Month: September 2003

Mice

When I got my current computer, a Powermac G4, I started using the mouse that came with it, a featureless polycarbonate ovoid. It’s a beautiful mouse–nice heft, nice materials, nice shape. But a one-button mouse. These days, many mice have four buttons plus a scroll-wheel that can also be clicked, and OS X is built to recognize two buttons plus a clickable scroll-wheel with no extra software required (unless you want to remap the button functions).

Perhaps out of exasperation with my button-deficient mousing lifestyle, my über-geek friend Drew just flat-out gave me a new-in-box Microsoft mouse with two buttons and a clickable scroll-wheel that he happened to have lying around (this isn’t that surprising–as near as I can tell, he’s got 8 computers in varying levels of service). So I plugged it in this morning and have been using it.

My findings: In terms of shape, materials, and build-quality, Apple wins hands-down. As to the extra controls, I’m actually a bit ambivalent. The scroll-wheel is a big advantage, no question. But it clicks along in steps, not smoothly, which is actually jarring when following a screenload of text. The second button is also handy (though not as frequently so), but it forces me to pay more attention to what I’m doing. And despite that, having two extra buttons doesn’t quite feel like enough. With a one-button mouse setup, I use the keyboard more to make up for the mouse’s deficiencies. If I’m going to really use the mouse, I need to be able to use it more. Chorded input would give me 7 possible clicks from three buttons, but I’m not sure if that can be accomplished, and I am loathe to install Microsoft’s bloated (4.9 MB) mouse software to find out. A mouse with more physical buttons would do the trick, though perhaps at the expense of a lot more mistaken clicks. There are other mice out there that offer multiple buttons with better ergonomics, and I might break down and try one out.

More shit-fan imact

I’ve written before about the “senior administration official” leaking the identity of a CIA covert operative to the press, as revenge for her husband embarrassing the White House, a story Robert Novak ran. The story-behind-the-story was astounding, but got very little press at the time. Now that the CIA has requested a Justice Department investigation (which in fact has been underway for a while), and has publicized that request in the media, the media is reviving it–a little bit.

Billmon has been beating the drum on this story for the past couple of days.

One of Billmon’s commenters wondered, if the administration is willing to pull a dirty trick like this over a relatively piddling matter, what are they doing with the really important stuff? One shudders to think. And we can clearly drop the “if”: The fact of the CIA’s request makes it clear that the story is not bogus. Someone in the administration who is placed highly enough to find out Wilson’s wife’s secret identity, and vindictive enough to violate federal law and put her and her contacts’ lives at risk just to get back at her husband: Carl Rove comes to mind.

Later: Even some well-connected Republicans are appalled:

Compared to this, all of Clinton’s peccadilloes look like an mildly diverting scene from an Oscar Wilde production … Let me make this as plain as possible — I was an unpaid advisor for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, and I know and respect some high-ranking people in the administration. And none of that changes the following: if George W. Bush knew about or condoned this kind of White House activity, I wouldn’t just vote against him in 2004 — I’d want to see him impeached. Straight away.

There’s lots, lots more out there in the blogosphere, but this is some of the juicy stuff.

Let’s beat on Verisign

Chip has been doing a good job of beating the drum on Verisign’s offensive “typojacking” (great word) of all unassigned domain names on the Internet. Meaning, for example, if you accidentally type “corssroads.net” into your browser, you are taken to a Verisign page that tell you “perhaps you meant one of these pages.” Prima facie, that actually sounds helpful, but there are serious problems with it. The architecture of the Internet depends on the ability to check whether a domain name is valid or not. This trick stymies that ability. It’s also sleazy, because Verisign can monetize your typos: rather than pointing you to the most likely correct spelling, they can suggest you visit sponsoring sites that seem like likely hits.

And finally, simply by visiting Verisign’s website, you are agreeing to their terms of service. There may have been a tattered fig leaf of respectability for that stunt when you had to intentionally go to their site, but that fig leaf is completely gone now. One harassment tactic that geeks could take would be to write them, saying “I came to your site completely by accident, and I do not agree to your terms of service. Please make it so that I can no longer accidentally violate your TOS.”

In fact, now that I think about it, I wonder if we can write up a sort of “reverse-TOS”–that is, we could file a TOS (hidden in a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard) reading something like “responding to any HTTP GET or POST requests originating from my computer constitutes acceptance of these terms of service,” which might include terms like free ice cream delivered daily for the next year.

Step into Liquid

“No special effects…no stuntmen.” That text flashes across the opening shot of a surfer dwarfed by a 20′ wave. It is a documentary, after all, but it’s interesting that the director felt the need to point that out, and refreshing to see a movie so visually exciting that doesn’t depend on tricks. Step into Liquid is a documentary about surfing, and it’s beautiful. It has its faults–the voiceover is annoying half the time, the interviews are self-indulgent most of the time, and the soundtrack is bad some of the time, but so what? The main course–surfing footage–is great. Shot from helicopters, jet-skis, and from underwater–the underwater footage was jaw-dropping–we get an amazing view of the action and the waves.

Some of the less-likely aspects of surfing showed up. Surfers in Sheboygan, Ireland, and Easter Island. Surfing the wake of a supertanker. Hydrofoil surfing. And it was interesting to see that all the surfers, even the guy in Wisconsin wearing his Blatz work shirt, had that surfer squint.

Just go see it. It’s shame that we only had a chance to see it on a relatively small screen–this movie deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

New York Trip

Note: Click on thumbnail pictures in this document to pop up larger versions. Click on the large version to close it.

New York. It’s a hell of a town, I hear, but I hadn’t really found out for myself. I’d only been there for a short visit when I was 15, traveling with my mom. So that doesn’t really count. I have a number of friends in NYC: an old high-school friend, a friend who moved there from Austin, a fire-equipment customer, and some net.friends.

And then there was 9-11.

Things changed in a fundamental way on 9-11. It was a historic moment, and I felt an obligation to myself to go to the place where it happened, to get a sense of what things were like there. I wanted to be able to look back 50 years after the event and remember what the city was like in the days after the disaster. It would be nice to be able to remember what the city was like before the disaster too, but I can’t wind the clock back. If only I could. If only I could.

About two weeks after the event, I decided to go, and made travel arrangements. I would up arriving in New York on October 13, for a four-night trip.

My fire-friend Dori had offered me a place to crash (perhaps an infelicitous choice of words, considering), and I took her up on that. She and her boyfriend Jeffrey have a funky loft (as opposed to one of those homogeneous, corporate lofts, right?) in Brooklyn, a few blocks away from the Williamsburg Bridge and the Marcy stop on the J-M-Z lines. This proved to be a pretty convenient launchpad for my little adventures.

Saturday, 13 Oct 2001

I departed at a ridiculous hour on the morning of Saturday, October 13. My flight was at 6:45 AM. I wanted at least an hour to allow for formalities at the airport, and the blue-van people wanted at least an hour to deliver me there. They told me to expect a pickup between 4:15 and 4:30. Yes, in the AM. Ugh.

There were heavy storms and severe winds overnight, and that morning I awoke to total blackness. The power was out. The blue van pulled up slightly before 4:15, and the driver asked me why I didn’t put my porch light on. Anyhow, rather than taking an hour, it took about 15 minutes to deliver me and one other passenger to the airport. So there I am, at about 4:30, with over two hours to kill in a deserted airport. I found a seat and tried to get comfortable. I think I dozed. Eventually the ticket counter opened. I got my ticket, went through security, which wasn’t that big a deal, and procured coffee. The line for coffee was much longer than the security line. A reassuring sign of normality in these troubled times.

The airline, I flew, Vanguard, is one I hadn’t even heard of before I started researching the trip. They had the cheapest fares, and their routing and layovers weren’t completely insane (their hub is in Kansas City). One new twist was the random baggage checks. After getting past security, and right before boarding the flight, they called quite a few passengers to have their carry-ons hand-checked.

In KC, I noted that the airport had a screwed-up system where there was a separate security checkpoint every two or three gates. Very inefficient. Dumb. Since there was one line at each mini-cluster of gates, if that line backed up (and it did), you just had to wait. At any rate, my connecting gate was in the same mini-cluster of gates, so I didn’t have to leave the secured area. Though I would have, if I needed to use the can. Dumb.


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When I saw the Chrysler Building, I got a happy feeling: I really felt like I was in NYC.

On to La Guardia. I was kind of surprised at how small LGA seems. I caught a cab into Brooklyn, to Dori’s, where I was warmly received by her and her boyfriend Jeffrey. They have a loft on the 9th floor of a big old industrial building, populated with artists and craftsmen. We went with their neighbor Ashley to the neighborhood eatery, Right Bank, for mimosas and (in my case) eggs benedict. A couple of the people in the building were having open-houses to show off their art, and we stopped by one. His loft was crammed to the gills with art and stuff. There’s no other word for it. It was quite cozy. Some of the art was pretty neat, some I confess I didn’t really get.

Dori’s loft is also pretty well accoutered with stuff, and is very funky.

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Dori’s & Jeffrey’s loft

The Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan at sunset, from Dori’s roof

Anyhow, we hung around the loft for the rest of the afternoon, until that evening, when we went to a party, Dori being one of the principal instigators. This party was fantastic. The title of the party was Lost Vegas. Imagine: rat roulette, with a rat on a sort of roulette wheel. Hissing cockroach races. Human roulette (this involved a big wheel, at least 8′ across, with a padded top. Players would go down a slide onto the spinning wheel and land on a number). There was a shotgun wedding chapel outside, an Elvis wedding chapel inside, and various other whimsical gambling machines. On the outside there was a canopied area where a guy on a keyboard would accompany karaoke singers. Inside there was a live band, which did lounge covers of Devo hits (while wearing flowerpot hats), among other things. Dori, in her role as a pimp, pressed me and about 8 other guys into service for her “Rent A Boy” operation. We were to take a dollar (or some other amount of money) in exchange for providing whatever service we were comfortable providing for 15 minutes (or some other length of time). Business was, uhh, slow for me, but some guys brought in ten bucks or so.

I encouraged Carlos, a friend from Austin now living in Brooklyn, to come to the party, and eventually he did, after repeated confirmation by cellphone. He apparently enjoyed himself, as he wound up staying later than me–and I stayed until about 3:00 AM.

Sunday, 14 Oct 2001

Bright and early in the morning, I awoke. Yes, really. Dori & Jeffrey’s loft has a huge picture window with an eastern exposure. Besides, I had things to do, places to go, people to meet. As Carlos has been wont to say, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

I had made prior arrangements with a net.friend, Lisa, to get together and wander around. I walked across the Williamsburg Bridge, reaching the Manhattan side around 11:30 AM. I called Lisa to advise her of my impending arrival, and embarrassingly woke her with my call (not sure whether it was embarrassing for me or for her, but I definitely sensed some embarrassment somewhere). After some negotiation, we found a yuppified quasi-healthy type place on Spring St. to have brunch. Pretty good. We then proceeded to walk all over lower Manhattan. We walked through Soho, and Noho, the Financial District, Battery Park, the Fulton St fish market, and probably a few other places I’m overlooking. We got as close to the site of the WTC as we could, which was not very close: the police had set up barricades around a three-block (or so) perimeter. There was a pretty good crowd of people, both locals and tourists, making the same pilgrimage. Whenever we’d get to an intersection, we’d look down the canyon between the buildings to see what we could. There wasn’t much to see, which is the point, I guess. Once in a while, I could see the wrecked exteriors of buildings still standing. But the thing is, I’m not well acquainted with NYC, so the absence of the towers didn’t convey the visceral shock to me that it would to someone who saw them every day. There were a lot of memorials around the WTC site, a few “have you seen this person?” flyers. Some representatives from some Christian organization passing out glossy booklets putatively about the tragedy. I was intrigued to see a mobile cellphone tower deployed in the financial district, with diesel generators right there, rumbling away.

At one point in our perambulations, somewhere on Avenue A, I think, we saw a tall guy with lots of hair and an all-silver leather outfit. Very Van-Halen circa 1986. We also stuck out heads in a fascinating shop specializing in animal bones, bugs in plexiglas, taxidermied animals, that sort of thing. Yum. There were lots of other shops we passed by that seemed like they’d probably be fun to stop in, but I was happy to keep moving and see more stuff.

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At some other point, we discovered a Japanese grocery, Sunrise Mart. What a treat! It was where the local Japanese-abroad shopped, and I found a 9-pack of yukimi daifuku. Score! For those poor benighted souls among you, yukimi daifuku are a Japanese snack consisting of little ice-cream balls wrapped in sheets of mochi. Mochi is a sort of dough made of rice. I love these things.

Anyhow, I loved seeing everything this way, but my feet were taking a pounding. I told Lisa “If we found a place with seats, I would avail myself of one.” We went to Two Boots Video to pick up a couple of Woody Allen flicks (we went looking for What’s Up Tiger Lily?, but that was out of stock, so we got Sweet and Lowdown and Small Time Crooks instead). Then to an Indian restaurant and bar where we sat on a little couch in the front window and had some wine. Sunday night was supposed to be a fire-practice, but things were a little up in the air. I called Dori to get the latest scoop, and she told me to meet at a bar near Lisa’s called Whiskey Ward. On our way there, Lisa and I stopped for a slice at Two Boots Pizza (Two Boots seems to have a mini-empire in the neighborhood). Then we went to the bar, where I had a chance to meet the usual suspects in the NYC firedancing community. That was fun. Presumably we were going to find a practice venue, but once everyone was installed at the bar, they proved difficult to dislodge. This may not have been an entirely bad thing, considering how whipped I was. So Lisa and I decided to watch Sweet and Lowdown instead. I enjoyed it. Headed back to Dori’s to go to bed.

Monday, 15 Oct 2001

Another day, another little adventure. I took the train with Dori into midtown Manhattan. Got off the F line on 42nd St. Wandered around for a while and walked over to the Empire State Building. Although I’ve always loved the Chrysler Building’s art-deco style, the Empire State is no slouch in that area either. The lobby is ornamented by big brass disks with various designs.


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Some architectural details from the Empire State Building

What with the way things are now, most of the entrances to the building were blocked, with three uniformed guys standing around to keep an eye on things, and there were security checkpoints at those that were open. A guy checking IDs outside the door, who gave only a cursory glance at my driver’s license (evidently he hadn’t seen any Al-Qaeda membership cards), and a metal detector and x-ray checkpoint inside, which was manned by guys who were giving more than cursory treatment. I suppose it’s possible their boss told them to be hardasses, but I suspect they were internally motivated to take their jobs seriously.

Once inside, I walked around the lobby, but couldn’t go to the observation deck, which was closed at that hour for some reason. I then had breakfast at the “Big Apple Diner”, directly adjoining the lobby. Kind of odd–I had a Spanish omelette, which was served with french fries. How…multicultural. And some really bad coffee.


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Monday’s breakfast

From there, I wandered around Times Square a bit, and was suitably impressed by all the wall-sized curvy TV screens, the hustle, etc. But I really wanted to go to the Guggenheim, so I lit out for points north. I walked through Central Park, which is really pretty and really big. I mean, you can look at a map of Manhattan, and there’s Central Park, centrally located, and using up a lot of prime real estate, so you can tell, intellectually, “Gee, that park must be pretty big,” but you don’t feel it in your bones until you traverse it on foot. And I never knew there was a zoo in the park, but there is. At one point, I just had to take a break because my feet were killing me. It gave me a chance to take some notes for this diary.


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Some views right next to central park, at 5th & 76th

Eventually I closed on my objective for the early part of the day: the Guggenheim. Have you ever had the experience of knowing some famous work of art through books and postcards, and then coming upon it in person? I remember having that feeling very strongly when I first saw Sunday on the Grande Jette and Nighthawks. Anyhow, that’s the feeling I got when I first caught sight of the Guggenheim building itself. It really is that special.

There was a security check to get in.


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Coming upon the Guggenheim

Unfortunately, when I was there, the main ramp was closed: a new exhibit of Brazilian art was being installed, and it looks like quite a show, to judge from what I saw. The pictures here don’t reflect it properly, but the entire main spiral was painted a very dark blue.

I did get to view the permanent collection in the smaller annex, and that was certainly worthwhile. They had a number of Modiglianis, which are notable for their very elongated forms, and I mused that if you morphed a Modigliani person with a Botero person, you’d wind up with a normal-looking figure.

There were also a number of Mondrians on exhibit other than the ones I’d seen before, and it struck me, when I took my glasses off, that he might have meant for us to look at the some of his works with blurred vision. With my glasses on, all I really noticed was the strong lines. With them off, I noticed the overall patterns of color, which were much more organic. But of course, at least half the fun of the museum is the museum itself. I was especially tickled by the miniature reproductions of modernist chairs in the gift shop. I guess those would be for the world’s best-appointed dollhouse…?


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Views from inside the Guggenheim

Setting up the Brazil exhibit

At this point, my legs were pretty shot. I got on the bus and headed south. There was a crazy bum sitting across from me, having a fairly intense discussion with himself. What struck me as especially interesting was that he wasn’t vocalizing–he was just mouthing the words, which seems to indicate that he was sane enough to keep his voice down, but not sane enough to keep the voices out of his head. It’s as if at some level, he knows he’s crazy, and can kind of keep things together.


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I love New York!

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Library lion, with friends

I got off the bus around 42nd Street and went over to Bryant Park, next door to the library. This was perfect. The weather was perfect, there were chairs and little tables scattered all over the grass. I pulled one of the former up to one of the latter and wrote postcards to the folks back home.

I came upon this amazing deli somewhere near Time Square. That little red lantern you see is typical of cheap Japanese restaurants and basically says “Restaurant”. I have no idea what the Hebrew text says, but basically, this signage says it all. If there’s a reason to love New York, this is it.


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Views around Bryant Park

After a pleasant couple hours in the park (or so) spent writing and reading, I caught the F train into lower Manhattan. Lisa and I were going to have dinner and go to a show (about which more below). I had some extra time, so I wandered around. I already had a glimmering of familiarity with this part of town, having criss-crossed it repeatedly yesterday. Walked past Katz’s Deli, site of the famous scene in When Harry Met Sally. Came upon a Belgian Frites shop. I’m not sure what the fascination with Belgian Frites, which are simply big helpings of french fries with some kind of fancy dipping sauce, but these shops are all over the place. Evidently there was a big Belgian-cuisine push a few years back, and while I’m sure fries are not the pinnacle of Belgium’s culinary arts, apparently they’re what stuck. That and Stella Artois beer, which seems to be very popular around town.

One thing that struck me as I wandered around was that there are evidently some drivers in NYC who think they can clear a block-long traffic jam by simply laying on their horn for, oh, 15 seconds. It never seems to work, and I can’t imagine it actually makes them feel better. Quite the contrary, it adds to the overall din, and makes everyone else feel worse, I’d imagine.

Anyhow. Hooked up with Lisa and we headed out to an Indian joint to eat. Not sure what it was called. It was on the street for Indian joints, though. There they were, all in a row, one after the other. I’m not sure why the Indian restaurant operators all chose to cluster like that.

After dinner, which was pretty good, we wandered around and went into Shakespeare & Co Books, where I picked up Fruits a picture book of Japanese street fashion (compiled from a magazine of the same name), which made me laugh and made me feel nostalgic, and The 5-Minute Iliad, written by a friend of Lisa’s. Hung out there for quite some time. It’s a nice bookstore.

Then it was on to the evening’s entertainment. It was punk-rock/metal karaoke night at Arlene Grocery. (Why no possessive “‘s”? I don’t know. Why is a bar called a grocery, and why am I prone to mistakenly refer to it as Arlene’s Kitchen? Truly, these are eternal mysteries.)


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Some dude rockin’ out at Arlene Grocery

This was truly one of the high points of the trip. This is not like normal karaoke, with a machine. There’s a three-piece rock band. They’re very good at what they do, and they started pretty promptly, near the appointed time of 10:00 PM. They have a playlist of, well, at least 60 songs. The lyrics for each song are on a separate sheet in a notebook, the notebook is passed around, and anyone who wants to do a song pulls that sheet and passes it up. The emcee pulls a sheet from the stack at random and calls out “Who’s doing ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’?”. The would-be star gets up on stage and rocks out.

Some people, bluntly, sucked. They were obviously having a good time, thought they’d take a shot, and picked a song to which they barely recalled the chorus. The bassist spent a lot of time coaching these folks through their songs. Some people, bless their hearts, they were really trying, but couldn’t hit the right notes, or the right time, or couldn’t project. Some people were really into it and pretty good. And a few people were great. There were two brothers, who clearly had some musical talent. The first got up and did Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train”, and nailed it. The second got up and did Rush’s “Limelight”. Not only did he nail it, he nailed Geddy Lee’s neuter, nasal voice, and the bassist even handed over his ax, for the complete Rush-mania effect.

It’s quite a scene. There are a lot of regulars–the emcee addressed many of them by name. There’s even been a documentary made about it.


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Views from Williamsburg Bridge at night

That was a lot of fun, and we stayed until about 12:30. Lisa has, like, a job, so she had to head home. I headed back on foot (glutton for punishment) and took some pictures as I crossed the Williamsburg Bridge.

Tuesday, 16 Oct 2001

My last full day in New York, and it promised to be action-packed.

I need to back up a little here to a pre-trip anecdote. A week or so before leaving, I had received an e-mail from a guy in the UK, Dominic, interested in buying a specialized piece of firedancing equipment from me. He mentioned that he’d be in NYC between certain dates, and that I could ship it to him there to save the international postage. I responded “I’ll go you one better–I’ll be in NYC at the same time, so we can handle the transaction in person.” Have I mentioned how much I love the Internet? For some reason, we both look like we’re sneering in the picture, but we aren’t. I think we were just captured in mid-speech.


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Dominic and me. I’m on the right.

I had fedexed the equipment in question, along with my own (used) firedancing wicks and a couple other odds and ends, so as to avoid raised eyebrows at airport security. These arrived on Monday, and bright and early on this day Tuesday, I called Dominic to arrange to meet. He and I decided to meet at the streetside jewelery booth where Dori is working.

So I took the train in with Dori, hovered uselessly as she set up the booth, and waited for Dominic to appear. He appeared. We took care of business. Cool. We got to talking, and it turns out he had also been at Arlene Grocery the night before, and enjoyed it as much as me. A small world gets smaller.

I had a lunch date, so I headed north on foot to Union Square. I had some time on my hands, so I wandered around a bit. The park at Union Square looks a little run-down, but it clearly fills an important role in everyday life. It’s an oasis in the middle of a busy part of a busy town.

There’s an off-leash dog-run at one corner of the park, and I noticed a person walking a dalmation towards it, with the dalmation clearly eager for the chance to run around and sniff some dog-butt. There was a sign on the gate to the dog run reading “If you’re not responsible enough to clean up after your dog, you don’t deserve to own one.” This has Giuliani all over it, don’t you think?


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Views around Union Square

I was struck by the assymetric cornice on the building in the middle photo here, clearly avoiding the airspace of the adjacent building. Also by the fact that elephant-ears grow in NYC (see the rightmost photo)–I had imagined those were more tropical plants.

While I was waiting to meet up with Kim for a lunch date, I got calls from two other friends I also planned on getting together with, plus a call from Kim saying she was running a few minutes late. Weird to get three calls all clustered together within just a few minutes like that.

Kim arrived, and we headed off in search of food. At first thinking of Indian, we shifted gears and decided on Burmese instead. Wandered around, since Kim’s recollection of the place’s location was a little vague, so she called information, gave them an approximation of the name, got the restaurant on the line, and got the address. Food was pretty good, and what the hell, it’s only the second time I’ve had Burmese food.


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Knish bakery

After lunch, I had some stuff to take care of back at Dori’s loft, so I started heading in that direction when I came across this knish bakery. I didn’t stop inside, but I love the sign.

I wanted to fedex some of my excess stuff, including my wicks, back to Austin, and had scoped out a fedex box near Dori’s, but it was completely devoid of supplies. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I figured I’d find a way to work things out, and to my surprise and relief, there was a fedex driver just a block away. I buttonholed him and got the airbill and pouch I needed. Took care of that and got in touch with my old high-school friend Scott, who’s an artist in Brooklyn and now goes by the monicker of Dread Scott. I can’t get used to calling him that, though. Anyhow, we decided to get together right then, so I called for a driver to deliver me to his house. I remember driving past a bunch of ultra-frummy (Hassidic) men standing on a grass island next to a highway on-ramp, standing around as if they were waiting for something to happen. I wonder what.

This is an interesting phenomenon, hire cars. NYC has a notorious shortage of medallion cabs, and all of them apparently operate in Manhattan. The shortage has led to unlicensed jitney cabs, but the interesting thing is that when cellphones are widespread, hire cars become a viable alternative to cabs. If you have the number of the car service on your cellphone’s speed-dial, you can have a car there within a few minutes, which is effectively about as good as a cab. Although hire cars are more expensive. Then again, you get to ride in a Lincoln Town Car instead of a Ford Crown Vic. That’s one thing I noticed–all the hire cars are Lincoln Town Cars, and if you see a Lincoln Town Car on the streets of NYC, it’s very likely a hire car.


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Not Ray’s Pizza

Scott lives in a third-floor walkup in a classic Brooklyn brownstone. Nice apartment, though somewhat snug for two adults and a kid. Great parquet floors (isn’t it odd how the word for a wood inlay technique became a brand name for margarine?). A bizarre collision of militantly political art and kid’s toys all over the place. Scott and I hang out, shoot the breeze, discuss these bizarre reversible shiny plastic jeans Scott’s wearing. We head out to pick up his son, Mo, from day-care. Mo is 4.5 years old. He vaguely remembered me from our first meeting in Florida, where he saw me spin fire. Like most kids his age, he wants to be the center of attention, but he’s got a nice disposition and good manners (as Scott joked “we didn’t want anyone to realize he was ours”). Scott’s wife Jenny was at work, so I didn’t get a chance to see her. The three of us headed over to Not Ray’s Pizza for a slice. The joke here is that many if not most NYC pizzerias are named some variation on “Ray’s Pizza.” Just as most pizzerias have a wall of fame, this one did too–decorated with pictures of all the Ray’s Pizzas around town, and famous Rays, like Ray Bolger, Sugar Ray Leonard, etc.

After pizza, it was time to go to an art opening. Hopped on the subway, though just before we descended the stairs, Scott said “Wait…” “What?” “See over there? Someone’s gone and done what I knew was coming–they’ve put in an art gallery.” I guess that means it’s all downhill for the neighborhood now. It was right when we went down these stairs that my left knee started bugging me. I must have put a foot wrong or something. Anyhow, the art opening was for a new installation by Jenny Holzer (who I had confused with Barbara Kruger when Scott mentioned her to me). We took the train over to Chelsea, which, as Scott explained, is pretty much the center of the U.S. art world, though many artists based in NYC (other than himself) like to think of it as the center of the art world, period. Didn’t get the name of the gallery. It was very crowded, with lots of people standing around outside to get some air. I could smell the white wine before we even got to the door. Really.

The installation was in three rooms. Each room was very large, white, with very high ceilings. They were completely empty except for the installation pieces. In the first room, there were 4 towers of scrolling LED text in blue, reaching from floor to ceiling, in a square formation. In the second room, yellow LED text scrollers were attached to the ceiling in parallel lines. In the third, it was red LED text scrollers, set into an alcove in the ceiling, criss-crossing each other somewhat like interleaved fingers. The text seemed to be the same in all three rooms, and was a fairly sensuous description of a woman’s body. When it was legible, anyhow–after a while, text would be running in two directions at once, or blinking, or using other effects making it hard to read. I suppose one could read all sorts of things into this–about the death of romance, or the loss of privacy created by technology, or some crap like that, but when Scott asked me what I thought, I told him “I’m not sure I’m getting everything I’m supposed to be getting.” He said it was partly an exercise in showing how the artist could do this neat high-tech thing because she had a lot of money.

We hung out in the gallery until Mo got bored. On our way out, we bumped into an older, professorial-looking guy, who stopped to chat briefly with Mo. As we walked away, Scott told me “That was Andres Serrano“. “Who?” I ask. “You might remember a controversy in the art world a few years ago…” “Piss Christ!”. Yep, that was him.


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The bar at the Marriot

My timing was working out just about perfectly. Scott and I walked out to one of the avenues (10th?) and I caught a cab to the Marriot at 45th and Broadway, where I was supposed to meet an net.friend, Kelly, for drinks in the hotel bar. Apparently they used to have a rotating lounge overlooking Times Square, which must have been pretty cool, but that area was closed for rennovation. The bar we did sit in was pretty cool, and had a lot of glass pieces lit from beneath by a rotating color wheel (or something like that). We had a long and wide-ranging conversation about this and that. Eventually it got late, we got the check, and I discovered I had been drinking the most expensive beer I’d ever had. $32 for two wines and two beers. But oh, they had brought tasty little nut-snack deals gratis. It was drizzling in Manhattan when we stepped out, so I made haste to get to an F-line station. When I made it back to Brooklyn, it had stopped raining.

Wednesday, 17 Oct 2001

My last day in NYC. Oh well. It had been a very full trip. Dori didn’t have to be anywhere special that morning, so we had a leisurely coffee and I got my stuff together. We hugged goodbye and I headed into Manhattan by train. I had a coffee date with another net.friend, Robin, somewhere in midtown. When I was closing on the location of her office, I gave her a call, and we met down in the lobby. Headed over to the tea room in the Morgan Library, which was very civilized. Although she and I had corresponded sporadically for some time, this was still sort of a “get to know you” situation for some reason. She told me exactly where I could catch a bus to LGA, and of a cool-sounding exhibit at Grand Central, right next to that. Once I got as far as the bus depot, which was at the base of the Chrysler Building, my feet and left knee were just killing me, so I wimped out and got on the bus out to the airport. $10.


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Closing in on the Chrysler Building


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Last shot before getting on the bus

At the airport, I went through security, which was taking its job really seriously. Studied my ID, had me remove my glasses. When some spare change set off the (very sensitive) metal detector, I got a very thorough patting-down. Once cleared, I walked past the M15-armed national guardsman and purchased an overpriced sandwich and orange juice and plunked myself down at the small departure lounge at my gate to start reading my new book, 5-minute Iliad. Very funny, by the way. Eventually other passengers started showing up, and four of them sat down next to me. One of them, a man, got to talking with the three women sitting there. He evidently just came from the New Life Expo (red flag!), and discussed how he was “doing some healing” for the disaster victims. It got worse. Evidently this guy never met a crackpot theory he didn’t believe. He was going on about the two theories for the “real” perpetrators of the 9-11 attack. Either time-travellers from the future or the Trilateral Commission. Riiiiiight. He went on in some detail on this subject, also explaining how anthrax was a “virus” (it’s bacterial) engineered by the U.S. Government (it occurs naturally), which won’t release the antidote (only poisons have antidotes, not diseases) because it wants to maintain control over the population (anthrax is treatable with typical antibiotics). The three women seemed to be listening to this nut-job with more than polite interest, but I had to get up and walk away otherwise I would have RIPPED HIS FUCKING HEAD OFF!! if for no other reason than to see if bats would fly out. Not to mention the public service I’d be providing.

The flight was basically uneventful. Had to transfer in Kansas City, and this time I did have to exit one secured area and get checked into the next. Really dumb. Security was tight here too. They were having some guys take their boots off and send the boots through the x-ray machine. They opened my bag, and the pimply-faced young security guy was very puzzled by my firedancing equipment, which I identified simply as “poi”. Got back into Austin pretty late, and caught the blue van home. Phew. What a hell of a trip. I felt like I fit ten days of stuff into four days of time.

UK-Netherlands-Belgium Trip Report

19 Nov 1997: The following is taken directly from a (paper) travel journal I wrote in while on the trip, which was in May/June 1997. I’ll be cleaning this page up and filling in some missing links gradually.

As it happens, I am writing this almost exactly 24 hours before the reversion of Hong Kong to China. This is on my mind because the hotel room we are in has CNN on TV, and they have been flogging the story relentlessly.

We are in the town of Zwolle, a sleepy old town in the middle of the Netherlands. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Our trip began, as all trips do, with a cab ride to the airport. Our cabbie was Eritrean, which is kind of interesting, since his country wasn’t a country when he moved to the USA. Our outbound flight plan was Austin-Atlanta-Manchester, and the flights were reasonably comfortable and basically uneventful. We arrived, sleepy, in Manchester, a very new airport with a lot of new construction going on. I was rather stunned that there was no customs check for our baggage: I don’t just mean that no one looked at our bags, I mean that there was no one to look at our bags. Surprising for a country that routinely suffers terrorist attacks. We left the airport and entered a seemingly endless enclosed, elevated walkway, very new and shiny, which brought us to the train station. After some hemming and hawing about whether to go into Manchester or leave immediately on the train, we left for Sheffield. British Rail has handy automated ticket vending machines that nobody seems to use, but years of living in Japan had habituated us to them, so we did use them—no problem. On the ride to Sheffield we alternately dozed and watched the extremely green fields pass by.

Upon our arrival in Sheffield, we made for a fish+chips shop, something Jenny was particularly nostalgic for. It was a tatty, tiny place that probably has had exactly the same client base (us excepted) since 1962. We pushed on towards the middle of town, eventually reaching the campus of the University of Sheffield. Unfortunately, that was not our destination: we were looking for the residence halls (dorms). We did find a map on one of the building walls, and that gave us an impressionistic sense of where to go. So we pushed on, asking directions a few times along the way. It is chilly and drizzling at this point, we are both tired and lugging our packs, so nerves are the tiniest bit frayed. Finding the correct dorm, Halifax Hall, proved difficult. First we had to find the road it was on, Endcliff Vale Road. We quickly found Endcliff Circle, Endcliff Rise, Endcliff Whatever, but no Endcliff Vale. Eventually we found that, and then a dorm complex, but no Halifax Hall. We wandered about aimlessly for a while, until a cleaning lady noticed us and gave us directions. Even then we managed to find the wrong side of the building, but eventually we got in and our spirits improved drastically. We were torn between getting some rest and mingling with friends we hadn’t seen in a long time. Mingling won. It was worth it—it energizes me.

There was a semi-fancy meal that evening, so we ducked into our room to change into our semi-fancy attire. For me, this means T-shirt, jeans (so what else is new?) and a tux jacket. This combo, especially with my red high-tops, got excellent reviews. For Jenny this means a slinky black velvet number she picked up recently. The dinner was the fabled rubber-chicken affair, with several well-meaning but dull speeches, one being in Japanese and inaudible. Jenny and I ducked out of this, leaving our dining companions, Alan and Connie, to fend for themselves. There was a pub in the dorm. Ordinarily, I would question the wisdom of this, but for our purposes, I reckon it’s a great idea. I had a chance to share a beer with Barry Byrne, who I had previously known only by e-mail. Pubs in Britain close at 11, and that is roughly when we retired.

The next day started with a shower. I must pause now and say some unkind things about British plumbing: it is inadequate. Every day we spent in Britain, we encountered some example of bad plumbing. In Sheffield, it was a weak shower that could only occasionally be persuaded to yield hot—no, make that warm—water. I will chronicle events involving the foibles of British plumbing as they crop up throughout this report.

The first regular day of the conference began with a short walk to the conference facilities, led by Mary Gillender—about a 15-minute walk. This was much less time than it took Jenny and me to navigate to Halifax Hall, but then again, we had no idea what we were doing.

The first session was a plenary session reviewing the alphabet soup of translation groups out there. Fine speakers but boring subject matter.

The second session that I attended was on machine translation. This was a sort of panel presentation with five speakers, one of whom used up way too much time. What was interesting was the perspective put forth by all the speakers (who were all very much involved in the commercial, not academic end of MT), which was that MT systems do have their uses within limits, but aren’t going to challenge human translators any time soon, and in fact can complement them. All well and good, but nobody discussed any serious work on radically better MT systems—ones that “break the semantic barrier” as one speaker put it—but I know such work is happening in academia, and wished we could have heard about it. One interesting comment was that as MT software has dropped in price, it has become vastly less profitable, which I suppose might dampen enthusiasm for doing research on radically new systems (or at least commercializing them).

The next session was Robin Thompson’s lecture on Okinawan performing arts. After a regrettably long explanation of the evolution of various Okinawan verse forms (during which I may have nodded off, due to jet lag), he eventually got around to explaining how Okinawan is different from standard Japanese, how a few songs go, and actually playing them, which he did quite well.

The session after that was presented by the guy who went on too long in the MT panel, Ian Gordon. Perhaps I should have known better. This was basically a sales pitch for a kind of computer program—”translation memory”—which his company sells. This is basically software that matches everything in your source text with everything in your translated text. When it runs into the same or similar source-text phrase in the future, it can insert your previous translation of it. Sounds very promising, but A) requires source text in electronic form; B) doesn’t work J-E, and C) doesn’t run on a Mac. So much for that.

The last session I attended on Day 1 was given by Judy Wakabayashi, on research into what the translation process involves. Judy gave a similar talk at IJET-4, and all the “research” at that point seemed to consist of ivory-tower academic making half-true but half-baked a priori pronouncements from on high. Evidently there has been a revolution in the study of translation: now they are actually studying the translator at work. What a concept. Admittedly there are a lot of problems inherent in this approach, but it seems a vastly more promising avenue of exploration.

After the day’s sessions, there was to be a photo shoot on the steps of the facility, but this got rained out—or more accurately, rained indoors. The photographer was also late, so Robin Thompson entertained us with some more music from his sanshin.

Returned to the dorm on foot and assembled for a bus ride out to the nearby town of Castleton, which is noteworthy for having a castle, imagine that. Once in Castleton, there were theoretically two options: 1) hang out in a pub; 2) go hiking around. The weather put paid to option 2. We all broke up into large-ish groups and headed off to various pubs around the town. Our party wound up in a very cozy little pub that served good food.

That’s right, good food. The Brits have always gotten a bad rap for their cooking. If I’m going to rag on their plumbing, though, it is only fair that I stick up for the food: evidently they have learned methods of preparation other than boiling everything. Their coffee, however, is still uneven at best. It hasn’t taken root there yet, I suppose. I had good coffee on two occasions while in England and bad coffee the rest of the time.

Back on the subject of plumbing though, I must also observe that the convention of hot water on the left and cold on the right is not observed: they just hook them up any old way. The Dutch are more consistent, but not entirely.

Anyhow, back to the pub. We all had good meals. Michael House was at the next table, engaging in one of his endless, earnest monologues with a hapless victim. This time the topic was not animation but the virtues of the Macintosh computer. Even though I share his sentiments more or less, it is almost painful to merely overhear him going on and on.

On Day 2 of the conference, we were both still having a hard time dragging our butts out of bed, and we both considered blowing off the morning session. We wound up sitting in on Wolfgang’s talk on kanji capability for PCs, something that isn’t exactly relevant to me, but I like to keep my hand in, as it were, and Wolfgang is an entertaining speaker.

For the second session, I wasn’t especially keen on any of the sessions being presented, but I decided on Christian Galinsky’s talk on terminology standardization in translation. This wound up being more interesting than I’d expected, simply because it got me thinking about a problem I hadn’t considered before—that there might be a body of official translations for regular words, and failing to use them could be problematic. This hasn’t been an issue for me in the past, but part of the reason for going to IJET is to get exposed to new aspects of translation.

Blew off the lunchtime lecture.

For Session 3, I naturally attended the presentation by Jenny and Matt Loader. Jenny discussed her survey results, of course, and despite being nervous initially, eventually got into a rhythm and got more comfortable with the audience. Matt discussed issues of ergonomics, workplace set-up, effects of music on heart-rate, etc. He quoted one translator who claimed to increase his throughput six time by getting a perfect set-up (this was Warren Smith).

Session 4 was mine, on the Honyaku mailing list. I went in planning to sort of play things loose and adapt my talk to the crowd’s level, but this prevented me from having everything mapped out in advance. I was afraid I might not have enough material, and it turned out that just shooting from the hip I did not. However, several people in the audience fed me material, which would remind me of points I had wanted to cover but forgotten. In the end it worked out OK, and resembled a sort of live presentation of the FAQ.

After the day’s sessions, everyone assembled for closing remarks and tea in a very impressive meeting hall. The tea was quite elaborate, with all sorts of delectable items being served—scones, strawberries with cream, tea (duh) and good coffee. This was one of the two places I had good coffee in England.

This tea was where people were saying their goodbyes. Unfortunately, some of them slipped out before I had a chance to say goodbye to them.

When this broke up, Jenny, Mary Gillender, and I all caught a ride back to Halifax Hall with a friend of Mary’s. This was much appreciated, as it was raining. Still. I swear, the weather in England bit the wax tadpole. A more authentically English experience, I suppose, but it makes for a bad trip. Anyhow. Then Mary and I caught another ride with the same friend to Mary’s apartment, where I made use of her computer to switch the IJET infobot message over to the IJET-9 message. I walked back to Halifax Hall, which was close by. Jenny and I were going to go to dinner with Jeremy. This expanded to include Uncle Bill, and then about 12 people in total. Jenny just wanted to have a quiet chat with Jeremy, so when the group split up at an Indian restaurant, us three hung apart. Unfortunately, Michael House was with us. We eventually wound up back at the same Indian restaurant as everyone else, but at a different table, listen to Michael talk about Macs. This went on for some time.

One the way back to the dorm (where Jenny and I had elected to spend an extra night before pushing on), we all ran into Cliff Bender and Tim Leaney. We let them sort of absorb Michael while we faded back and then darted off in the opposite direction, eventually reaching a sort of yuppified pub, where we hung out for a while.

The next morning, there were still a few people left over from the conference, so we clustered together, had breakfast in the dorm, and said our goodbyes.

Jenny and I made our way to the train station fairly early. Although Leeds was the only other English destination in mind, our primary reason for going—to visit Bob Jackson’s factory—would not be achievable that day, being a Sunday. So we headed for the historic town of York instead. York is very touristy, but not objectionably so. It does have lots of shops that obviously cater to tourists, but really no shops selling “I’m with stupid” T-shirts or anything like that.

We wandered along the old city walls until we got to a tiny museum inside of the old city gate towers, Micklegate Bar. We paid our admission and looked around. It had a lot of hand-made displays chronicling the city’s checkered past, how it was heavily contested back in the —what was it?—1300s. And how the heads of the losers would be hung out on display (People can be so vindictive). And how a tailor once stole some of these heads after they had been flapping in the breeze for 8 years. (Peope can be strange). Plaster reproductions of some of these green, decaying heads adorned the top floor of the museum. Yum.

This gate was one of the three that were the points of entry to the town (apart from the river). A “murrage” (import duty) was charged on all goods entering through the gates, which paid for the upkeep of the walls but made them very unpopular with merchants. They were allowed to fall into disrepair until the 1800s, when some conservationists (even then) started agitating to have them kept up.

We then went into the town. We located a pub tha had a few rooms to let, checked in (perhaps the least formal check-in process on record), dumped our packs, and started walking around. The center of York is a dense network of alleys and streets (come to think of it, this is true for a lot of the towns we saw) that all seem to turn in on each other. We wandered these streets for a while and started scouting a suitable location for lunch. We wound up at a cafe that cought Jenny’s eye because it had a “curry yorkshire pudding” on the menu, which she did in fact order. I tried it. It was OK. Curiously enough, three other IJET people were having lunch there.

We explored the town some more. We looked around Yorkminster Cathedral, which was mindblowing. Incredible artwork and detail everywhere you look. Just to give you some idea what I’m talking about: in the ceiling, all the vaulting ribs were decorated, and a “button” adorned every rib intersection. And every one of these buttons were unique. Cathedrals seem like reefs that are accretions of artwork instead of coral. We climbed Yorkminster’s tower, which was a bit of a workout. Something like 250 very steep steps, mostly spiral. There was a great view from the top, and descending was vertigo-inducing.

We also went a bit out of our way to visit St. Cuthbert’s, a church built in 687, and still operating. I think this may be the oldest artifact I have ever touched.

Here I am, standing on Elizabeth Taylor’s grave, just outside St Cuthbert’s

After quite a bit of enjoyable traipsing about York, we returned to the hotel to cool off for a while. We headed out for dinner at a neighboring Indian restaurant, and just outside our inn, we bumped into some other IJET-ers, Judy Wakabayashi and Yuki Sayeg, who were going on one of York’s numerous “Ghost Walks,” tours of all the various haunted houses around town.

When we walked into the Indian restaurant, it was empty. The maitre’d sat us by the window, which is always a good way to make a place seem busy from the outside (and therefore desirable). We chatted with him about the lack of decent Indian food in Austin, and I postulated a new theory: Austin’s Indian restaurants were probably all started by failed engineers, who had no particular aptitude for cooking. Sure enough, our place by the window did draw in some patrons, including one very argumentative couple, who bitched at the maitre’d’s insistence that they order an entree (which admittedly seems a little silly). At any rate, our meal was good, no complaints.

We went for a walk along the river and retired to our room. We had a TV in our room and watched it a bit before turning in. There was a show on featuring a woman named Priscilla, who would spring these “ambush blessings” on unsuspecting civilians. The theme for the show we were seeing seemed to be people with long-lost relatives in Australia. It was a sort of cross between “Queen for a Day” and “Candid Camera.” ‘Cilla’s favorite phrase: “Surprise, surprise.” I think she picked that up from Gomer Pyle. I found the whole thing a bit disgusting.

The plumbing inadequacy encountered in York was the shower, which spewed forth a bracing flow of chilly water. Yikes. The toilet was also noteworthy, in that before going into the waste pipe, the effluent passed through a breadload-sized plastic box that I think of as the “muncher:” the waste pipe was fairly narrow, and I suspect the muncher ground up anything large that passed through it. It would start making horrible grinding noises about a second after flushing. I presume that the muncher occasionally needs servicing, and I can only hope that this is a job reserved for convicts on work-release programs.

Monday, 23-June-97

We made our way to the train station fairly early and headed for Leeds, home of the Bob Jackson bike works. Leeds is a gritty, industrial town, and when I mentioned my intention to visit it to friends at IJET, they all thought it was a, ahh, peculiar objective. Upon arrival in Leeds, we promptly hailed a cab and had the driver take us to the Bob Jackson shop—I had their address and a map they had faxed me.

The shop turned out to be close to the train station, but we probably never would have found it if left to our own devices. The place was largely as I’d pictured it: a showroom, and off to the side the work area, which consisted of a junk room with a blasting chamber, a brazing/machining room, and a painting room with an oven. Bob Jackson shoots with enamel, which is not very toxic compared to some of the new resin paints, so all the spray work is out in the open.

We were met by one of the workmen, an older guy named Michael. He had an accent about a foot thick, and sometimes I could only understand what he was saying through what I would describe as a “gestalt experience”—I wouldn’t understand any single word in isolation, but it was possible to understand what each word might be by what the neighboring context sounded like. There was another guy working there and I simply couldn’t understand anything he said. I wonder if he had the same problem with my accent. I doubt it.

The showroom had some real gems—everything from a tandem tourer with fantastically ornate lugs and curly stays (a la Hetchins) to a sleek 853 racer with wishbone seatstays, these very cool filleted “Phoenix” lugs, and 9-speed Dura-Ace. And everything in between. Michael told me that 853 OS was great stuff, and that Reynolds was in fact phasing out all its older tubesets in favor of newer alloys. He also had nice things to say about 9-speed Dura Ace, which surprised me a bit: I expected more of a crusty retro-grouch attitude here.

We both had Michael measure us for custom frames, a process that turned out to be more casual and perfunctory than I expected. We collected a price list and some flyers and chatted with him a while.

I had noticed that adult trikes were unaccountably popular around Britain. Which is not to say I saw a lot of them, but I did see a few, and that’s more than I’ve seen in the USA. I asked Michael about this, and he agreed that it was a pretty strange thing.

Jenny and I had determined in advance that we would take the ferry from England to Holland, but we weren’t precisely sure about where to pick it up or any of the other details. Michael was able to fill us in on this, having taken the ferry himself some time ago (I can only wonder what the Dutch, who generally have an admirable command of English, made of his accent). He even told us that one of the ferries plying the route, the Norland, saw duty in the Falklands war as a hospital ship (later corroborated by others). Michael’s advice determined our route to Hull (Kingston-upon-Hull, technically). He also told us there was a catamaran ferry that left from Harwich, which was much faster (3 hours), but the slow ferry was actually pretty neat, so we should try that. We didn’t seriously entertain the idea of taking the catamaran, and in any case, Harwich was pretty far away.

And with that, we left. I was please as punch to have made the pilgrimage to the place where my bike came from, and I was grinning like a damned idiot.

We walked into the center of town, which was starting to come to life since it was about time for lunch. The city is actually not a bad place—it seemed a lot less depressing than Sheffield to me. Jenny and I eventually happened upon a stylishly modern-looking cafe, with the unlikely slogan “Leeds deserves groovy” (or something very similar) in the window. The place had a bright, simple secondary color scheme and minimalist furniture, making it a little out of place with the rest of the street, but very inviting anyhow. We decided to stop in for lunch. I had a nice sandwich and a caffe latte. This was the second occasion on which I had a good cup of coffee in England.

We wandered about Leeds some more. We saw several piercing parlors, which reminded me of Austin, and a huge covered market that was probably built in the Victorian or Edwardian era, and must have been quite the marvel in its day. Now it is more of a faded marvel, but it is still pretty neat if you can look past the grime and decay—the same could be said for many of the train stations we saw in England.

Wandering around Leeds, we encountered this interesting view.

We stopped into a bike shop that had no Bob Jacksons in stock. I was mildly appalled.

After a few hours of wandering about Leeds, we decided we’d seen enough, so we pushed on to our next stop, Hull. Upon our arrival, which was in the afternoon, we debated whether we should attempt to catch the ferry that day, or spend some time in Hull and catch it the next day. We opted for the latter. We were feeling a little discombobulated, and were having a hard time finding a cheap motel, so we wound up staying in a relatively expensive hotel right next to the station.

Hull is a relatively new-feeling city: most of the downtown area seems to be new construction, and nearby there is a distressingly American-style mega-store shopping mall and gigaplex movie theater. The theater, incidentally, was showing only American movies, including (cringe) “Beavis and Butthead do America.”

Chatting with the hotel staff, we learned several things:

  1. They like Beavis and Butthead.
  2. They don’t see anything wrong with the lack of British (or any non-American) movies, pointing out that British music is disproportionately popular in America, so it balances ou (somehow, I don’t think British music is as popular outside Britain as they do).
  3. Hull used to be a fishing town, but the local industry was closed down because the waters were being depleted. This shattered the local economy, predictably enough, and it is only in the past seven years or so that the town has started prospering, thanks mostly to the ferry business, it seems.

We had the luxury of a TV in our hotel room, and we watched it a fair amount. There was a documentary about Queen Victoria, which was actually pretty interesting. It turns out that she was a doting mother, which is not what one might expect from a general knowledge of the Victorian era. She was opposed to pomp and circumstance, which in fact had not been a big part of the monarchy before her (her coronation was a low-key and comically inept affair, evidently), but for her diamond jubilee, she was essentially pressed into service as the centerpiece of a bombastic festival. There was also a sort of autobiographical documentary by a Jewish-British screenwriter (whose name escapes me), followed by one of his stories, “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” which was interesting in that it revealed a fairly extensive Jewish community that I wasn’t aware of.

On the 24th, we checked out of the hotel but left out bags at the front desk, so we could explore the town. We went to the nautical museum, which had an extensive exhibit on whaling. I’ve got to say that whale-hunting is an awfully hard way to get oil. The museum also had numerous models of passenger and fishing boats that have plied the local waters, and that was kind of interesting. The whaling exhibit had a skeleton of a young right whale (about 40 feet long), explanations of how all the various harpoons were used, actual diaries kept by men on whaling expeditions, scrimshaw art, etc. I felt like I was wandering around inside Herman Melville’s brain.

The museum had a room set aside for an exhibit of collections kept by people in Hull. This had nothing to do with whaling or sailing—these were just regular folks’ personal collections of stuff. A collection of insect brooches, for example. This was quirky and amusing.

After that, we bought some Dutch Guilders at the local Thomas Cook, and then bought our ferry tickets at a nearby travel agent. The ferry had cabins, which were private, and open seating, which is much like on a train or airplane. It turned out that all the cabins were booked, so we took open seating.

We caught a bus at 5:00, which took us straight to the port. We passed through a few checkpoints and got on the boat. “Boat” is a bit of an understatement. “Floating city” might be more like it. The ferry was enormous. Bars (plural), a restaurant, a movie screen, a dance floor, video arcade, etc.

After absorbing the hugeness of the thing, Jenny and I dumped our packs at our assigned seats and began wandering the ferry. We had stickers made up by a machine that looks like a videogame, but takes your picture with a video camera, composites that image with a decorative frame of your choosing, and then spits out 16 postage-stamp sized stickers. At my insistence, we chose one of the less cutesy frame images, but the whole thing was extremely cutesy and extremely Japanese, even though I don’t recall having seen anything quite like it in Japan.

When it got to be mealtime, we bought meal tickets at the ferry’s information desk. We had to charge it, since we had used nearly all of our British currency. The services on the ferry were all in Pounds only, something I had wondered about beforehand.

In the dining hall we were seated at a table adjacent to a couple of British guys. The older one seemed ordinary enough, but the younger one was huge, heavily tattooed, and had rings through both nostrils and his septum, so he was sort of scary looking. I was curious about the relationship between the two of them. In the meantime I got some food from the very well-stocked buffet. The food was quite good—probably the best food I’ve ever had in a moving vehicle.

Eventually we got to talking with the guys at the next table. It turned out that they were both bikers going to a huge rally descending on Holland from all around Europe—something like 250,000 bikers, I think they said. They both turned out to be nice guys. The older one had been to the Netherlands a good number of times before, and offered tips on where to stay, what to see, etc.

After a long and pleasant conversation—we were practically the only ones left in the dining hall—Jenny and I retired to our seats. The seats were pretty comfortable. I managed to sleep tolerably on mine, and Jenny just laid down on the floor, which was not a problem, since there was a lot of spare room. The arms between the seats were unfortunately fixed in place, otherwise it would have been easy to lie accross two seats. Actually, I saw one woman do just that, by arcing her body around the armrest, but it didn’t look comfortable.

The ferry pulled into Rotterdam at about 5:30 AM on June 25th. It took about 30 minutes to get it lined up for us to actually leave, though. Once we walked out, feeling rather bleary, we proceeded through a customs check, where I was asked to produce an ongoing ticket (something that has never happened to me before), and then on to a bus terminal. There was a bus headed for Amsterdam, but it was full-up with people who had bought tickets in advance (probably the same people who had the cabins). The driver told us not to worry, that there would be another bus for Amsterdam “maybe.” Well, that wasn’t especially reassuring, but he called his dispatcher and told us that yes, there really would be a bus in fifteen minutes, and it would have room for us. So we cooled our heels for a bit, watching the ferry being unloaded. It was a bit comical to watch semi-tractors hauling camper trailers.

The bus did arrive as promised, driven by an irritated tall guy who rolled his own cigarettes—even while driving. He also tailgated and made life difficult in general for any vehicle smaller than his. The ride to Amsterdam took about an hour (my memory at this point is unreliable). The bus deposited us on the wrong side of the central train station. We started wandering around in some confusion until we came to an underpass, which clearly led to a brighter, more populous part of town. Once there, we found ourselves on Damrak, the main drag. We went into a shop selling tourist info, and bought a city map and a country map from an irate woman who didn’t want to take a fl25 bill for a fl10 purchase. Jeeez. So far, our encounters with the Dutch people had not been very positive. I am pleased to report that almost all our contacts afterwards were perfectly friendly.

Back out wandering on Damrak, Jenny espied a “Hotel” sign above a Chinese restaurant. Sensing this would be a good bet, she decided we should check it out. It turned out to be a reasonable deal, so we took it. We deposited our bags and headed back out to the street.

The guy at the desk sold us on the idea of taking two nights upfront. I had expected to spend more time than that in Amsterdam, so that was no problem.

For our first day in Amsterdam, we just sort of wandered about aimlessly. The streets around where we were staying were jammed with shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, porno stores, tourist-trinket-traps, and “coffee shops,” the code word for hash-houses. A little further out—but still very much in what the Dutch call the “centrum”—were blocks of narrow (really narrow) residential townhouses, often with cafes on the streetcorners. Evidently houses in Amsterdam were once taxed on their street frontage, resulting in really narrow, really deep buildings with narrow, steep staircases. So narrow, in fact, that furniture cannot be taken up them readily. The clever Amsterdamers solved this conundrum by building their townhouses with dormer windows on the roofs, with booms projecting from them. A pulley can be hung from the boom, and the furniture brought in through a window. Makes a lot of sense, actually. Most of these buildings were built with fronts that lean forward slightly. This is disconcerting if you are standing under it, but it ties in—this is done so that furniture doesn’t bang into the building on the way up.

Odd signage in Amsterdam.

There are three U-shaped canals ringing central Amsterdam, so there are numerous bridges. A lot of these are old, old drawbridges, and are designed a little differently than the drawbridges I’d seen before. They have an overhead horizontal beam with a counterweight, and this moves in a parallelogram action with the bridge surface. Many of these bridges are decorated with white lights, except for the bridges in the red-light district (you can guess what color the bulbs are there).

The canals also host a huge number of houseboats. Dutch houseboats are basically just smallish river barges with a cargo section replaced by long, narrow living quarters. Some of these houseboats are pretty funky and hippy-ish, while others look quite nicely manicured and sharp. They all tie into the city’s power grid through convenient hookups along the canals (other Dutch towns have similar arrangements).

At one point, we got to see a houseboat passing through some drawbridges. This was a laborious affair, and one that must require advance reservations, I am sure: a drawbridge keeper enters a control room by the bridge, raises the bridge, the boat passes through and advances to the next bridge. The keeper lowers the bridge, gets on his bike, and rides to the next control room. Repeat.

We speculated on the difficulty of obtaining berthing rights along the canals of Amsterdam. I assume they would be highly valuable. Perhaps they are passed on through families, like heirlooms.

The buildings in Amsterdam are great. They are all made of brick—obviously there is no place to go quarrying for stone—and they are well-made. Buildings erected in the 1600s are no big deal around town, it seems. There are a lot of great Art Deco buildings in Amsterdam—all around Holland, in fact—with geometric stained glass, interesting brickwork, and often some decorative carved-stone elements.

A not-very-portable phone.

Bikes are an integral part of the transportation network, along with pedestrians, streetcars, and motor cars. All streets have bike lanes, and all intersections have separate signals for cars, bikes, and peds. This can be a bit disorienting for the outsider. Almost all the bikes are clunky sit-up-and-beg models, with fenders, fully enclosed chains, racks, and “girls” construction. They are all one- or three-speed (no hills), and many have rod or drum brakes. Many people give their bikes amateurish, whimsical paint jobs. Popular brands are Gazelle, Batavus, Union, and Raleigh. It is ironic seeing the world-championship colors gracing the logos on these clunkers, but there it is. There are also a fair number of recumbent bikes to be seen, and recumbent trikes seem to be fairly popular with bike messengers. This makes a lot of sense, since they have a lot of built-in carrying capacity, and they were fast, too. I noticed one model that uses the front wheel for both steering and drive (which I have since identified as a Flevo), which struck me as very interesting. It was refreshing to be in a place where bikes really belong.

Amsterdam, and Holland in general, have a lot of flowers. England isn’t bad for flowers either—many people have small gardens, and we noticed in several of the towns we were in that flower baskets hung from storefronts were a city works project—but I don’t think it stands up to Holland. Flowers were just all over the place in Amsterdam. Mostly roses, not tulips (though it might not be the right season for them). There is, of course, a big flower market along one of the canals, and this has a lot of tulips, but I suspect that is to cater to the expectations of foreign tourists as much as anything.

The flipside to the flowers must be the dogshit. It’s everywhere. You’d think you were in Paris or something. Amsterdam doesn’t really have many grass runners along the sidewalks, so the dogs usually do it right on the sidewalk.

Part of the turd density must have something to do with the fact that the Dutch seem to take their dogs everywhere—into shopping centers or restaurants, onto boats, everywhere. Their dogs are generally pretty well mannered, and in fact seem blase about sniffing other dogs’ butts, or making friends with strangers.

In the course of our wanderings that first day in Amsterdam, we dodged a lot of turds. We also had to dodge a lot of raindrops, because it started drizzling every so often.

After a while, we got hungry for lunch. Feeling parsimonious and vitamin-C deficient, we stopped into a greengrocer’s and picked up a carton of blackberries, another of strawberries, and some yogurt. We improvised a little picnic on a park bench. The blackberries were enormous, soft, and verrry tasty.

We were pretty wiped out, and the weather looked threatening (again), so we headed back to the hotel for a siesta. We hung out in the lounge with Roger for a while. He gave us tips on museums to take in. We also spoke with the proprietor, Tony, who was able to suggest a nice Indonesian joint for dinner, whereupon we set out in search of it.

Eventually we found it, following Tony’s somewhat vague directions. We went whole-hog, ordering their rijstafel, which was quite a production. After some shrimpy-tasting flatbread appetizer, they brought out little flat plate-warmers, five of them, and set two small plates of food on each. Each plate had a different item, most of them swimming in curry sauce. There was another stack of plates on the side with cold condiments as well, like peanuts, roasted coconut, etc. These were meant to be interspersed with the hot courses, but we spaced out and just ate them all at the end. Everything was very good. When we asked for water, they wisely brought us a large bottle and left it on the table. Evidently Americans are known abroad for always wanting water, and then more water. These guys must have encountered that before, and came to this sensible solution. In general, if you don’t ask for any beverage, you won’t get one. If you ask for water, you’ll be offerred the option of mineral water or plain water. If you ask for tapwater, you’ll get a small glass that will not be refilled (unless you ask, I suppose). The tapwater in the Netherlands in just fine. The tapwater in England may explain why the English so often make tea out of it.

Anyhow, after our enormous and tasty meal, we had coffee, and they brought us a few rambutan in syrup for desert. The Dutch drink very potent coffee in very small cups. In fact, I think it is basically just espresso that has been slightly watered down. It was of uniformly good quality, although I suspect the coffee dispensed by the snack trolleys on trains isn’t too great).

After dinner, we waddled back to the hotel through a light drizzle and hung out in the lounge some more. there was another guy there waiting for Tony, and we got to talking. He was from Sri Lanka originally, living in England, and was himself half-English and half-Sinhalese. We talked about the situation in Sri Lanka and politics in general. Nice guy.

Then we took our obligatory stroll through the red-light district. This seems to be a popular tourist activity. It is pretty much what you would expect. Girls in underwear sitting on stools in windows framed in red neon. Live sex shows. Sex-aid shops. The usual. Nobody hassled us.

We eventually retired to our room. There was some literature for tourists lying around, including a sort of newsletter/guide to Amsterdam put out by an English-language comedy troupe called Boom Chicago, which was started by a few Northwestern University grads. This newsletter proved quite informative.

For our second day in Amsterdam, we took a more purposeful approach. We got an early start, stopped at a little bakery for breakfast, and made for the Anne Frank House. This is, in fact, the “secret annex” where the Frank family managed to hide out from the Nazis for a time during the war, until they were betrayed. The visit didn’t hold any startling revelations—everybody knows the story in outline—but actually being right where it happened is powerfully affecting. That’s one of the things I learned about travel on this trip: when you travel to a historic site, history stops being just academic, dry facts and dates. History is right there. It is in context and it is real.

Our next stop was the Rijksmuseum. It took us too damned long to find this place, especially in the endless drizzle. When we did find it, we were in a rather foul humor. Once inside, we cheered up.

There was an excellent exhibit of nudes. Mostly prints, but also charcoal and pencil drawings. This was followed by an excellent display showing the various printing techniques and their relative advantages. We then moved on to an extensive display of furniture and decorative arts. This was wonderful, and there was just way too much neat stuff to detail here. I will mention one piece we were especially taken with. It was a large apothecary’s chest, which opened to display numerous ranks of tiny drawers, shelves with tiny bottles, etc. Everything on the inside was lavishly decorated with art. The chest had two curved doors that swung open. On the inside of the left was a tiny painting of a young woman above the words Ars Longa. In the same spot on the right side was a tiny painting of a skeleton above the words Vita Brevis. Why the cabinetmaker bothered to put this in there I don’t know, but I love it.

The museum map indicated that there was a room of Art Nouveau furniture. I wanted to see it, but its location was a bit confusing. Once we had navigated to a point near where we thought the room should be, I asked a museum staffer where it was. “Up the stairs, to your left, and up again,” he tells us. “That’s funny, that’s the exact opposite of where we thought it was,” replied Jenny. Indeed. The guy had bullshitted us, for reasons I won’t bother to speculate on. It wasn’t all bad though: it took us to a textile arts exhibit that we also wanted to see.

Eventually we navigated back to where I though the Art Nouveau room was, and sure enough, it was just around the corner from where we had encountered that staffer the first time around. We saw him chatting with a woman right in the middle of the Art Nouveau exhibit, in fact. I thought about asking him why he lied to us, but restrained myself.

The Rijksmuseum has quite a collection of Dutch Masters, which comes as no surprise at all. We were getting a little museum’d out, so we only viewed the most impressive of them. They were indeed quite impressive.

On our way out of the museum, we heard music. There is a tunnel through the museum for street traffic, and a brass combo was playing Hallelujah in there, with the sound reverberating mightily. It was wonderful.

The weather was not. Still. We picked up some raspberries and wandered around some more until the weather cleared a bit. We sat down on a park bench along a canal and ate them. They were wonderful. We didn’t need much lunch, since we’d eaten such a big dinner the night before.

Eventually we headed back to the hotel for our late-afternoon siesta. This had become a habit for us, and it is one I recommend, but it was largely made possible by the fact that it stayed light so late that far north—it wouldn’t get really dark until well past 10:00 PM. This was a bit disorienting: we’d look at the light, think that it was too early to eat dinner, and then check the time and discover that it was actually 8:00 PM. Anyhow, these siestas gave us the chance to unload our feet for a while, and often keep us out of the rain. The weather seemed to have a pattern: sunny morning, rainy in the late afternoon, clearing in the evening.

Anyhow, hanging out in the hotel’s lounge, we chatted with Roger at some length. He told us he’d seen four people killed by Amsterdam’s streetcars, one split stem to stern. He told us the reason that all the cheap bikes were so heavily locked (often with two kryptonites) was to prevent Amsterdam’s numerous junkies from absconding with them.

By and by, another friend of Tony’s showed up, a young Romanian guy who lives in Israel. I began suspecting that Tony started the hotel just to put up his friends coming to visit. This guy didn’t have a great command of English, but volunteered that he believed the writings of Nostradamus. The rest of us pooh-poohed all that, which may have made him feel bad. After a while, he hooked up with Tony and took off. We went out a little later for dinner (pizza) and another stroll.

This time, we went in a completely different direction than we yet had. We wound up going past a large and amazing Art Deco apartment building, which had heads of real people (perhaps figures from Amsterdam’s history) as gargoyles. We eventually wound up in a rather prosaic residential area. At one point, we passed a Portuguese Synagogue, which was rather unexpected.

On the morning of the 27th, we headed up to the town of Groningen, in the northeastern part of the country. Walking out of the station we were a bit perplexed—”now what??” I saw a sign pointing the way to the VVV (the national tourist bureau), which we followed for what felt like a very long way. At the VVV, we got a guide-pamphlet to the town, which laid out a walking tour. We then located a ‘grillroom,’ a restaurant that serves Middle-Eastern food. These are all over the country, and seem to have reliably good food. It is interesting to note that Amsterdam is a real melting-pot, with Chinese, Indonesians, South-Asians, Africans, and everything in between represented in fairly big numbers (and all speaking Dutch, which seemed a little weird for some reason), but when you get out in the sticks, the only ethnic minority that seems to be widely present is Middle-Easterners. This place was run by a Syrian guy an an Eritrean guy. The food was marinated and grilled mutton, and was very tasty. The guys were able to point us towards some hotels. We wound up at the Hotel Friesland, which was a reasonably good deal. We dropped our packs and started walking the route given in our pamphlet. We didn’t hit every spot, and some were obviously more memorable than others, but the high point was unquestionably the gardens of the Prinsenhoftuin. These is elaborately, rigorously laid out and consists of a large, rose garden in the middle, a circle in a square, with different sections for different kinds of roses. Surrounding this is a pathway enclosed by elaborate, meticulously manicured trellised growth that formed corridors with doorways and windows. The pathway encloses four smaller circular gardens with different kinds of flowers arranged in pie-wedges. Beyond all this was another garden, with flowers arrainged into the letters A W.

We worked our way back to the center of town, near our hotel. We got caught in a big rainstorm and took shelter under a sporting-goods store’s awning, where we were joined by some British bikers. They were in town after the rally, which was evidently quite damp. We had quite a friendly chat. One of them confirmed a suspicion of mine: that Sheffield had been devastated by bombing during WWII, because of its steel industry—in the late 1800s, it supplied 70% of the world’s refined steel. I had the impression that Sheffield was a town that had never quite recovered.

I have no idea what we ate for dinner that night.

The next day we checked out. We actually wanted to stay an extra night, but the hotel was booked. We had decided to spend the day on the northern island of Schiermonikoog. After some confusion and very bad pronunciation, we bought combination bus/ferry tickets to take us there. Unfortunately, the bus runs only every two hours, and we had just missed one. Se we headed to the city museum, just accross the canal, to spend the extra time.

Missing the bus turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The museum was great. The building itself was designed by several hip architects (Allesandro Mendini, Philippe Starck, Michelle de Lucchi, and Coop Himmelblau). Each one evidently designed a different “module” of the museum, which was consisted of several independent structures joined together underneath (the passages between them are in a moat, and as you walk through the passageway, you look out on the water at eye level). The entry module, no doubt the Starck-designed one, is basically a featureless burnished bronze box, surmounted by squarish blue spires at each of the roof’s corners, flanked by curvey, smaller outbuildings in pale green and silver. Another building looked like a random heap of scrapmetal painted red and black, and a third was a squat cylinder in silver, decorated with (I think) bowling-pin shaped blobs at regular intervals around its circumference.

Jenny has already described most of what we saw. One exhibit was a bunch of paintings by a local boy from the 1600s (?). He painted a lot of allegorical paintings, like “Truth Vanquishing Discord,” in which certain stereotyped characters represented these traits. It occurred to me that we don’t recognize these symbolic characters much anymore (except for Justice, a blindfolded woman with scales). It also occurred to me that thanks to TV, we have a new batch of symbolic characters—think “Costanza.”

The time came for us to get on our bus, so we did. On the trip out, to Lauwersoog (say “law ver shog”), we trundled through a bucolic paradise: snug little houses with neat little gardens clustered in homey little hamlets, surrounded by carefully tended fields.

We got off the bus, and after a typical speel of confusion, go into the correct line to board the ferry (by this time, I was getting a little tired of feeling clueless). They tore stubs off of our bus tickets, and on we went, along with a lot of families (many of which brought their dogs), a lot of couples, a fair number of people with bikes, and a handful of cars. The seating on the ferry was more like a cafeteria’s: booths with tables. They were, in fact, serving snacks from a counter, so maybe it is fair to say it really was a cafeteria.

The ferry ride was uneventful and took about 45 minutes. Once on the island of Schiermonikoog, we walked up the spit of land where we docked to a dyke running around the island. There was a bike-rental place along this spit that had, in addition to normal bikes, a few sit-up-and-beg tandems and a sort of bike-car with 4 wheels, two front seats with pedals, and a sort of rumble seat. We saw three chicks riding in this, lazily allowing their boyfriends (who were on conventional bikes) to propel them along by pulling the bike-car along, holding on to a tube here or there.

It was fun to walk along the dyke (which is really just a grassy embankment) because we could look at the sea on one side and the farms and village on the other. Eventually we made for the village. We passed a sort of petting zoo, which had a number of goats and goat kids. The kids were frisking about, playing king of the hill on some rocks and generally being cute. There were also rabbits, a donkey, deer, and maybe some other critters. The deer were vocalizing, something I’d never heard before. They made a sort of chirping bark, if that makes any sense.

Clover growing along the dike on Schiermonikoog. Holland is a good place to be a bee.

The town was miniscule and almost devoid of motor vehicles. There was a newsstand selling German papers, and we learned that the island was indeed popular with German tourists. We had ice cream and did some more wandering, to the old lighthouse. Evidently the island is so small that the houses don’t have numbers, they have names.

Inevitably perhaps, it started raining. and we took shelter under a grocery store’s awning. The store let its local patrons wheel the shopping carts all the way home. We also saw a woman tow a trailer full of groceries (and her daughter) behind her bike.

After a brief shower, the rain let up and we resumed our meanderings. We headed gradually back to the dock, since our return time was approaching. We wound up lying out on the dyke and catching sun for a while.

For the ferry ride back, no ticket was required. I guess they figured that they’ve got you covered by monitoring outbound travel. During the ride, we struck up a conversation with a Dutch college student sitting near us. Among other things, he recommended that we visit Maastricht, so we pencilled that in on our mental itinerary.

The island was an enjoyable place to spend the day, though our enjoyment would surely have been greater if we weren’t carrying our packs the whole time.

Back in Groningen, it was getting late, which meant that we needed to find a place to stay, and we needed to eat. Our attempts at finding lodgings were unsuccessful, so we had dinner at an Italian place. I had something sort of like spaghetti carbonara, and it was good. Jenny’s was good too. Now it was really getting late, so we tried something different: we got on the train to Zwolle. This was on the way south to Maastricht, which we had decided to see.

Sitting on the train down to Zwolle, we were feeling pretty skeptical about finding a place to stay. After all, we couldn’t find anything in Groningen, and it was going to be quite late when we got in. I thought about fallback plans, like finding a pub and just sitting in the back all night.

We got into Zwolle at about 11:30 PM. Not an auspicious hour for hotel hunting. We marched resolutely out of the station past a bunch of cabbies (I thought about getting in a cab and demanding “take me to a hotel,” but didn’t). We came upon a very ritzy-looking hotel almost immediately. Although it probably cost a lot more than I would ordinarily be willing to spend, this was not an ordinary station, so in we marched. The concierge was a charming fellow who didn’t show a jot of dismay at seeing two scruffy-looking backpackers walk into his nice lobby. He informed us that his hotel was full, but offered to check and see if another nearby hotel could accomodate us. He checked, they could, so arrangements were made. He even called us a cab. Jenny commented that his hotel seemed really nice, and I said that it was a shame we couldn’t stay there. He sympathized, saying it was a famous hotel. “Are you famous?” Jenny asked. “No, just clever,” he answered.

The cab came around and delivered us to the Hotel Campanille, on the other side of town. This is a branch of a French-run chain, roughly equivalent to Holiday Inn.

We checked in for two nights. I was glad to be in a big, comfortable room with a full-sized bed and plumbing right in the room. The room was on the top floor, partly under the slant in the roof, and it had these funky sloping windows that pivoted in the middle.

Although it was already midnight, we wound up staying up for at least another hour because “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was on TV. In fact, almost everything on TV at that hour was something American with subtitles. This caused a certain amount of speculation on our part: why is it that American media is so popular abroad? It isn’t because of the exceptionally high quality, that much is obvious. I think it has something to do with economy of scale. The cost of producing a typical sitcom or news-magazine show is going to be fairly inflexible. An American programmer can recoup that expense fairly handily by showing that program in a huge market, which must generate substantial advertising revenues. Having paid for itself, the show could then be sold to foreign markets. The market for Dutch-language programming is obviously much smaller, so it would logically be harder to recoup those costs. That said, Dutch TV has hardly any ads compared to American—I understand that some shows are shot with “euro-minutes” to pad out the gaps left by removing American ad intervals.

Our first full day in Zwolle was a Sunday. We wound up getting a fairly early start on the day, despte being up so late. The hotel breakfast buffet had fruit, something that had been generally lacking from our diet—not so bad as to cause scurvy, we hoped, but the fruit was quite welcome anyhow.

Sunday is a bad day to be in Zwolle because everything is shut. This is not typical of Holland, but a woman at the hotel pointed out that Zwolle is a very religious town. We wandered all over it in the morning and hung out in one of the squares writing postcards. We had lunch at a shoarma joint, which was open obviously because it was run by Moorish infidels (thank God). We then headed to the Stadhuis Museum of Naive Art, which was probably open because the town figured they needed something to appease the tourists. It started raining on the way there, and once we got inside, it really started pouring. The museum was just about the only thing to do in the town that was open on a Sunday, and it was a good thing, otherwise we would have been confined to our hotel room.

The Stadshof Museum, where we weathered the storm.

The museum had an extensive collection from all over the world (obviously a lot of Dutch stuff), and had a special exhibit of Indian artists. It was fun. There was a wide spectrum of styles—from intentionally childish to untutored-and-energetic, to naturally talented, and everything in between. All media were represented, too. Sculptures, paintings, drawings, etc. There was a sort of dollhouse in one room, and life-sized dolls in another.

We stopped for coffee in the museum’s coffee shop. Jenny asked the teenage waiter “Do you speak English?”. Rather than the usual “Yes” or “A little,” this uncouth lad answered with more honesty: “Of course” he said. I had suspected that it might actually be a little insulting to ask that, so I asked him which seems worse: to assume that everyone speaks English and just plow ahead; or to check first. He wasn’t sure.

We wound up chatting at the front desk of the museum with the clerk (he may also have been the curator, for all I know). He was impressed by the fact that we had visited Schiermonikoog, and suggested that Venlo might be worth checking out.

By the time we were ready to leave the museum, the rain had let up. We stopped at a place selling “Italian ijs”—this was not Italian ice in the American sense, but rather gelato. They would scoop umpteen little balls into a cone, which was quite a trick. Jenny and I each had four-scoop cones (with four different flavors), but they’d scoop as many as 16 to a cone, I think. It was goooood.

We had dinner at the hotel, did some more wandering around Zwolle, and then hung out in our hotel room reading and watching TV. There were bikers from the rally staying at the hotel, ad we would see them in the hotel dining room.

Zwolle may have been the prettiest town we visited. It does get some tourism, but not enough to spawn overtly touristy businesses. Unfortunately, that also means that the town doesn’t really go out of its way to accomodate tourists—by having business hours on Sunday, for example. We never got a list of attractions in Zwolle or anything (the VVV was closed). Even obviously historic churches were sometimes lacking the bronze explanatory plaques that are ubiquitous in the Netherlands. The town could clearly do some business on Sunday, evidenced by the large number of people wandering the town center at loose ends.

One of the shows we saw on TV in our room was an English documentary filmed by Miranda Richardson about wealthy women and their nannies. Really twisted, but very interesting.

The next morning, we got on the train for Venlo, on the strength of the recommendation we got, plus the fact that it was right on the way to Maastricht.

Venlo is nearly spitting distance from the German border, and it is a popular tourist destination for Germans. Unfortunately, this meant the VVV had tourist info in Dutch and German only, so that didn’t do us much good.

Venlo is on the Maas river, but the river is not the center of the town, and the town doesn’t have much of a canal system, so it has a much different feel than the other towns we had visited to up to that point. I had just been getting used to the pattern of an old city, ringed by a canal, with new development outside of that—this was the pattern in Groningen and Zwolle, and Amsterdam too, after a fashion.

I suspect we did not see Venlo’s best side. We didn’t really know what to look for, and we didn’t find anything especially interesting. From what we saw, the town seems considerably newer and busier than the previous couple of towns we visited.

In the evening, we got it into our heads that it would be fun to walk to Germany, so we set out to do it. Unfortunately, we got turned around at some point, and wound up walking along the Maas for some time before we realized we were going the wrong way: we were following signs pointing towards Eindhoven, which we thought was in Germany for some reason. It isn’t. By the time we figured this out, we were considerably less keen on the whole expedition, and the weather was threatening, so we headed back, stopping along the way at yet another grillroom, where I had a pizza (I think). We had stopped in a department store earlier in the day, where I picked up a notebook, so when we got home, I started keeping this trip diary in it.

Points of interest? Crossing the Maas river, we saw some swans. That’s about it. Oh, and there were some guys laying paving blocks near the hotel, using an interesting contraption to move these very substantial bricks around. It consisted of a vacuum head with a rubber skirt that sucked onto the block, and the head could be raised or lowered through a sort of forklift-like apparatus. The whole thing could be wheeled around to get the brick into position.

Our hotel room was a bit odd. A bathroom had been retrofitted to it. Since the bathroom had to fit inside a bedroom that wasn’t too big to start with, the bathroom wound up being very long and narrow—so narrow that the toilet had to be placed in it slant-wise.

The next day it was on to Maastricht. This involved a transfer on the trains, so the woman at the ticket counter helpfully printed out a little itinerary showing the track numbers and times. The transfer was in Roermond, and for whatever reason, the train we were supposed to get on was taken out of service, so we had to get off and get on another train, which was a bit confusing since we didn’t understand the Dutch announcements and didn’t know what was going on. Sometimes we could make out a word or two from the platform announcements (or we thought we could), but this probably just fuelled our anxiety more than anything else. In any case, we got to Maastricht without incident.

Upon arrival, two things had to happen: Jenny had to pee, and we had to find a hotel room. The main drag in Maastricht is littered with hotels, so we figured that, in theory, accomodations shouldn’t be a pr

The story of Adam’s second broken hip

First installment: 19 Oct 1999

I am writing this exactly two weeks after the accident, which happened on 5 October 1999, almost exactly four years after my previous broken hip. It is somewhat difficult to give a good linear account of what happened, because I sustained some head trauma in the accident, and as such wasn’t sure what happened to me until later, when I remembered.

At first, all I knew was that I had gotten into an accident riding around my neighborhood on my commuting bike. I didn’t know exactly where or what the circumstances were. I also didn’t appreciate the extent of my injuries at the time: I just thought I had a lot of road rash, although I was dazed. Jumping ahead a bit, after I was released from the hospital I found the backpack I was wearing at the time of the accident. I had just purchased a nice bottle of scotch to give to a friend for his birthday; when I pulled it (intact!) out of my backpack, everything came back to me. I had been riding westbound on a nearby street (41st St), coming from a liquor shop. This street has a healthy downhill, and at the bottom, a dip and a bump. I have ridden this way many times before, but this time I hit that bump exactly wrong and went flying. A woman following saw this happen, and insisted I let her drive me home. I was reluctant at first, but assented. Someone else rode my bike home for me (the bike is fine, incidentally). Upon arriving home, my then-wife Jenny quickly realized my mental status was altered. She mentioned an event in the recent past; I had no idea what she was talking about. She asked “What month is it?” I thought about it for a second and responded “I don’t know.” She put me in the car and headed for the ER. I was complaining of hip pain, so we brought my crutches. At that point, my recollection gets very fuzzy.

Once in the hospital, it was discovered that my head was basically OK, but my pelvis basically was not. I had two major breaks and some incomplete fractures. My short-term memory was almost completely shot. I would reportedly ask “Have there been x-rays taken?” Answer: “Yes.” Question: “Have I seen them?” Answer: “Yes.” Repeat every three minutes. Obviously the fact that I had seen them did make some deeper penetration, since I had the presence of mind to ask about it, but that’s about it.

My surgery was on Wednesday. I was in traction until then. Surgery lasted five or six hours. I had ten screws roughly 1″ long each, along with a chain, inserted to hold the two pelvic breaks together. I was in the ICU that night, and friends came to visit me. I don’t remember actually seeing them, but I remember their presences, and vaguely remember conversing with them. I told the hospital staff that I couldn’t eat much solid food, so they put me on what is evidently a fixed liquid diet of oatmeal, jello, and juice. I could have managed some fruit, but that wasn’t part of their plan, evidently.

Thursday I was in a regular hospital room. I was still pretty foggy, but I was able to hold thoughts in my head for more than three minutes at a stretch. More friends visited, and this time, I could actually remember seeing them, if vaguely. The hospital experience was largely as I remembered: a regular schedule of things being put into my body, mostly through two shunts, one in the back of each hand. I received two units of blood, which concerned me, but was evidently necessary. I had two huge surgical incisions: one running from my left side below the ribcage to a point south of my navel, the other running vertically up my left butt cheek. Blood drains in each. I felt like I had been opened up like a christmas package. Jenny wore an outrageous outfit to help lighten my mood, as she did each day of my hospitalization.

Friday, I had my foley catheter removed. That’s a relief. I also had my shunts unplugged from full-time drips, although the shunts stayed in. Someone from Physical Therapy came by and got me up on my crutches. I had plenty of practice with this, and was able to maneuver pretty well, so they were satisfied with me. A good thing I got up too: the massive quantities of laxatives they had been pumping into me (anesthesia can put one’s guts to sleep, evidently) were starting to work their magic. I made five trips to the can that day. Beats using a bedpan, I tell ya. I began refusing the laxatives, and started eating normal food.

Saturday I spent almost the entire day sitting in a chair, rather than in the bed. This is a big improvement. I could tell I was just about ready to leave the hospital.

Sunday morning I agitated with all the doctors who looked in on my to sign off on me, so that I could be released. One doctor seemed somewhat reluctant, pointing out that I was still experiencing discomfort. I replied “Look, I can experience discomfort here, or I can do it at home. I’d rather do it at home.” By the time Jenny showed up, my release was ordered, and I was getting ready to go. I was home early that afternoon (Oct 10th), and went to a bridal shower at a friend’s place. That friend was the one for whom I had bought the fateful bottle of scotch, the discovery of which triggered my memories.

I met with my doctor the following Tuesday, and he was pleased with my status at this time. I met with him a week after (the day of this writing), and he is still pleased with my status, but he is being much more conservative with my recovery program than before. I won’t be starting physical therapy for at least another two weeks. I had my staples out today.

I am getting around on crutches, which is a big inconvenience. In case you are wondering, I wasn’t in a cast at any point. Sometimes my pelvis just feels uncomfortable as a result of sitting around, but it isn’t an intense pain. I have weaned myself off the pain meds I was prescribed, but I am still taking a potent anti-inflammatory drug.

Second installment: 19 Dec 1999

I am writing this about 11 weeks after the accident.

I made good progress on my recovery following the previous installment. While I was not allowed to put any weight on the bad leg, I gradually recovered some strength and flexibility in it, and my general level of discomfort decreased. I resumed my daily trips to my neighborhood coffee shop about a mile away.

Four weeks after the accident, I had a visit with my orthopod. X-rays were taken, and he was so pleased with how they looked that he was almost giggling. He didn’t allow me to start doing anything new, or start physical therapy, but he was obviously happy with my progress. He and other people at the office commented on how well I seemed to be moving around, and how I seemed to be in generally good shape. One barometer of my progress was that before, in my trips to the coffee shop, I was taking the bus both ways. Around this point, I started to ride the bus one way and gimp the other.

Five weeks after the accident, I finally got over the occasional weak spells and dizzy spells I had been experiencing.

Eight weeks after the accident, I saw my orthopod again. He took more x-rays, and again was happy with my progress. He commented that one of the two breaks wasn’t even visible anymore. He told me to get up and walk without my crutches, which I was able to do with considerable wobbling. It felt physically very weird, since I hadn’t put any weight to speak of on that leg in eight weeks. The doctor told me that I could start as much weight-bearing as I could tolerate, but I should continue using crutches for stability–two crutches for two weeks, then one crutch for two more weeks, then none. I was allowed to drive, but not a manual, so I traded cars with a friend. He finally started me on physical therapy. I began augmenting this with rides on my stationary bike. Around this time I started gimping both to and from the coffee shop.

Once I started weight-bearing, I quickly got re-accustomed to it. After only a day or two, I upgraded myself to one crutch, and increasingly around the house, I would use no crutches. I was making daily progress in terms of strength, balance, and comfort. After about ten days, I felt emoldened to leave the house without a crutch on one or two occasions–I was still walking with a limp, but not bad. My sessions on the stationary bike were getting better–higher speeds, less pain, faster warmups. By the day before my next appointment, I could walk without much of a limp.

Ten weeks after the accident, I saw my orthopod again. No x-rays this time. He asked me how I was doing and I said “Better than either of us would have imagined.” He told me to walk, and I got up and walked quite normally. He was blown away. He even showed me off to his colleagues.

At this point, I can walk all I want, and I am walking about 2 miles a day (to and from the coffee shop), in addition to physical-therapy excercises and stationary bike rides. I am not allowed to run (not that I want to try that yet), jump, or ride a real bike for another three weeks, the time of my next appointment. I still don’t feel completely recovered–my left leg is still significantly weaker than my right leg, but that only comes into play when it is stressed. I still have some pain, especially at the end of a walk. I don’t have quite as much flexibility in the left leg as in the right. But I continue to make improvements each day.

I’m not sure if there is a secret to a successful recovery; I imagine everybody needs a different approach. But what seems to work for me is doing as much as possible, living as normally as possible, without overdoing it. Don’t be defeatist about the recovery, don’t be passive, but don’t get obsessive either. Just be determined.

The story of Adam’s first broken hip

The original story

It happened on October 19, 1995. Jenny and I were out for a ride eastbound on FM 969, towards the neighboring town of Weberville. We were a little east of Route 183 when a pickup passed me. It passed really close. It was hauling a trailer, which I guess was a little wider than the truck. It hit me. I went down on my left side. Ouch. It wasn’t immediately obvious that I had broken my hip–at first I tried to get back up on my bike, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen. There was a lot of traffic (this was around 4:30 on a Thursday, so we were in early rush-hour). A lot of people stopped to help, there were some witnesses. One of the first people to help was an off-duty emergency medical technician. She jumped out of her truck with one of those neck braces just like you see on ER, got me immobilized, and took charge of the situation until an ambulance showed up. There were plenty of people with cellular phones to call 911. So the situation was not too bad.

>I was admitted to the trauma center at Brackenridge hospital, where X-rays showed I had a clean break in the neck of my left femur. You know how the femur has a ball at the top (that fits into the hip socket), a narrow neck that flares outward, and then the long, straight part? I broke it at the neck. I was rather surprised and dismayed to learn this–after all, 29-year-old men aren’t supposed to break their hips. An orthopedic surgeon, Dr Adams, was summoned, and I went into surgery around 10:30 PM that night. They put three 4-inch long pins in my femur. I came out of it around 1:30 AM. Jenny and my friends Chris, Tracy, Dave, Heidi,and DuShun were all waiting for me. I was, needless to say, a bit groggy. But I was still really glad to see them. Tracy passed out during the visit, but was OK. I learned that I had puked while under (evidently almost everyone who goes into surgery with anything in the stomach pukes) and I had been intubated as well, which left me with a sore throat for a few days.

On Friday, another friend, Marty, dropped by to visit and my folks made plans to come down for a few days. My hospital routine began. The routine is centered on when certain things are put in you or removed from you. Every morning around 6:00 they would draw a blood sample and then a urine specimen. Twice a day, before breakfast and before sleep, they would give me an oral stool-softener (evidently constipation is a big problem with people who spend a lot of time in bed) and an injected anti-coagulant (evidently blood clots are a big problem with people who have had major surgery). Morning, afternoon, and night I was given an antibiotic through my IV. Friday I was hooked up to a demarol IV drip. This was interesting: they give you a really low-level drip, and if the pain becomes really uncomfortable, you can hit a little button that will dispense a booster. It will only dispense one every six minutes. This is called a PCA–patient-controlled analgesic. I generally went easy on the pain button. Also on Friday they got me out of bed and hobbling around behind a walker. Evidently I was doing pretty well to even stand up. That night I even got out of bed and tried to take a crap. The nurse suggested a bedpan but pride prevented me. I managed to get to the can, but it was a false alarm. Life is reduced to challenges on the level of going to the bathroom.

On Saturday, they took me off the demarol and put me on an oral painkiller, vicodan (sp?). They also got me moving around on crutches. This was somewhat scary at first, but I got the hang of them pretty quickly: the physical therapist soon decided that I was able to get around fine on my own, and said that as far as she was concerned, I could be released anytime. My parents arrived. At first I was opposed to them dropping everything and coming, but ultimately I think it was for the best: they could reassure themselves that I was not on death’s door, and they also helped out around the house some. I also learned a bit more about the accident. The guy who hit me was indeed caught. He was on company time working for a small landscaping firm in the town of Manor (that’s pronounced "may-nur" in case you aren’t from around here), and his boss called me and assured me his company insurance would take care of my medical. That’s nice. Of course, he is obliged to do so, but it was nice that he made the first move.

On Sunday, another orthopod (not the one who worked on me, but an associate of his) stopped by and declared me fit to leave. I was really happy to hear that. Although I was really happy with all the people I encountered in the hospital, I certainly didn’t enjoy being there, so this was great news. I was out of the hospital and on my way home by about noon. This was a day sooner than the most optimistic forecast the doctor had given for my release, so I was happy about that too.

Monday, my first full day back at home, went well enough. In the morning, my cousin Joel called. Joel is a cyclist and also a lawyer. He offered his services (as a lawyer, not a cyclist, wise guy), and I gladly took him up on his offer. That afternoon, I got a call from the other guy’s insurance adjustor. As soon as he started asking specific questions, I told him "I’m sorry, you’ll have to talk to my lawyer" (as I was advised to). He was visibly crestfallen, even over the phone. He said "You already have a lawyer?…I usually try to get to people before a lawyer does." Yes, he actually did say that. I was rather amazed. He was further dismayed to learn I had me one of them fancy big-city lawyers up in Chicago (if he had found out Joel is Jewish, that would have made his despair complete, I think). It’s nice to be able to say "You’ll have to talk to my lawyer." Jenny got a copy of the police report. The driver was charged with failure to pass with adequate clearance. He was also driving without a license, expired plates, and no brakes on the trailer. He may also be lacking a green card, for all I know.

A week after the accident, I had my first follow-up visit with the orthopod. He said that things were coming along nicely. Shortly after this visit, they removed the staples that held the surgical incision shut (and which were ghastly to look at). I also began physical therapy, which was a real slap in the face at first. I’m a cyclist, so I take strong legs for granted. When it becomes a challenge just to lift my left leg, the feeling is…well, it is hard to put the feeling into words but it is not pleasant. Its frustrating, physically painful. By a month after the accident, I had recovered a lot of mobility and strength, and with every PT visit, they had me doing something more strenuous. I eventually wound up doing stuff that was hard for my good leg.

Three weeks after the accident, I had my second follow-up visit. The doctor was quite pleased with my progress and allowed me to put some weight on the leg: for ten days I was putting 60 pounds on the leg. For the next ten, I was putting 120 pounds on it, using only one crutch, with increasingly vigorous physical therapy. Moving to one crutch was a big improvement, as I had a free hand to carry things with.

At my subsequent office visit, the orthopod was not satisfied with the level of new bone growth, and kept me on one crutch for another three weeks. This was frustrating, as I had been hoping to get off it at that time. At the end of that three weeks, the doctor decided my bone was sufficiently knit up to tolerate walking without a crutch, so I did. That was in mid-December. At the end of December, I ended my physical therapy.

As of this writing (4 October 1996), my condition is pretty good. I do have less strength in my bad leg, but this is only revealed when attempting relatively obscure tasks, like standing up from a low chair using just that leg. There is still some pain when I lie on that side and there is pressure on the affected area. I can run a little–enough to get across the street–but when a friend came by a while ago and suggested we go for a jog, I had to laugh. That is out of the question for the time being. But, hey, I can ride my bike fine. I haven’t been on it as much as I should be, but I can’t blame that on the accident–just my own laziness.

About ten months after the accident, my lawyers came to a final settlement on the case with the other guy’s insurance. This was less than they had initially projected, but probably as much as I could realistically expect to get. And we kept it out of the courts, thank goodness. All kinds of people told me “you should sue!” Life’s too short for that.

The doctor who worked on me says that a complete recovery to my prior condition is unlikely: there should be less range of motion, less strength, and more pain. I have chosen to disbelieve him, though my progress seems to have tapered off somewhere short of “perfect.” More ominously, he has warned me that I may develop a condition called avascular necrosis (AVN), which would mean that there isn’t enough blood getting to the top of the femur, and that part of the bone dies. If this happens, I’ll need an artificial hip. And since artificial hips wear out after about five years for a young person, I’ll be looking at a lifetime of replacements. This is the thing that worries me the most, and there’s no way to tell whether or not it will happen right now. The doctor said the bone could knit up fine, and I could still develop AVN five years down the road. Scary.

Jenny helped out a lot, in little and big ways. For a while there I was not allowed to drive, so she finally broke down and got a driver’s license. She drove me to my appointments et al. She also took care of a lot of little stuff around the house that was too much trouble for me to do, like fetching a cup of coffee. Fetching a cup of coffee!! Yes, that was too much trouble for me. Try carrying anything liquid while on crutches. Doesn’t work.

Update: 26 November 1997

Two years down the road from the accident, I decided it was about time to get my screws out. I could have had them out one year after the accident, but somehow never got around to it. Funny that I wouldn’t be anxious to undergo surgery again, isn’t it? Anyhow, I decided at the beginning of this month that Now is the time. So I scheduled surgery for November 14. A consult with my orthopod, Dr Adams, the day before, and some paperwork with the hospital as well, which sent me chasing around a bit and did not fill me with confidence in their administrative skills. “No food after midnight,” they tell me. They draw some blood and ask some questions to make sure I am fit to undergo surgery. Many, many people confirm what procedure I am supposed to undergo, exactly. This is a good thing, I suppose.

My surgery is scheduled for 1 PM, and they tell me to show up two hours before that. When I show up, they have me put on a hospital gown and hang out in a room while a procession of medical-type people file through and ask me largely the same questions. Eventually they have me lie down on a gurney, they roll me into a holding pen, where more people ask me the same questions. “Which side are we working on?” “Left, there’s a big surgical scar, you can’t miss it,” I tell them. Eventually an anesthetist sticks a little IV in the back of my right hand and they start wheeling me off to surgery. I think less than a minute elapsed before I blacked out.

I vaguely recall coming-to in a room with a few other patients, and asking a lot of questions like “How did the surgery go?” etc. I don’t recall what the answers were, if I actually articulated the questions in the first place, or what the questions exactly were. Some time later I became reasonably alert in the same room where I had gotten into the hospital gown. I was still pretty groggy, to be honest, but I did want to get home. Hospital staff always want to make sure one can hold down liquids, and I drank some water and apple juice, so they let me get dressed and go. I got to keep my screws, which are stainless steel, 95 mm long, 4 mm thick, cannulated (that means they’re hollow like beads), with very serious looking threads rolled into the tip and a 4 mm allen-key socket in the head. That night I was not able to hold down water, and my dressing looked pretty bloody, but by the next day I was wolfing down pizza and the bleeding had pretty much stopped.

On the 24th, I visited my orthopod and my staples came out. I still couldn’t get used to looking at them, at least not when they’re in my own skin.

As of this writing (Wednesday, 26 November 1997), I am on crutches, and will be for about two more weeks. My orthopod wants the voids in the bone left by the screws to fill in so the bone can regain some strength before he lets me run around with my full weight on that leg. This is really frustrating, because I feel like I should be OK, but when I saw him to have my staples removed, the first thing he said when he saw me was that I shouldn’t even think about getting rid of my crutches yet–he had another patient in my situation who quit using his crutches early, he fell, and wound up injuring himself quite badly. Oh well. I’m relying on Jenny to fetch cups of coffee for me again. Other than that, the doctor thinks I am doing pretty darn well. He thinks that odds of AVN developing at this point are minimal. That’s a nice to know. I used most of my share of the settlement (after my lawyers and my insurance took their cut) to make a big downpayment on a house that Jenny and I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.

Update: 02 January 1999

Having my screws taken out was one of the best things I ever did. After my accident, I had suffered low-level chronic pain, and a small loss of strength and flexibility. I always assumed this was a consequence of having broken my hip. It wasn’t: it was a consequence of having big-ass stainless-steel screws in me. Once I had recovered from having the screws taken out, I felt like I was 100% back to normal. No pain, no diminishment in strength, and none in flexibility (or near enough to none as makes no difference). I couldn’t run with the screws in me. I can run now.

Another benefit of having the screws out: I can show them to friends and really freak them out.

Well, that is pretty much the whole story. My advice is "Don’t break your hip."

A tidbit for Movable Type users

If you’ve ever installed Movable Type, you may have wondered “Who is Melody Nelson, and why am I logging in as her?”. Either that, or you’re hipper than me and caught the reference immediately.

Now I know where it comes from:

Even so, Histoire De Melody Nelson sounds like no other record: when it was released, in 1971, it must have been right off the map. It’s a short album – 28 minutes – originally designed as a soundtrack to a teleplay: a dark story about a man’s obsession for a young girl, who becomes his lover, then dies. On the record, Melody Nelson is Gainsbourg’s muse – in real life, he named his publishing company after her. Birkin – gamine, with a shock of curly hair, in a wary-eyed fashion-shoot pose – stands in for her on the stunning sleeve.

and more or less why it’s there

If you want to judge me by my musical tastes, I’ll mention that I love French pop and standards, especially the music of Serge Gainsbourg, France Gall, Jacques Brel and the Little Sparrow herself.

My music collection

I’ve written before about the problems with CD storage. My approach has been to put all my CDs in binders (which are fairly cheap on a per-CD basis), and rip them all as 192-Kbps MP3s to an external hard drive. So I have all my music accessible on my computer, which is nice.

Just looking at the numbers

Via the always-interesting six different ways, I ran across pollkatz’ pageload of presidential-poll data. The Bush approval-rating graph in particular is interesting. Taken out of context, we see that whenever his rating gets near 50%, something happens to give them a big boost, after which they resume the prevailing trend: steady decline. Of course, context helps: the first boost was 9/11; the second, the invasion of Iraq.

Right now his numbers are perilously close to 50%, making me wonder what he’s got up his sleeve for the immediate future. The military’s already overextended, so I don’t expect he’ll invade anyone. Another terrorist attack would probably give him some altitude, but look at the glide slope he’s on: it would need to be a really serious incident to kick him up high enough to avoid a hard landing before November ’04. Either that, or he’ll need a succession of smaller incidents.

Spam report

I haven’t been monitoring the amount of spam that gets nailed by spamassassin (it’s a lot), but in the past two weeks, 114 pieces of spam have slipped past it. Of those, I find it amusing that 10 are offering anti-spam software.

Turnabout

Corporate interests often establish advocacy groups with names intended to mislead the casual observer into thinking the group’s goals are the opposite of what they actually are–so a coal-mining lobby might set up Concerned Citizens for the Environment or something similarly bogus.

I propose that actual do-gooder organizations should adopt this tactic in reverse. The Rainforest Action Network should rename itself the Tropical Hardwood Exploitation Board, get haircuts and suits, rent a mailbox on K Street, and go on doing what they always do. People will see press releases coming from these guys, think “Gosh, if the Tropical Hardwood Exploitation Board of all people thinks it’s a bad idea to do this, it must be really awful.”

Death

There’s been a lot of death in the news lately. Warren Zevon and Johnny Cash. I recently mentioned Walter Richter. And today I read that Ken Kifer bought the farm, run over by a drunk driver while riding his bike.

I used to hang out on the rec.bicycles.* Usenet hierarchy, and Ken was one of the regulars, and one of the most prolific writers on bike subjects I know of. I never met him in person, but felt that in a small way, I knew him.

Warren Zevon’s impending demise had been public knowledge for over a year; Johnny Cash’s mortality is unmistakable on his last album. My neighbor Walter Richter had been in decline for some time, and had a good run. Reading about Ken this morning was like a punch in the gut.

Necesito más trabajo, Mister Roboto

A discussion on metafilter led me to a Sony robot demo. It’s quite uncanny to watch the robot, winsomely called Qrio, moving around, righting itself from a fall, or waving hello. As nifty as Sony’s Aibo is, this makes it seem like a Furby by comparison. Or perhaps even a Weeble.

But what’s with Japan’s fascination with robots, especially anthropomorphic ones? One might snarkily cite the fact that the guys designing these robots grew up with Tetsuwan Atom and Japan’s other robot-heroes, but what made those characters so popular in the first place? I don’t know.

Japan’s big electronic companies trot out the problem of the country’s rapidly graying society as something that robots can solve–the idea being that robots will do all the scut work for society, especially looking after incontinent oldsters. This seems like the most complex solution possible in search of a problem. Relaxing immigration policies would be the blindingly obvious solution, except for isolationism in Japan even stronger than most countries.

Beyond that, though, the economics of a robotic workforce make my mind reel. Robots wouldn’t be cheap to purchase or maintain. In a society with a high proportion of old people receiving government assistance, those seniors would probably be hard-pressed to pay for these robots out of their own pockets. So would the government: the tax burden would be falling harder on the dwindling (and perhaps resentful) younger population. And if we assume that there are WN man-hours of work to be done by society in general per year, with robots doing some amount WR, and humans doing the rest (WL) such that 0 < WR < WN, then the higher the value of WR, the lower the government’s tax revenues (I assume robots would not be paying taxes). In short, the government would literally need more warm bodies to tax to pay for all those cold bodies.

In a country with full employment, the economics must be different–but with a large fraction of the population on the dole, the economics get all screwy. Ironic that the root of the word “robot” is in the Czech word for drudge-work.

Schlitterbahn

A month or so ago, Gwen discovered, to her amazement, that I had never been to Schlitterbahn. She said that once school was back in session that we should make it a point to go.

Saturday night, I mentioned that we should look into going. It turned out that the next day was their last day of the season before closing for the winter. That seems silly to me–there will probably be three more good weekends before the weather threatens to get too cold. At least according to my standards. But this is Texas. Anyhow, we decided on the spot to go, and bought our tickets online–which they loudly trumpet saves two dollars (they do not trumpet as loudly that they charge a $1 “convenience fee” for online tickets). We also received a “last day of the season” discount.

Sunday, we made a fairly early start, so that we’d have the whole day there. Driving down, we drove through an ominous rainstorm around San Marcos. We also drove past what must be the highest concentration of RV and manufactured-home vendors on the planet, including one selling a model hilariously called the Taj Mahal, another even more hilariously called La Casita Grande. And, to my surprise, a two-story model.

When we arrived at about 10:00 AM, there was no rain, but the sky was very threatening. We waited an inordinately long time to get in (thus negating any supposed convenience of online ticketing)–there wasn’t a long line, but, inexplicably, the clerk was taking about ten minutes to process each party–though he scarcely took a minute to pass us through. Once inside, we got changed and dove in. Although I’m told that lines can be an hour or more for the most popular attractions, we never waited more than a couple minutes, and for the most part, we just got on and went–often several times down the same slide. Clearly, we had picked the right day to come.

Around 1:00 PM it started raining, which made no difference, since we were already wet, but around 1:30 there was thunder, and they closed all the attractions until it stopped, which took half an hour at most. We continued having fun, but it was getting cold, so we warmed up in a hot tub (“warm tub” would be more accurate). Having started in the old part of the park, we then took a shuttle over to the new part. (The old part has a lot more trees, which is nice. The new part has more high-profile rides, which are also nice in a different way.) By the time we got there, the sun was starting to come out again.

We stayed at the park till about 4, hungrily ate a lunch we had packed (all that water-sliding really does sap your energy), and headed home. It was a ball.

For the record:

  • Schlitterbahn does allow you to bring in outside food, and you should–the food sold in the park is 4x a fair price
  • The storage lockers they rent (for a usurious $4) are tiny–pack accordingly
  • It would be a lot of fun to bring a waterproof camera along
  • Sunblock sunblock sunblock

And Now…Ladies and Gentlemen

Saw And Now…Ladies and Gentlemen on Saturday with Gwen. We missed the first few minutes, which may have been important. The rest of the movie is a time-shifting montage from which, eventually, we were able to extract what seems to be a coherent storyline. It was, all in all, very entertaining. Jeremy Irons was excellent but creepy, as usual (I’ve never seen him do comedy, but something tells me he would kill). Two thumbs up. The story is hard to describe and not so much of interest as the characters.

Raymond Scott

How is it possible that I have lived all these years without ever having heard of Raymond Scott before? The man was a mad-scientist musician, equal parts Juan Garcia Esquivel and Leon Theremin, who composed whacky cartoon-style music and built giant scary machines with lots of knobs.

He even talked like a mad scientist:

It is not widely known who invented the circuitry concept for the automatic sequential performance of musical pitches – now well known as a sequencer.

I, however, do know who the inventor was – for it was I who first conceived and built the sequencer.

Cue maniacal laughter