Month: August 2005

The Soup Peddler’s Slow and Difficult Soups

Recently finished reading The Soup Peddler’s Slow and Difficult Soups, by David Ansel.

David is a friend (he was also the officiant when Gwen and I got married), and it’s not every day that friends have books published (unless you’re a friend of John Grisham’s), so this is pretty neat. Bad part first: I thought his writing was a little gimmicky–I know half the people in the book and they aren’t all quite that jaunty. He invents a character to give the story tension and conflict, which I don’t think it really needs.

But it was a fun read. I guess that’s inevitable when you know have the people in the book, and most of the locations. It’s a real love-letter to south Austin, something that will be cited as a source of Lost Austin someday (perhaps October) when Austinites are waxing nostalgic about how much better things used to be here. It also contains a number of soup recipes (imagine!), some of which I may try once the weather cools off a bit.

David’s story, in case any of you don’t know it and can’t wait for the book to arrive, is that he quit a programming job suddenly, wasn’t quite sure what to do for work, and started preparing soup for friends and delivering it by bike. It caught on, and he now has an intergalactic soup-deliver empire. Well, it’s not intergalactic, but he has like a proper place of business and employees, and I hear he even delivers to the north side now.

Revenge of the Sith

Yes, I finally saw Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I wasn’t in a hurry, because I knew A) it would be around for a long time in theaters, and B) it would be bad.

It was bad. Good points: A) Lots of excellent eye-candy–enough to justify sitting through the movie many times over just to catch it, if you’re into that sort of thing; B) No speaking role for Jar-jar Binks.

But the dialogue was so awful that I was rewriting it in my head as the movie went. Darth Vader is made out to be nothing more than a punk-ass whiny kid who gets all Columbine on the galaxy. The whiny schtick actually worked for Hayden Christensen in the only other movie I’ve seen him in, Shattered Glass. Here, no.

It would have been easy to add nuance to the story, to make Anakin Skywalker less annoying, and to make the movie as a whole less disappointing. In fact, it seems as if it would have taken a positive effort to make it as bad as it is. I see that George Lucas has the writing credits. He’s fine with the scissors. Not so good with the pen.

The circle of life

I had this row of five theater seats–actually taken from a church, with slots for prayer books in the back–sitting around since 1998 or thereabouts. Never got much use out of them.

When Gwen and I moved, they were an albatross around our neck. Big, heavy, and hard to move–no room in our current, temporary digs for them. Tried to sell them, to no avail. Wound up moving them and storing them in the garage.

I tried listing them again on Craigslist just last night. By noon today, they were sold. And the really cool thing is, I sold them to Lovejoy’s, meaning that I can go and visit them whenever I want.

Although I really like Lovejoy’s, I’ve always been discouraged from visiting because of the cigarette smoke–it seems like an especially intense smoking environment. I I told the guy who bought them from me “I don’t want to get political, but I’ve got to tell you, I’ll be visiting you guys a lot more come September”–when the smoking ban goes into effect. It’s interesting that, rather than hunkering down, he’s spending money to update the place, although he also said he’d be counting on people like me. We chatted about the issue in general–he told me about the prodigious amount of cleanup that dealing with cigarette smoking involves, which is one thing I never thought of.

So if you ever find yourself in Lovejoy’s and park yourself on the seats shown here, you’ll know where they came from.
row of five theater seats

March of Progress

I recently got a new 20“ iMac G5. It’s very nice. I had been plugging along with my old Sawtooth since 2000, and felt I was past due for an upgrade.

While it is great having a faster machine, I’m more impressed by the industrial design of this thing. It’s like an abstraction of a computer, with the messy parts that make it work almost completely invisible (the outsized bezel and optical-disc slot are the only clues that there’s more here than a screen). When I show it to people who haven’t seen one before and point out ”that’s all there is“, they are dumbstruck. But pop the back off and the parts are laid out before you as if at a buffet table.

One grave annoyance with the new machine–the updated operating system, more likely–was printing. My old printer, which I’d had since 1995, had always been somewhat fussy, but now there were some documents that I simply could not print, even after trying many workarounds. I came very close to reenacting a scene from Office Space with it.

So after doing a little research (and getting a job I couldn’t print) I drove up to Fry’s yesterday and replaced it with an HP 1320. Now I can print. With my old printer, it was a bad sign when it started ejecting pages quickly–that meant that it was spewing postscript gibberish. The new one prints just as fast, but it is actually printing what I want it to print.

It’s also interesting to look at how the industrial design of printers has changed.

The Lexmark was a real workhorse. It weighed a ton. The whole top flipped up like the hood of a car, with a complex hinge and spring mechanism. The left side swung open to reveal the logic board. In short, it was designed for serviceability. It had a LCD screen with some buttons that allowed the user to control many of its output options (redundant, considering this can be done through the computer).

Since then, the big change in the exciting world of printers has probably been with inkjets, which have gotten very good, and are cheap enough to hand out as party favors. This has no doubt forced the laser-printer segment of the market to compete harder on price, and it shows in my new printer, which is much lighter. No LCD screen, almost no buttons, no easy access for service. It’s also much smaller and sleeker, and somehow manages to fit in a duplexer. And, of course, cost about a quarter what the old one did.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory recently. Like everyone my age, I have strong memories of seeing the first movie–though I read the book, I don’t remember it as well–and I watched this with a critical eye, constantly asking “I wonder why they did it this way?” and so on. It was interesting to observe how some bits of dialog were preserved intact, while large swathes of the movie were completely new.

Like almost any movie where he’s the star, this movie largely revolves around Johnny Depp, and his pallid, quirky character in this movie is a little hard to figure out. I couldn’t quite piece together what he was going for here, but he created an entertaining character nonetheless.

To the extent that it revolves around anything other than Johnny Depp, it’s the macabre-whimsy world that Tim Burton creates, which is a visual playground, as usual.

While both versions of this movie had sharply moralistic themes, this movie was even preachier than the first–the children who misbehave are permanently transformed because of it. Charlie (unlike in the previous movie) does not misbehave at all, and so gets his reward. Willie Wonka develops a new backstory (which is entertaingly told) that creates an excuse for more homilies on the importance of family.

Born to be wild

For some time now, Gwen has been planning to sell her car and replace it with a scooter (probably a Stella). But to even test-drive a scooter larger than 50 cc, you need to have a motorcycle-operator’s license. Since I’d want to be able to ride her scooter (even if, as she plans to, she puts pink flames on it), I’d need to be licensed as well. So this past weekend we took a motorcycle safety course.

That was interesting.

Gwen chose this place because they offer training on scooters, which she thought would be more relevant. In this case, perhaps not. It turns out the scooters they had were 50-cc automatics, and she’s planning on getting a 150-cc manual. So after the first couple of exercises, we asked to be switched to the bikes everyone else was riding (Kawasaki Eliminators–an intimidating name for a laid-back 125-cc bike–stripped of their turning signals and mirrors), and the instructors agreed. Gwen, the diminutive thing that she is, was put off by the size of even small motorcycles, but quickly decided that was the lesser of two evils, and once she was on it, she was comfortable enough with it–but she still plans on getting a scooter.

I think this was only the second time since college that I’ve had any type of formal instruction, and it was very different from the normal academic environment. The big difference is that we were all being treated like adults: we were being moved along quickly and we were expected to “get it”–to not need to be told every little thing. The instructors were telling us we needed to go faster a lot more frequently than they were telling us we needed to go slower. Although it’s not really possible to ingrain good habits in a weekend-long course, that’s really what they were trying to do–they wanted us to have the reflexes to do the right thing in real-world situations, rather than (or really, in addition to) showing that we intellectually understood a set of instructions. There’s a lot of stuff that’s equivalent to learning how to pat your head and rub your belly, and you really don’t nail that in two days.

It was interesting how my experience as a cyclist helped and hindered me on a motorcycle. For the most part, I think I had an advantage in terms of handling, but for low-speed maneuvers (especially the “U-turn box”) handling is sufficiently different that my instincts didn’t do me any good. Where cycling was really interfering was on the controls: On a bicycle, your left hand controls your front brake and front derailleur, your right the rear brake and rear derailleur. On a motorcycle, your left hand controls the clutch, your right hand the front brake, and hey, you’ve got to use your feet–left foot shifts, right foot works the rear brake. I’m accustomed to setting my right foot down at stops (my left foot is my good foot), but when you’re coming to a stop, you need your foot on the brake, so I was doing a little left-foot down, then left-foot up and right-foot down dance.

At the end of the course, we all underwent an evaluation that, if we passed, would allow us to dispense with taking the practical exam at DPS, get us lower insurance rates, and (perversely) allow us to disregard the helmet law. Now that we’re been conscientious enough to take a class to learn how to ride safely, we can be reckless. We all passed.

Helpful Hint

Here’s a helpful hint: If you like making smoothies, and have an Osterizer blender (this may work with other brands too), get yourself a quart mason jar–some brands of pasta sauce use these for packaging. The threading on the jar fits the carafe-base perfectly. You can fill the jar with your smoothie fixings, screw on the base, smoothify, and drink from the same jar. Save yourself washing that big, awkward carafe. Life is good.

Land of the Dead

Yes, I’m catching up on a backlog of movie-blogging, why do you ask?

I always like a good zombie movie, and I liked Land of the Dead. As always, George Romero works in some social commentary along with his cerbrophagous fun-fest, in this case, about class conflict. What more do you need to know? It’s a zombie movie.

Murderball

Although we had to go without my friend Drew, who sounded appalled at the very idea of it, we saw Murderball the other night, a documentary about the sport of quad-rugby. This is one of those documentaries that gives you a window into a world you had no idea existed.

The movie followed the American quad-rugby team, which had built up an almost unbeaten track record, for about a year and a half, through international competition in 2003 and at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

The guys are all a bunch of characters. Joe Soares, a former member of the U.S. team who decided to take his trophies up to Canada and become their coach when he got cut, comes off like a towering asshole despite his seated posture. He also looks uncannily like Mussolini. Mark Zupan (of Austin!) seems like a custom-designed ambassador for the sport–heavily tattooed, prickly personality, passionate about what he’s doing. The other guys seem much more laid back, but all of them completely obliterate any impression you might have that guys in wheelchairs want or need to be coddled.

Mysterious Skin

Saw Mysterious Skin recently. Tough movie to watch, but good. I was always under the impression that Gregg Araki’s movies tended to be a little more lightweight, but this was some heavy shit, about young men who had been molested as boys, and how they had grown up. When I see a movie like this (or, say, Bad Education), I wonder how they handle the child actors in these portrayals of shocking acts. It was also interesting to watch, with the part of my brain that maintains detachment, how the scenes were filmed to almost, but not quite, depict the children doing something that children shouldn’t be doing.

There seemed to be something autobiographical behind the story, which makes it all the more sad.

March of the Penguins

Saw March of the Penguins recently. I was vaguely aware of the arduous incubation process for emperor penguins, but this was both educational and absorbing. I didn’t realize how arduous it is, and how much the odds are stacked against successful reproduction.

The narration toned down the harshness–the death–for the benefit of the peanut gallery, but the viewers get the idea.

Also interesting to contemplate was the making of the documentary. How the hell do you sit around in -60° weather, through the monthslong night, to film a bunch of penguins without A) your equipment breaking; B) losing any toes; or C) going insane?