Thursday, January 31, 2008

Shock the Monkey

Peter Gabriel's 1982 "Shock the Monkey" video amazes me even today, more than a quarter-century after I first saw it on MTV. While the song's lyrics evoke the power of emotional trauma to call forth our pre-civilized instincts, director Brian Grant offers a more troubling interpretation of "Monkey": the collapse of civilized boundaries when academic research "goes native." Check out the video (pops in a new screen).

While the Peter Gabriel-Brian Grant version of "Shock the Monkey" is irreplaceable, there's one other mashup of the song that cannot be missed. Its curious value is contained in two little words: Don Ho.

(Photomontage by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I won a victory THIS big!

I like John McCain. I admire his willingness to tackle (even if imperfectly) campaign finance reform, I dig his often tacky and sometimes tone-deaf sense of humor, and I respect his willingness to serve his country at unfathomable personal cost when so many other politicians merely lob platitudes about supporting the troops.

As I said, I like John McCain.

But this picture...


I dunno, John.

(Image by AP Photographer Alan Diaz)

Stock Surge

Here's an image-cap from Drudge Report (approximately at noon) announcing the latest Fed interest rate cut.

I had no idea that economics could be so sexy.

Obama: Our Second Black President?

Watching the contest for the Democratic nomination, I'm struck by the manner in which our nation's struggles with race have returned so viscerally to the forefront of our national conversation. As anyone who has followed the 2008 campaign knows well, Barack Obama comes from a complex lineage; his mother was from Kansas, his father was from Kenya. He lived in Hawaii and Indonesia before seeking his advanced education and engaging in community action campaigns in the inner city -- as he once bombastically put it, "fighting on the streets of Chicago." A man living betwixt and between many well-worn lines of distinction, Obama has been challenged at a fundamental level about more than his policies and experience. A number of commentators have asked, "Is Obama black enough." It's a strange question.

To somehow authorize their query, the talking heads quickly thumbed through their reference rolodexes and brought forth a clever phrase offered by Toni Morrison who, in an October 1998 New Yorker article, declared Bill Clinton to be America's "first black President." Ah, they argued; here's the litmus test: Is Obama blacker than Clinton? Once again, though, we encounter evidence that many in the Commentariat have absolutely no clue what they're talking about, certainly that most have not bothered to read Morrison's short response to the racial dimensions of the so-called Lewinsky scandal. In that piece, Morrison suggests that Clinton's [American] "blackness" is superficially one of shared (though hardly universal) experience with economic struggle, single-parenthood, music dipped in heartache, and related "tropes." Yet on a much more fundamental level, Morrison affirms a connection between Clinton's sexuality and that which has been constructed for [many] African-American men, an embodied performance that is, to her thinking, a site of discipline and surveillance. Here's a snip:
Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear "No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and--who knows?--maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us."
Recalling this passage, I therefore found it odd and a little sad that Obama so inelegantly sidestepped a question posed to him during a debate about his "blackness" as compared to that of Clinton. The quote:
I have to say that, you know, I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill's dancing abilities, you know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.
Ignoring the awkward phrasing, which can be explained by the incontrovertible bizarreness of the question, I was troubled to find that Obama himself either had not read the original essay or, having read it, chose not to engage the deeper meaning of the question. Of course, I can't blame him. The formats for political exchange that we call "debates" are typically not places for deep-textual analysis; they're crafted to call for pithy, clever, or at least harmless, bumper sticker retorts to tricky questions. Yet the challenge remains: Will Obama, who thus far has maintained a solid demeanor as a "safe" candidate (somehow, amazingly, inoculating himself against attacks on his youthful drug use), be forced to confront the ugly intersection of race, sexuality, and politics that Morrison bemoaned?

It is not only Obama's integrity that is in question.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Starbucks: Slipping?

Jasmin Aline Persch writes on MSNBC about Starbucks' efforts to stay hip amid competing forces such as McDonalds and a decline in popular perception of the brand. Here's a snip:
The company’s stock price was slashed almost in half this past year. And store traffic slipped last quarter for the first time since the company went public.
The piece also notes the rise and decline of the Starbucks "third place" concept:
Eventually, Starbucks conceived the “third place,” after home and work, where one could indulge hot coffee in a soothing setting, including cozy chairs and eclectic music. Today, about 80 percent of purchases, though, are consumed elsewhere.

“They’re not the only third place,” [JWT Worldwide (advertising) trendspotter Marian] Salzman said. “They’re kind of a generic third place.”

Read the entire piece: Starbucks: Cool or a commodity?


January 30: Matt Andrejczak (from MarketWatch) has written an article that further details Starbucks plans to trim their number of stores by one percent.

Read the entire article: Starbucks profit slows as U.S. business weakens

January 31: Elizabeth Gillespie (from AP Business) has written an article that notes plans by Starbucks to reduce some of their menu items. The piece also notes that the company, which now has some 15,700 stores worldwide, is slowing its plans to open new ones.

Read the entire article: Starbucks axes sandwiches as part of fix

March 19: Lisa Lisa Baerlein (from Reuters) discusses Starbucks plans for a turn-around amid the nation's economic woes.

Read the entire article: Starbucks CEO sees economic tailspin

Art Deco in Lego

I just came across this pic of Jim Garrett's art deco building created from Lego blocks. He describes his project as a conflation of the Marlin and the Breakwater hotels. What a cool creation!

Check out more pictures at: MOCPages

(Photograph by Jim Garrett)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Crazy High School Lady

My daughter received one of those full color-glossy advertisements for high school graduation junk: rings, announcements, diploma frames, you know the drill. There's long been a multi-million dollar business of selling "souviners" to commemorate the graduation experience, not to mention those increasingly expensive and extravagant breakfasts and parties and trips, all designed to transform each day of a person's senior year into a big deal.

And it's true that completing a high school diploma is an important milestone in a person's life. I just have a problem with the excessive and tacky flotsam that has been glommed onto the achievement, the sense that you haven't really celebrated your moment unless you've purchased the Cherished Memories Gold-Embossed Limited Edition Graduation Back Scratcher. That's what I see when I view the close-up of this frighteningly ecstatic "mom" practically caught in mid-shriek as her precious snowflake departs for a world of adult consumer opportunities.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Close Encounters

Jenny and I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the big screen in Santa Cruz last night, a one-night only show at the multiplex that attracted a surprisingly large crowd. For me it was a special occasion, since Close Encounters is my favorite movie of all time. I know there are better movies out there, ones that are more challenging or more provocative or more technically proficient, but Close Encounters will always hold a grip on my imagination. I saw the movie first as a kid, having been drenched by the pop culture tidal wave that was Star Wars. I was ready for more space fantasy, hurtling with lasers and adventure. What I got was something very different: the first movie that showed me how adults can be terrified and amazed by the universe, just like kids. That's the appeal of the dialogue when Roy and Jillian laugh together nervously: "It's like Halloween for grownups . . . Trick or treat!" I'd never seen adults so human and so overawed by forces beyond them.

Spoiler Alert

As it turns out, Close Encounters really isn't about aliens at all. Consider how little of them that we see. Given the 70s-era limitations of the technologies available to Spielberg and his crew, one can hardly be surprised that the spaceships are merely bright lights, smoke, clouds, and a little bit of plastic. The aliens themselves are seen in short bursts, the snaps of a camera, or a creature almost hidden within dazzling luminosity. The one vast and incredible spectacle, the so-called "mother ship," resembles what would happen if you combine Las Vegas and an oil refinery. That's the money shot. But the bulk of the movie concentrates on more earthly matters, most importantly the estrangement of a middle-aged man from his family.

Yes, I admit it: I've always felt that I understand Roy Neary. He loves his family and he is satisfied by his job, but he's always felt an inescapable yearning to go to distant places, to shirk off the commitments of adulthood, to seek grand adventure. And he knows instinctively somehow that he's not meant for his time and place. Sure, Roy makes a decision that only a genuinely childish person would contemplate: he abandons his family. But even that excess of irresponsibility can seem strangely tenable from time to time. In Close Encounters we meet lots of people like Roy, adults who are unsure, imperfect, impatient, and overwhelmed by forces entirely beyond their control. And in meeting these people we come to tolerate a little of our own imperfections.

My love for Close Encounters has called forth an impressive degree of patience from my family. We see the movie about two times a year, typically on evenings that we call "Saucer Nights." That means making up a huge batch of mashed potatoes (props for my recitation of the "This means something. This is important" scene) and eating various "saucer-shaped" foods like quesadillas and cookies while watching the movie. Of course, one year I almost mirrored Roy's brand of obsession when I convinced my family to drive to Devil's Tower, Wyoming, where they show Close Encounters nightly at a nearby KOA. Once there, we filmed a shot-by-shot remake of the scene in which Roy and Jillian see the tower for the first time ("I don't believe it's real. I don't believe it's real"). No, that wasn't the point of the trip, but it was a highlight for me. We spent hours trying to mimic the camera moves, the intonation, the framing of the shots, all for less than two minutes of footage. Jenny and Vienna demonstrated unearthly kindness by putting up with this silly production, definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event.

So you can imagine how excited I was to spot Close Encounters as a coming attraction. It had been so long since I'd seen this movie on the big screen. Arriving early and getting a perfect seat, I groaned at the prospect of folks talking loudly or texting onto mobile phones since the crowd was spiked with plenty of kids who (based on their loud conversations) seemed to have stumbled into the auditorium by accident or beer-induced haze. But once the movie started, everyone fell under its spell. We all laughed together at the same jokes and jumped together at the same frights (it seemed that way at least). Every once in a while I'd peer to my left to enjoy the sight of a middle-aged woman sitting on the edge of her seat and smiling to herself. And of course it was cool to spot tiny details of set design that had eluded me on our relatively smaller screen. Imagine that, seeing something new in a movie that I've viewed at least a hundred times. It was a great night.

Driving home, Jenny and I sang that odd song that plays when Barry is awakened by aliens ("Look with care for the shape of a square!") and shared bits of Close Encounters trivia (Do you know the name of the newscaster who helped Roy make the "psychic connection"?). Jenny knows and understands much of why I love this movie. And she's the reason why I'd stay here rather than board the spaceship.

Though I'd be tempted.

Difficulty seeing the video above? Click on the link:

[Note: If you select the link rather than the embedded video, please click "Watch in High Quality" to get the best looking view.]

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Shadows and Concentric Circles

Breaking News: Series Of Concentric Circles Emanating From Glowing Red Dot

The cave referenced in Book Seven of Plato's Republic describes a group of poor souls staring at shadows, confident that what they see is real. One who leaves and sees things as they are, lit by the sun, would have to struggle mightily to convince the cave dwellers that they've been duped by illusions. They would likely regard him as mad. Or worse, a philosopher. From time to time I refer to that allegory in my classes. Now I have a terrific illustration in the form of The Onion's "Breaking News" story of the concentric circles.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Winning by Losing in South Carolina

Never afraid to reveal the ugly side of politics, Dick Morris offers a strangely compelling reason why Hillary Clinton's almost inescapable (oops, here we go again with inevitabilities) loss in South Carolina portends her likely party nomination. Here's a snip:
[I]f blacks deliver South Carolina to Obama, everybody will know that they are bloc-voting. That will trigger a massive white backlash against Obama and will drive white voters to Hillary Clinton.

Obama has done everything he possibly could to keep race out of this election. And the Clintons attracted national scorn when they tried to bring it back in by attempting to minimize the role Martin Luther King Jr. played in the civil rights movement. But here they have a way of appearing to seek the black vote, losing it, and getting their white backlash, all without any fingerprints showing. The more President Clinton begs black voters to back his wife, and the more they spurn her, the more the election becomes about race -- and Obama ultimately loses.
There's a cold calculation at work in Morris' analysis, one resting upon a barely concealed contempt for the electorate (at least part of the electorate) that disgusts me. But the unnerving ways in which race and gender have altered the 2008 calculus are apt to bring up some disturbing conclusions.

Read the entire article: How Clinton Will Win the Nomination by Losing S.C.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Pool as Enclave

I borrowed this Reuters photo to illustrate the bizarre lengths to which we create enclaves. Consider this "world's largest outdoor pool" mere feet from the Pacific Ocean. And yes, this is a saltwater pool.

Read the entire article: Make a splash in the world's largest swimming pool

Monday, January 21, 2008

What percent?

Watching a story about Rudy Giuliani's inexplicable decision to avoid serious campaigning until the Florida primaries, I heard a CNN anchor utter the oft-quoted aphorism, "90 percent of life is showing up." As it turns out, the anchor was subject to percentage- and scope-inflation. Wood Allen's original line was a little less expansive. To illustrate, here's a copy-paste from a William Safire New York Times piece on that topic that ran on August 13, 1989:
A DISPUTE WAS BEGUN in this space recently between President Bush and Gov. Mario (pronounced Marry-o) Cuomo about the accurate quotation of the philosopher Woody Allen.

The President quoted him as saying, ''Ninety percent of life is just showing up.'' (His speechwriters later assured me that Mr. Bush has used that reference frequently; it's one of those things that get stuck in a public speaker's head and he never needs prompting to use it.) The Governor, in his equally frequent usage over the years, says, ''Most of life is just a matter of showing up,'' and the expression in a self-help best seller is ''Eighty percent of success is showing up.''

Readers were promised that clarification of this seminal thought would be sought from the author; Mr. Allen has responded to my query.

''The quote you refer to,'' Mr. Allen writes, ''is a quote of mine which occurred during an interview while we were discussing advice to young writers, and more specifically young playwrights.

''My observation was that once a person actually completed a play or a novel he was well on his way to getting it produced or published, as opposed to a vast majority of people who tell me their ambition is to write, but who strike out on the very first level and indeed never write the play or book.

''In the midst of the conversation, as I'm now trying to recall it, I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up.''

Why that particular percentage? ''The figure seems high to me today,'' Mr. Allen says, ''but I know it was more than 60 and the extra syllable in 70 ruins the rhythm of the quote, so I think we should let it stand at 80.''
That being said, whether it's 80 percent or 90 percent, the goal of success or life itself, Giuliani had better show up with something amazing.

Incidentally, Keith Olbermann (just this evening) compared Giuliani's strategy to those of the folks who chose to keep the shark in Jaws off camera for most of the movie, believing that absence creates suspense. He emphasized, though, that the same strategy can mask a deeper problem:
Mr. Giuliani might do well to remember that in real life they kept the shark off camera mostly because the shark machinery didn't work too well.

[The] first time they put the damned thing in the water it sank right to the bottom.
January 30th follow up: Well, after a disappointing third-place showing in Florida, Giuliani's out of the race.

Stock Plunge

An edited snip from Yahoo News. Click pic for larger view:

And here's a copy/paste from MSNBC later in the evening:

I wonder what tomorrow holds for the U.S. markets.

Want to be an Academic?

Getting a tenure track job in this market is tough, and despite today's wave of students pouring through the doors, it's going to get tougher. Boomer-era professors are hanging onto their positions and administrations increasingly prefer to hire lower paid adjuncts over full time (and well benefited) tenure track professors, which is all the more reason for me to appreciate the position that I have.

To illustrate, here's a recent Washington Post article that provides some fairly typical accounts. Ignore the sales pitch for the "placement agency" and read on:

Dreams of Academe? First, a Course in Reality

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Weekend Movies

What a weekend for movies: Cloverfield on Friday and There Will Be Blood on Saturday. I'm going to spend some time thinking about both experiences, but I can tell you that this is the start of a promising year for movies. Cloverfield conveyed something eerily similar to what it must have been like to survive the first few hours of the terrorist attacks in New York, the plumes of smoke, the terror of the unknown, the dizzying sense of history out of control.

And then there's There Will Be Blood. Not only for the fact that I was sitting next to a plainly drunk or stoned audience member did this movie work so well to convey Sartre's famous line, "Hell is Other People." Blood's depiction of a man's all-consuming question to free himself from the attachments of others erupts in the face of Daniel Day-Lewis, playing one of the most hateful and indelible people I've ever seen on the screen. Two unforgettable movies in two days: a great weekend for cinema.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Talking Heads

Normally I don't post on weekends, but some stuff just can't wait, like the story of Dean Hrbacek, candidate for Tom Delay's former House seat, distributing literature that superimposes his head atop a thinner person's body.

According to his campaign manager, Hrbacek was too busy campaigning to sit still long enough for a full length portrait. We can only hope that the candidate has enough time to explain why he hoped that no one would notice or care.

Read the CNN article: Candidate's photo puts his head on skinnier body

(Image from Jessica Vozel's article, "Dean Hrbacek, Carmen Kontur-Gronquist: The Borrowed Body and the Lingerie Mayor")

Friday, January 18, 2008


I awoke today to Jenny's sweet voice wishing me a happy birthday. Except that I didn't really wake up that way. Actually I had been up since four, contemplating the day. I have no idea why. For the past few years, when people have noted, "Oh, you're heading for forty," I laughed it off. "It'll be great, my best decade yet," I replied. And I meant it too. But this morning I found myself thinking, "Man, I'm forty. That kind of sucks." Intellectually, I don't mind the number. In fact, I'm expecting great things from the next ten years: Advancement to full professor, a chance to begin a new post-omnitopia writing project, opportunities to travel, and the development of big plans that Jenny and I have begun to set in motion. As long as my health holds out, this should be an exciting time.

Yet a small voice reminds me of what I'm leaving behind. My teens were filled with typical angst, the transition from youth to young adulthood. My twenties were filled with hard work, helping to grow my family and educate myself. My thirties were marked with professional advancement, along with the joys and frustrations of helping to raise a teenager (who has now become a young woman in her own right). Now begins the next phase.

In some ways I reached middle age years ago. It's been a long time since I felt "cool" in the pop culture sense. Less and less of Entertainment Weekly appeals to me, which is not a good sign. Indeed, I joke with my students that I stopped being cool on June 10, 1986, the day I began Navy boot camp. I remember standing in line at the exchange to buy shaving cream, listening to Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years," feeling a chill from just getting a buzz cut, and thinking to myself, "Dude, what have you gotten yourself into?" Right then I might have held back a few tears of my own. I tell that story now and my students laugh, not cruelly but with a nascent recognition. But it's true. I stopped being cool a long time ago. That's OK. Cool is overrated.

So now I'm forty. I feel occasional aches from lower back pain, my previously perfect eyesight sometimes fails to render the scribbles of a distant blackboard, and I have to work harder and harder to burn off calories that once melted by youthful exuberance alone. Even so, I'm still energetic for the future, imagining better days ahead than those that I've already lived. And most of all, I recognize my fortune, the best birthday gift I could receive: having a wonderful family to help me celebrate this holiday. Tonight we'll see Cloverfield and tomorrow I'll play with my new Xbox 360 that magically appeared next to the TV this morning. Later, we'll celebrate more formally at Morton's Steakhouse, commemorating the moment with a martini or two. And then I'll begin the next ten years.

Forty. I'll get used to it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Secrets From the Future

Today I started playing with Jott, a free (for now) application that allows users to employ their mobile phones to leave themselves or other people 30-second messages. What's kind of cool about Jott is its ability to email or text (an odd verb, that) written transcriptions of those voice messages.

Then it gets interesting.

Phoning Jott, I can interact with other applications such as Blogger or Twitter or Google Calendar. As a result, I can be walking to Starbucks when I receive an inspiration about Ethiopian Yergacheffe. I speed dial Jott and my mini-missive is quickly posted onto my blog. Of course the correctness of the text depends upon the ability of Jott's computer- and human-based speech transcription skills, but the experiments I've attempted are promising.

I'm particularly excited about Jott's ability to update my Google Calendar. Supposedly Google already allows that function, but I've had no luck synching my Verizon phone to Google. Jott, however, successfully transcribes my event information (date, activity, length of time) and migrates that information to my online calendar without a hitch.

What intrigues me most about Jott is the role that human transcribers play in transforming content from voice to text. I imagine a tight or loose array of people (based in India, I hear) pouring through messages and making snap decisions about whether a speaker meant the word "yes" or "blessed" when the software gets confused. Privacy issues, of course, arise, but not so much in our emerging post-privacy era when people (like Todd Davis, below) increasingly presume that their words, actions, purchases, and behaviors are viewable by others.

So, what does a post-private world look like? If you haven't heard MC Frontalot yet, I recommend that you download his song Secrets From the Future [MP3]. The Nerdcore artist convincingly outlines a near imminent age in which our most complex encryption techniques will be hacked by the children's toys of tomorrow, rendering our current privacy paranoia charmingly laughable. In this future, only the most cleverly encoded messages will warrant the software equivalent of an archeological dig.
They’ll glance you over, I guess, and then for a bare moment
you’ll persist to exist; almost seems like you’re there, don’t it?
But you’re not. You’re here. Your name will fade as Front’s will,
‘less in the future they don’t know our cryptovariables still.
All that content won't be lost though. Somewhere among the myriad server farms of the world every Jott and Twitter, every Flickered pic and Facebooked poke, all of our data detritus, will be saved and mined. Frontalot sings of alien technologies that will crack today's codes "like a crème brûlée." Not necessary, I think. The infinite parsing and sifting of all the world's ideas will themselves generate plenty of innovation. That word, "themselves," is where the future may lie.

Right now we depend upon people to ask the right questions, to form the correct queries, and to transcribe ideas into action. Jott illustrates this human-centered conceit. But the rising Mine Mind, the collective content of every choice we make to drill down and across and between pieces of data, may constitute a new, profound, and potentially frightening concept of consciousness. Visualize that world for a second. Think about the next decade when human transcribers become obsolete, when we speak to some future iteration of Jott, knowing that our content flows into a deluge of other words and images.

Right now we know that only mere people can navigate some of that ocean. But as humankind arose from the slime of some primeval sea, a new form of life may yet grow from our hurricane waves of content. It's exciting to contemplate, but scary too. Blame the fact that I grew up on 2001: A Space Odyssey and those danged Terminator films. I just cannot help but wonder at the possibility that our algorithms will surpass our ambitions.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Top Ten Roadside Museums

I was looking through some old notes of a piece I planned to write about quirky museums, and I realized that I never did find a home for this info. Ah, the joy of blogging. So, looking back on more than a decade of roadside adventures, here's my top ten list of roadside museums.

Spam Museum - Austin, Minnesota

The best of the corporate museums: simultaneously fascinating and goofy. Wander a mammoth series of interactive displays, race with your friends to pack a can of Spam, and try the stuff for yourself. Free samples!

ILX Museum - Hermansville, Michigan

The quintessential small town museum. You'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about the former Wisconsin Land & Lumber Company, touring nineteenth century buildings with a docent who is dedicated and insightful. Near the Great Lakes, just getting there is a delightful drive. Be sure to sample a Pasty at a nearby restaurant to get a true taste of the region.

Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village - Dearborn, Michigan

If you've ever longed to visit a world's fair like they had in New York or Chicago, to see a vast accumulation of displays, performances, architecture, ethnographic exhibits, and hucksterism, visit this mammoth museum. You'll never see it all in one day. Don't even try.

Queens Museum of Art - Queens, New York

The best part of this museum is the 9,335 square foot panorama of the City of New York, featuring 895,000 structures. Stay for a nine-minute show that depicts day and night over the City That Never Sleeps. The museum art is pretty cool too.

Greyhound Bus Origin Museum - Hibbing, Minnesota

Virtually everyone can recall an experience "riding the dog," taking a Greyhound to some distant spot on the map. Singers from Simon and Garfunkel to John Mellencamp have turned some of these journeys into song. Head to Hibbing to see where it all began.

Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame
- Seattle, Washington

Sci-fi geeks who debate the relative merits of Captain Kirk and Captain Picard, here's your mothership. Artifacts from classic films, a display that features "cities of the future," and a celebration of the authors that keep our eyes to the stars. Right under the Space Needle!

Prairie Village Museum - Rugby, North Dakota

Loved Little House on the Prairie? Learn about the real struggles and triumphs of early American life for settlers and pioneers who trudged beyond the safe confines of the nation's eastern cities. This museum offers a genuine prairie town with buildings and artifacts collected from the region. Best of all, it's easy to visit. This Museum sits at the Geographical Center of North America.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum - Boston, MA

A presidential museum? Only good only for a boring school trip, right? But the folks in Boston have created a genuinely immersive journey through the life of America's 35th president. Walk-through and video features on the Kennedy-Nixon race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the legacy of Jackie Kennedy place this site at the top of the presidential museum pantheon. Once you see this one, you may be inspired to see 'em all!

The Sixth Floor Museum - Dallas, Texas

The dark side of the Kennedy legacy: his assassination. Believe it or not, the Sixth Floor Museum handles this tragic event with taste and insight, reflecting on the formal events of November 22nd, 1963, as well as the many conspiracy theories that surround that tragic day. And, yes, you can look out the infamous corner window, from a distance.

Roadside America - Shartlesville
, Pennsylvania

Not a museum, technically, but a collection of one man's lifelong pursuit to gather villages and towns, monuments and icons, from across the country into one place - all in miniature. The best of the roadside "tiny towns," a museum dedicated to the passion of all people who transform the road into a place worth visiting.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Devil's Rejects

Rob Zombie's (2005) The Devil's Rejects is one sick movie, and not just for the gore. Sure, there's plenty of violence and sadism: throat-slitting, pistol-whipping, and probably the most disgusting instance of road kill I've seen in a movie -- not to mention torture by cattle prod, nail gun, and rape. This movie is hardcore. But it is also a mini-masterpiece of horror.

A statement like that needs some supporting evidence. Fortunately, film critic Roger Ebert provides some cover with his 3 out of 4 star assessment of The Devil's Rejects as a "gaudy vomitorium of a movie, violent, nauseating" that is nonetheless "really a pretty good example of its genre." The movie is exactly what it seeks to be, a throwback to grindhouse flicks that played in gritty inner-city vaudeville houses or tumbleweed drive-ins (see my notes on Machete to learn more about grindhouse). I've seen it three times and, to this day, I can't quite explain why I enjoy this movie. But I do. The Devil's Rejects is my most guilty of cinematic pleasures.

Why have I seen this movie several times, with plans to see it again? I think my appreciation of The Devil's Rejects comes from its evocation of pop culture detritus. Consider the movie's seventies-sensibility: the country-fried southern rock of the Allman Brothers and Three Dog Night, the sudden freeze-frames meant to convey character traits, and the gritty anti-heroism of the cop sworn to wipe out the killers that haunt his dreams. I also dig the stitching together of various movie genres into a hellish roadtrip with stops at an x-rated western town, a dusty tiki motel, and a haunted house of horrors. It's a movie both for folks like me who grew up too late to be shocked by the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Of course, it's all fun and games until someone gets their face ripped off. And this is where The Devil's Rejects needs to be viewed by fright film aficionados with caution. In one particularly brutal scene, a character announces, "I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil's work." We are reminded of remorseless killers such as Charles "Tex" Watson (supposedly the originator of that phrase) who tortured their victims in monstrous and senseless ways. At this point, a movie review must dip somewhat into the realm of psychology. What pleasure can a person gain from watching such cruelty? One can respect the pacing, marvel at the dialogue, even appreciate the lighting or costume design. One can, in other words, view The Devil's Rejects with some sort of semi-academic detachment.

Spoiler Alert

But this is not like most horror movies. There is no cleansing catharsis at its conclusion. Yes, virtually everyone dies at the end, good guys and bad guys, in a blood-splattered crescendo set to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird." But one gains little from the experience, except to wonder about the hidden cruelty of the flyspeck towns of the world, to gawk dumfounded at the pure awfulness of it all.

In his reviews of horror movies, Roger Ebert often compares the most detestable flicks to carnival geek shows where some poor soul bites the head off a chicken. The show lacks any pretense at artistry: The animal is alive and then it's dead. The Devil's Rejects, while gut-wrenching, is no mere geek show. Rob Zombie builds a strangely coherent world of nightmare imagery and disturbingly humorous dialogue, offering compelling insight into odd convergences of pop culture and violence. It's campy and grotesque, but it's also fun. Just don't watch it with a full stomach and a weak constitution. In The Devil's Rejects, even the chickens face the most gruesome fate.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Au Bonheur des Dames

Since finishing my manuscript for the omnitopia book I've slowed down a bit to enjoy more leisurely reading, a delightful contrast to the fever of rapid page-flipping that were my experiences with books over the past couple of years. In that spirit, I returned to Émile Zola's (1883) Au Bonheur des Dames, determined to enjoy this book at a more proper pace than when I first plumbed its pages. It's a remarkably different encounter, reading a book purely for the pleasure of its evocation of images and ideas, not simply mining it for raw material, and I'm glad I gave Zola a second look.

Au Bonheur des Dames tells the story of Denise Baudu, who makes her way to Paris after being orphaned back home. Seeking employment in her uncle's shop, she discovers that his business, as well as other small firms throughout the city, is being throttled by the emergence of a new kind of department store that gathers all manner of wares under one vast roof. Eschewing the kind of specialization that is the hallmark of the family business, Au Bonheur des Dames is the Wal-Mart of its day. The novel follows the Denise's transformation from gullible, provincial waif to confident and courageous young woman, an evolution marked by her eventual conquest of the heart of the store's owner. While ostensibly concerned with whether Denise can keep her honor and dignity amid the treacherous social environment of the store, Au Bonheur des Dames introduces its readers to the transformation of Paris in the era of Haussmannization.

Students and scholars of literature praise Zola's modern characters and contemporary themes. Yet lovers of the written word can also treasure Zola's dazzling evocation of place, his rich and potent illustrations of a world that gave birth to our own. From this vantage point, I found myself returning again and again to my own efforts at understanding the sites and strategies of contemporary urban life. In this post, let me share some of my favorite passages that brought me back to the omnitopia project, excerpts also worth reading strictly for their own sake:

"The thought of the [tiny shop], narrow and black, made her see this huge store as even greater than it was, gilded it with light, like a whole city, with its monuments, squares and streets, through with it seem impossible that she should ever find her way" (p. 49, all citations from 2001 Penguin edition, translated by Robin Buss).

"Here were Turkey, Arabia, Persia and India: palaces had been emptied, mosques and bazaars ransacked" (p. 87).

"The moment had come for the fearsome afternoon rush, when the super-heated machine led the customers round the floor, squeezing the money from their very flesh . . . One could no longer hear the wheels of the cabs or the slamming of doors. All that was left, above the great hum of the sale, was a sense of the vastness of Paris, a vastness that would supply more and more customers" (p. 107).

"[I]n the fine mist, everything seemed to mingle, so that one could no longer distinguish one department from another" (p. 107).

"In the middle of the half-constructed walls, pierced by empty bays, electric laps cast wide blue beams of blinding light. Two o'clock in the morning struck, then three, then four. And in the tortured sleep of the neighborhood, the building site, made larger by this lunar brightness, took on colossal and fantastic proportions, swarming with dark shadows, with clamorous workmen, their silhouettes gesticulating against the harsh whiteness of the new walls . . . One day, Au Bonheur des Dames would spread its roof across the whole neighborhood" (p. 215).

"Space had been gained everywhere, air and light entered freely, and the public wandered around at ease beneath the bold vaults of the widely spaced trusses. It was a cathedral of modern trade, light yet solid, designed for a congregation of lady customers" (p. 231).

"Outside, the cold winds that carry March showers were blowing, while here in the galleries of Au Bonheur des Dames, the fine weather warmed them with light materials, the flowery shine of pastel shades and the rural delights of summer fashions and parasols . . . 'It's a world in itself' Madame de Boves announced" (p. 238, p. 239).

"It was like the concourse of a railway station, surrounded by the balustrades of the two upper storeys, cut by suspended stairways and crisscrossed with bridges. The iron stairways, in double spirals, formed daring curves with many landings. The iron bridges hung high up in straight lines across the void. And all this cast iron beneath the white light of the glass roof composed an airy architecture of complicated lacework which let the daylight through -- a modern version of a dream palace, a Tower of Babel with storey piled on storey and rooms expanding, opening on vistas of other storeys and other rooms reaching to infinity" (p. 245).

Friday, January 11, 2008

Cat and Crow

Amazing old video. Ignore the cheesy "recreated footage" bit and just watch these amazing friends.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

El Vado Update - January 2008

Erik Siemers writes in The Albuquerque Tribune that the city's El Vado Motel has been granted a temporary reprieve, gaining local landmark status after a prolonged struggle between its owner and local preservationists.

According to city historic preservation planner Ed Boles, the Spanish Pueblo Revival motor court is a Route 66 classic. Here's a snip:
"Many sought the exotic charm in what were to them the beautiful and unfamiliar landscape and indigenous cultures of New Mexico," Boles said.
Although the El Vado's local landmark status ensures that a layer of bureaucracy separates owner Richard Gonzales from his plans of demolishing the property to build townhouses, the motel's future remains precarious.

Gonzales need only to prove that he'll lose money by operating the El Vado, either in its present state or after needed repairs.

Gonzales has so far refused to sell the property to the city.

Read the entire article, Albuquerque designates motel a city landmark, but owner can appeal decision.

Recent Articles:

February 7, 2007: National Trust: Albuquerque's El Vado Motel Saved

April 17, 2007: Albuquerque Tribune: City Council Recap

June 16, 2007: Albuquerque Tribune: El Vado Motel might be historic

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

After New Hampshire

Political pros and junkies like myself are looking at the results of yesterday's New Hampshire primary the way we look over a town hit by a twister: What just hit us? Sifting through the debris of confident predictions (my own included) that a second Obama win would signal the end of the Clinton dynasty, observers of this amazing race must now confront again the reality that swing voters frequently don't base their decisions on the comparative values of competing candidates. They make their decisions on far more fickle things.

How else may we consider the role of Hillary Clinton's emotional appeal in the past few days? During the last debate before the polls opened, one questioner sought Clinton's response to those who found her less "likable" than Barrack Obama. In a nearly perfect display of pathos, Clinton responded, "Well that hurts my feelings . . . But I'll try to go on." That latter phrase dripped with particular brilliance, leavened as it was with just the right amount of theatricality. Clinton spoke on at least two levels, to those who genuinely feel for her and for those who feel that this entire campaign is nothing less than surreal.

Then came the moment that many people believe turned the entire race around, when Clinton teared up in a New Hampshire diner after being asked how she endures the barbs of this campaign. Employing a wistful tone, she responded, "You know, I have so many opportunities from this country, I just don't want to see us fall backwards . . . This is very personal for me, it's not just political." I remember watching that scene a couple of times and finding the whole package a little to convenient. I should have known better, though, when Jenny saw this moment and responded that she'd never seen that side of the candidate. My wife, a conservative voter who could hardly spare a kind word for Hillary Clinton, was moved. I should have recognized right then that things had changed.

Sure enough, Hillary Clinton beat every expectation, even those held by her in-house master strategist Bill Clinton. Studying the flow and beats of last night's speeches, it's clear that Hillary gave a fine concession speech and Barack delivered an outstanding victory speech, except for the minor details that Hillary won and Barack was forced to settle for second. These two, more than all the rest, were clearly stunned by what happened.

So now we survey the terrain of an entirely new election cycle. Obama and Clinton are poised to fight on for weeks, if not months. John McCain, the guy who claims to be "older than dirt," who has "more scars than Frankenstein," has added his own back-from-the-dead tale to this race. And Michael Bloomberg, billionaire New York City mayor, contemplates a third-party run for the White House that promises still more drama. I'm a little bummed that I was so wrong about last night, but I'm still having a great time watching this fascinating political season.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

At 80% Clinton Finds Her Own Voice

Thanking her supporters, Hillary Clinton marks a turn in her political persona:
I want especially to thank New Hampshire. Over the last week I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice.

I felt like we all spoke from our hearts and I am so gratified that you responded. Now together let's give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me.
It's likely that politicos for and against Hillary Clinton will remember yesterday's "tearful moment" as the time when all expectations for this race were scrambled yet again. But these speeches were memorable in their own rights.

What an amazing night of political theater.

At 70% Obama Concedes

CNN has now projected that Hillary Clinton will win New Hampshire. This is a simply remarkable achievement for her campaign, given that virtually every poll coming into this day place her way behind Obama. The day was filled with stories of her imminent meltdown, her plans to fire her campaign manager, maybe even her plans to exit the race early. But now, unexpectedly, we find Obama being forced to concede this battle and plan for a long war:
We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change. We have been told we cannot do this by a course of cynics. And they will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come. We've been asked to pause for a reality check; we've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit up a people. Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.
Win or lose, this guy is the best political orator in a generation.

At 68% the Associated Press Calls for Hillary Clinton

At 68% of votes counted, the AP has called for Hillary Clinton. Once again, we will hear that hallowed phrase, The Comeback Kid. While the big college towns have still not reported, Clinton's lead has stretched to 40-36%.

At 60% Edwards Takes Third

As she's introducing John Edwards, who's walking away from New Hampshire with about 17%, Elizabeth Edwards is referencing that damned mill again. You've got to wonder whether anyone in the Edwards campaign has ever said, Look, maybe we should stop talking about the mill. No single person in the country hasn't heard this story. Oh well. Now they're pumping in John Mellencamp's "This is Our Country," and the candidate is making the best of winning third place.

At 55% I-Reporters Show Off

Watching CNN's coverage of the New Hampshire results (still 39% to 37%, Clinton vs. Obama): They've got this goofy telestrator that depicts "I-Reporters" submitted from viewers that allows talking heads to sift through digital images of emailed photos, shrinking and enlarging them by pinching and spreading fingers. The effect results in visual noise, conveying no important content. But it's pretty cool anyway.

At 50% the Race Becomes Interesting

Wow, what a race. I never would have guessed how close this race would be between Obama and Clinton in New Hampshire. At 50% of votes cast, Clinton stands at 39%; Obama trails at 37%. Right now, analysts are pointing to Clinton's winning of the women's vote and Obama's winning of the youth vote. Now we await the numbers from the college towns. Either way, this race seems to have gotten much tighter than anyone would have guessed.

The Obama Phenomenon

Watching last week's Iowa caucuses and anticipating today's New Hampshire primaries, many of us who follow the Democratic Party are feeling a scary kind of déjà vu, the sense that we may be seeing the emergence of something great, and a palpable fear that we will lose it all. Naturally, I'm speaking of the rapid rise of Barack Obama from near obscurity as an Illinois state senator through his inspirational keynote address at the 2004 convention, to his seemingly unstoppable momentum in the 2008 presidential race. At a time when Republicans seem incapable of regrouping after the disaster of the Bush presidency I can imagine what his advisors told him: There will never be a chance like this again. Aim for daylight and run like hell. And, wow, is this guy running.

He started off slowly, seemingly unsure of himself. Detesting the stilted debate formats that forced him to strip down his soaring oratory into brief sound bites, Obama hardly cut an impressive figure against the likes of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. His policies seemed ill-formed, his responses to hypothetical foreign policy challenges, Pollyannaish. But no one could question his intellect and his ability to learn from his mistakes.

To me, the turning point began when Obama accepted that many Democrats (and Independents, such as myself) wanted him to channel those great leaders of the Left that were taken in the sixties, most notably Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Then he began to speak of the "fierce urgency of now," firing up his supporters with the promise of hope, the assurance that real change was on the way.

It has always been thus, at least in my memory: the audacity of hope versus the campaign of experience (and its attendant evocation of fear). I remember debating at Berry College for Bill Clinton, representing the Democratic side against a fairly proficient array of fellow students who spoke for the Republican side. Doing two live debates, along with one on television, I spoke as a student inspired by Bill Clinton and his promise that things could get better: health care would be universal, educational opportunities would be expanded, and foreign policy would be built on principle over expediency.

I remember the personal pride I felt when a friend, one of the most hardcore Republican students I knew, joined our celebration on election night, good-naturedly admitting that our side had won. I had such hope in those days. But when the Clinton administration sullied itself with blunders both bloody and vile, I found it harder and harder to hold my head high as a Democrat. Only the fact that I could not seriously support anyone on the other side kept me in the party. For a while, at least. Eventually, though, I switched my voter designation to Independent and have tried to keep an open mind. I thereafter have watched the Obama movement as an outsider, intrigued but wary.

Yet I cannot disregard the genuine hope that Obama represents, and not just for Democrats. His confidence, his humor, his authenticity, and -- most importantly -- his call to look beyond Baby Boomer blinders represented by the older generation of politicians, inspire me to believe that this guy could be the real deal. Already the Clinton campaign is floundering in its efforts to catch up with Obama. Hillary Clinton's claim that she's represented the force of change for 35 years comes across as almost pathetic. And it's not quite fair. Hillary Clinton has made a good faith effort to advance her beliefs and to do some good in the world. While many folks on the other side of the political divide brand her as the antichrist, I could see myself supporting her in a normal campaign cycle. But these are not normal days. And Obama, almost coming from nowhere, represents something entirely new, a chance for real change.

That's where the déjà vu comes from. Because as much as Obama inspires me, he also reminds me of the many times in which we thought we'd turned a corner to better times. John Kennedy announced the passing of the torch to a new generation, and then he was gunned down in Dallas. MLK and Bobby followed soon after. Others, inspired by those three great men, proved to be all too human, possessing the flaws of Shakespearean tragedy. Members of the so-called Silent Majority saw an essential decency in Richard Nixon, and were paid for their faith with Watergate. A generation later, people like me believed in Bill Clinton the president, but grew to be ashamed by Bill Clinton the man. And today we consider the case of Barack Obama. Undoubtedly, Obama could pull it off; he could be president. And so many Americans are ready to believe in their president once more. But what Obama represents, hope, is fragile when compared to history.

Monday, January 7, 2008

GPS: Pick Up Your Visual Scanning

A California man recently illustrated the virtue of that beloved Star Wars quote, "pick up your visual scanning," when he turned onto a railroad track, following the commands of his GPS navigation device. You can imagine what happened next.

Here's a snip from a January 3, 2008, Journal News (Lower Hudson) article:
[Bo] Bai, who works for a Silicon Valley computer tech company, had rented the car from U-Save Car & Truck Rental in New Windsor, N.Y. He was not familiar with the area, and was therefore relying on the GPS device's navigation instructions, officials said.

"One computer brain listening to another," [Metro-North spokesman Dan] Brucker said, chuckling, this morning.
Read the entire article, Driver cited in Bedford train-car crash caused by GPS mishap.

Mobile Phones and Traffic

Researchers at the University of Utah Applied Cognition Laboratory have found that mobile phone usage contributes to traffic.

Here's a snip from a January 3, 2008, New York Times article:
Slower cellphone drivers may be increasing overall commuting times by 5 percent to 10 percent . . . and talking on the phone may increase each daily commuter’s travel time by 20 hours a year.
Read the entire article, Cellphone Users Slow Traffic.

Rise of the Home Office

Julie Scelfo has written an interesting article in the New York Times about the proliferation of home offices, increasingly as a status symbol. Here's a snip from January 3, 2008:
But by 2006, according to data collected by the Dieringer Research Group, a marketing research company in Brookfield, Wis., more than 28 million Americans were working from home at least part time — an increase of 10 percent from just the year before, and 40 percent from 2002. The American Home Furnishings Alliance reports that 7 in 10 Americans now have offices or designated workstations in their homes, a 112 percent increase since 2000. And a recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that home offices ranked as the fourth most important feature in a new upscale home, just ahead of security.
Read the entire article, The Office, Housebroken.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Air Phones

I finally came across a December 15, 2007, article in The Economist entitled "Your call," which is about plans by some airlines to experiment with allowing mobile phone usage on selected flights. Some initial innovations in in-flight texting and data transfer surely fall within the realm of appropriate use, but plans for voice-chat give me serious pause:
"Air France's test will begin on an Airbus A318 in the next few weeks . . . At first it will allow only mobile-data access and text messaging, but after three months the voice service will be switched on, too" (p. 76).
Other airlines are watching and some will surely follow suit. I am fearful that the opportunities to cash in yet another revenue stream will eventually trump any concerns about niceties. I can only imagine those inane one-sided dialogues: "Yeah, I'm in the air right now. Flying sucks; it's so boring. Thank goodness I have a phone!" Yep, that's another reason why I prefer traveling by highway.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

New Car Guy

During our recent visit to Beaumont, Texas, I spotted another one of those "Car Guys" that I often find along gritty working roads. This one depicts the same mechanic that I've seen elsewhere, only with a different function. I have no idea where Car Guys are designed, when they were first distributed, or what their actual brand of design is called. But in all parts of the country I've found their thick, honest outlines, their flat, angular physiques, and their sensible, no-nonsense attention to duty. They are the kinds of advertisements one would find in an Ayn Rand utopia if Howard Roark or John Galt opened up a garage. Of course, this being Texas, the sign also reads, "Happy Birthday, Jesus." Atlas can only shrug.

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Holiday Travels

Jenny and I returned from a week's travel in Florida and Texas, looking at our investment properties in both states, visiting friends, and enjoying some vacation time along the way. We spent hours hanging out with high school friends Mary Napoli (in FL) and Michelle Templin (in TX) and their families, catching up on old times and sharing our more recent adventures. And we did a fair amount of driving in our cheap rent-a-cars. As is typical for our mode of tourism, we awaited our return flight more tired than when we left. It was a fun week, but it was hardly relaxing.

A highlight was our overnight visit to Miami's South Beach, surveying the district's iconic art deco and "Miami Moderne" architecture between leisurely afternoons on the beach. I so enjoy renting an umbrella and a couple of cushioned beach chairs and staring at the waves, watching the birds search for meals, marveling at the acres of beautiful people (some wearing much less than others), and sharing a relaxed conversation with Jenny, (when she's not napping).

Otherwise, our visit centered on research into the local real estate market. While Jenny searched for prices and collected information about agents and amenities, I was entranced by some of the deco houses and apartments on Pennsylvania Avenue. A large number of these properties have been nicely preserved, maintaining their streamlined banding, their window shade "eyebrows," and their nautically themed portholes. I never get tired of South Beach.

The Miami-leg was hardly without a wrinkle, though. We stayed at the Royal South Beach Hotel, snagging a decent rate and digging the retro plastic furniture that had me flashing on 2001: A Space Odyssey. But we discovered too late that our room was positioned over a club whose idea of music seemed to consist only of pounding bass beats -- until 4 a.m. As would be our luck, the night manager could find no other rooms and offered us either a pittance of a partial-rebate or a clean cancellation of our room, as long as we cleared out right then. I suggested that he could keep his partial rebate (giving back a third of our rate for a room in which we could not sleep) and charge us the full amount; we'd be happy to translate every dollar into efforts to publicize our bad experiences with this place. That's how I left it, and that's how I approached the day manager the next morning.

Yet almost before I could speak, she offered me a full rebate and apologized profusely for our lousy night's sleep. While some of the all-night partiers who frequent her property might have no problem with the noise, we clearly were given the wrong room. Believe me, getting the money back was nice, but I was more taken by her genuine desire to make things right for us. At that point the overall experience of the Royal Hotel came into sharp relief: good proximity to the beach, a clean and safe room, and desk staff who offered helpful responses to our tourist questions. When we return to Miami (soon, I hope), we'll give the Royal another try.

We then traveled to Texas, visiting Houston and Beaumont. It was somewhat surreal, peering out onto the yard of our new house in Texas. Jenny and I bought this property as an investment, hoping that the bargain price and built-in equity will justify the necessary repairs we must undertake. I'll admit it: even the foundation of this place needs work, which sounds pretty expensive to me. But Jenny's gamed out the dollars on a spreadsheet and hired an experienced property manager to guide us through the next couple of months. If all goes well, we'll be renting to our second set of tenants by this February. As someone who could never see myself as an absentee landlord, I find this whole process disconcerting. But living in California remains insanely expensive, and we have big (and expensive) plans for our retirement. So, we take on some risk now, while we can afford it.

Along the way, we saw two of nearby Beaumont's attractions -- a unique "muffler man" whose face resembles that of Alfred P. Neuman and a bigger-than-life Dalmatian-colored fire hydrant. Locals claim that hydrant to be the world's largest, but folks who measure these sorts of things rank it as second or third.

We also searched for Texas barbecue, stopping at Luling City Market in Houston (pretty good), Willy Rays in Beaumont (pretty bad, except for excellent sides and sweet tea) and ending up at Goode Co. Texas Bar-B-Q back in Houston (nearly excellent). Of course, Jenny insisted that we find some Bluebell Ice Cream, so we split a pint before dropping off our rental car.

Writing this, we're waiting to catch our flight, Christmas music raining upon us even on New Year's Day. It's bright and sunny and, for a busy flying day, not too crowded. Soon we'll return to our daughter and kitties, ready to start 2008 at home.

(Photos by Andrew and Jenny Wood)