Greatest hits: Toilet Bowl Hill

[Reproduced from e-mail, by request.]

This story takes place in the winter of 1977-78. I was in sixth grade and hung around a lot with my friends David and Sarah. One day after a heavy snow, the three of us felt like sledding. David said he knew of a cool sledding spot I’d never heard of before, called “Toilet Bowl Hill.” Off we went to a wooded spot near Sarah’s apartment.

When we arrived, I discovered that the spot was aptly named. We stood at the south edge of a circular depression. Kids were sledding down the east and west slopes into the “basin,” then trundling back up for another run.

When I suggested we march around to the east slope to do our sledding, David said no; he wanted to try “Dead Man’s Run.” David showed us the top of it, near where we were already standing. It was a narrow gully, like a bobsled track, that ran down the south slope, with trees very close on either side. No one was sledding there, and it was easy to see why. A sledder would quickly lose control in that narrow channel, which descended toward the basin much more steeply than either the east or the west slopes. It jagged back and forth slightly, and tree roots jutted into the path. The rider would certainly be thrown from the sled, into one of the trees or at least the brambly underbrush. Sarah and I said “No way!” but David wanted to give it a try, having heard legends of daring local kids who’d done it before.

Now, when you’re eleven years old and your friend volunteers to perform a crazy stunt, maybe you spend a few seconds trying to talk him out of it, but really what you want is to see him do it. So there was David, setting the sled down in the top of Dead Man’s Run, apprehensively gauging the course ahead. Sarah and I were filled with fear and excitement.

And then David’s grip on the sled slipped, and off it went without him!

For a second it was funny, and we accused David of chickening out and making it look like an accident; but as we watched the sled careen down the hill (getting knocked around mercilessly), horror began to dawn on us. You see, Toilet Bowl Hill has a sleddable east slope, a sleddable west slope, and a mostly impassable south slope, but it has no north slope — because that whole side is the Grand Central Parkway. Along the north side, nothing but a few short, widely spaced wooden posts separated the basin from lanes of speeding cars; and when the sled reached the bottom of Dead Man’s Run, it had tremendous speed — more than enough to allow it to cross the basin and sail out into highway traffic!

Time slowed down for me as I watched the inevitable unfold. There’d be a hideous wreck on the highway. People would be hurt, maybe killed. Worse: I’d be in a heap of trouble! I think my craven eleven-year-old mind was already plotting how to put it all on David. There: it crossed the basin and was still gliding along, slower than before but still at a good enough clip to exit onto the roadway.

And then a miracle happened. Against all odds, the sled banged into one of the few short wooden posts and came to an abrupt stop.

Sarah, David and I stood at the top of Dead Man’s Run for several long, silent seconds while contemplating the bullet we had just dodged. Then we trooped downhill to retrieve the sled. When we reached it, we were standing just a few feet from the shoulder of the road. We watched the cars speed safely by. Feeling much too somber, we left Toilet Bowl Hill without sledding at all.

Trip report: The Pez Museum

A week ago, Andrea and I learned of the existence of The Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia. So this past week we finally gave Jonah and Archer the Pez dispensers (Batman and Spider-Man) that my mom sent them for Christmas last year and that we withheld because we’re mean rotten parents. We also introduced them to Colorforms, which the museum also exhibits (in addition to a handful of other classic toys). Then, on Saturday, we visited the museum.

It’s small but great! Don’t plan to spend more than fifteen or twenty minutes there, but while there you may get a guided tour like we did and learn some truly fascinating Pez arcana. (Pez arcana spoilers [highlight to read]: Pez is made in Austria and was originally available only in peppermint [you get “Pez” by abbreviating “Pfefferminz”]; they were first sold in little tins like modern Altoids; the first Pez dispensers were headless.) You’ll also see the short-lived 1950’s era Pez “guns,” perfect for (in the words of our guide) shooting your friends in the head with Pez, and now the object of my sons’ keenest desires.

After viewing the exhibits, we shopped the museum’s Pez store. I spotted a “complete collection” of Incredibles Pez dispensers. It contained Mr. Incredible, Elasti-Girl, Dash, and Jack-Jack. I asked the owner/curator/tour guide, “Where’s Violet?” He said, “Everyone asks about that. They never made a Violet for some reason.” I joked, “Maybe she’s invisible.” He said, “Everyone says that too.”

Greatest hits: handing change

[Resurrected from my old, defunct website.]

Here’s a pet peeve of mine: when I pay for something and the clerk hands me change, and I’m handed bills first, then coins.

The best way I can think of to describe the problem is this: bills have to be manipulated with the fingers, and coins have to be held in the palm of the hand. Balancing the coins on top of the bills undermines both requirements. Before the bills can be folded and tucked into a pocket or a wallet, the coins have to be rolled off into the other hand. Sometimes the coins roll completely out of control, clattering onto the checkout counter or the floor.

If the clerk drops the coins into the palm instead, then places the bills on top, no second hand is required to stash the change. It’s easy to hold the coins in the palm while pinching the bills in half and tucking them into a shirt pocket, or into a wallet (which the other hand is now free to hold open). The same hand can then drop the coins into a pants pocket.

It seems perfectly obvious to me, and it’s all I can do not to give this lecture to every clerk who apparently hasn’t thought this through.

Is you is is or is is you ain’t?

[Reproduced from an e-mail thread about incorrect language usage.]

The thing that makes me chuckle with derision is, is when otherwise clear and careful speakers use the same weird misconstruction as appears in this sentence. It’s amazingly common. You may never have noticed, but once you start listening for it, you hear it everywhere. The thing about that is, is that if you call them on it, they deny having done it. And then they go right ahead and do it again! I suppose it depends on what your definition of “is, is” is.

(Here’s another page about this same phenomenon.)

I am Ken lite

In yesterday’s blog post, Ken Jennings (yes, him again) reveals that in additional to everything else, he’s also a closet cartoonist. I’m a closet cartoonist!

Zoger the Vorton, episode 3, part 1, from my college newspaper, The Tartan

This brings the number of ways I’m like Ken to at least six:

  1. We’re both software engineers;
  2. We’re both published authors;
  3. We’re both new(ish) dads;
  4. We’re both e-mail quizmasters;
  5. We’re both closet cartoonists; and
  6. We were both in the Seattle area this week.

There are a couple of key areas in which we are not the same, such as the sizes of our respective audiences, and one of us having won millions of dollars on national TV. Although if you include the dot-com boom, we’ve both “won millions.” Now one of us has to catch up to the other by losing those millions back…

Happy birthday Star Trek

Star Trek is 40 today. Happy birthday, Star Trek! Yes, it’s longer than Alex has been around, and yes, like Alex, no one originally expected it to last anything like this long. But the similarities end there. Star Trek never curled happily by my feet or licked my face to cheer me up.

What can I say about Star Trek that hasn’t already been said many times before? Well, I do have a couple of cute personal stories from when I was a kid in the 70’s and Star Trek had not yet transformed into a cultural touchstone. (It was still the shameful secret love of closeted nerds everywhere.)

One dim memory from a summer at the Pine Knoll bungalow colony in Monticello: my friend Michael wanted to “play Star Trek,” which at that point I’d never seen. I was assigned the role of Scotty, who (Michael explained to me) kept the spaceship in working order. I got into character as best I could, complaining about broken gears and attempting to fix them, but was berated by Michael who said, “The Enterprise doesn’t have gears, it has dilithium crystals!”

A few years later, having by now seen plenty of Star Trek on TV (the original series and the animated one), my friend David and I were confirmed Trekkie nerds. My mom took us on a subway ride into Manhattan to visit a short-lived mecca for Trekkies called “The Federation Trading Post,” a store full of Trek memorabilia, which at that time was sparse and hard to find. The tiny store was itself hard to find! But once you did, you could buy phaser and communicator props, scripts of all 79 episodes and audio cassettes of some (not videocassettes — VCRs wouldn’t appear in average homes for a few more years), rubber Spock ears, all the James Blish books, etc. Most of the really cool things were not within our budget, but we did score The Starfleet Technical Manual, the Star Trek Blueprints, a couple of blank Trek-uniform shirts and the insignia patches and gold braiding to sew onto them. I got a gold “command department” shirt; David got a blue “science” one. Back at home, I asked my mom to sew on my insignia and braids, showing her the exact specifications (to the millimeter!) from the Star Trek Technical Manual. Bless her, she made it perfect. Thanks, Mom! For a short time thereafter, David and I instituted our own “Starfleet Academy” at which we would wear our “uniforms” and practice flipping each other and rolling to our feet á là Captain Kirk.

Of course I’ve long outgrown most of that, but to this day there is still a model of the Enterprise-A on my desk. It’s the most beautiful of all sci-fi spaceships.

We’re number one?

Watching TSA employees at Sea-Tac airport in casual conversation with one another as they mechanically Just Follow Orders, inflicting pointless indignities on travelers, performing inane rituals that accomplish nothing useful at all, and blowing millions of tax dollars out their asses, I fume silently, meditate on the phrase “the banality of evil,” and wonder: of the things that made America great, what remains?

Individual liberty? Nope.

Commitment to justice? Nope.

Fair, democratic elections? Nope.

An effective military? Nope.

A robust economy? A level economic playing field? Nope. Nope.

Freedom of speech? Of the press? Of worship? Nope. Nope. Nope.

Oh well, at least we still have jingoism. We’re number one!

Happy birthday Alex

Our dog, Alex, is 18 years old today. Happy birthday, Alex! Andrea’s had Alex for all but the first six weeks of those 18 years, and I joined the team about a month later. It’s been a long and wonderful trip so far.

In Jewish tradition, 18 is a lucky number, since (when denoted with Hebrew letters) it spells “chai,” the Hebrew word for life. L’chayim!

(More later, when I’m not moblogging from a Microsoft seminar.)

Pointless in Seattle

Next stop, Seattle, where Danger is sending me for a one-day seminar at Microsoft on some new API with which we need to interoperate. I do not expect to get much information from attending the seminar that I can’t get from Microsoft’s printed documentation, but if it makes Microsoft feel better when their third-party developers show up to drink the Kool-Aid, fine.

The weird thing is, this is the third company I’ve worked for that has sent me on a business trip to Seattle — and I’ve never been sent on any other business trips.

I like Seattle a lot. Andrea and I almost moved there in 2000. The seminar will probably be a yawn, but at least I’ll get to see my good friends Kurt and Eva, Bay Area expatriates newly relocated to Seattle.

New York recap

There are no fireflies in New York. I never saw any in New York while growing up, but I grew up in Queens, which is part of the city proper, and I thought we might get lucky at my dad’s house which is farther out on Long Island, since I knew that there are fireflies not too far away, in Pennsylvania. But no.

No thunderstorms, but you already knew that.

Warm ocean water: check. I’d forgotten just how big a difference there is between New York beaches and California beaches. The sand in New York was soft, fine, and well-groomed — no doubt the effect of charging admission to the beach — whereas in California, where most beaches are public-access, it’s coarse and filthy. In Northern California the Pacific is freezing and the waves daunting; only crazy die-hard surfers in wetsuits spend any time in the ocean. In New York, entire families spend hours bobbing in the warm, gentle swells.

Dino-Walk was kinda lame, but the town of Riverhead is nice in a Norman Rockwell way, even if their church bells won’t shut up.

At Dylan’s Candy Bar, I allowed Jonah and Archer to fill up one bag of candy apiece, and I got a few things for myself, my sister, Suzanne (who accompanied us there), and Andrea. Guess how much I spent? $91. When the cashier rang up the total I let out an involuntary “Holy shit!” He smiled the smile of someone who’s gotten that reaction before.

The Long Island Children’s Museum is the greatest place in the whole wide world. We also visited the New York Hall of Science, and even though it was greatly expanded from when I was a kid (when its chief attraction was [what passed in the 1970’s for] a multimedia presentation about the wonders of nuclear power, brought to you by Con Edison), it couldn’t hold a candle to LICM. And next to the LICM, the Exploratorium is a total crapfest.

If there was a theme to this trip, it was Italian ices. We had Italian ices on Queens Boulevard, we had Italian ices from my mom’s freezer, but best of all we had Italian ices twice from The Lemon Ice King of Corona and scored this trophy photo: three generations of Glickstein men, and Peter Benfaremo, the Lemon Ice King himself.