drop off the other half, and find my way to the Holiday Inn. (It requires going down a side road and then sneaking through an abandoned restaurant's parking lot. Interestingly enough, the abandoned restaurant has a giant banner on front which reads "NOW OPEN!".) Hotel has one room (a suite) available that night, which is thankfully non-smoking. Explore the campus a while afterward.

4:00 pm: Enter room and find it reeking of smoke. Go downstairs to complain. Hotel eventually swaps my room with someone else who is getting in later that night. I discover that I seem to now be in the handicap accessible room (with all the interesting bars and whatnot in the shower and extra wide doorways). Hotel still will not let me park in handicapped spots.

11:00 pm: Hear sirens nearby. Hope they are not here to rescue a disabled person who slipped in the shower after being overcome by smoke fumes.

Thursday, 8/17: Day mostly passes without incident. Spend more time on campus, which is built in the valley of some serious mountains, and is as a result extremely vertical. Had this brought strongly to mind when I noticed the labels on one building's elevator included something like:

First Floor: Smith Street ...
Sixth Floor: Jones Street ...

Very trippy. But be careful not to trip at the top of the hill.

Friday, 8/18, 8:00 am: Today we all leave our hotels and get to move to the new house. We try to pack all the remaining stuff into my car, because M's brother has already left with the other car. After some extended efforts, I feel I am ready to revolutionize the field of packing theory and we are able to check out. Movers in Atlanta are simultaneously beginning to pack up the apartments to travel up here.

Noon: We go to lunch, then to the Realtor to tie up loose ends and see about keys. Turns out Realtor had left a message earlier in the week (which no one got) that the previous owners wanted to stay through Saturday to finish stuff at the house.

4:00 pm: M and brother decide they need to retrieve their mother from Atlanta, and so plan a trip down that night to get her and the three cats and come back immediately. I would be helpful since they will have to bring back two cars with three people and three cats for seven hours, but I will need to leave my car somewhere. Somewhat reluctantly leave car in the garage of the house under care of previous home owners.

6:30 pm: Start seven hour trip to Atlanta. Nothing like a good early start, and this is nothing like one.

Saturday, 8/19, 2:00 am: Arrive in Atlanta. Surprise M's mother. (By phone. Coming into the apartment unexpectedly in that neighborhood would cause more surprise than would be good for anyone.) Crash as best possible.

9:00 am: Up again and moving. Much to be done; final cleaning, trash and random junk to be moved. There's tons still to do. Much was left by the movers. Part of the difficulty is that M's mother was left with too much to do by herself to get ready for movers and finalize the move-out, and there was no way to get help to her.

1:00 pm: Find someone who will the clean apartments for a fee the next week. Also agrees to sell a left over washer and drier in the brother's apartment.

6:00 pm: Am sitting with two paper shredders and a giant pile of papers. One shredder is too small, and the other only has a CD slot which still works. I'm sitting together with my adopted second mother, feeding papers in as fast as possible. It feels much like a scene from some fleeing third-world dictator's office in the final hours.

8:30 pm: Getting close to finished, but must eat and desperately need a shower. When I say finished, I mean giving up. The piles of stuff still left everywhere are staggering. The screams of the woman who agreed to clean will be audible from Kentucky on Monday. M and I are traveling separately from mom and brother, so we separate for dinner, which allows us to visit our favorite Indian place one last time, which is wonderful. Back to apartment, showers taken, car packed up, and it's finally time to get the remaining cat in the car. (Other two cats went in the first car.) We put the car in the garage and I attempt to take the cat out to the passenger side while M waits to leave. After several iterations of this attempt (and a fair number of claw wounds), M has to take the cat to the car. (We have the cat which does not travel well.)

Midnight: We are finally leaving Atlanta. (What I said earlier about good early starts? Strike that; I mean that now.) Cat is climbing around car and howling. I do my best to stroke him (when I can find where he has crawled off to) or hold him when he will let me. Note about cats in a car: They are always desperately in need of looking out the window, but as soon as they do, they are not happy with what they see. I think it would be better if they just didn't look.

Sunday, 8/20, 2:00 am: Cat actually seems to be sleeping some in the back, although an occasional bump or lights wake him and he hollers for a few minutes. M is now nodding regardless of my best efforts to keep him awake, so we decide to swap. First attempt is at an exit with a gas station that turns out to be closed, although lights are still on. We abort the idea of swapping places however when M notices there is someone sneaking around back behind where we are stopped, so we go on to the next exit. Next exit has open gas station and convenience store, so we stock up and I take over driving. M also receives a free gospel music tape in the store. Discover that Coca-Cola Blak (a mixture of Coke and coffee) is pretty vile. (This coming from an avid Coke fan, although granted not a big coffee fan.) Thankfully, I'm actually still pretty alert, mostly owing to the fact that poor sleeping habits have left me with an average bedtime of about 3:00 am this summer.

6:00 am: About two hours or so from final destination, we have to check into a hotel because I can no longer stay awake either. (And M is no help; he has started carrying on conversations I'm not privy to.) Find hotel that takes cats. Take cat, food, litter box, and little else into room. Cat hides under bed. We collapse and sleep.

1:00 pm: Ready to go again, and cat is calmer and now moving around hotel room to check out his new home. Cat is not happy to be taken back out to car. M calms cat by playing gospel music tape from convenience store last night. Cat converts to Christianity. Converts back when Jesus does not rescue him from car.

3:30 pm: Arrive at new house, which is large and lovely. Will camp there tonight; the moving van arrives tomorrow, and I will leave to go home. M goes in to teach at 9:00 so I plan to leave about then, just before moving van comes. Am somewhat exhausted, but glad I could help. Am also relieved to find my car is undamaged in the garage.

Monday, 8/21, 8:30 am: Damage my car trying to back out of the garage, by scraping off driver's side mirror. Now the dilemma: Fixing right will take time for parts to be ordered somewhere, but I must be back tomorrow. On the other hand, I can't drive seven hours with a mirror hanging off the car. I drop off M for class and go to hunt for some glue to see if I can re-attach the mirror.

4:00 pm: After trying two superglues with no luck, an epoxy seems to (eventually) be holding the mirror on. I take M out to lunch/dinner before I go, and to see if the thing will hold on while I drive. It seems to.

5:00 pm: Leave Kentucky. My one hour late departure on the original trip down doesn't seem so shabby anymore. I buy duct tape just in case the epoxy gives out suddenly at some point.

7:00 pm: Stop in Charleston to visit my bank, which does not have any branches in Pennsylvania. (I'd joined a credit union in PA, but hadn't received my materials yet.) Got to deposit a bunch of checks I'd been accumulating.

8:00 pm: Remembered I had also meant to take more cash out, since I was completely out. Did not even think about turning around.

Tuesday, 8/22, 1:00 am: Arrive home, mirror miraculously still in place.

And that concludes the tale, which is probably a cautionary example of something or other.

As an addendum, the side mirror has stayed in place ever since, although it's not quite flush with the car, which leaves me in another quandary: Do I try to get someone to fix this right, or just leave it as it is?

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Beer Chronicles

Since everyone up here seems to drink a lot, I figured I'd better get started. I've recently been doing some beer sampling to find out if there are any beers I actually like. (Up to now I've mostly agreed with my grandmother, who just said "pour it back in the horse it came out of.") But plenty of people seem to like them, and I figured I'd really just tried a few, mostly pretty cheap brands, so what the heck; maybe I'd find something I like.

The first thing I found out may be a partial explanation to why everyone drinks so much in Pennsylvania: you cannot buy any alcohol in a grocery store. My first thought was to just find a recommendation and try out one or two things picked up at the local supermarket, but the state in it's infinite wisdom thinks it's better if you have to have specialty stores which sell nothing but huge cases of hooch. Of course, I was a little hesitant to pick up a full case of anything I wasn't sure if I'd like or not, so I opted to take advantage of a local "happy hour" organized by friends and start sampling at a bar. The other plus to this is that there were plenty of people willing to give me advice.

My starter beer was a Yuengling lager. Interestingly, Yuengling is a Pennsylvania beer, and it's also the oldest brewery in the US. So I gave this a shot. Yup, tastes like beer. Which is to say, while it's not a horrible experience, I have no urge to try it a second time.

Next week, I wanted to branch out and try something quite different, so I picked something called Blue Moon which people told me was more of a "fruity" beer. I like fruity things. I like sweet fruity desert wines. I like fruity mixed drinks. I'm fruity. I noticed that to emphasize the point about the fruitiness, the beer was even served with a slice of orange on the glass. I was at a loss as to whether that was purely decorative or if I should squeeze the orange and dump it in, and my companions were no more sure. I tried both ways. I couldn't tell any difference. In fact, I couldn't tell any difference between this and the previous beer, so this is also going into my "not a winner" column.

During dinner at an Irish pub style restaurant before my next bar date, I got a suggestion to try a cider called Strongbow, as it might be more my style. I have to grant, this was not bad. It still doesn't make it on my "Ooh, I want that" list, but it's on my "I may drink that again" list. It may help that it has a high alcohol content, and after two I was nicely toasted.

My final experiment was in the "humorous beverage" category. I call it that because when one friend suggested I could try a Guinness stout, everyone else laughed. But I was game; I was looking to try the full range of tastes. After all, it was Hobbes who said "Tigers don't know if they like ice cream until they've tried every flavor." (Were you thinking of the right Hobbes when you first read that? If not, I'd like to gently remind you of just who you're reading right now.)

So next happy hour, I ordered the Guinness. I could at least recognize a difference between this and every other beer I'd tried, but it wasn't a huge difference. My summary of the basic problem with this and all the others: They all taste like beer.

I feel safe in wrapping up my experiments now, and writing my conclusions: Having sampled some variety of beers, I have come to the conclusion that I don't really care for it. Cider however is passable as something which tastes almost, but not quite, entirely unlike beer. I'm sticking with Coke.

Friday, August 11, 2006


I have office keys, and I didn't even have to dress in drag to obtain them.

I should explain.

Keys were requested for me over a month ago. From what I hear, I'm lucky that the physical plant got them ready so quickly. For security reasons, the department cannot simply give me the keys turned in by the person whose office I took. Those keys must be sent back by our department and much paperwork must ensue. Other keys would then be issued to me (at some point) by the physical plant if I were deemed worthy. Since I couldn't be trusted with my own keys to get into my office, I had to use the master key whenever I wanted in. But I digress.

On Monday, I found out my keys were ready, so I went to the physical plant to get them. Only one person was still in the office, since it was around a quarter after two, and she told me the office closed at two in the summer. (I'm glad I didn't come after everyone left; I didn't see any posted hours.) But she looked for the keys, and found a labeled packet of keys to my office and the environs. Then she gave me a funny look.

"You don't look like a Carol*."

The keys were for the right places, and had my last name, but the first name was Carol. So now I'm wondering if there is any way to get around this, considering that I make an ugly woman. (Well, that's not entirely true; I was told I had good legs. But I'm digressing again.)

Thankfully, I got the keys (in my own name no less) the next day when I came back (well before two) to a fully staffed office. In fact, I ended up with no less than five keys, which seems like overkill. I'm going to have to find some colored stickers to put on these suckers, or I'm going to spend half my life trying to read and remember five different codes printed on the keys. (I thought I had trouble with this when I had three keys.)

You know what's even better? The keys all seem to work in the intended doors. Really, I'm amazed. I thought surely narrative causality would result in at least one key that didn't work, preferably the one which actually opens my office. It seemed like the only way the story could end, but instead it ended with me sneaking over at night with loads of boxes from my old office and unpacking them.

So I'm settled in, more or less. The office is not bad, although not as nice as the office I left (that would have been nearly impossible 'though). It will take some getting used to.

Once again, "I'm home."
*Not my real false name.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Good News/The Bad News

Well, the good news is that my partner found a job. It's a good job, and he likes the school, and the area even seems nice so far, even though it's a bit remote. He's taking a bit of a pay cut, but on the other hand, it's a real tenure track college teaching job, and he will not have to deal with the high school anymore. So that's a good thing. He's even got a house lined up to live in, and is moving soon.

The bad news? It's seven hours from where I am. And the nearest airport seems to be two hours away.

Well, that's a half-hour closer than we were for the last two years I guess. And if we just keep getting a half-hour closer every two years, we'll be living in the same town in just a scant 26 years.

It's important to have things to look forward to.

So this is where I live now

Having been here a little over a month, I have some feel for where I'm living, and there are some things to recommend it. During the time I've been up here, I have:
  • Been to a Greek festival.
  • Been to both gay bars. They are of course about the same as I expect; mostly loud and somewhat smoky, but they exist.
  • Met with the gay men's coffee group twice. This is more my speed. It also got me onto a bunch of e-mail lists about lesbian/gay/bi issues in the area.
  • Found good shopping within 20 minutes of my home, including the great supermarket. A passable local chain is within about a five to ten minute drive from my home.
  • Found good Chinese, Middle Eastern, Asian fusion, and Irish food, as well as a place with great deli-type food and a good pizza place which is quite close to my home. I've been told of good places for sushi, Italian, and French but haven't been yet.
  • Joined a local weekly "happy hour" organized by friends in the area, which also allowed me to meet lots of nice people.
  • Seen a play. ("Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte", which is a spoof of the movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. It features the two female leads played by men in drag, and was fun, although I suspect I would have gotten more out of it if I were part of the cult following of the movie. The movie is sort of interesting too; Wikipedia describes it as being of the "psycho-biddy" genre.)
  • Seen a bit of Presque Isle in Erie, as part of the local natural wonder, yadda yadda. I included a picture earlier.
  • Visited an outlet mall about an hour south of here.
  • Found lots of furniture stores, but do not yet have furniture. I did finally order a recliner from one place, but it's not in stock and will take 45-60 days to arrive.
All things told, it's not been bad at all. Now I just have to see what happens when we get to the first snow fall, which I'm guessing must come around the end of August. With things currently hot and humid, I'm almost looking forward to this. (Yeah, right.) But I am spending a lot of time in the bedroom with the window AC unit. Blessed, blessed window unit.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

IKEA adventures

When I moved, I gave away about half my furniture. (Basically everything in my living and dining room. It was old furniture and low quality. Some may not have even survived another move.) So I've been doing lots of furniture shopping since I came.

I made a trek to the IKEA in Pittsburgh (about 110 miles) shortly after getting here to see what they had, since lots of people rave about them. I left mostly unimpressed, but decided they might be fine for bookshelves and something to put my TV on. I've spent a lot of time since then checking all the nearby regular furniture places.

But recently I decided I really needed to get some bookshelves so I could unpack my book boxes and clear space in my living room (possibly to accommodate a recliner I'm thinking about). So yesterday I set out on another IKEA trek, and a somewhat more focused one: I needed three large bookshelves, one small bookshelf, and (if I thought it would fit in my car) a TV stand/entertainment center of some sort. I measured my car in different configurations before I left to see if I could fit a six-foot bookshelf package, and found that I could just manage, with some contortion.

So I drove down, perused the store, and made some picks. I opted to try the in-store restaurant before heading downstairs to pick up boxes and pay. I decided I should try a dessert too, so I picked what I think they called an "apple berry pie", which was labeled as a traditional Swedish dessert. My first thought on trying it was "I guess this is why I don't think of Sweden as famous for its desserts." (But you know, with all the weird little wares and knick-knacks in the store, foods for sale, and a restaurant, all they really need is a boat ride and some fish-jugglers or something and we'd have a new Epcot World Showcase addition.)

The downstairs part of the store turned out to include a number of other small items that were interesting and which I missed last time, because I thought that the bottom floor included only the boxed versions of what was in the show room. So it was a nifty discovery of all sorts of plates, glasses, linens and other random stuff. Not that I wanted any, but nifty anyway. Then off to hunt for boxes.

The boxes must be chosen by what is essentially a serial number, matched to what is labeled on the shelf. Different colors of the same thing are denoted by different numbers, and you do have to be careful, because otherwise the color is not indicated on the box, and the arrangement is a little weird. With the bookshelves, I found it also required a lot of matching up precise dimensions; an assembled version of a bookshelf over a stack of boxes was not necessarily an indication of what was in the stack of boxes. And box sizes are no help. Large bookshelves are in very skinny boxes, just the height and width of one side of the bookshelf, which makes sense to me. However, the short bookshelf of the same width was in a wide flat box as wide as the assembled shelf.

After a few false starts, and much difficult lugging boxes onto and off of a cart (the store helpfully lists that the large bookshelf packages weigh 86 pounds!), I was almost set, when I realized that the large bookshelf (and box) was about 6'8", not 6' as I had thought. By this point, I was eyeing the cart with three heavier and longer packages than I thought, and wondering if these were going to fit. After a parking lot run, I decided I might get two plus the small shelf in, but probably not three large, so I left one (more lugging here) and checked out. After fighting with the self-checkout system (bar codes would not scan and it took me a while to figure out there were two different slots for debit and credit cards), I was out trying to fight these things into my car. (Much panting and sweating was involved.) Trying to reverse the process at home left me briefly wondering if I would have a permanent car bookshelf, but I eventually freed the danged thing and manage to lug everything inside, although I felt about half dead by this point. (And I still need at least one more trip at some point?)

After I cooled off for a bit (praise to any gods in earshot for that window AC in my bedroom), I opened up a box and found the assembly instructions. They are printed with little cartoons showing what to do instead of words. The first "instruction" (inside the box, remember) essentially translates to: "Don't be an idiot and try to move the box by yourself, it's too heavy; use two people to lift the box."

And they are tricksy, yes precious. When I was almost finished, I realized I had three extra pieces of wood which I wasn't going to use for anything. I think these must be what the company uses to fill in spaces in the box. Or maybe the shelves will fall apart on top of me after my AC falls out of the window; who knows.

So today everything on me is a little sore, but there are shelves up and many boxes are gone. And I'm seeing definite advantages to buying from a regular store with no assembly and which delivers the stuff to your home.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Joining the University

I'm getting there:
  • I have a complete fall schedule. I do not have to drive to one of the extension campuses (about 20 miles), to which I say: *whew!* No driving in the six feet of snow. I do have a course for math ed majors, which I'm looking forward to. I also have one course for math majors, which should be fun too. None of the courses are anything I've taught before, except that I taught a sort-of college algebra course the first time I taught, more than a decade ago.
  • I have books for my courses now, too, including all kinds of cool bonus materials. The elem ed course came with DVDs of sample lessons.
  • I have an office assigned. I do not yet have keys for the office, so I have to borrow the master key if I want to go in. I'm waiting for a key before I actually start moving stuff in.
  • I've had my benefits orientation, so I have tons of forms to fill out. I also have to set up new accounts with TIAA-CREF for my retirement accounts. To my great annoyance, I cannot combine the accounts I already have, which means that I will now have three accounts to manage. I also plan to set up a personal plan and deduct money to it, and since that cannot be combined either, I will have four different retirement accounts. If I change jobs a few more times, I can just see myself retiring with 37 separate accounts, each of which has less than twenty-thousand dollars in it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The picture tour

I thought I'd include a few pictures showing some of the upsides of where I'm living.

Here's my backyard; i.e., the view from one of my back windows. All things considered, it could have been worse:

I still occasionally see cows out in one of the fields across the stream. This is cool. (Smelling the cows because the windows are open remains less cool.) I was going to take a shot outside of the front window to show how close the campus was, but there are too many trees in the way to be able to see it. No interior shots until I get some furniture, which may be a while.

Here's downtown, which is probably a five minute walk from my apartment:

I find this a relatively cool area. There is a heavily recommended pizza place (which has yet to impress me, unfortunately) and a Chinese-restaurant-in-a-box.*

There is also the fountain seen at right, which includes a plaque explaining how it had places for men, horses, and dogs to drink, and a description of all the places it got moved around over the years before it was re-installed here. I find this interesting, because I swear I've seen the same basic description on a fountain somewhere else (including that it was moved around a lot before being re-installed at some point.) I wonder if every town had a fountain someone made to include places for men, horses, and dogs to drink, or if there was one relatively wealthy dude with a horse, a dog, and a serious thirst traveling the country.

Here's a shot from Presque Isle, looking towards Erie:

Presque Isle is actually a peninsula, not an island, although apparently it was once an island, but sand buildup eventually connected it to Erie. You can now drive onto the "island" over what I guess is a sandbar underneath. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether this is a good idea or not, but it's a pretty area, and there are beaches.

* I'm positive there is a kit you can buy to make a Chinese-restaurant-in-a-box. When you open the box, you find: a pack of paper numbered menus (two sided) including "combination dinners" with an eggroll, a bunch of golf pencils to stick into a bowl of rice so that people can circle which order they want, a lightboard with bunch of faded pictures of menu items for sale to put up on it, a set of rectangular aluminum take-out boxes with clear plastic lids, fortune cookies, a refrigerator case full of soft drinks, and possibly a family to run your restaurant for you. (I'm not sure about the last one, but I think it's a good guess.) I think these appear using different names in just about every city in the United States, as far as I can tell. That they come as a kit seems the only likely explanation to me.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


I realized pretty quickly something I didn't think about doing when I moved: I forgot to update my "Do Not Call" registry information.

Telemarketers have apparently gotten desperate since then. I got about 8 calls in the first three days just from some stupid "magazine sweepstakes" trying to send me magazines. Plus a number of other calls.

One came early one morning, but I think I outsmarted them. After I woke up, I grabbed the phone and gave the obligatory "Hello?", and heard the sounds of a call center in the background. As usual, the telemarketer didn't bother to actually be listening to the line when I answered, so I opted to just stay silent instead of speaking again like usual. After a bit longer I think they decided the line was dead and hung up.

In any case, I'm back on the list. Unfortunately, it takes time for this to work, although the calls have slacked off a lot by now. Which leaves me with the question, "Why do we need to opt out of the system anyway?" If there's someone out there who truly wants to get calls about magazines, aluminum siding, credit cards, phone service, newspapers, pest control, great deals on earwax removal, and all the rest, let them sign up to the "Please call and harass the hell out of me" list. I suppose there might be someone almost terminally lonely who might do this. But leave everybody else alone. To be honest, I don't get the exemption for political and charitable causes. I don't want calls from these either. And it's not a free speech issue here; free speech does not include a guarantee that anyone else has to listen. I don't care how wonderful your cause to collect a million postcards for little Timmy is, I don't want to get phone calls about it. Send me a letter and I can toss it in the circular file with the rest of the junk mail at my own convenience.

I love hearing from people I actually know. I hate hearing from some stranger trying to manipulate me in to buying something or donating to their charity or supporting their political candidate.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


I'm in the process of getting auto insurance in PA, since Progressive is discontinuing my policy at the end of the month because I changed states. Apparently my policy is through an independent agent in Virginia, and they won't keep me if I move to Pennsylvania. However, Progressive's web site (which they push relentlessly) will not give me a quote (after having to look up 10 zillion things and enter them) because I'm already with Progressive, and hence have to use their website to change my options. None of the options includes getting a new policy in another state. I'm not feeling kindly inclined towards Progressive right now, although I am letting a local agent give me another quote.

The good news in any case is that the quotes I have so far (from Allstate and GEICO) are way, way below my rate in Virginia. Like less than half. I don't know why. As far as I can tell, I'm getting the same coverage, although perhaps it's affected by the fact that I'm not really commuting, since I live across the street from where I work now. Maybe Pennsylvania is just cheaper.

I'm also looking into flood insurance, oddly enough. I don't think it's really a major concern, but another professor who lives in this complex told me they were evacuated because of a flood concern once. (There had been tons of rain from a big hurricane season, and there was concern the dam at the lake would break and send water down the stream behind the apartment.) Nothing happened, but it did make me wonder. Especially since I'm shopping for new furniture now. I can just see spending a few thousand on a new sofa and finding it floating in my living room. (The same professor also told me they had been evacuated once for fire, but I knew about that before I moved here; the fire actually burned down my unit a few years back, which is why most of my stuff is new. They fixed the problem (wiring) so that shouldn't be a concern, although admittedly the sequence of fire and flood just does not seem an auspicious omen for one's domicile.)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Fourth

Happy July 4 to all.

I'm remembering having a lot of fun with sparklers and other home fireworks when I was growing up, I guess before those things were considered too dangerous. I also remember one year living someplace (I think in Houston) where we couldn't have real fireworks, so I attempted to make my own. I made my own confetti by coloring paper and cutting it into tiny squares, then loading this into small plastic bags. I imagined that when I threw the bags up in the air, they would "explode", showering down confetti like fireworks in the sky showered sparks.

I also made my own sparklers. Remember the plastic images, often part of cheap kids' toys, which appear to move when you turn them from side to side because there are different images that you see from different angles? I tried to duplicate the effect by coloring a piece of white paper with "sparks" in gold and silver, then folding lots of little 90 degree crinkles into the paper, making a bunch of little sharp hills and valleys, so that when you moved the paper back and forth it would look like the sparks were moving.

Neither of these things really turned out as I imagined, but I tried enthusiastically. I used to make a lot of things out of paper when I was little, come to think of it. I put paper turrets on my room once so I could live in a castle. Once, when someone came to visit downstairs while I was still in pajamas, I decided to make clothes out of paper. I made the front of a shirt and pants, carefully colored, and attached with loops of paper around my back. For some reason, I thought a hat was important too, so I made a vaguely pilgrim style hat with a buckle. (No, I did not normally wear a hat like that. But then the shirt I made had a picture of a sunny day with a rainbow on it, and I didn't have a shirt like that either.) I think I really thought that it would fool people into thinking I was wearing regular clothes.

In retrospect, I was a very odd child.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Overheard in a Wal-Mart Men's Room

As we join our hero, he stopped off at a Wal-Mart to make a pit-stop while he decides whether to eat out or go home after furniture shopping. A man with small child enters the room...
Child: There's a short one; I can do it myself!
Man: Ok, here... no, don't hang your ass out1... there... and don't touch it2, you'll get cooties.
Me: (begins to struggle against silent giggles)
(long pause)
Man: And don't pee on my foot.
Child: Sorry!
Me: (exits almost shaking, and wanders the floor for a few minutes chortling.)
1 Interestingly, the thing with pants and small children seems to be a theme. I can remember hearing a man chastising a small child in the stall of a rest stop on one of my driving trips this year: "What did you take your pants off for? Nobody takes off their pants to go potty in a public restroom, that's disgusting."

2 No, I don't know what "it" referred to, as I wasn't looking that direction, but I'm assuming he meant the urinal. If it was a different "it", then I understand why the child was having trouble with, uh, direction.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

I'm Official

I've got a Pennsylvania license and registration, and the title is on its way. I'm even registered to vote. (Plus I get to vote against Santorum now.) It could have been a lot worse, even though Pennsylvania is a little weird when it comes to car stuff.

First off, they have no DMV. Instead, they have independently licensed "Drivers License Centers" which issue licenses. But I found one, and sense the Department of Transportation web site told me what I needed, I got the license pretty quickly. However, you have to go elsewhere for registration and title. When I searched the DOT website, it told me the closest location where I could get a registration and title was in Harrisburg, over 200 miles away. Fortunately, friends let me know that what I needed to do was go to AAA. You're not reading that wrong; in Pennsylvania, you register your car through the auto club.

So I went to the AAA office. I asked somewhat hesitantly, expecting the woman to give me a funny look and ask "Are you nuts?", but instead she just waved a big stack of papers and said, "Yup. These are titles." She also told me that Pennsylvania is the only state to do registration and titles this way, and that it takes up so much time at the AAA offices that you must request TripTiks two weeks in advance. So I got my registration, and my new title is being sent. They've even improved services, as I didn't have to take my car to a garage to have the VIN verified. (For some reason, having a title and registration for a particular VIN from Virginia does not simply translate into a title and registration for the same VIN in Pennsylvania; they require someone to certify that you have a vehicle with that VIN. Fortunately, they had someone who could certify the VIN themselves.) AAA even recommended a garage where I could get my inspection, so I did that too.

Everything was taken care of in a few hours, so I don't have much complaint, but I really think Pennsylvania must be one of these states that's afraid of "big government" for some reason. I can't imagine any good reason to separate all the vehicle services and send them out to different private companies just to avoid having a DMV. On the other hand, I also have a letter from the electric company listing a batch of electricity producers, and providing a helpful list of questions to ask them all, so that I as the consumer can take over the job of deciding which producer is worth having. Thanks, folks.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Weird Literature

In searching for something on, I ran across the following, which I present with only the comment that I find it very weird:

The Differential Calculus As the Model of Desire in French Fiction of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Kenneth C. Hockman Hardcover, 1997 - Not in stock.

The Battle of the Bugs

I seem to have a modest war with bugs going on now.

When I first moved in, I noticed an ant or two around. I put out some ant bait traps. They're still around, not in hordes, but often enough that it bothers me. I've put out the remaining bait traps in an attempt to get rid of them all. I'm wondering if I'm going to have to get a bunch of sealable plastic bins to put all my food into.

To cool off the apartment, I usually have most of the windows open. (Of course I end up opening and closing various blinds and windows based on where the sun is coming from to minimize heat coming in and maximize cool air. This is a pain. I will never live anywhere without central air again.) At night, this becomes a problem, because if I turn on a light in the apartment, I get flocks of tiny little gnats, which can apparently fit through the screens. I bought a "bug light" which insects are supposed to not be attracted to and put it into a lamp which I used for a while at night. It does seem to draw somewhat fewer gnats, but those that come in swarm around the lamp anyway, so I'm not sure how well it really works. More recently I've taken to isolating myself in my bedroom (where I have the window unit) with the door and windows shut at night. For this problem, the coming of winter will actually be a blessing, since I can leave my windows shut.

Then there are the spiders. I found one big one inside my front door the other day. (He is no longer with us.) There was one who kept building a big web attached to my mailbox. I would knock it down everyday when I saw it, and it would keep getting built back. (I didn't want whatever it was to try to eat the mailman someday.) I never could find the spider who built it 'though. Last night I when I went to take out the trash, I found the bugger rebuilding the web. Great big nasty looking thing. I squooshed it, and now the mailbox is web free. (Yes, I know the spiders will help with the other bugs, but there are some places I just don't want big nasty looking spiders. If the one on the mailbox had relocated somewhere else--say, the bush below the mailbox--I would have been OK with that.)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Life is Better with Air-Conditioning

I finally managed to get a window unit installed in my bedroom, which is making my bedroom much more comfortable now. I was somewhat at a loss for a while because I had looked at installation instructions, and they seemed to include all sorts of bits to screw into the window itself. These are of course not really my windows, so I was a little hesitant about this. But after talking to people at Sears and Lowe's, I decided I could just ignore the bits about putting in screws and bolts (at least for a small unit).

However, I still had a thin rim of the window which juts up out of the sill over which the unit has to fit. (This is pretty standard. It's just what the window slide down against when it closes.) Unfortunately, no manufacturer seems to make units with any sort of groove or channel to accommodate this. The standard recommendation is to lay a 2x4 along the window sill and place the unit on this. So that's how my unit is set up now, and I have ignored all the instructions about screwing or bolting anything to the window itself. If it falls out and kills anyone, I'll let you know.

Of course, all this begs the question of why the manufacturers of window units don't build the units to accommodate what is apparently a fairly standard window design, and instead suggest that you jerry-rig it with a couple of boards.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

In the words of Yoda, "That is why you fail."

I recently went through that time of the year again, where students were desperately trying to figure out their grades to within a hair's breadth, and trying to make deals with the devil (me) to pass (or get whatever grade is needed to counteract how they are doing in all their other classes). I posted all the grades for the last test in my classes to help people who are trying to decide whether to use a late drop. (Students could drop a small number of classes in their careers near the end of the semester.) I also got all the calls and e-mails from students desperate to pass, frequently sure, just positive, that they could not have done so badly on the last test. The machine must have made a mistake with their opscan. I also always get the (slightly) more subtle students asking hopefully if there will be a curve. (By which they mean, "Will you add some points to the tests so my score is better?")

But I usually get one other type of question near the end of the semester, usually in my lower level class: "How do I figure out my grade?" Or frequently just: "I keep trying to figure out what my grade is, but I don't understand how to do it." Granted, I have a moderately involved grading system which involves several categories, such as labs, homework, quizzes, and class participation as well as three tests and a final, but ultimately these just boil down to following the instructions to calculate each component of the grade and adding these up.

A few years back I just gave up and gave my students an Excel spreadsheet into which they can enter their grades to find their final grade. But I think about it every semester, and it occurs to me that if students are having trouble figuring out their final grade, they are having trouble with fairly basic math (averaging and percentages, mostly), and that this does not bode well for their grade in a math class. It comes back to what a friend of mine told me years ago: students who are failing math classes frequently don't know it, because they're bad at math, so they can't correctly figure out their grade.

(As an aside, they are usually disappointed to discover that it will not tell them their grade without knowing the final exam grade, which is worth 20 points of the final grade. They often want to know "But what's my grade without the final?", which I don't understand at all. Without the final, the highest grade they can get is an 80. If you want to estimate your grade, you have to input some estimate for the final, because the final contributes to the grade. It's that simple. I can't calculate your grade without the final, because the final is a part of it. I usually recommend students use their test average to estimate their final exam grade, but it is an estimate. Anything you do to figure your grade "without the final" involves in some way estimating the final, but students don't seem to get that.)

I'm Back

I'm moved, partially settled, back on-line, and doing a million things.

I'm sort of adjusting to the new place, although I've had a few shocks, like when I found out it didn't have air-conditioning. (In the South, if no one mentioned a lack of air-conditioning when selling you an apartment, it would mean they were trying to kill you. Up here it just means they're trying to make you moderately uncomfortable.) I'm looking into window units, particularly since having the windows open all the time doesn't combine well with either the fraternity a block in front (which holds late night parties) or with the cow pasture a block behind. (I like seeing the cows; they're pretty. I just don't care for smelling them when the wind changes.)

Eating has gone pretty well so far. I'm in walking distance of a few restaurants here in town, and I've had good luck with the nearby big city (no giggling) of Erie. In fact, I've found the good shopping district of Erie. I always know I'm in good shape when I've found where the Target is. (OK, I'm sure someone thinks Target is tres gauche, but I like it and I generally always like the areas where they build them.) In the same area I've found the Mother-of-All-Supermarkets, called Wegmans. They have everything, and every time I go in, I find more stuff to buy than I intended to. Last time I discovered the olive and antipasto bar. Then some cheeses. And ooo--look at those donuts in the bakery! That was the point at which I figured I needed to leave so I could still fit through my front door by the time I got home.

In any case, I'm still in the halfway point of unpacking. I have all these boxes half-empty, plus a bunch of boxes of books I can't unpack at all because I don't have any bookshelves anymore. In fact, I have no furniture at all for my living room or dining room, since I opted to give away a lot of old furniture when I moved. But this means I have to shop for furniture now, which is another thing for me to do.

But in any case, I'm here. And I can't help but think, as I did right after my partner and I both moved last time, of the ending of the Lord of the Rings. (The books. I don't remember if it's in the movie that way.) At the end, when Sam has seen off Frodo, and gone back home to greet his family simply with "I'm home," there's a melancholy and unsettling feel to it, almost unsatisfactory. Frodo is gone, and the story is closed, although there's certainly more living to happen. But things didn't go back to the way they were, and they never can. It's a theme Tolkien seems to like. Near the end of the Silmarillion, Tolkien makes some comment about the fact that the story started with the high and light, and ended in a certain degree of gloom and despair; he says that is the way of the world, and things will never return to the way they were, unless it is at the end of all things when the world is broken and remade anew. (I'm probably way off on the phrasing here, but hopefully not on the sentiment. I'd look up the quote, but remember all my books are in boxes.) It's probably related to general Christians theology, with the idea of an early Garden of Eden, followed by a fall (a descent into darkness), which will never be fully righted until the end of the world. But my main point here is just that there is the same sort of sad, almost empty feeling when Sam says "I'm home" at the end of the story, even though things have mostly turned out alright. A story has ended, and nothing will be the same again.

So as I said to myself after the last time my partner and I moved about two years ago, after I had said goodbye to him for a while and returned to my (then) new apartment: I'm home.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Going Off-Line for a Bit

The packers and movers are coming tomorrow. I don't know yet when they are delivering; I'll find out tomorrow. Of course this means that as everything gets packed up and I start traveling back and forth again, I'll be off-line for a while, but I'm not sure how long.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Travel Notes

At the beginning of this week I made a two day trip up and back to my new place, to get some things taken care of (like signing the lease and getting keys at some point before I had a moving van at my back.)

On the way up, I stopped in the restroom at the West Virginia welcome center, and found a peculiar little fold-down plastic seat inside the stall, apparently to stow your baby while you're, erm, busy. I'm not saying it's a bad idea (actually it's probably a great idea for someone traveling solo with an infant), but it does sort of tickle me to think of putting a baby in something that strongly reminds me of a cup-holder on the side of the stall. (If the baby remembers any of this, it may require therapy later.)

I was interrupted in my musing by the guy in the stall next to me calling out "No more Wendy's for me!" To my relief, someone else answered him; he apparently had a friend in the restroom he was communicating with, and I was not expected to carry out a through-the-stall discussion of the state of his digestion.

Since it's summer, there is a small portion of the roads in the US which are apparently not under construction at this time. (I didn't seem to find many.) I ended up running a few hours later than I expected, but still had a chance to meet briefly with the Realtor in the afternoon and arrange to finish up in the morning. I got one unpleasant surprise: the apartment doesn't have air conditioning. (The things I don't think to ask.) Granted, for at least 9 months out the year, you'll have no use for it at all, and it turns out most places in the area don't have air conditioning. (Heating bills are estimated to run in the mid 200s a month in the winter in fact. All of this is fairly foreign to the boy who mostly grew up in Texas, even if he did go to school near Cleveland.) But I've never been a fan of the "sweating builds character" school of thought; I'd rather just be comfortable all 365 days, and it probably helps my allergies. I'll be looking into window units I guess.

I opted to head into Erie (the big city) and look for an adventure for dinner. I navigated some fairly run down streets for some time, but eventually found a reasonably nice area and even ran into the Quaker Steak and Lube, which I'd seen recommended. It was cute; it's all automotive themed, and the food was fairly good. I'll be back there again. (And it seemed to work out better for me than Wendy's apparently went for my stall-neighbor earlier in the day.)

The apartment is reasonably nice, although not completely ready yet. I'm a little disappointed that it seems to be creakier than I would have liked (you can hear people moving around in the attached apartments), but I think it will be OK. It's not only across the street from campus, but also a very short walk from downtown, which includes multiple bars and the requisite Chinese take-out place. A bit further walk even gets you some more restaurants and a video rental place.

I made a reasonably good attempt at sleeping, and took the next morning to get my mail held and arrange renter's insurance. (The mail, as it turns out, is actually delivered to a personal mailbox outside the door of my apartment. I didn't think the post office did that anywhere anymore.) I stowed some stuff I didn't want the movers taking in my basement and got the lease finalized. (Yes, the Realtor actually gave me keys and let me stay in the apartment before they had a signed lease. And after they told me it didn't have air-conditioning. They knew not their peril, even if they had a security deposit.)

And then turn right back around and drive another seven hours or so back again. To be repeated at least once next week with the movers this time. Urg.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

I don't like roller-coasters

I've mentioned this before. I'm a self-described roller coaster weenie. I have almost no tolerance for "thrill" rides at all. I have a picture my partner took of me on Test Track at Epcot last summer, which is probably pretty mild as far as most thrill rides go (and that's the only reason I agreed to go on this one at all), and while my face looks ok, in the bottom corner of the picture you can see where my hand has an absolute death-grip on the bar in front of me. I think you can make out the white of my knuckles, or could if the resolution were any higher. (That my partner was actually relaxed enough to be taking pictures says that we are very different people. I didn't even notice he was taking pictures; I found out when I was going through the pictures he took and getting a puzzled "Where the heck is that?" feeling.)

Now with that firmly established, I can talk about the feeling I'm getting as I call movers and pack my office and do all these other things that finalize moving. You know that feeling you get when you've gotten on the roller coaster (or something close to it), once you're strapped in and your starting to move? You know, especially if you're now remembering that you're terrified of roller coasters? That internal tensing, where you start thinking "Oh sh*t, what have I gotten myself into?" That's exactly what I was feeling when I started calling movers. I think I could actually feel the coaster starting over the first drop.

One friend (who actually wrote me recommendations for my job search) told me that when she quit one job for another, someone gave her a card that said:
Change is good!
Change is good!
Change is good!
on the outside, and on the inside:
(You go first.)
Someone else gave me a nice framed poster titled "Change". (It's holographic and shows a tree which loses and gains its leaves; very cool.) I told her about the "Change is good!" card and she just laughed. She told me she knows me too well to try to tell me that change is good; she said her poster just says "Change".

Oh well. Let the roller coaster begin.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Jesus and Cooties

A few weekends ago, I spent a few days watching documentaries relating to The Da Vinci Code. Many were marvellously entertaining. For instance, did you know the Templars essentially established a form of international branch banking before the thirteen-hundreds? The movie (and the book) seem to have worked up quite a froth among conservatives because of the claims Brown makes about Jesus and the early church. Now to be fair to those doing the frothing, in addition to the fiction which is the book, Brown seems to be pushing a fair bit of background information for the book as factual which actually ranges anywhere from possible to highly improbable in the eyes of most historians, and some of which falls into the category of wild-eyed conspiracy theories. (Very little seems to be either widely believed or authoritatively disproven.) I suspect he does this deliberately because he thinks (probably correctly) that it will sell more books if he stirs the pot a little.

Should I warn about spoilers? I've not read the book myself (or seen the movie), but since I haven't been in a coma for the past year or so, I'm still aware of most of the points which are causing all the ruckus. One of the big ones seems to be the suggestion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had children, and that the bloodline still exists today. The producers of one documentary spent some time looking into the question of whether Jesus could have been married, and interviewed several scholars on this point, including a priest. The priest looked absolutely furious; he seemed almost too mad to speak, and managed to spit out that suggesting Jesus was married was "libelous."

Now this I have to wonder about. Whether someone was married or not may be true or untrue, and the question may be open or settled, but I've never heard it suggested that claiming someone was married is libel. (I actually looked up the definition of "libel" just to make sure the universe hadn't changed around me.) What in the world?

Two possibilities occur to me here as to why someone would feel such a claim would be so scurrillous. There is of course the obvious point that we have to remember who is doing the speaking here; if it turns out Jesus was married, someone may have been giving up the horizontal mambo his whole life for what turns out to be no good reason. (Remember the joke about the monk who spent his life making copies of copies of manuscripts who discovered upon reading the originals in heaven that the word was celebrate?) Personally, I suspect there's at least some truth to this basis for the anger, but I think there's another reason for much of the church to dislike the suggestion: They think women have cooties, and no one truly holy could possibly have touched one, or even wanted to. (This also explains how churches supposedly following the teachings of someone who spent almost all his time talking about love, caring, compassion, and forgiveness end up spending almost all their time talking about sex and the importance of not having it, or at least making sure no one has any fun at it.)

Which is particularly interesting in light of what some of the other scholars had to say about Mary Magdalene herself and other women connected with Jesus and with the early church. While the evidence seems to be pretty strong that if Jesus was married it wasn't to Mary, it does seem that she was a disciple who traveled with him--and that she wasn't the only one. In what would have been somewhat scandalous at the time, Jesus seems to have interacted with men and women in essentially the same way. In the earliest church, there were apparently a number of women who became teachers and leaders. Which makes sense if you think about the admonishments from some early (male) church leaders for women to be silent; why tell someone to shut up who hasn't been speaking out?

So perhaps some of the anger is the residual "women have cooties" feeling, which (ironically) may have been part of what Jesus himself preached against. Actually, the whole thing leaves me with the odd feeling that Jesus may have been way more progressive on gender issues than most of the contemporary world.