Sunday, October 04, 2009

A Grand Gaga Day

Today was a perfect October day for me. Cool temperatures, some rain, a quiet Saturday, one more day of the weekend lurking...

Reminds me of one of my favorite Björk songs.

In that vein, I have to say I've wildly underestimated this, how you say, 'Lady Gaga'?

Based on the short audience I witnessed on Saturday Night Live this evening, I have to look into this more.

What I saw was a bit of early David Bowie and a bit of errrr.. something. I'm on the case.

Wait... what?

Thursday, September 03, 2009


For whatever reason, I've developed an affinity for foreign languages in my lifetime. I suppose it's not only the languages but foreign cultures, as well.

It's not a coincidence that my "blog name" is Viszlát Sjáumst. Both words mean about the same thing - "see you later" - in Hungarian and Icelandic, respectively.

I studied French in junior high, high school, and one year in college. Much of it has been lost but over the years I've done okay with the basics - getting by in Montréal and Paris in quick visits. My vocabulary level is low but I can still make out basic signs and make my way through certain written materials. Making pleasantries and asking certain questions in markets, and the like, was a nice challenge.

Earlier this decade I traveled a bit in Europe with a group of friends - to Iceland, Denmark, Hungary, and Spain. A few of us spent five days in Guatemala during that time, as well. For each visit, aside from Iceland, I brought a Berlitz phrase book with me in order to test my chops in the local tongue.

It wasn't anything groundbreaking but I was able to manage enough to get by in most cases. Typically, I was the 'go-to' guy when it came to deciphering what was going on and trying my best to interpret what was needed to get through the situation.

Ordering food and - more likely - beer, asking about train schedules, directions... typical travel chat.

Denmark (and Sweden) were pretty simple, since most people in both countries are well versed in English, anyway. Although, I put myself in a corner when I asked the woman at the front desk of our hotel in Copenhagen, in Danish, if she could recommend a good seafood restaurant. Without pause, she began rattling off names and directions in Danish - after which, I gave up the game. I was outmatched. We necessarily resorted to English but I think she was impressed with my effort, nonetheless.

Spain and Guatemala were great because one of my mates had been studying Spanish, so we managed pretty well as a group with a two-pronged attack. My proudest moment, though, probably came while we were in Budapest, Hungary.

There were only three of us on that trip. We all knew the basics - Hello, thank you, please, etc. But my shining moment came after an afternoon visit to Gellért Hill.

After making our way down the hill we found ourselves in the back alley of the main strip. There was a small pub/diner/market that ran from the back of the block to the front, where the main street was. We entered through the back entrance.

Inside, there was a construction worker finishing up his lunch, another man sitting alone at a table sipping a beer, the matronly proprietor who was manually balancing the books in a thick ledger - the way it had probably been done for decades, if not centuries - and us three American tourists.

Needless to say, this wasn't one of the places highlighted in the Lonely Planet guides. We knew it and, based on the cold reception given to us by the boss-woman, she knew it, as well.

Undeterred (and no doubt thirsty), we sat down at the small back counter and pointed to one of the beer taps indicating that we'd each like a glass. The woman reluctantly (it seemed) obliged by filling three glasses from the tap and immediately went back to the table where she'd been sitting to finish her accounting for the day.

As we enjoyed our first glasses of beer and discussed our recent visit, I began leafing through my Berlitz Hungarian Phrase Book & Dictionary.

Deciding we were comfortable and not quite ready to move on to our next destination, we waited for her to catch our glances and she returned back behind the counter. Meanwhile, I had had a few minutes to digest the information in the book, piece together a few words, and summon up the courage to order another round - in Hungarian.

"Három korsó magyar sört, kérek," I said a bit sheepishly. "Three pints Hungarian beer, please." Wouldn't you know it - a smile came across the woman's face as she happily filled three glasses with cold, Hungarian beer.

It's a phrase I've committed to memory and, for some reason, I'll occasionally say out loud. The better to practice some Hungarian diction, perhaps. Beats me.

Unfortunately, it was close to closing time (about 4:00 p.m.) and we were only able to stay for one more before she closed up for the afternoon. I'd like to think the construction worker finishing his lunch was impressed too but that may just be revisionist history.

It was a nice moment of connection. The slightest effort on our part to communicate in her native language, instead of pantomiming like a monkey and bellowing in English, had made a huge impression. That connection is just one of the things I love about traveling to non-English speaking locales.

That trip was in 2001. There was one last annual trip, to Spain, in 2002. (1999-2002, R.I.P.) After that it just became more difficult to put together, mostly due to the 2003 U.S. incursion into Iraq and the uncertainties that brought with it.

The passion didn't end there for me, though. In subsequent years, one of the items on my Christmas 'Wish List' was a Teach Yourself Icelandic book and audio cd. In 2004, I signed up for an adult education Spanish course at a (somewhat) local high school. Last year, I enrolled in another Spanish course with a couple of co-workers to hone my Español.

Having taken French for so many years, Spanish was fairly easy to get a hold on. I mean that relatively. A lot of the grammar and verb stuff is similar (as in Italian, too). Vocabulary and verb tenses are always a challenge but the basics (present tense, please!) have been less so. Sometimes I'll practice by 'talking' to my cat in Spanish. True.

"No más de agua aquí, gatito!"

Which leads me to the impetus of this post. My Spanish has paid off in small but gratifying ways. There's the old (I think he's 72 now?) man from the Dominican Republic who works for the cleaning service at my office. I'm usually there an hour or so after 'closing time' so I'm there when he comes around. We've had small conversations and I definitely notice when he's not there (he takes a month-long vacation back to the D.R. once a year - during the winter, of course).

More recently, I was in the local liquor store discussing the new Guinness 250th Anniversary Stout with the cashier. A co-worker (off-duty, I presumed) was also there when a man of Latino descent came in. He went to the back of the store and searched the coolers through the glass doors for his purchase. As I was talking with the cashier about the limited Anniversary Stout, I heard the man speaking Spanish to the off-duty worker.

"Treinta, Treinta!" he kept repeating. I peeked around the corner and I could see him holding up his hands, palms out, fingers splayed in what must be the universal sign for the number 10. "Treinta! Bud Light, diez mas," he was saying. The co-worker just stood there, somewhat indifferently, somewhat confusedly.

That's when I said, "He's looking for a Bud Light 30-pack. There are only 20-packs there."

The kid looked a bit put-out but he pointed to the door leading inside the cooler and said, "It's in there." The customer went in, grabbed his 30-pack of Bud Light, and paid for it. By that time, I was already outside getting into my car.

As the man came out, he spotted me and gave me a smile and a wave. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I rolled down my window and shouted, "Que tenga buena noche!" He turned, waved, and shouted something back in Spanish.

I'm not quite sure what he said but I think it may only have been because I couldn't hear him - not that I couldn't understand him.

At least that's what I hope it was.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Eagle Has Landed

Going to the moon.

By this time, 40 years later, it is something that is mostly taken for granted by people. Others might question why we ever did it in the first place. Perhaps it is paid no mind at all by the rest. All irrelevant. It happened.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the United States's Apollo mission landing on the moon. I was just 356 days from existence when it happened. While I'm fine with my current place in life - and the relative years since my birth - it would have been a fascinating event to witness while it was happening. Being a dorky 13 year old in 1969 would've been perfect. Alas, I was beholden to the inimitable Commodore 64™ at that age. Anyway...

It's not a stretch to say that nothing, nothing, as spectacular has ever happened at the hand of man in human history - either before or since.

For a quick perspective : It is amazing to think that we were able to devise, engineer, and execute a plan to fire a rocket into space, with live humans aboard, accurately enough to safely approach and land on the moon (the friggin' moon!). Then have those humans bandy about - walking, buggying, golfing, &c. - upon it for a spell. Then, finally, return them safely back to Earth... all before we had touch-tone telephones. It is nothing short of astounding.

There were plenty of satellites (okay, a few) that had been put in place beforehand. Satellites are different. They're somewhat like kites - tossed up into the galactic 'wind' and set to coast on the underlying currents. In this case, it isn't wind that keeps them afloat. It is gravity. Shoot an object from the plane of the Earth far enough (but not too far) outward and the force of gravity from the massive planet it left will grasp and hold it at arms length, so to speak, in perpetuity*.

Apollo was different. Granted, the Soviet Union managed to get unmanned units to the moon and back. As did the U.S. (I think) However, the Apollo mission had one key element which made it stand, literally, 'head and shoulders' above the rest. Apollo had aboard human beings.

It is an undeniably massive achievement for humankind. This is true whether you agree with space exploration or not.

There's no way for me (right now, anyway) to prove this - but it's likely the sentiment and most frequently asked question from those that don't immediately see the benefit of the research involved in getting people to the moon and back safely is, "Seems a waste of money. What does it do for me?"

I have one word for you : Velcro.

Actually, 'hook and loop' fastening (as it's called now. like the kleenex/tissue thing) was invented in 1941 by Swiss engineer George de Mastral. Fast forward, after many years of sparing use, it was NASA that eventually shot the fabric securing method into the mainstream.

Seems like a trivial thing. But it's a simple example of how the things NASA uses and/or develops eventually find their way into the everyday lives of citizens. All over the world.

As for me, I probably tend to take things for granted. I won't claim that I'm an active follower of the sciences but I am interested in, and supportive of, the overall endeavor. The good thing is there are now television networks devoted to science or showing science-based programs. No one in 1969 had such good fortune. I watch the programming and it reminds me of how crazy it is - shooting things, people, into space. Looking millions of light-years in the past.

Honestly, I don't always fully understand some of the concepts or technical details. But the ideas on their own are well understood. Like, you can attach a giant can to more cans filled with millions of gallons of rocket fuel and shoot the whole thing to the moon. And you can go with it - and come back !!

Amazing. One small step, no shit...

It's science.

*The force of gravity on satellites eventually decays over time. Like a battery running low - and eventually "dying." At some point, all satellites drop out of orbit, after losing their 'wind', and succumb to the same gravitational force that supported them all their orbiting lives. Much like the kite that hits an air pocket, points earthbound, and nose-dives out of the sky in a flash - satellites come crashing down. Always. Re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere is usually enough to burn them up and destroy them but there have been bits of satellites that have made their way back to the Earth's surface. Skylab, anyone?

NB : this is my own interpretation of the fate of satellites. while I'm sure it's true, I admit my research mainly consists of watching the Science channel, Discovery Channel, and the like, along with a dash of internet searching. Hey, at least it wasn't just completely made up.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kitty Presents

Gotta love waking up on a Sunday morning and finding a 'surprise' left by your pet. In this case, my cat Spinny.

It's amazing to me that of all the potential landing spots for these lovely gifts, they're more often than not delivered on the carpet. For reference, there's only one room in my entire house that has carpet.

Not on the shiny, washable hardwood floor. Not on the easily cleanable ceramic tile. Nope. Right on the dang carpet.

Warning! These photos may be disturbing to viewers that don't have pets.

Notice how close she was to the hardwood floor. Strategic puking, indeed :

A couple close-ups, first the food :

Then the hair slug :

Nice, eh. Then I was treated to this gem later that evening :

I wonder if she's taking up cartography and was having a go at Africa? She'll need to work on it, though - not sure what that little island (Iceland, maybe?) is doing there...

She's a good kitty, though, so it's hard to get upset with her... it's just part and parcel of living with our four-legged friends. Seriously, how could you get upset with this face?


Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's Gettin' Kinda Tech-tic

So, here we are - on the eve of the one-year anniversary of my moving into my new (and first-ever) home. What a milestone. I still walk through my house and sometimes think, "I can't believe this is a house... that I'm paying for and living in." It's fantastic. And while I'll admit that I could've done more with it in my first year to "make it my own" - I've no complaints. There's plenty of time left (29 years, to be precise) for me to get down and dirty.

Things like... well, replacing my decrepit mailbox. Yeah - never happened last year.

But that's not what I'm dwelling on right now. After having moved up a step in where I'm living, this is about what's going on with how I'm living.

Last week I took the plunge and updated my Audio/Video status. I jumped into the glorious world of High Definition Television by ordering a new TV and Blu-ray disc player. The Blu-ray disc player came on Tuesday and the TV arrived this morning.

Holy Crap... This is ridiculous ! It's not like I haven't seen HDTV in other locales - it's just very different when you experience it for the first time in your own space.

The TV is an absolutely perfect fit in my living room at 52". The screen looks so huge... and crisp. It's almost (almost) as if you could fit two of the old 32" analog tube screens in this thing. I'm sure I'll get accustomed to the size but, right now, it feels as if a multi-plex cinema theater screen has invaded my living room. And I don't have one complaint about it.

There must be a zillion options to play with but the setup was so simple. Plug in the HDMI, turn on the cable, et voila - there it is. Turns out the cable box is 'only' 1080i and the set is 1080p, so I'm not sure how detrimental that is (not very, by the looks of it). I'll worry about that later. Right now, I'm light years from where I was last night in terms of viewing experience. Right now, I may as well be playing shortstop in the Sox/Rays game...

Without even breaching the myriad options available on the set (the manual is the size of a 125 page magazine - and that doesn't include the alternate languages) I'm stylin'. The set, itself, should be enough, yeah?

Hold on though... The Blu-ray player adds even more to the ensemble. It's like a high-tech wet dream. The player has built-in software that connects to both Netflix, for instant streaming of available movies and televisions series, as well as the Internet Radio service Pandora.

Each on their own are great services - being able to access both of them through my television and Blu-ray player is... well, it's just obscene, is what it is. And, again, the setup was an absolute breeze. Plug in the LAN cord to the player and the router, click a few buttons, enter a key-code at each site and - bingo! - it's all set up.

It's really unbelievable. I've yet to stream anything from Netflix (maybe tonight) but the Pandora works brilliantly. And if you don't know of Pandora I suggest you check it out. Set up an account, pop in an artist, and it will play songs from that artist along with similar artists. Great way to check out new music without having to actively search it out. I highly recommend it - and it's free. Then go from there. Set up different 'radio stations' based on different artists, rate songs (yay or nay) and it adjusts what songs it'll play... good stuff.

So, yeah, here it is - one year later... and with all this newly acquired technology, I'm not sure if I'll ever leave the house again.

Now I'm off to play and enjoy my new toys.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Hmmm, I Wonder...

>> I wonder... if there's a better three second sensation in the world than returning to a warm, flannel-lined bed in the early, winter morning hours after a brief vacation from it for - whatever.

>> I wonder... if there's a definitive human gene which contributes to, or is entirely responsible for, greed.

>> I wonder... if reading truly is fundamental.

>> I wonder... if the scent of even our most foul-smelling flatulence is somehow more tolerable to ourselves than it is to others due to some biological or physiological phenomenon. Does our mind recognize the self-produced scent through microscopic signatures, thus rendering it less offensive? Or is it simply a cognitive response - in that we're aware of the offense, thus diffusing our own natural reaction or repulsion?

>> I wonder... how many of you were totally grossed out by that last 'wonder' - and how many have the same curiosity.

>> I wonder... if Mrs. Sippy wore a new jersey, what did Della wear?

>> I wonder... if the general culture in Europe dictates that tipping for restaurant/bar service is minimal, if not non-existent, what effect does heavy travel by Americans (and other similar tipping cultures) have on that culture? Will a café server in Milan be fine with no tip from a fellow Milanese, yet expect some tip from an American? At some point, will tourism change the tipping policy in such places? Is that fair? Or is tourism too small to have an impact? No idea... Thus, I wonder.

>> I wonder... how much better off the world would be today if Joe Strummer was still alive.

>> I wonder... "I waah waah waah waah wonder... Why... You went away!"

>> I wonder... , going back to a theme, if there's a definitive human gene which contributes to, or is responsible for, laziness.

>> I wonder... whether people are ever going to get past the unwarranted, misinformed, and completely hypocritical view of marijuana use in this country or not. The decriminalization law went into effect in Massachusetts, what, a full month ago? And you're telling me that none of those apocalyptic predictions have yet to even simmer to the surface? Shocking. The paranoia is unbelievable. It's ridiculous... It's so ridiculous, I've come up with an instant proverb for the occasion :

"a cornerstone of fear is the first brick to ruin." -me

>> I wonder... if that self-ascribed proverb might not be some variation of another, more succinct and elegant, ancient proverb. I don't want to rip anybody off. Credit due an' all... but I think it's fairly original.

>> I wonder... if Sir Arthur Guinness's decision to negotiate a 9000 year lease - yes, nine-thousand years - on the St. James's Gate Brewery, Dublin, at a rate of £45 per year was shrewd business or, as a non-Guinness drinking mate recently said, hubris?

>> I wonder... 'whether will there ever be a boy born who can swim faster than a shark'.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Year of the Movie

Happy New Year, tout le monde.

A week ago Friday a couple of my mates came by to hang out. At some point in the night we decided it was time to watch a movie. I had two DVDs from Netflix that I had yet to view, so I threw out the options. The (predictable) winner was Superbad. I say predictable because I know one of the guys had already seen it and raved about it. My other friend and I had not yet seen it - so in it went.

Two hours later (there were a few pauses for necessary 'pit stops'...) we were finished with it. Funny, funny movie. I rated it 4/5 stars on Netflix. I liked the Beck Jr. kid much better than the other one - but the movie, as a whole, was great.

The following Wednesday I finally got around to watching the other movie I had at home. I say 'finally' because, when I looked at my Netflix account, I realized that it had been shipped to me on ... get this - 2 July 2008!

That's right. I had had that DVD for just over SIX months...

No idea why it took me so long to watch it - but that's the beauty of Netflix. No late fees! Anyway, that question became even more poignant after I watched the movie. It was awesome. The movie is called Rabbit-Proof Fence. I won't get into the details of it; you can look it up. Hopefully, if you haven't already, you'll also watch it. And don't forget the 'making-of' featurette included on the DVD.

So at that point, it had been two movies in six days for me. Two great movies in six days, that is.

Okay, so fast-forward to this past Friday. I met up with a few more of my mates for some delicious Mexican food at Rancho Chico in lovely Plainville, MA (Come on down!) and we convened at my house afterward for a few beers and much lively discussion.

The talk eventually turned to movies. Rabbit-Proof Fence was one we discussed. Another which came up was The Professional. The 1994 action flick about an assassin (Jean Reno) who forms a relationship with 12-year old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) after a crazed DEA agent (Gary Oldman) kills her entire family.

Two of us had seen it; two of us had not. The perception of the movie, for those that hadn't seen it, was that it was a hokey/cheezy kind of movie. Reading some of the Netflix reviews, I think this may be a common theme. Anyway, the two of us that had seen it described the movie excitedly and promised that it was not at all a schlocky 'fish-out-of-water' kind of movie. My two mates who hadn't seen it vowed they'd give it a shot.

More movies came up. More discussion. More insight into movies we'd never seen, heard of, etc. During the discussion I declared that 2009 was going to be "The Year of the Movie" for me. I'm making a conscious effort to watch more movies.

It's not because of my six-month 'rental' and not getting my money's worth out of Netflix. I don't look at my membership that way. The way I see it is I'm paying for a service, not simply movie rentals. Going through my queue and re-arranging it, reviewing movies, perusing movies I've yet to see, and interacting with a few of my mates that also have memberships is well worth the monthly fee for me.

It's so much better than simply going to a video rental store, ordering movies On-Demand, or catching them on the various cable movie channels. Although, "The Year of the Movie" certainly doesn't exclude movies I may find on the cable channels... They're just an added bonus in between Netflix deliveries.

But regarding Netflix - It's an interactive experience that I enjoy - and the luxury of not having to worry about late fees is a bonus for me. Sometimes, I'm just not in the right mood to watch a certain movie. Sometimes, I'm not in the mood for six whole months. So be it.

However, that six-month thing is out the window now. This is 2009, "The Year of the Movie." I've already watched one today and I think I'm going to pop one in right now to finish the night.

Here's how TYotM has begun :

> 2 January - Superbad (4/5 stars)
> 7 January - Rabbit-Proof Fence (5/5 stars)
> 10 January - WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception (3/5 stars)
> 11 January - Maléna (4/5 stars)

Tonight is going to be Full Metal Jacket (a DVD I borrowed from my brother-in-law last Christmas). And the next two coming from Netflix are The Notorious Bettie Page and Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten.

There it is. It's officially begun. Enjoy a movie you've been waiting to see, tonight!

p.s. Today, 11 January, has also officially been declared "Pancake Zone Day." I had pancakes this morning, as did two of my friends - unbeknownst to me. If anyone else out there had pancakes today, I'd love to hear of it. And if you didn't today - make sure to next year.