The URI! Zone turns 19 today having reached Nunavut's age of majority in style, and it can now drink and hump legally in Canada's northernmost territory. The fact that I moved it into THE CLOUD this year confuses the issue slightly, as it is now a card-carrying member of Websites Without Borders and transcends any earthly rules.
Here's how the URI! Zone looks by the numbers, for any statisticians in the audience:
The traditional blog has become a rare commodity since the heady days of Web 2.0, with actively updated blogs reduced to a trickle barely worth seeking out, and sometimes I feel like a miner freshly arrived in California in 1855, struggling futilely to recapture the magic that once was. The quality of this blog has ebbed and flowed over the years like the melancholy exhortations of a thrift store accordion, but it has always been a comfortable beacon of routine that you can count on for a few minutes of wasted time over coffee before you start your high paying jobs (weekend traffic is nearly zero).
My website has had a nomadic existence across institutes of higher education where I needlessly prolonged my adolescence and essentially "crashed on the couch" of any free web hosts available, until I cashed out into a software engineering career and could finally afford real servers and domain names.
By longevity alone, I win at blogging. I plan to abuse this tenure by reposting old content under the title "Classic URI! Zone" and posting one-liners about how I hate Mondays and love lasagna until I've killed all remaining goodwill, and then I'll simply post links to my latest quiz results concerning which Muppet I am like. My final post will either reveal that I've been dead the whole time or have become a secret lumberjack.
Regardless of quality, I definitely plan to keep the website going to hit the big 20 in a year's time, at which point you'll be navigating the Internet with your Occulus Rift goggles and going to the next page by mime-slapping the air in front of you. Thanks for your continued readership and friendship!
Tuesdays in August will be dedicated to our recent European Vacation which, unfortunately, was not won in a game of Pig in a Poke. For our first international trip since 2012, we designed a trip around Rebecca's idea to go trekking in the Alps, and added some logical cities to the mix that also allowed us to meet up with friends along the way.
Rebecca started off by flying to Geneva, Switzerland on 7/11 and then taking a shuttle to Chamonix, France. She then spent the next week and a half hiking a circuitous route around Mont Blanc (translation: Cracker Mountain) that took her through France, Switzerland, and Italy. You can read more about this leg on her blog.
Having no wish to hike over 12 miles daily for consecutive days, I stayed home and watched science fiction and heist movies with Booty. The part of the story I'm in began on 7/21, when I took an overnight flight to Geneva myself. I met Rebecca at the airport, ditched her smelly hiking gear in a long-term locker, and then we flew on to Munich, where we spent four days with Returned Mike and Annie. We then parted ways and took a train to the heart of Switzerland (near the canton of Uri) for three days in Grindelwald, Switzerland.
Once we had overdosed on both the German language and impossibly high mountains, we took the train to Montreux, Switzerland for two days in the French-speaking area around Lake Geneva. Finally, we spent a single afternoon in Geneva before flying back to Dulles and arriving home on 8/1.
Not including incidental daily expenses (which were average in Germany and pricey in Switzerland), we paid under $8000 for the two of us, with costs broken down as seen in the graphically intensive pie chart to the right. The flights were easily the most expensive portion, so if you want to repeat our steps with a tighter budget, you should consider an undocumented shipping container on a cargo ship.
Trains were the most pleasant aspect of our travel days, especially with the Swiss Travel Pass that was our Ticket to Ride for 4 flex days of travel within a single month and the constant multilingual signs and announcements throughout the well-established European train infrastructure. It would be great to have such an infrastructure here in the US, but we're probably too big and fractious of a country to ever get anywhere near it.
For this trip, we shared a single camera, and you can see the photos I selected (239 of 500 raw files) in my Europe, 2015 album. Rebecca will probably have a much different set when she goes through them, so you can pretend that we're both unreliable narrators and draw your own conclusions about the success of our trip!
To Be Continued Next Tuesday: Bikes, Brats, and Beers in Munich
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Physics of the Future Michio Kaku:
I enjoyed this nonfiction book about the current state of science and technology, having recently been on a future kick from all the science fiction movies I've watched while Rebecca was out in nature. Kaku lays out the expected progression of technology over the next 100 years in fields such as biology, nanotechnology, computers, and genetics based on interviews with scientists. The technical detail is greatly simplified for laymen, and I was most impressed by how near-term some breakthroughs actually are.
Final Grade: A-
The Bright Side by Lenka:
Lenka's fourth album is pure sugar pop, with happy beats, descending minor thirds everywhere, and simple, catchy lyrics. It's probably too saccharine for any but the most devoted fans, but I generally enjoyed it. However, I probably won't listen to it on loop for years to come.
Final Grade: B-
Suits, Season One:
This network show about the bromance between a partner and his associate who doesn't actually have a law degree is fun, with witty banter and humor trumping the generally cookie cutter storylines. I enjoyed the first season, but not so much that I would watch the second. However, if you're looking for a show that's breezy fun without much depth or drama, this could be it. Free on Amazon Prime.
Final Grade: C+
Portal Stories: Mel:
This free expansion pack to Portal 2 got good enough reviews that I downloaded it, but I then spent the next fifteen minutes trapped in an unskippable on-rails introduction (like Half Life 1, a game that bored me) with humorous narration that didn't quite work. I lost most interest by the time of the first Portal puzzle, which lacked the gentle guidance and "aha!" moments that made the real franchise so addicting -- it felt like an expert pack that I wouldn't really enjoy.
Final Grade: Not Graded
Whenever I come back from a big trip, I'm always inspired to start an ambitious new project, partly from the mind-enrichment of being in a different situation, and partly from the boredom experienced on the long plane ride back. Here are some of the ideas currently brewing in my mind for my next big venture, which may never coalesce, or might start brilliantly and then end up in the Unfinished Projects bin.
What do you think I should do?
Kicking off the weekend on Friday night, we had burgers at The Counter (mine had melted brie, roasted garlic aioli, alfalfa sprouts, scallions, grilled red onions, and mushrooms, while Rebecca's was smoke-themed with smoked gouda, smokey chipotle, and guacamole).
On Saturday, I rearranged the living room, reverting back to the pre-March 2014 layout which increases entertainment space and reduces sources of TV glare at the cost of reducing coziness and requiring increased TV volume. The living room swap is down to a science, having been perfected over the past 11 years, and I can now do it in under an hour without disconnecting any of the TV accessories.
In the evening, our parents came over for a salmon dinner and to look at our Europe pictures, after which we took a walk around the neighbourhood to enjoy the minimal humidity.
We tried something completely different on Sunday afternoon, and went to a wall-climbing basics class at the local Sportrock. Rebecca had happened to be in Chamonix during some international wall-climbing competition, so we tried it out ourselves, learning how to tie the safety knots and belay climbers. We took a few turns at the end of class on an easy wall route and although neither of us made it to the top, Rebecca got at least 80% of the way there.
After climbing, we had dinner sanwdiches outside at O'Faolain's. We were accosted in the parking lot by a guy trying to pull the standard "my car is out of gas and I need to get to Woodbridge" routine but left without giving him any money -- everyone knows that it's a scam because no one actually wants to go to Woodbridge.
On an unrelated note, you should buy this T-shirt:
Our flight from Geneva to Munich was slightly delayed, but we got on the subway and made it into the city without issue, bemused by the utter lack of ticket checkers on the train. We opted for Litty's Hotel, a smaller, less expensive hotel a few blocks out of the town center nestled amongst halal restaurants and strip clubs. Normally, its lack of air conditioning would have been quaint, but we happened to visit during a heat wave, meaning that we had to choose between quiet suffocation or the echoing car horns and misanthropes on the corner that continuously amplified up to our 4th floor room in a postive feedback loop like a neo-conservative's Facebook feed. On a positive note, the standard European breakfast of breads, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, and random bits of lunch meat, cheese, and vegetables was included, and we made sure to fill up every morning.
Upon arrival, we met up with Returned Mike and Annie and had our first beer garden experience. With their liter beers and sausage permutations, beer gardens are a fun and novel experience right up until they aren't -- this takes about two and a half days of non-stop beer garden meals. The premier beer garden, Hofbrauhaus, was far too crowded and touristy to enjoy, but we did use their free toilets several times throughout the trip.
On our first full day in Munich, we signed up for an English tour of Munich through Mike's Bike Tours, run by resident Australians for maximum accent dissonance. Munich is actually a very bike-friendly zone, with cleanly marked bike lanes and kilometers of wooded trails off the main roads, but I still felt more comfortable in the parks than anywhere near cars. As part of the tour, our guide, Julian, had us reenact a famous statue in a quiet courtyard where no one would steal our bikes, before releasing us out into the busy courtyard to see the real thing.
After the tour, we saw a church would have been nice on its own merits, had it not been filled with a new-age art exhibit called "Clouds" consisting of white strings dangling from the ceiling, and then had drinks at a rooftop bar, Eiche, in the bohemian district. We also visited Frauenkirche, a church with steeples like boobs and an interior as boring as coleslaw. Our final sightseeing stop of the day was the Michael Jackson memorial, a statue of a more historical persona which had been taken over by Beat It fans as a shrine to the late pop king (because "Black or White" Lives Matter).
On day two, we took an English tour of the Dachau concentration camp led by yet another Australian, and then sorted out our travel exit plans at the EurAide desk in the train station (which was just as helpful as advertised in Rick Steve's Munich book). After another Biergarten lunch, we visited Asamkirche, which was easily the most interesting church in the set, full of gaudy, ridiculous sculptures and biblical scenes that would have been just as well at home in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. We only got a glimpse from the foyer this night, because an organ recital was about to start and the ticket seller was incredibly worried about the idea that we would willingly sneak into an organ recital, but we came back the next day for a longer visit.
For day three, Mike and Annie split off to go see dumb art while Rebecca and I went to the Munich City Museum for some history and knick-knacks. The Museum was fun, although the English walkthrough guidebook was a little out of sync with what was actually on display. We especially enjoyed the 4th floor Music Museum (having skipped the 3rd floor puppets), full of playable instruments and a lonely security guard who implored us across language barriers to try out all of the exhibits.
We then rented bikes again and spent a leisurely afternoon in the English Garden, baaing at sheep, eating currywurst, and learning Munich traffic patterns. We also went up to the top of St. Peter's which granted a nice view, but was horribly designed for two-way traffic -- it will take you over thirty minutes to get to the top and slowly circle 360 degrees because people are incapable of not treating the parapet like an aisle at Costco.
For our final night in Munich, we ate at Opatija's. Not realizing that there were two Opatija's within a four block radius, each couple sat in a different Opatija's wondering where the other couple was until we figured out what was going on.
Overall, Munich was a fun city to visit, although it was definitely made more fun by being there with friends. On its own merits, it doesn't really have much to offer that felt unique or Europe-ancient. I guess the city couldn't help getting bombed to rubble in the war, but I was hoping to see more unique architectures and attractions. Give it two days, skip the top of St. Peter's and ignore the mechanical clock in the Marienplatz, which is about as impressive as watching a 5-disc DVD player swap discs.
To Be Continued Next Tuesday: Asian Tourists and Impossibly Vertical Mountains in Grindelwald
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Raising Hope, Season One:
This sitcom by the creator of My Name Is Earl tries to recapture the feel-good humour of the predecessor show, but never quite reaches its goal. The most entertaining part is watching Garret Dillahunt in a comedy role after years of being the villain (The 4400, Burn Notice), but there's ultimately not enough here for me to keep on watching the next season. Free on Netflix.
Final Grade: C+
Ex Machina (R):
This movie about artificial intelligence manages to be both compelling and suspenseful while also serving up some sound science and easy-to-follow technical explanations. It's sort of the same genre as Her but with more ominous overtones. It's fairly cerebral and talky, but I wasn't bored once in any of the extended conversations between the three main characters.
Final Grade: A
No Place in Heaven by Mika:
Mika's fourth album is slightly mellowed out, but has some strong hits and catchy pop devices. It continues to grow on me.
Final Grade: B+
I purchased the new and improved Kindle Paperwhite at the end of June to finally replace my second generation Kindle from 2010 (which did not support content sharing with Rebecca). It has a streamlined footprint, a noticeably smooth resolution, and a speedy interface. The touch screen makes it much easier to navigate, and the brightness settings are perfect for all ranges of ambient light. The official case is sold separately, but is sturdy and has the nice feature of turning off the Kindle when you close the case.
I took the Paperwhite on my European Vacation (reading Physics of the Future, Gone Girl, and Snow Crash), and it performed admirably with a battery life measured in weeks. I got the version with no ads (because I'm a yuppy with disposable income) and 3G (because it's really convenient to be able to buy a book from anywhere, even in Europe).
Final Grade: A
This past weekend was a busy one, starting on Friday afternoon with a round of home-o tasks like replacing a leaky toilet connector and patching mortar gaps in the foundation of the house. We had dinner at Calypso Sports Bar on Lake Anne with Amanda and Frank with dinner vocals coincidentally provided by Tula, who was in the VT music department at the same time I was.
On Saturday, the nuclear Ahlbin family came over for a slumber party. The kids slept in a tent in the basement (because that's how you go camping in the suburbs) while the adults engaged in a third round of Dungeons and Dragons (exploring the town of Phandalin) as well as some Hearthstone.
On Sunday, we went back to Sportrock to pass our climbing and belaying tests which allow us to do climb-y things unsupervised, and then spent nearly three hours trying out different routes. Rebecca reached the top on 2 of the 5 routes. We then returned home for a dinner of leftovers to ensure that we still had enough functional muscles to survive at work this week. We finished out the evening with a couple episodes of Orphan Black which is erratically good this season.
How was your weekend?
Owing to the great helpfulness of the German EurAide staff, we made the eight hour train ride from Munich to Grindelwald (via Austria and harried train transfers in Zurich, Bern, and Interlaken) without incident. We arrived in the town of Grindelwald around 3 PM.
Grindelwald is a highly polished tourist destination, with infinitely easy logistics and everything you need at hand. In fact, it probably would have too touristy had the entirety of the town not been dwarfed by the natural spectacle of the Alps towering overhead a few miles in any direction. Living on the East Coast, vertical scale is not a day-to-day occurrence, and having mountains two and three miles tall obscuring the horizon will play with your mind's sense of perspective in fun ways. When we got home, the sense of flatness was overwhelming.
Our weak German was not an issue here as the town shoppes were English-friendly. Unexpectedly, Asian tourists outnumbered Anglo tourists by a ratio of 3 to 1, crowding the trains and streets and living up to all of the classic photography sterotypes. For many, it was more important to take pictures of any and everything than it was to actually be present in the experience.
We checked into the Hotel Tschuggen, a smaller hotel in the town center that adhered to the standard "pieces of fruit, meat, eggs, and cheese" breakfast and then explored the town by walking from end to end. As a light shower began, we ducked into the Di Salvi Ristorante, which was having a special on grilled chicken halves that could be smelled from blocks away.
For our first full day, we joined our Asian friends on an expensive, extended train ride from Grindelwald up to Jungfraujoch. With an elevation change of 1.5 miles, the train drove through the Eiger mountain, stopping twice at strategically bored portholes with decent views. At each stop, all of the Asians hurried off the train to snap an obligatory picture and smoke a cigarette. We sat across from a couple from Montana who were taking an extra day in Switzerland after the wedding of one of their former exchange students.
The weather at the "Top of Europe" was perfect for our trip, and although the temperature hovered near freezing, we had clear views in every direction. We spent most of our time in the Sphinx Observatory, coming inside occasionally to warm up. The "Ice Palace" and other tchotchke-oriented sections were rather silly, but we did make sure to get our free chocolate from the Lindt Shop.
After getting sufficiently chilled, we took the train halfway down the mountain to Kleine Sheidegg and did some more temperate hiking around glaciers, meadows, and cows. We actually got caught in a cow collection activity, during which a farmer on a dirtbike rode through the meadows with his two dogs, rounding up the cows and sending them home for dinner. For our dinner that night, we ate next door to our hotel at Hotel Spinne. The food was not particularly exciting, but the liter beers and 270 degree view of every major mountain more than made up for that.
One nice feature of Grindelwald's extensive cable car infrastructure was that we could skip the boring lowlands portions of any given hike and expend our energy on the exciting high parts. On day two, we took a cable car up 0.7 miles from Grindelwald to First, and then did a strenuous hike up another 0.3 miles over about 8 miles of horizontal trekking to a tiny hamlet called Falhorn (lower left on the map above). The picture below is at the base of the final Falhorn ascent, with whipping winds and clear views in every direction.
We survived the balance-destroying winds and random cows to reach Falhorn, an inn and restaurant settlement reachable mainly by helicopter. They charged a franc for the toilet, which is their perogative for being 1.6 miles up in the air, and we also shared the best tasting $5 cup of hot chocolate we'd ever had in the warmth of the restaurant.
After hiking back to First and taking a cable car down the mountain, we took a bus to the nearest Glacier and hiked several more miles up to an abandoned restaurant. We failed at finding the glacier, but a very talkative Brit let us know that the glacier had actually melted within the past three years, and was no longer accessible from where we stood. Disappointed, we took the bus back to Grindelwald and had another dinner in our favorite sunset spot at Hotel Spinne.
Our final morning in Grindelwald would consist of one last hike to Pfinestegg, a brief but very steep hike up to a coop full of chickens and guinea hens. We then got back on the train and headed next for Montreux, the French-speaking town on Lake Geneva.
Grindelwald was easily the most impressive leg of our trip, full of nature and hikes while simultaneously offering pampered amenities like easy-to-arrange transportation and delicious premade hike sandwiches at the local COOP grocery store.
To Be Concluded Next Tuesday: A Return to French in Montreux and Geneva
Sixteen years ago today, on August 19, 1999, I was in Blacksburg, about to start my fourth year of college. The few days before the first day of class were always a whirlwind of marching band activities (although we didn't have a swank practice facility like the one that just opened). We started the day in the music wing, auditioning a neverending cavalcade of returning old-timers who had not practiced all summer long, but expected to be given first trumpet parts because of their age.
After an evening rehearsal in Cassell Colliseum, the trumpet section was invited to Doug's apartment in Pheasant Run (the infamous 222 Janie Lane), where everyone tried, but failed, to beat Doug at foozball. New freshman, Anna, was also at this party, and everyone tried, but failed, to sway her away from her high school boyfriend, Ben.
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Sense8, Season One:
This is a new Netflix original series about eight people across the world who become telepathically linked, and can suddenly experience each others' lives. The individual stories of the eight are the primary focus of this show -- this is not a show to watch if you want to be satisfied by an overarching storyline or are seeking answers to why things are happening. Some of the characters are more interesting than others, and episodes stutter-step between long, talky sections, and fun action scenes where, for example, one of the characters uses the fighting skills of another character. It's very slow paced, and you'll know whether you'll like it or not after just two episodes. My opinion on the show can be summed up with Rossini's opinion on Wagner: "Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour." Free on Netflix.
Final Grade: C
Half Full Ashtrays, Half Empty Glasses by the Lab Rats:
I really enjoyed the song, "Devil's Train" that came on my Hilltop Hoods Pandora station, and the EP is well worth the purchase. This is a solid collection of white blue-collar hip-hop over full orchestrations that are much more fleshed out than your typical looping beat track.
Final Grade: A-
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn:
I have not yet seen this movie, but the book is well-written and a real page-turner in spite of the fact that it falls apart in the end. The book is divided into three sections -- the first hooks you in, while the second upends your understanding of all of the pieces. The third felt a little obligatory and more like an epilogue than a climax. The ending is internally consistent, but not satisfying after the intense build of the previous parts. If a poor ending will ruin your enjoyment of the book as a whole, you'll probably want to skip this one, rather than be let down by it.
Final Grade: B
We've now had our Echo device for about five months, but it hasn't become an integral part of our existence. My primary use for it is music, but it has two drawbacks: playing Pandora stations includes too many ads, and it's cumbersome to set up playlists of your own music in the provided online UI. We also use it for top news and weather on a daily basis. Anything more complicated than this still results in poor understanding of our commands. Still, at the $99 price point, it's useful enough that I don't regret buying it.
Final Grade: B
I still regularly play Hearthstone as a casual "game I can play on the side while doing more productive things since people take forever to play their turns". Here are some stats from about 1000 games played as either Paladin or Priest.
I like to play mid-range control decks, so generally if I survive past turn 6, I have a pretty good chance of winning, unless I'm facing a Grim Patron Warrior and Giant Warlock deck. I lose slightly more than I win, but have fun playing non cookie-cutter decks. I'm generally around Rank 17 but have occasionally gone as high as Rank 13. Here's the raw data I've captured, sorted by win rate.
Are you still playing Hearthstone?
We kicked off the weekend at the Smith household, where we ate corn chowder for dinner and played several board games in the recently finished basement, including Trans Europa, Exploding Kittens, and the poorly-timed 12 Days of Christmas.
On Saturday, Rebecca went out gallivanting with Emily and her twins and then went stand-up paddleboarding in Georgetown with Marc, while I stayed home and started learning about video game development over a Domino's pan pizza.
On Sunday, my dad came out to help deliver a new queen bed as a very early Christmas present (timed against Costco coupon windows), replacing the eleven-year-old full mattress which feels a little smaller every day as Booty continues to gain her own gravitational field. In the evening, we started the show, Silicon Valley over chocolate truffle ice cream and a farmhouse ale.
How was your weekend?
Montreux was a bigger town than expected, with narrow European streets and a bustling, walkable feel. Still, it struck a fair balance between the over-urbanization of Munich and the pastoral setting in Grindelwald. You could walk lightly trafficked streets to get that quaint, European town feel, but the tail end of the Alps still loomed overhead, just a ways down the coast.
We debarked from the train and walked to the Hotel Tralala, a chic music-themed hotel where John Kerry once stayed in May 2015 (according to the framed letter at the front desk). Each room had a famous musician featured heavily, and our bed was watched over at all times by Sting. On the first evening, we walked down to the waterfront to get a feel for the town, passing by Montreux's most famous tourist attraction: an underwhelming statue of Freddy Mercury from Queen. We ate dinner at an expensive place with a nice view overlooking Lake Geneva, where Rebecca relearned rule of life #23: Never order the risotto because afterwards, you'll just feel unsatisfied like you ate a side of tasteless butter.
As a light rain washed across the town, we scurried back towards the hotel (all uphill of course), and ducked into a tiny local restaurant for wine and dessert. Now that we were back in the French-speaking area of Switzerland, my high school French came in handy again, and in this restaurant, I was even able to help the owner serve a group of Asian tourists who spoke zero French and a small bit of English (they were having trouble ordering "warm" water -- pas trop chaud et pas trop froid).
On our first full day, we visited the resident castle, Chateau du Chillon. It was pleasant enough, but nowhere near as impressive as Carcassonne in 2008. It didn't help that the castle was in various stages of revitalization, and whether an area was kept as it originally had been, restored to how it had looked, or restored to how the archaeologist thought it should have looked, was a decision that varied from section to section, resulting in a clash of styles similar to my artwork when I try to draw plants as a colourblind person.
On the way back up to the hotel, we stopped at a place that the guidebooks identified as a wine tasting bar, Cave Vevey-Montreux. It turned out to be a wine distributor, but the owner was very friendly and did an impromptu tasting just for us. After buying a bottle to drink on our afternoon hike, she even gave us a free corkscrew so we'd remember the place.
In the afternoon, we hiked in the Gorges du Charderon, a canyon of extreme height variations tucked just behind the city. When we reached the highest point, we had our bottle of wine and watched out for roaming goats, and then descended by way of over 1800 stairs (we probably should have gone back through the forests instead). After a traditional meal at a local restaurant (fried stuff with egg on top), we chased the sunset to a nearby church with slightly creepy organ music playing inside.
Our final stop on the trip was Geneva. Rick Steves hates Geneva so much that his guidebook is essentially a paragraph telling everyone not to go there. Because of this, we only allocated a single afternoon, but it was pleasant enough and not horrible in the least. We arrived the day before Swiss Day (August 1), so the entire city was gearing up for some major entertainment that we ended up missing.
An oft-cited tourist attraction in Geneva is the Jet de l'Eau -- a fountain of water that shoots out of the bay to relieve excess pressure in the water system. This is about as exciting as it sounds, and we docked additional points from it because we waited there for 20 minutes with nothing to show for it (apparently it isn't running for 20 minutes out of every hour). Only when we were leaving did it deign to begin.
We also visited Eglise Catholique, a nondenominational church used only for political ceremonies and selling postcards, but the best part of the afternoon was spent simply eating gelato and people-watching on the Place du Bourg de-Four. And really, that was the general pattern of our afternoon -- wandering to various parks and plazas, eating gelato, and moving on, not unlike a savannah elephant. In the evening, we stayed at Hotel Central, a family-run hotel / B&B with tiny rooms whose entrances went through the bathroom -- we made sure not to go #2 until we were on our way out.
The trip back on Saturday was uneventful, except for the fact that airport security picked me for random questioning twice, and picked Rebecca zero times. We blew all of our remaining francs on airport chocolate (which we have been steadily eating every night since), and then spent a long 9 hours on a delayed United flight whose video screen system crashed almost immediately after departure and could not be rebooted. (First class, in their reclining cocoon seats, were unaffected).
Now we are home again, and I still have over 200 hours of leave to burn through by the end of the year. Where should I go next?
Twenty years ago today, on August 26, 1995, I was fifteen years old and about to start my senior year of high school. According to my historically preserved Far Side calendar, the 26th was a Saturday just after the end of Band Camp, and my sister had just left for her sophomore year at UVA.
Having finally reached the Age of the Learner's Permit (15.5 years in Virginia), I spent much of August doing behind-the-wheel training through Keith's Driving School. On this particular Saturday, my instructor, Big Mike, was particularly disagreeable since he'd just had surgery the week before. I did my hour behind the wheel in Hybla Valley with a girl named Lucy in the back seat while Big Mike played his country guitar demo tapes, and then we swapped for the next hour. We ended, as always, at a 7-11 so Big Mike could grab a bite. His self-applied nickname was actually Big Mike -- I'm not just calling him that because he was bulky.
In the afternoon, I crushed soda cans for recycling in our newly purchased Crusher (thanks, 1990s), and then went for a bike ride around Alexandria. Finally, I went up the street to our neighbours, the Jarrett's. Walt Jarrett worked for one of the big publishers back then (maybe Houghton Mifflin?) and hired me to read off several pages of price lists so he could punch them into the mechanical calculator more quickly. I earned twenty bucks for about an hour of mindless work, which went towards the purchase of Phantasmagoria (the full-motion-video horror game by the creator of King's Quest) the next morning.
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
This Syfy miniseries (which ultimately was not picked up for an actual season) tells the tale of a 100-year voyage to Mars that departed in the 1950s and is now halfway through its voyage, with the original generation dying off and a new generation born on the spaceship coming into power. It's a mixed bag, having all of the tropes necessary for an interesting sci-fi story that's more than just a space battle, but they're assembled in a very workman-like manner without enough finesse. The pseudoscience is horrible, and the set designers seem to have forgotten that the group came from the 1950s after the pilot episode, but the political infighting and plot mysteries are well-done and get better as the series progresses. It's generally a fun watch, if only to see Bobby Cobb from Cougartown as the ship's captain. Free on Netflix.
Final Grade: B-
Sherlock, Season Two:
The goodness graph for this season looks like a right-handed checkmark. The first episode was passable, the second exceedingly boring, and the third made it all worthwhile. The show is only engaging when the villain, Moriarty, is a primary character, and his absence from any given episode is very noticeable. I would even recommend only watching the third (and final) episode of this season. Free on Netflix.
Final Grade: B-
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson:
This seminal 1992 sci-fi book describing a virtual reality Internet before its time starts strong and whimpers out. The first chapter is a compelling introduction to the world and jargon at large, but the jumps in time and personality-lacking protagonist, Hiro (the katana-wielding hacker), muddy the waters. Extended sections of the middle of the book involve Hiro talking to his virtual assistant learning about ancient Sumerians, and these monologues go on for so long that it feels like the author was so proud of his research that he didn't want to edit. I ultimately ended up skimming these chapters but it didn't matter in the end, as the plot became too tangled to follow or care about and imploded in a confusing cloud of swapped alliances and hard-to-differentiate supporting characters.
Final Grade: C-
Following my First Impressions post about this RPG, I ended up playing it solidly for another month or so. It was fun and enoyable to play until the point where it wasn't. Ultimately, there was just too much story to sit through, and I felt the need to be playing more and watching fewer (thankfully skippable) cutscenes. I didn't feel like I was making consistent progress and finally moved on after seeing less than 20% of the plot (but spending many fun hours getting there).
Final Grade: B-
August's Final Grade: B+, a good month of downtime after Europe to regenerate before "back-to-school" season at work.
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