Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Page 5 of 108

Sometimes the new ways are the best

Char Griller brand dual grill

I’ve been barbecuing all my adult life. I don’t claim to be a grillmaster. I haven’t made a study of scientifically optimized barbecuing techniques. But I can usually get pretty good results. I’ve always been a traditionalist about it, only using charcoal, and always owning a primitive grill. I had a L’il Smokey in college. I had a tiny thing that fit in a backpack when I lived in Japan. Since then, I’ve always had one of those converted 55-gallon drums. I always felt that part of the fun of grilling was the unpredictability—that each time I got good results in spite of the lack of control, it was a small triumph over chaos, and my ability to get good results was evidence of some inarticulable talent.

It turns out that this represented one of those unexamined assumptions that turns out to be wrong.

The bottoms on those drum grills eventually rust out completely, so I’d wind up replacing them every few years. After the last one was gone, Gwen decided it was time for something different. She knew that charcoal grilling tastes better, but she also knew that gas grilling was more convenient, and can be a better-tasting option than stovetop cooling. She picked out a two-way grill, with gas in the left barrel and charcoal in the right. It was on sale at the big-box store, and we bought it. This is not something I would have picked out for myself—the charcoal side alone is fancier than any of those drum grills I’ve owned. And I felt a bit odd about allowing a propane grill into the household, even though I can avoid using it if I want.

We took the grill on its maiden voyage yesterday, and it immediately proved itself to be vastly superior to any grill I’ve owned before. To hell with triumph over chaos and inarticulable talent. I’ll stick with convenience, predictability, and control from now on. At least when it comes to grilling.

Lakes of Fire 2011

I participated in Lakes of Fire, the regional burn for the upper midwest.

LoF apparently is run coequally by the Chicago and Detroit communities of burners—I get the impression that most burns are run by the burners in one town, so in that respect, it’s a little unusual. This is only LoF’s third year, and it has quickly ramped up to a pretty big event—I heard there were 1150 people there this year. LoF got on my radar last year, when it was held very close to the spot where my grandfather once had a blueberry farm. That, plus the fact that it’s associated with Chicago, piqued my interest. I’d been wanting to experience a different regional burn, so LoF seemed like a natural.

I had lined up a ride from Chicago to LoF with someone on the chicago-burners mailing list, and had lined up a theme camp I could camp with. Twelve hours before I was to board my flight to Chicago, my would-be ride bailed on me, but referred me to someone running a bus up there. So I wound up getting on board that, along with about a dozen hippies. I don’t have much patience for hippy woo-woo, but they were all nice folks.

This year’s LoF was in a new location farther north, near Muskegon. It was raining off and on all the way there, and when we got there (probably after 10:00 PM), the venue had been drenched, with more rain still coming down. The event was being held at the site of a commercial campground that encircles a small lake, and parts of the ring road were too muddy to pass. The bus was diverted to a spot other than what had been set aside for it, and nowhere near the theme camp I was supposed to be joining up with. I had no interest in schlepping my stuff over there in the rain/dark/mud, so I pitched my tent where we landed and wound up befriending the folks of the neighboring theme camp, Shady Cinema, whose ringleader is a film geek. In fact, I wound up being adopted into that camp—they gave me so much food I barely had a chance to break into my own food, and they had shelter and entertainment. And good people. It was a lucky break that I wound up there. That night I also met Shirley, LoF’s placement lead, who drove me around on her golf cart while we chatted. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Mia Farrow. Also went wandering around with my new friends at Shady Cinema and wound up in Tick Town, a bar camp, where we chatted for a while with Monica, a woman participating in her first burn.

Friday morning was cold and drizzly still, with only intermittent moments of sunshine and warmth. I definitely didn’t bring enough warm clothes. I did just get a new pair of Adidas-brand combat boots, which acquitted themselves well in this environment, and stayed comfortable throughout. I probably walked the perimeter of the lake three times that day, and met a lot of new people, including Shoebocks, the ranger lead and brother of Austin’s own Sodium. I also encountered Tiara, who I knew would be there, and Wulfgar, who I knew might be there. LoF has a mandatory safety meeting for fire performers who want to take part in their fire conclave, so I attended that in the afternoon and signed up to be a spotter. One of my campmates, Earl, had an interactive art project called Earl’s Body Brush, in which he stood naked in front of a bunch of small canvas panels attached to a large frame and had people shoot him with gallons of red, yellow, and blue paint. After the paint on the panels dried, he handed them out as artworks.

That night I spun some fire at LoF’s one significant sound camp, Freakeasy, along with a few other people. There was one older guy, Richard, juggling torches, and I noticed with disapproval that he was having an awful lot of drops. Then he finished and snapped out a white cane with a red tip and I felt like a heel. Later, I spun some fire again back at my own campsite for the folks in Shady Cinema, where I also watched the tail end of Logan’s Run, which I still have never seen start to finish.

Saturday morning I was actually forced out of my tent by the heat, which was a welcome change. I don’t recall doing anything exceptionally interesting on Saturday during the day except for hanging out at the LoF outpost of the Golden Lounge (a well-known theme camp at Burning Man), where I was served a shot of some very fancy aged rum that tasted like good scotch. That night was the night of the effigy burn, so I had to get myself over there for spotter duty. This is an area of special interest for me, since I’ve been in charge of the pre-burn fire ceremony at Burning Flipside. Part of my reason for going to LoF was to learn how another regional operates. They organized their fire conclave somewhat differently than Flipside’s fire procession—some of this is clearly a response to logistical constraints, some of it is probably a matter of local habits, and some a matter of taste.

The fire conclave went well. I didn’t notice any serious issues. After it was done I got just outside the safety perimeter and found myself standing next to Monica, and we chatted as we watched the fireworks display and effigy burn.

One aspect of the way burn night was organized didn’t sit well with me. The effigy was situated on a narrow peninsula on the north side of the lake. This meant that nobody could get a good, close view of it. The fire conclave was on the peninsula, to the north of the effigy. The safety perimeter on the peninsula was at 200′, which was pretty far (too far to feel the heat when it was burning), and probably had something to do with emergency-vehicle access, so for those people at the perimeter, they didn’t get a great view of the effigy and didn’t get the visceral feeling of the fire’s heat. But more than that, a lot of people (a large majority, I think) watched the whole thing from their campsites across the lake, so there wasn’t the close camaraderie and excitement I’d expect at a burn.

After the effigy collapsed and the perimeter was dropped, we were allowed to approach it. Typically, I would circle around the fire a few times, but on this narrow spit of land, it wasn’t possible to make a complete circuit while staying a tolerable distance from the fire and while keeping one’s feet dry. So it’s a good thing my boots are waterproof.

After that, I gathered up my firedancing equipment and went with my Shady Cinema campmates back to Freakeasy for some more firespinning. Didn’t get in as much as I wanted, but had fun anyway. There was also a “monster wheel” race (gigantic homemade big wheels) and a fashion show there.

Sunday was the end of the event. I tried to help the folks from the bus and from Shady Cinema strike camps (my own took very little work). As one might expect, it’s hard to get a busload of hippies to get their shit together in a prompt fashion, and we didn’t roll out until about 90 minutes after the supposed last minute. On our way out the gate, someone flagged us over. Turns out it was the owner of the campground, Don, who thanked us for coming. He said he was happy having us there, which is nice to hear.

I can’t help but compare LoF to Flipside, and it’s interesting to see what’s the same and what’s different. LoF seemed to have a lot more children, a lot less nudity (even on the warm days), and a lot less volume from the sound camps. There’s not as much over-the-topness, but I suspect that’s just a matter of time. Flipside has been around ten years longer, and I get the impression that some of operational details at Flipside were figured out without reference to Burning Man. This may be because either the people who volunteered to handle those functions at Flipside had no experience doing the same thing at Burning Man, and therefore didn’t know the “right” way to do them, or those functions got fleshed out at Burning Man and Flipside after Flipside already existed, so they developed along parallel tracks. LoF seemed, at least superficially, to be following Burning Man as a model in ways that Flipside does not. But on burn night, when I was standing around with some other spotters waiting for things to happen, I got to chatting with a guy named Breedlove, and he told me that for LoF, Burning Man is so big that it just isn’t a useful model to follow. Instead, they’ve looked to Flipside as a model and inspiration for how to run an event. Which gave me great nachas.

All in all, I had fun, the weather being the only drawback. It was nice, as Clovis once put it, to be part of the problem for a change.

Flipside 2011

Another year, another Flipside.

In September last year, I was elected to the Combustion Chamber, which is the advisory board for the limited-liability company that nominally produces Flipside. This means that every couple of weeks, I get together with other CC members and we argue over The True Meaning of Flipside. So I’ve been kept abreast of and involved in Flipside-related developments to a much greater extent, and felt more of a sense of responsibility for the event’s success, than usual. It’s a good thing that it turned out really well, at least from my perspective.

One of the most contentious issues leading up to the event was what to do with the Effigy. The effigy burn is the apex of the event. There have been two previous occasions when we could not burn the Effigy at Flipside, but this year there was a lot of debate over what to do with the Effigy in the event of a non-burn, which seemed all but guaranteed, given the wildfires all over the state. By amazing coincidence, the burn ban for Milam County (where Flipside is held) was lifted for one week, just a couple of days before Flipside started, resulting in this unlikely burn-ban map:

It was widely speculated that the Apache Pass’ landowner applied pressure to the county judge to lift the burn ban or that “somebody was paid off.” Perhaps, but I doubt it. Milam County actually had isolated flooding in the week before Flipside.

In order to get a head start setting up our theme camp’s infrastructure, Gwen and I got out to the property in the early afternoon on Wednesday, a day before the official start of the event. Two of our campmates, Matt and Lori, arrived a few hours later. When we arrived, we were surprised at how much had already been set up—a lot of theme camps seemed to be fully set up already. I got the impression that, more than any year before, there was an unspoken agreement that Flipside would hit the ground running when the gates opened for general admission on Thursday morning.

With a little help of a couple of Shaven Apes (the Flipside department of people who help with odd jobs), Gwen and I managed to get our main shade structure almost completely pitched in a few hours. Good thing, because it was freaking hot. Matt and Lori arrived in time to help with the tail end of that project, and we got the “residential” side of our camp fully set up before dark. Gwen and I wandered over to Wonderlounge (which had its bar going already) for bad drinks and good socializing. I waited until Thursday evening to get the fire circle set up, as there would be more warm bodies to help with that task.

On Friday evening, Monk (2009 DaFT lead) stopped by our camp looking for people to help finish the Effigy. David and I grabbed our work gloves and headed over. I spent the rest of the night off and on doing scut-work, like cleaning up wood scraps or holding pieces of wood in place while someone screwed them together. DaFT (the Design and Fabrication Team, which builds the Effigy) managed to open the Effigy by about 2:00 AM. I’ve always had a lot of respect for the DaFT crew, but that limited exposure gave me a much more direct appreciation for how hard they work. I don’t think I could keep up.

Saturday was my off day. I didn’t have any notable responsibilities, so I spent a lot of time in the creek and drank some beer. The one responsibility I did have was to attend a theme-camp meet-and-greet, and somehow I managed to misremember the time for that, so I missed it. I brought some homemade cookies to hand out there, and wound up handing them out to people I encountered at random instead. Someone asked “Are these plain cookies or special cookies?” I replied half in sarcasm “They’re special because I made them with love.”

Myschevia (the North Texas burn) had been held under a burn ban, so they brought their Effigy to Flipside. They took advantage of the last-minute lifting of Milam County’s burn ban to burn it at Flipside. Apparently their preparations were last-minute as well, because that thing would. not. burn. Normally an effigy is loaded with diesel to get it to burn better, and I’m guessing that didn’t happen at all. Shiree heckled the fire—”a bunch of ten year olds with sparklers can burn better than that!” I wandered over to the stage for Flipside’s own Effigy, where the Drishti Dancers were putting on a performance. Then Arc Attack fired up their singing Tesla coils and everybody was pulled away from whatever they were doing to watch. It’s almost unfair. I think Arc Attack was having some technical problems this year, as they had much less performance time. As far as I can tell, Parsec (the guy in the Faraday suit) wasn’t present at all. They had a new Faraday cage that is much larger—it can accommodate four people at once, so more people can have the experience, but the price is that none of them feel as close to the lightning (so I am told).

The fire circle at Circle of Fire got a lot of action on Saturday night, and I got in a few good light-ups. It was gratifying to see. Due to space limitations, our circle was smaller than usual. I would have preferred it to be bigger, but word reached me that some people liked it small. I think the size inhibited some people from going on when there was already somebody lit up, which slowed throughput. I guess that could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

When I finally got to bed (probably around 4:30 AM), I noticed that Carpe Noctem, the neighboring dance camp, was a lot quieter than I expected. I learned the next day that there had been noise complaints on Thursday and Friday, and I’m guessing the dance camps had all been told to cut their subwoofers. Friday (?) was the only night that I felt rattled in my bed by the sound, and I generally managed to sleep well.

Sunday was all about getting ready for the burn. There was a 12:00 meeting that was supposed to be followed by a 2:00 meeting where the go/no-go call would be made. Since the 12:00 meeting ran until 1:30, we postponed the 2:00 meeting until 5:30, where a go call was made. As Ghost put it, certain dominoes needed to fall in order to make a go call: first, we had to be out of the burn ban. Check. Second, the county sheriff had to give his approval beforehand. Check. Third, Kit (the landowner) needed to give his approval. Check. Fourth, the wind levels had to be within the limit set by our own fire chief, Henry. At the 5:30 meeting, the prediction was that the wind levels would be near or possibly above that limit. Henry decided that we’d be able to take advantage of a window of opportunity, and so he gave us a go. Some of us then prepped the Effigy to burn by removing a wooden skirt around its base to promote airflow, and shoving wood scraps under it.

The next thing on my docket was the fire procession. I had put out the call to have fire performers assemble at Circle of Fire at 8:00 PM. This would give me plenty of time for stragglers to arrive, and still time to go over the details with (almost) everybody before the putative performance time of 9:45. I say that I’m the cat-herder in charge of the fire procession, and that’s as apt as any title, but in fact I could not do that job effectively if it weren’t for other people who step up and help organize the procession—Wulff, Matt, David, Frank Marissa, Warlock, and of course Gwen all made things run smoother for me. In spite of some confusing instructions on my own part and things not quite going exactly as I planned, the fire procession seems to have gone smoothly and safely. It looked great, and I think we had more performers than ever. I don’t have an exact count, but I think it was around 70 people.

With that out of the way, I could relax and watch the firecracker hats, fireworks and the effigy burn. Lacking anything like a chimney, I didn’t think the Effigy would burn well. I was wrong: it was halfway engulfed before the fireworks wound down, and fully engulfed shortly after. It burned beautifully, with a sheet of flame rolling under the arch and the flame-shaped pickets rimmed with yellow fire—like fire on fire. It collapsed in on itself quickly and perfectly, and a few minutes later, the Rangers dropped the safety perimeter so we could approach. People cavorted, running and leaping toward the fire, still burning intensely hot. We made our three circuits around the fire, stopping to wish friends “happy burn” as we encountered them in the circle.

Monday morning came all too soon. I got up early to take down a personal art project, and found that Matt and Lori—who had never gone to bed—had made a lot of headway toward striking camp already. By the time I was done with my project, Matt and Lori had gone to bed and most everyone else was up. We had a relaxed breakfast and got to work striking camp. Things went pretty quickly, and we were out of there by 2:00 PM. All in all, I felt that this Flipside and the preparations for it seemed to go smoothly.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’ll update this as I think of more.

The comment gardener

With facebook and twitter and tumblr and flickr and blogs and instagram and forms of online communication I haven’t even heard of, people wind up cultivating their social networks like gardens. Or, perhaps more aptly, their Farmville plots.

This suggests a new sort of online game, where instead of tending a farm, you’re tending a virtual social network. Not your own—one that only exists in the context of the game. We can call it Friendville.

Getting the message

New technology creates new social phenomena, etiquette problems being one of them. Caller ID is not a new technology, but at some point in the past few years, its ubiquity—especially with cellphones, which have better text displays than landline phones—has created one of these etiquette problems.

Traditionally (where by “traditionally,” I mean “ten years ago”), when Alice calls Bob and gets Bob’s voicemail, Alice leaves a message at least saying “it’s Alice, call me back.” But over the last few years, we’ve seen a different approach. Charlie calls Bob, gets Bob’s voicemail, and just hangs up. Charlie knows that Bob has caller ID and will be able to see that Charlie called—Charlie figures that’s all the information Bob needs to return the call.

Bob may have the same approach as Charlie, in which case this is fine. But Bob may figure that if Charlie had anything that needed a response, then Charlie would have left a message. Bob doesn’t return the call and eventually hears again from Charlie, who indignantly asks “why didn’t you call me back?” There’s a mismatch in expectations. Neither one is right or wrong, necessarily, but the mismatch can create friction.

I’m reminded of the distinction between ask culture and guess culture, although in this context, it might be more accurate to say it’s a difference between tell culture and guess culture.

Or perhaps it’s just a matter of etiquette that we as a society haven’t quite sorted out yet. I was talking about this at dinner with some friends who are all around my age—we all agreed that people should leave messages. There might be an age component to this.

Last chance at Little City


Little City is a coffee shop that’s become a bit of an Austin institution over the last 17 years. They’ve lost their lease and will close May 13th. Gwen and I had a last lunch there today.

We recently rented Slacker, and the movie is slice of Austin’s past. Almost none of the locations in Slacker still exist in the same form. When I walk around town, I see what used to be superimposed on what is, like a palimpsest

Little City wasn’t in Slacker (the fact that it’s too new is a bit odd to contemplate), but in a few days it too will become a layer of palimpsest that I can’t help but see.

Me at the Thursday Nighter

Firenight at Spider House, 7 April 2011 from Adam Rice on Vimeo.

This is me spinning poi to a remix of “Everything in its right place” by Hybrid.

Kevin

We buried Kevin today.

A freight train hits you just as hard, whether you’re blindsided by it or you saw it coming from miles away. Kevin is the third old cat that Gwen and I have had to euthanize, after Oscar and Squeaker. In Kevin’s case, we had a better sense that he had little time left, but being mentally prepared doesn’t lessen the impact.

Kevin came into Gwen’s life as a young, scrawny tomcat in 1994, not long after she moved to Austin. Gwen already had Oscar and didn’t want another cat, but he kept hanging around in her garden until she took him in. After Oscar established that she was the boss, the two of them were buddies forever. Once a part of Gwen’s household, Kevin filled out to a majestic 17 lb.

Every cat has his or her own personality, and, apart from his fear of small children, Kevin’s was always unceasingly sweet and happy. He would start purring the moment anyone picked him up.

Four years ago, Kevin lost his best buddy Oscar, and it was clear that he was lonely. When we got a pair of kittens two and a half years ago, one of the two, Bubka, decided that Kevin was her new best friend, and so happily he had another excellent cuddlebuddy in his later years.

We’re not sure how old Kevin was—we estimate he lived to be 19. Old age was not easy on him. He developed an allergy that could only be treated with prednisone (though for a full year the previous vet insisted it was behavioral). He became completely deaf and his vision deteriorated. He suffered a herniated disk in his spine that left his hind legs wobbly. He was recently diagnosed with intestinal cancer. But his sweet disposition remained unchanged. It seemed that he never stopped enjoying life.

This morning he was too wobbly to even sit up, and was not purring. He was clearly having intestinal distress. His condition improved a little as the day went on, but we knew it was time. He spent the day lying on the back porch with Gwen, with friends dropping in to say goodbye.

(Gwen here.) One of Kevin’s nicknames was “Kev-Dog”—after his entirely endearing trait of simply following me around the house like a good dog so he could always be in on the action. His favorite thing was to enjoy a good book with me, stretched out on my legs on the couch. And sleeping all night as near to my head as I would allow. He was loved by many, and his sweet nature won over more than a few cat-dislikers. He had a bad spell once that involved a urinary catheter and a move from the vet to an emergency hospital—when we saw the vet after a miserable long wait, she looked at him and said “This must be Kevin,” and he started purring loudly. He was that kind of guy.

A word of grateful thanks to our excellent vets at Austin Vet Hospital (especially Dr. Besch) and their caring staff. They looked out for him in a way that I would wish for animal friend.

Kevin & Oscar

Kevin & Bubka

Twitter’s dickbar

Starting about two weeks ago, Twitter seems to have embarked on a program of doing it wrong.

  1. They have told independent developers not to bother writing primary clients for interacting with the service.
  2. They have (finally) announced that they are shutting down DabbleDB, a wonderful service that got caught up when Twitter bought out the company behind it for unrelated technology (Trendly).
  3. And of course, the dickbar.

A lot of people have written about the dickbar, a misfeature of the official Twitter iPhone app. The first version had a misbegotten interface that covered over your timeline until you played around with the phone. The second version was an improvement in UI terms, but still a misfeature in that it emphasizes information that I don’t care about (nor anyone else who has complained about it): showing global trending keywords among Twitter users.

Obviously the big reason behind the addition of this misfeature is money: it puts “promoted trends” front and center. But even apart from the monetization angle, it feels like evidence that Twitter is guiding people away from using the service the way, well, we do use it.

Twitter was conceived as a lightweight way to pass around status updates among acquaintances, and that is its greatest value to me and (I think) most people. The emphasis on trends seems to be designed to turn people into spectators rather than participants—trends answers the unasked question “what are people I don’t know talking about.” It doesn’t invite me into the conversation and it doesn’t relate to me or my circle of friends. I can see how it’s useful to, say, marketers though.

This fits with another aspect of Twitter’s service that debuted a while ago, where it suggested people for you to follow—celebrities. I see that now, it suggests people who are actually friends of friends (and promoted feeds), so apparently they’ve fine-tuned that, but it’s evidence of the same shift away from participation toward spectation.

Twitter’s got a right to run their service however they see fit. And if they keep going down the path they seem to be following, I have a right to go somewhere else.

The new GOP playbook

Republicans are philosophically opposed to the idea that government can play a useful role in the lives of citizens, or as Reagan put it, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” During his administration, George II tried to prove time and again that government cannot be helpful, by appointing Michael “heckuva job” Brown to run FEMA or by appointing Young Republicans whose prior work experience amounted to working in ice-cream trucks as administrators overseeing large parts of Iraq’s economy.

Republicans do not currently have that appointive power at the national level, but in any case, they seem to have shifted strategies. Their current approach is fiscal. First, starve the government of funds by passing tax cuts (preferably one that disproportionately benefits their wealthy patrons). Then, discover a budgetary crisis that requires “hard choices” and cuts on the kinds of programs that benefit most people. Eventually, make the government small enough “to drown in a bathtub,” as Grover Norquist puts it, or “Texas is going to shrink government until it fits into a woman’s uterus,” as State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte put it.

We’ve been seeing it in action at the national level, and at the state level, here in Texas and more prominently in Wisconsin.

At the federal level, this graphic has been making the rounds lately, showing how tax breaks for the wealthy come very close to being balanced out by proposed cuts to job training, educational programs, etc.

Texas, which was previously praised for staying solvent in the face of the Great Recession, is now facing a $27 billion shortfall. The seeds of this shortfall were planted in 2006, with a change in tax rates that was known at the time to be problematic. But, as Forrest Wilder puts it, the budget shortfall is not the cause of pain. It’s the justification.

And then there’s Wisconsin, where Scott Walker claimed that he needed both budget austerity and union-busting (and then decided he could make do with just union-busting), despite the state’s Fiscal Bureau having concluded just a month before that that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.

I’m sure some variation on this theme is happening in Michigan and elsewhere.

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