Work Thoughts

I miss those heady days of the dot com bubble. Those were lucrative times. I've just received a notice for a job opening in the Federal Government with a salary equal to my current one. It used to be that if the government rate was higher than your commercial rate, you were not making enough.

Who knows any more?

Working as a consultant brings new challenges every day. It's interesting work because it's never the same thing for any length of time. I might spend six months working with a group of web developers then do two months with a bunch of electronic test equipment coders and follow up with some training gigs. It's often tiring, but rarely boring.

On the other hand, a government job offers a sense of stability that consulting doesn't. Imagine knowing that the ten mile bike ride was permanent.

On the other other hand, does working for the government imply support of that government's policies? Perhaps it depends on the office.

And on the other other other hand, government agencies do relocate from time-to-time, when some Congressional leader wants more work in his/her state.

On the other other other other hand, aren't the benefits supposed to be better in the government?

I need more hands.

Anansi Boys (Neil Gaiman)

So I thought I'd sit in on a Committee meeting. The business of a co-op is managed by committees, and committees like nothing more than meetings. Minutes and agendas and points-of-order are not generally my cup-of-tea, but I've been imagining that our little community of 1600 is democracy on a practical scale, where votes do matter and advertising money doesn't rule every roost.

Plus, I'd heard that the A&E Committee has the best brawls.

The Architecture and Environment Committee deals with the rough edges where individual families bump up against each other. The Committee controls the look and feel of our community, and their edicts -- on shed colors, elimination of invasive ivy, addition size -- do not always go over well with the folks trying to make an individualized home here.

There is definitely a major fear of ivy here. I suppose the A&E Committee is worried because of possible impact on the foundations and such. Last year, we wandered down to watch a series of locally produced films in the Greenbelt Theater. The scariest film of all was the one where ivy completely overtook a community and consumed the people and pets. I still have bad dreams.

Unfortunately, I didn't quite make it over to the meeting, but here's what I imagine would have happened had I gotten up the energy to wander over. I walk into the meeting room, late, of course. I head for the only empty seat, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. I am undone soon enough by the horrible crash that results from my tripping over some pensioner's purse. All eyes turn to me, including those of the Committee and the current witness, which is unfortunate, because I hate (desperately hate) being the center of attention.

I suppose that's why I have a blog?

I turn about ten shades of red and slink down into the seat I've located by feel. I hold my breath until everyone loses interest and testimony continues. I gasp in relief, which brings a few more stares (mostly local to my area of the boardroom), but I weather this with little damage. Finally, I am free to have a look around. My attention is immediately caught by the man I'm sitting next to. He is reading Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys.

That's cool, because I just read that book, too!

"The Committee doesn't hold your attention?" I whisper. He shakes his head.

"I'm only here because it's warmer than outside."

"That book is pretty funny," I say after staring at the Committee for a few moments. An elderly woman is discoursing on the subject of the history of our co-op fee increases. Each time a Committee member interrupts her to try to explain that she really wants the Finance Committee, she starts over from the very beginning. And although the cooperative is not that old, these houses were build back in the '30s, so the very beginning is a long, long time ago. Eventually, they stop trying to dissuade her, deciding, I guess, to ride it out.

"Yeah, pretty funny," the man-in-search-of-warmth says.

And that's the way it is with funny books, I guess: You can't really talk about how they're funny, because analysis really can kill the humor. You can fall back on other, side topics, I suppose, but they aren't at the heart of the matter, really.

"I felt very comfortable with the characters," I say. He just shrugs, so I repeat. "Yep. Really funny."

The co-op fee woman finishes her harangue with a humph and toddles off. If you can't say something nice, you have to criticize.

"Of course," I say, "I'm a little worried about Neil's views on relationships. Much like in Neverwhere, he starts with a character who is obviously entangled with the wrong woman, he isn't really aware of it (though everybody else is), and it takes external forces to make him see the truth and rescue him from the horror of a woman. "

"Hmm. I like the father; he's funny," says the stranger, falling back on praising the humor. But I know that's a dead end, so I try to steer us back to criticism.

"Don't get me wrong, I loved that book. But I thought the whole embarrassing father thing unrealistic. How can anybody be so embarrassed by his own --"

I am forced to stop with my mouth still open, because I've noticed the next witness.

"Esteemed members of the Committee," says my imaginary Great Uncle Leadbelly. "I come before you to report on the progress of complaint #05-25B."

"When did we start numbering our complaints?" wonders a Committee member.

"You do not," says my Great Uncle, helpfully. "I felt it would be a good practice to introduce, so I've started numbering my own complaints." How many complaints does he have? I wonder. How many does he actually provide to committees?

"Ah, that sounds like a great idea," says the member. "I move we implement Mr. Blake's suggested numbering scheme." The motion is seconded and passed while I fling out my hands to steady myself. (I knock over a glass of water.) Great Uncle Leadbelly's last name is not Blake. He is related to me on my sister's side of the family. He is asked to proceed.

"Complaint #05-25B began as a simple dispute six months ago. You may remember that I came to you a few months ago with a small request regarding a neighbor who was drying laundry in her gardenside yard." Several Committee members tsked and shook their heads. Our homes have associated yards on each side: one side (generally toward the street) is designated the service side. The other side of the home (generally looking on a shared green or other common space) is called the garden side. Service oriented activities belong on the service side, for it is the side accessible for trash and recycling pick up, postal delivery, etc. The garden side is the community living side of our super block: we are supposed to relax back there and interact with our neighbors and other passersby. Hanging laundry on the garden side would never do.

(The man with the book whispers, "A good writer wouldn't need such awkward explication." Well, forgive me that I can't just conjure up some stories about Ghanaian petty gods to fill out my tales.)

Great Uncle Leadbelly goes on to provide a detailed report of the responses and counter-responses to that complaint. To save you from his over-the-top bombast, I will summarize here:

  • Leadbelly complains of laundry in gardenside.
  • Committee directs neighbor to remove drying pole.
  • Neighbor removes pole, but leaves hole.
  • Leadbelly (he's ashamed to admit this) fills the hole with bottles and cans from the neighbor's recycle bin
  • The neighbor carefully sets each nasty item upright on his picnic table, along with a wee pile of dirt
  • Leadbelly gives her the Noriega treatment (loud stereo placed outside her window overnight, playing polka favorites)
  • Neighbor seems to enjoy polka, but other neighbors complain
  • Leadbelly ceases the Polka, begins smoking pipes outside her window
  • Neighbor reports Leadbelly's garage as abandoned and it is claimed by another resident
  • Committee steps in and directs neighbor to fill the hole
"And so," continues Great Uncle, "I'm here to thank you for your intervention, for I would surely have had to get serious soon. However, there is no longer an issue: the neighbor has filled the hole with dirt, as directed. I regret the way I threatened her with Tubby the cat, but..."

"Now, see here!" I shout, finally overcome with fear for our cat. "Why are you listening to this man's insanity?"

The Committee chair raps her gavel and asks, "And who are you, sir?"

"I'm William Blake, Cooperative Member Number 443," I reply, haughtily.

"The chair does not recognize you," she interrupts. "We have known Mr. Blake here for some time, so please sit down."

"But he's not William Blake. He doesn't even live in the co-op."

She gives me the hairy eye. "The chair will not tolerate any further interruptions of this fine gentleman's time."


"Tsst," she says and nods to my Great Uncle. I fold my arms, sit back in my chair, and sulk. Great Uncle Leadbelly thanks the Committee for its indulgence, profusely apologizes for his own small role in the complaint history ("Think nothing of it," says a Committee member, "You were driven to it."), and relinquishes his post at the lectern.

The Committee fawns over him a bit more, then goes on to other business. After the meeting, I catch up with Great Uncle Leadbelly heading back to my home.

"What are you playing at?" I want to know.

"Don't take it so personally," he says. "I'm just trying to help you out."

"That was embarrassing," I say. "I didn't even know you'd been arguing with my neighbor."

"Just a friendly exchange between neighbors," he says.

"She's my neighbor," I point out.

"There's no need to be all possessive," he says, then stops walking. We're in the gardenside along the path between our yards. He stares at the neighbor's garden. "She didn't!"

"What's wrong?" I ask, but he has already shot off, muttering about good fences and horrible birds. It takes a minute for me to spot the trouble, but then it is clear.

Where the neighbor's laundry line post had once become a hole, then a dumping ground, then filled, the dirt had been disturbed. The neighbor had been busy while Great Uncle was off being all congratulatory and stuff.

Springing up from the former hole are grasping green tendrils of ivy.

Grammar Check

A Pop Quiz

Ok. I think that the following sentence is incorrectly formulated, but I cannot put into words why it is wrong.

In order to successfully work with Rational ClearCase from Rational Rose, the Rose ClearCase add-in must be active in the Rose Add-In Manager.
Aside from its passivity, I see something wrong with the agreement between the prepositional phrase at the beginning and the meat of the rest of the sentence. What do you call this?

Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps this is a perfectly fine sentence. The writer is trying to avoid referring to actual human beings. I suppose I would rewrite the sentence this way:

The Rose ClearCase add-in must be active in the Rose Add-In Manager for the Rose-ClearCase integration to operate.
The Rose-ClearCase integration will not work unless the Rose ClearCase add-in is active in the Rose Add-In Manager.
Sadly, that second sentence is approaching the issue from the negative direction. Even more sadly, I have gone on about this issue for tooooooooo long.

Phone Call

A Home Report


"Hello, I represent an organization that provides a tiny little bit of sunshine for the dreary worlds of poor, cancer-ridden children who are suffering as we speak. How are you tonight?"

"Umm, dandy, thanks."

Not to Exaggerate

This blog is not dead. It's not, I swear. There'll be a new book tale at lunch. Truly.

Of course, I didn't tell you which lunch, did I?

Molten Sulfer

The Metro was racing a CSX train this morning as we came into Silver Spring. The CSX train was a long string of tank cars marked "Molten Sulfer". What is molten sulfer used for? And why does it need to be molten for transport?

Add molten to the list of words that stop looking like words if you type them often enough.


Welcome to Swapping Tales, my little corner of the Internet. (I nearly wrote "Internets" there, but that just drives me mad. Mad, I tell you!)

At any rate, this is my place to journal, blather, and ramble about whatever pops into my wee little head. The key thing to keep in mind as you browse about my place is that it is mostly the workings of my warped head. Things that have a subheading of something Tale have little grounding in reality. These are stories, fables, tales, that spring from my mind.

There are several kinds of Tale here. Track my Book Tales and you'll be keeping up with my reading list over the year. Each book I read seems to stir up the little people in my head and get them moving about. Sometimes, though, these people go out to eat: you'll see these adventures in the Restaurant Tales category.

At other times, I babble about things going on at work or along my commute (by bike, rail or car). Pretty much anything marked as a "Report" has a little more connection to reality than the Tales. Unmarked entries live somewhere in the middle.

Looking for a recommendation for where to start? My favorite book tale, I think, is this one about the Kristin Lavransdatter books.

Bike Plan

A Commuting Report

I was toodling around looking to update my stupid E-Z Pass, when I found that the state does have a Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan. I haven't read it yet, but I love the picture of the couple in the upper left hand corner of the report.

"Run for your life, Martha! There's cars a-coming!"

Mother India

A Navel-Gazing Report

Hooray! I'm still the first hit when Googling on Chicken Chasni DC. The next five hits are in Glasgow. I suppose that means there is still no Chicken Chasni here. Why, oh why, can't we have chicken chasni? I miss you Mother India.

Commuting Snow

I was hoping the snow would get me jazzed for Christmas, but I'm just tired.

Ayr Bike Sign

Ayr Bike Sign
Originally uploaded by taleswapper.

Verrazano Bridge

So I trundled over the hump-back bridge that connects Assateague to the mainland. It was a sunny Veteran's Day Weekend, but the wind was biting. I crested the hump and was wondering why the horses don't saunter over the bridge and break for freedom when I noticed a figure at the foot of the bridge on the mainland side.

It was Izzy, my imaginary friend. Izzy is the one who travels from historical marker to historical marker trying to find a way to break through his writer's block. So far, this historical marker project has not successfully loosed the floodgates, but he keeps trying. And I am always happy to lend a hand, even if he never runs with my story ideas.

"Ho! Izzy!" I called.

Izzy jumped a bit, startled (I assumed) from his intense concentration on the words of the marker before him:

Verrazano Bridge

Named in 1976 for the courageous Florentine navigator, Giovanni Da Verrazano (c.1485-1528.) In the ship La Jauphine under a commission from King Francis I of France, he explored the Atlantic Coastline of North America in the spring of 1524, searching in vain for a route to Asia. In the crew of 50 was his brother, the map maker Girolam Da Verrazano. Some historians believe the navigator came ashore near here, calling the land Arcadia because of the beauty of the trees.

"Now, there's a lot to go on there," I told Izzy. I emphasized my statement with a firm nod of the old noggin. "So many ideas spring immediately to mind."

Izzy just stared at me.

"You know, er," I said. I wanted to be careful to avoid any talk of searching in vain. "You could interview folks around here and find out what it was like on that fateful day."

"Fateful day?"

"You know; the day the bridge strummed itself to pieces because a stray breeze kicked it into harmonic overdrive or something. It'd make a great disaster story: human drama (cars flopping hither and yon) and maybe even courageous animals. Ooh, I know! Maybe the key love interest is saved by one of the famous ponies. He catches her sweater in his teeth just as she's about to hit the freezing waters of Sinepuxent Bay. Brr."

I shivered for effect. Izzy chewed on this nugget for a moment before responding.

"What are you talking about?"

"You know," I said and pointed at the bridge behind us. "The Verrazano Narrows Bridge."

"The bridge in New York?"

"You mean it was a bridge in New York that failed because of wind-induced oscillation?"

"No," Izzy said. "It was not."

"Oh," I said. "So, this is the bridge that fell apart?"

"Stop that. The bridge you are thinking of is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge."

"Oh," I said. "That's a relief. I was a little worried about walking back to the campsite. Hey, speaking of campsite, do you want to join our camping adventure? The horses are very friendly."

"No, thank you. We have struggled through three million years of evolution to climb up to this miniscule plateau where humanity is no longer required to sleep on the cold, hard ground," Izzy replied. "It would be an insult to our forebears. Besides, the horses bite."

"They do?"

"Now, look," Izzy said and patted me on the back. "I really do appreciate your help here, but what I need is just a little bit of quiet while I think."

I nodded. See, I would have said, "Sure, no problemo," but he had just requested quiet, so I was being quiet to show him respect and all that. That's what friends do for each other; you know, show respect and stuff. Even if they're imaginary friends. Respect, yep. And a little encouragement, too. I quietly thought good, encouraging thoughts at Izzy. Izzy, who is like a brother to me, even though we only met this year. Astute readers might point out that the fact that Izzy doesn't really exist might hinder his chances at being much like a brother. However, I'm forced to point out (in response) that I don't have a real-life brother, either, so he's that much closer to being like a brother right from the get-go.

So, at any rate, I don't know how brothers interact, but I'd imagine that brothers would support each other in their endeavors in the same way that I stood there quietly rooting for Izzy. Of course, to be honest, as I watch the Brunette's brothers, the word "quiet" rarely springs to mind.

"And so there were these two Verrazano brothers trapped on a ship for months on end. I doubt they were quiet!" Izzy looked at me. "Oh, did I say that out loud? I was just thinking --"

But Izzy strolled off. "Where are you going?" I shouted. "Izzy!" But he had disappeared into the mist. I started back up the bridge, but as I reached the top of the arc, I felt a little bit of a breeze. I stopped and felt for vibrations with my feet. Nothing, yet. Then, my mobile phone rang. It was the Brunette.

"Uh, so, you want to drive up to Ocean City for some pizza?" I asked. "You could drive over here and...Oh, I see, you have the fire going. Well, hmm." I looked to the bottom of the bridge. "There seem to be a couple of angry-looking horses between me and you. And I think the bridge is shaking. You sure you don't want to spend the night at the Comfort Suites?"

Living Doll

This really happened.

The New Deal Cafe sits on the square at Roosevelt Center in Greenbelt. So, you can guess the political leanings of the typical cafe client. As with most coffee houses, there is an assortment of bric-a-brac -- sculptures made from twigs, coffee-can tip jars, Einstein and Hitler dolls, books and games. In fact, on many nights you can find the Brunette and I playing a game of Scrabble and drinking Diet Cricket Cola.

Well, you'll see me drinking the stuff, the Brunette will stick to coffee or tea.

The other night a customer dropped in with his daughter. She was probably at the six-year mark. She wandered around while her father ordered at the counter. She showed off her doll: "This is my doll. She's called Frida Kahlo."

Now, you'll have to excuse us, but we are apparently not cultured enough nor are we true fellow travelers, so we did not recognize the name of this particular Mexican muralist. We simply smiled and nodded, as we are wont to do around OPC (other people's children).

Later, she was trying to reach for the Nazi doll which rested on one of the stage speakers.

"They want to play together," she told her father.

"I don't think so," he said to her.

"Why not?"

"Well, because she's a Communist, dear; she doesn't want to play with Fascists."

Imaginary Books

A Library Report

In the midst of documenting our library on Library Thing, we decided this weekend to buy matching bookcases to line the living room wall. So, we've spent an entire weekend moving books from upstairs to downstairs. All along, I think to myself, "We need more books!"

I was also thinking it would be cool to create an account on Library Thing to catalog all of the imaginary books that Jorge Luis Borges mentions in his essays. But tonight I've found that somebody has already started a similar project.

Outside the (Tool) Box

Some time ago, I started a project I called "Irrational Use of Rational Tools." The idea is to find alternative uses for each of the Rational Tools, using them to do things that they were not marketed to do. The goal for each exercise would be deeper knowledge of each tool with regard to its configurability.

I only got as far as making a Tic Tac Toe game for ClearQuest.

Now, there's no reason that this sort of project should be limited to Rational tools. Most development tools should be configurable to do unusual things. Here's an interesting example: Using ant as a video game engine.

The problem, I guess, is coming up with a new name.


It was a cold weekend, but we survived the camping trip, mostly. That is, we spent one night on the cold, hard sand, and we had five meals cooked on a fire on the beach.

The wildlife mostly cooperated, with regular viewings of deer, dolphins, and "wild" horses. The big advantage to being so late in the year was the absence of biting flies. However, the cold did not keep the loud neighbors away.

The state park is closed for the season, so we camped on the Assateague Island National Seashore side. That meant no showers, but there were portable toilets.

Take the Long Way Home

1 hour, 30 minutes
13.8 miles

Try to take bike trails instead of roads and it's a 13.8 mile trip instead of 9.1. (It also helps to miss your turn-off and to later not be able to find the bike trail.) Map details at:

Pub Quiz

A Community Report

Well, the New Deal's expansion is finally open. It looks a little too clean for a good pub quiz, but it'll degrade quickly enough, I suspect. At any rate, on Monday (14 November), the monthly trivia contests will begin. We'll see how much they're like traditional pub quizes. (Or is it "quizzes"? If you know, you should jump into the games, too.)

Welcome Home, eh?

Well. Back in our fair city for mere days before the following occurred as I walked tried to leave Greenbelt Metro Station. Just before the turnstiles, a teenage boy moved in front of me to go through the fare gates. The girl that was with him wasn't impressed. She said:

"You are so rude. Jumping in front of that old man like that."

Veteran's Memorial Plaza

Still in Indianapolis, but I've found that they don't just want Baltimore's motto, they have DC's monument, too.

Come to think of it, I've seen this monument elsewhere. 'Zounds! Perhaps the Washington Monument isn't the first obelisk ever built? Who'da thunk?

Obelisk obelisk obelisk. Yep, that's definitely a Zippy kind of word.

B'lieve, Hon

It really is my own fault, I guess. I expended energy the other day crowing about being assigned to a long-term gig in my very own state; now, less than a week later, where am I? I'm here in Indianapolis, delivering a week's worth of ClearQuest and ClearCase admin training.

Not only did this city steal our football team back in the day, now they want to take our little bit of faith, too? Geez.

New Bike

So, the old bike was stolen. Can you believe the gall? Yes, I had already decided to buy a new bike and, yes, I left the garage door wide open for 24 hours. And, no, I didn't have it locked. Why would I lock it? It was in the garage? Besides, I was riding the Brunette's bike to work in Dulles, so I needed the lock there.

Amazingly, nothing but the bicycle was taken from our garage. We don't have a lot of things in it, but still. It's just Fate's way of telling me I was right to think of buying a new bike, I guess.

Last Thursday's Route

  • 7:20 - 7:40 Ridge to Southway to Greenbelt Road to Metzerott Road
  • 7:40 - 7:55 Metzerott to New Hampshire Avenue
  • 7:55 - 8:05 Piney Branch Road to Flower Avenue
  • 8:05 - 8:10 Flower to Wayne Avenue
  • 8:10 - 8:21 Wayne to Silver Spring Metro
At the same time, I've finally been assigned to a longer-term project. I'll be in Silver Spring for a few months, at least, so I'm excited about really being able to bike to work again. I've moved one step closer to a true road bike with a CycloCross. And I think it is zippy!

E=mc2, A Biography ... And Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

So, there's this kid (I can never remember his name) who lives on my super block. A super block, for those of you who don't live in our little cooperative community, is the same thing as a block, only, you know, mushed together like a tenement. I suppose that it must be some sort of remnant of '30s advertising: Tired of city life? Been around the block one too many times? Come live in our new, improved super blocks!

At any rate, this kid -- I think his name starts with an H? -- he and his friends have a book group. Oh, it's the cutest thing: six wee tykes sitting around a table at Beijing restaurant on a Saturday afternoon. Their little feet don't even touch the floor, but they probably feel all grown up at an adult restaurant.

"The only problem is," my neighbor tells me, "that the proprietors of this particular Greenbelt Chinese eatery would prefer we arrive with adult supervision. And although I do not believe we should kowtow to such paternalist attitudes --"

"There was that incident with the fish tank," I point out helpfully.

"That was you!" Henry points out right back.

"Oh, right."

"Anyway, none of our parents is available this afternoon and seeing as it is raining and none of us can drive --"

"You want me to join your book group again?" I fill in. I am so proud. I don't think any of you will be surprised to learn that I'm something of a mentor, maybe even an idol, to these young citizens, and I do enjoy providing a sense of stability and direction to their little lives.

"Well, we were kinda hoping your wife would be in, to be honest," Hal says.

"Right-o," I say. "She's over with her niece today. I'm glad you stopped by, because I just finished a book I'll bet you are all talking about."

"There's no need--" Hank starts, but I am already up and down the steps with my book tucked in my rucksack before he can finish. He looks down at his feet and sighs, then we walk down the pathways to Roosevelt Center.

Hap's little friends are clustered around the door when we arrive. The twins, Cindy and Mindy, are whispering to each other behind their hands. Little Sam is staring at the reflections in the restaurant window and twirling his hair around a finger. Or is it 'her' hair? Dang, I meant to ask before we got down here. Prasad notices our arrival and stands front-and-center to tell us, after he carefully adjusts his glasses and meticulously straightens his tie, that the owner won't seat them until the full party has arrived.

"Well, we're here now," I say boldly and open the door. Prasad shoots Herb a look, but he only shrugs in response. I ask for a large round table for our discussion and the maitre-d' takes us the long way around the restaurant to seat us just the other side of the fish tank. I glance over at the tank, but our host shoves a menu into my hands with a brusque, "no fish for you!"

"Shall I begin?" Prasad asks after orders are taken. "The book I read this week is called E=MC2, The Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation. I found --"

"Oh, I just loved that book!" squeal Cindy and Mindy as one.

"It was an interesting conceit," Prasad admits, trying to control the floor. "It probably sits well on the shelf of anyone with pop science leanings."

"You say that as if it's a bad thing," I joke and punch him on the arm. "Oops, right off the chair! Sorry, man."

"Don't hurt him," cry Mindy and Cindy.

"I'm okay," says Prasad placatingly. Prasad is never one for conflict. "I don't mean to offend," he continues after climbing back up into his chair. "It's just that there's nothing new in there, you know?"

"Oh, I don't know," says Hugh. "I think his writing style is right on target for this genre, and there is a good amount of creative wordplay."

"You always go for style over substance," Prasad says. Harvey holds out his hand as if to say this is an old argument between them. But Cindy and Mindy are not mollified. The book is deeper than Prasad is giving credit for. They try to get Sam to join their side, but Sam only smiles shyly. Everyone knows that Sam is above such petty arguments.

"I mean, geez," say Mindy and Cindy, "it's better than Harry Potter or something."

"Oh, gosh, my Mom made me read that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," says Prasad. The book club members all sigh in sympathy. "She thought we might be able to 'discuss it' after. I gave close and careful consideration to giving up reading altogether." Cindy and Mindy reach over to pat his hand. They can't quite reach, so they've got to get up and walk around the table.

Words like "tripe" and "utter foolishness" travel around the table. These kids are unanimous in their disdain for the book. Even shy Sam makes a face.

"You don't think it's an exciting representation of young teamwork?" I ask.

"I think we're all agreed that the entire series is beneath contempt," Prasad explains. "And we are a bit worn out by Ms. Rowling's idealization of boarding schools and childhood rebellion. Please, these people are supposed to be under constant threat of absolute evil and destruction, but they're worried about sporting events and brownie points for their dorms?" The table snorts and tuts with derision.

"Besides," appends Henry, "the 'teamwork' of which you speak is totally missing from this latest installment. Harry doesn't trust anyone and we certainly see none of that old Three Musketeer spirit between him, Hermione, and Ron this go around."

I am about to say that it is called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, not Harry Potter and Hermione and Ron and Hagrid and the Cast of Oliver Twist, but the table smells blood in the water. They are aghast. Has Heinrich just admitted to reading the book of his own free will?

"...or so I've heard," he backpedals with a frown. Sam stares with open mouth at the little book group's moderator. Mindy and Cindy humph and flounce their hair. Prasad stifles a sniffle.

"Did you--" he starts, but Hector interrupts.

"Mr. Blake, didn't we have to get back to the house?"

"What?" I say. "I don't know --"

"Sure, your wife said to have you back in an hour. Remember?"

"Really? Right then, gotta go."

We hasten out of the restaurant and up the path toward our super block. The squirrels are still out and about busily preparing for winter, or playing games, or whatever it is that squirrels do.

"Did you really read it?" I ask.

"It's not like I wanted to," he says sullenly. "She made me."

"Who made you?"

"What book did you bring?" he answers.

"Oh, it's not important."

And we walk on in silence. At the top of the sidewalk, we part ways and I enter the house to find the Brunette home from niece visiting.

"Have you seen that Harry Potter book?" she wants to know.

"Oh, don't mention that book," I say. "Why?"

"I was going to let my niece look at it."

"Ah, well, it's over there in my rucksack. You are welcome to it."

It's a LibraryThing. You Wouldn't Understand

A Library Report

As we go through cataloging our little library using this cool LibraryThing, we're taking bets on whether or not we have a thousand books in the house. Before we started, I'd have been firmly in the positive on that score, but now I'm having my doubts. After tonight, we stand at 692 cataloged. I doubt there are 300 remaining. We haven't yet hit the few technical books I've held on to (these are fairly fat) or our little drama and comic books section. The drama section might push us over because those are pretty thin books.

The other little controversy here in the Wee Hoosie is whether or not to admit to owning particular books. We do have books on our shelves that we either did not purchase ourselves or did not enjoy whatsoever. We're pretty bad at getting rid of these things, though, so they sit side-by-side with our well-loved and easily recommended books. By hanging on to these books we are probably going to skew the new feature from LibraryThing that gives you a recommendation based on other people with similar library tastes.

We've settled, I think, on cataloging these books, but we're going to mark them with the tag quarantine to indicate that we're keeping these books to prevent them getting loose in the wild. Now, I'll have to go back and find all the ones we should mark this way. For now, we have seven:

Darwin's Radio by Bear, Greg
Icefalcon's Quest by Hambly, Barbara
Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade by Hawkes, John
Tales of the Kingdom by Mains, David R.
The Darkling Hills by Martin, Lori
Eragon by Paolini, Christopher
The purpose-driven life : what on earth am I here for? by Warren, Richard
So, what books do you own that you'd put under quarantine?

...And the Smell of Gunsmoke

On the Phones

A Volunteering Report

The exciting thing, you see, about answering telephones during a public radio fundraising campaign -- aside from supporting in-depth news reporting, excellent cultural programming, and Gunsmoke -- is the handwriting contest.

Volunteers are given a form for data collection during each phone conversation. The form is structured as a script: Thanks for calling. How much? May I have your address? Can we mention your name on the air? How many cheap tchotchkes do you want for your $100 contribution? The forms are handed off to another team for computer input. The computer folks, alarmed by the inability of our nation's school systems to produce people with penmanship, have instituted an hourly award for the most legible handwriting. The lucky winner gets to host the Styrofoam bust of GB Shaw, is given some prize (like chocolate), and is provided with a tiara.

Now, I'm not generally one to wear a tiara (at least in public), but a contest is a competition, after all.

Fine handwriting takes time. One cannot rush through like an out-of-control Metro car crashing downhill into a station. One must be careful, tidy, and meticulous. (One begins to refer to oneself as 'one' when one spends too much time at public radio.)

"Yes, I'm sure you want to pass good wishes on to Ed Walker, but you're going to have to slow down. Now, how do you spell your name again? T...O...M. And your middle initial?"

Many people wanted to express warm feelings for Ed, who usually hosts the Big Broadcast. The Big Broadcast is Sunday's show that replays radio programs from the '40s and '50s. He's been away having back surgery. These people want to gush about Ed, but they don't realize that the oatmeally bust of GBS is on the line.

The first hour's prize was awarded to a woman two tables over. Now, I'm not one to cast aspersions, but if I were, I might suggest -- much like that FBI guy -- that it might have been reported that she offered a bribe or something. But that would be beneath me. Oh, yeah.

As 8:30 rolled around, we started getting irate callers. Rob Bamberger was doing a fine job, I'm sure, sitting in for Ed Walker, but he failed to start Gunsmoke at 8 on the dot, as Ed is wont to do. It's one thing to be sick, and another to make bad puns on the air, but mess with these people's Gunsmoke and there's heck to pay. When Rob finally got around to announcing Gunsmoke, there was a flurry of activity. Callers wanted to get in their pledges before Matt Dillon got on his horse or whatever. But the process is not quick. Rushing leads to failure in the handwriting department.

And so I missed another opportunity to win.

The phones go quiet during Gunsmoke. It's as if the world has fallen under some sort of old western spell. It's a chance for the volunteers to stretch, and we all took advantage of it. We also get to hear a little more of the show from the speakers mounted on the wall.

I picked up a call toward the end of Gunsmoke. The caller seemed nervous. After we stumbled together through much of the form, I asked if he wanted to be thanked on the air. This made him even more upset. He dithered back and forth, eventually settling on, "OK, but don't use my last name on the air." Each form has a detachable section that is sent over to the announcers, so I wrote something like "Jack from downtown."

Jack's not his real name, of course.

At any rate, when I asked him for his email address (for the email newsletter), his squeamishness suddenly made sense. Pretend, if you will, his email was You can imagine he might be embarrassed to be caught supporting public radio. Of course, Gunsmoke brings us all together.In the territories out west, there's only one thing that stands between the Red States and the Blue States... I mentioned the reluctance to the gofer, who ran off with the form as usual.

And so, we approached the end of the final hour, and I was feeling pretty good about my chances. GBS could soon be in my grasp! I even chuckled ominously, I think. I did have to deal with a man who was calling half-asleep from bed. Such is the siren call of the pledge week begging, I suppose, but because he was groggy, he didn't seem to mind my repeating everything he said three times before writing it down.

Then, I caught a little of what was going out over the airwaves. Rob or Steve or somebody was going through the standard thank yous. "Here's another one," he said. "Jack Clark pledged $50. Thanks, Jack Clark."

My hand jerked across the page. Oh, dear. I must have cried out, because my current caller asked what was wrong.

"What's wrong? What's wrong!" I said. "Oh, geez, you really can't understand. It's just that I've blown my chance to win the handwriting contest."

Sorry, Jack.

Colleen Drive-In

Many people have whinged about time turning them into their parents. I suppose I'm no different. As I look into the rear-view mirror, I am concerned about the way my hair has turned completely white, much like my mother's. But the whiteness is nothing compared to the rate at which it is actually vacating my pate.

Blame that one on my father, I think.

Physical changes are nothing, though, compared to the things that pop out of my mouth. As we drive along, I find myself shouting at the back seat, "Am I going to have to separate you two?" This is generally followed by, "I'll pull this car over right now; don't think I won't!"

The thing is, we don't even have kids.

In fact, the Brunette is not with me, either. She jaunted down to Smith Mountain Lake ahead of me in the morning. She took a ride with her parents. Each year, her family (brothers, sisters-in-law, parents, associated children) join together at a central point for an early Thanksgiving. It's a nice tradition because it's away from the stress of the real holiday and we get to see folks from far-flung places like Atlanta and Odenton.

No, I'm driving through the rain alone. The people causing these outbursts, at least on this particular trip, are my imaginary Great Uncle (on my sister's side) and his sister Iva. It seems that octogenarians are really just that much closer to childhood than you and me. To be honest, I don't know what I'll do if I have to pull the car over, but they keep quiet for the next mile or two.

"Iva's on my side!" Great Uncle Leadbelly suddenly shouts in my ear. I swerve wildly, but luckily there is little other traffic this far south on US 29. Considering the time of night and the weather, I can't help but wish we were already off the road, too.

"Nobody likes a tattletale," I tell him quietly.

"Harrump," says Great Uncle Leadbelly. "If we don't point out the iniquities of our neighbors, the terrorists win. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this country is in its present circumstance for precisely this reason: this mamby-pamby willingness to cover up wrongdoing and ignore the evil in our midst. If we do not band together now, and take up arms against the inhuman deeds of our neighbors, the terrorists will find a society not simply open to attack but opening up the door, inviting them in and handing them firecrackers."

"Ah, uhm," I say, with a little frown for emphasis.

"It's true," he goes on. "Think about it: we are conditioning our young to resist providing valuable information to the authorities who need it most. Not only does that encourage them to ignore problems, it outright enables the problems to go unchecked. It's a short leap from there to total anarchy and annihilation."

"That's an awfully big word you used there," says his sister. "Look, I'm hungry."

"Yeah, me, too," I say and pull off to a little hamburger hut. It's the Colleen Drive-In. Its giant ice cream cone is like a lighthouse in the rain-washed dark. The windows are covered with handwritten signs. "Attention," I read. "We do not sell hand-dipped cones, bottled water, or anything sugar-free."

"Can I have a chocolate-dipped with a diet coke?" Leadbelly asks the young woman behind the window. There are no tables or chairs, so Aunt Iva and I stand under the awning and gape at the menu. The young woman ignores his question. "How about a bottled water, then?"

I get a cheeseburger and some fries and return to the car to munch. The burger is thin and delicious. It has just the right level of greasiness and the texture is right on the money. The fries are the pre-frozen crinkle-cut variety, but the golden hot oils have worked their magic on the potatoes, and I scarf them down quickly. It takes me a bit to notice that Great Uncle Leadbelly had not returned to the car, yet. I look around but cannot see him at the serving window.

"He's out back smoking," Great Aunt Iva informs me. I huff a bit and go around the back of the drive-in to find Leadbelly try to suck all the smoke back into this mouth and tossing the cigarette behind him.

"I see the cigarette, Great Uncle," I say. "When did you start smoking? You never smoked before."

"I just thought I'd try it out, you know, as an experiment."

"Oh, Great Uncle, that's no good for you. And you know it."

"I do not."

"If you didn't know it was wrong," I say. "Then why are you hiding out back in the dark?" He shuffles his feet around a bit. "At any rate, let's go, we're late enough as it is." We go back to the car, Great Uncle Leadbelly follows as slowly as a human could possibly move. The rain has let up somewhat, and the driving is a bit smoother. For the first little while, in fact, my relatives are quiet. I try to keep alert for deer and other road hazards.

In the mirror, I can see Great Uncle Leadbelly giving Iva the evil eye.

"What?" she asks him, finally.

He sucks in his breath, puffs out his chest, and says, "Nobody likes a tattletale, Iva. Nobody."

Washington Cube is Coming

There's a blogger working through the list of blogs at DCBlogs. She's doing a little reading and leaving a numbered comment. When will she stop by here? Well, she's only on "B".

I'm guessing, if she keeps it up, she'll drop in around Friday.

It's a Small World After All

A Community Report

Lordy lordy, that song just won't get outta my head. This tiny little blue ball we live on spins so it makes me woozy. Where to start? How about we start over in Scotland?

Our good pal, Al, lives in the Scottish town of Glasgow. He keeps daily record over at Notes From the Geek Show. Every so often, he takes one of them there internet tests. You know the ones I mean; where you find out that if you were a car you'd be a pink Cadillac; if you were a stellar object you'd be a pulsar; or if you were a historical figure you'd be the Queen of Sheba. That sort of thing.

His most recent dive into Quiz Night on the 'Net asked Which Major US City Are You? It was sorta interesting to find that the Brunette and I both turned out to be Baltimore, Maryland. We both spent formative years in or near that fine city.

Of course, it came as no surprise that Al is San Francisco.

At any rate, this wee test was written by a user calling herself weeRedII, which turns out to be a second account for a user who also calls herself weeRed1. You go and take a look at her picture there and you'll see ...


Honestly, I do think the caps were necessary there. We share a wall with this person; surely that deserves all caps. If you don't think so, don't bother with the quiz. I can tell you that you're East Liverpool, Ohio.

Update: Well, I don't know why, but Al has taken down his quiz results. Here's a nice link to his blog, though.

The Wheels on the Bike Go 'Round and 'Round

You know, this was not supposed to be another one of those whingeing reports about how I can't think straight when the Brunette's away. No, my plan these last two days was to keep a low profile, do a little biking, and generally play it safe while my wife is off on her father-daughter camping trip. I mean, it's two work days. These are days where I generally spend a good deal of time away from her doing work things. Plus, I'm an old man. I survived many years living on my own before getting married. How hard could this really be?

Geez, when the Brunette's away, I can't think straight.

Thursday didn't start off so badly. The weather was great and, with nobody waiting at home, it seemed a good opportunity to get a nice fall bike ride in after work. Sans laptop on my back, it was actually a fairly smooth ride down into Arlington county from the outer reaches of nowhere, Virginia. I still think the W&OD trail has too many stop signs, but I did manage a steady 10 mile per hour average, doing 25 miles in a little over two and a half hours. I think that's pretty good, considering I'm tootling along on my wife's purple hybrid.

Sure, you'd think that being purple wouldn't have anything to do with speed. But when I pull up at one of those cross walks and the other bikers (the road racers with their spandex and the construction workers without helmets) look at me, I just know they're giggling inside. It could be that they're making fun of my business casual biking attire or my helmet with its reflective stripes of orange tape. But I prefer to blame the bike.

I don't care what Lance Armstrong says.

Along about Rosslyn, I decided that I could continue on to Crystal City. I couldn't think of where I wanted to eat dinner in Rosslyn and the bike transfer from Crystal City's Yellow Line to the Green Line on the other side of the river would be much easier than a transfer from Blue/Orange to Green at L'Enfant. I'd hate to have to navigate that in a wheelchair. It's a wicked maze at L'Enfant, moving from elevator to elevator. Recently, I had read good things about Crystal City in this guy's blog. Sadly, I'm a fat, old man, so when I saw that the bikeway along the Potomac (which has a beautful and inspiring view of the Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson holy sites, by the way) curves around Crystal City, my hunger overtook me, and I decided to go to National Airport instead. They have food there, right?

(By the way, to me it will always be National Airport. Not because I hate Reagan or anything; I'm not likely to call BWI Thurgood Marshall, either. I'm just set in my ways. (I have always liked the sound of Friendship International, but I'm not that old.))

Here's a good tip for all you bikers out there who want to fly out of National. The bike racks are on the side of the Metro station opposite the terminal, so if you're coming down from the north, go to the right. Trust me, if you've got a couple of pieces of luggage and a steamer trunk, I imagine you're not going to want to be biking around in circles looking for the bike racks and Metro access. Go right.

Goodness gracious, Taleswapper, you do go on.

Yes, right, so I ate at California Pizza Kitchen and managed to avoid Cinnabon. Oh, but it smelled soooo good. I'd have thought that a guy walking around with metal-studded shoes and a helmet might attract some undue attention at an airport, but it all went smoothly. As I suspected, the transfer from Yellow to Green went flawlessly and I found myself back at the Greenbelt station at 9:20 or so. Sore, sure, but not a bad day all-in-all.

It was at this point I made my mistake. I was weary from the 25 mile trek and decided to take the bus home. But somehow, I got on the wrong bus. I blame the random weirdo, but I guess I should take some responsibility, too. Anyway, I noticed my mistake after the Pearl Express (the two routes are identical up to a block before this). Unfortunately, the next stop isn't until the 7-11 at the intersection of Rhode Island and Greenbelt Road. It was quite dark, but I got off the bus and rode the bike home from there. Not the safest choice, but what are you gonna do?

So, my day's ride total? 28.6 miles. Herndon/Monroe Park & Ride to National Airport + College Park to Greenbelt.

Corking Good Time

My imaginary friend Bertie looked around glumly. He mumbled something about the 'nice fountain' and then returned to staring at the table top. This was not the attitude I am used to: generally, Bertie jumps at any chance at free food. And, besides, he called me.

"What's wrong?" I asked him. "You sounded all excited about your new business idea on the phone."

"What kind of restaurant is this?" he wanted to know.

"Turkish." He just nodded his head slowly at this. "Oh, geez," I said. "C'mon, get it off your chest."

"I think," he said very slowly. "I think that you picked this restaurant just so you could call my idea a turkey."

It was my turn to stare quietly.

"Man," I said. "That's harsh. I picked Temel because it has Sucuk Pizza. It's a boat-shaped piece of heaven with spicy sausage on top. Oh, and the falafel is good, too."

He brightened a little, his inner mooch perking up at the mention of food.

"Any second now," I said, "they are going to bring out a disc of warm bread, and you'll see what I'm talking about. Besides, I've been working out in this crazy state, so I had to pick a Northern Virginia restaurant."

He nodded slowly and his eyes lit up when the bread actually did arrive. The delivery meant he could busy his hands with food swiping. This always cheers Bertie up.

"Give us your idea," I said.

With a bit of a flourish (a bit overdone, if you ask me, after all that pre-emptive moping), Bertie placed onto the table a small bottle of glue and four or five miniscule corks. The corks were smaller than thimbles, bigger than what, ants?

"What do you think?" he asked.

"Well," I said. "Cork-flavored Jujubes?"

"Ha," he fake-laughed. "They're finger pad extenders."

"finger pad extenders?"

"Yeah, you know, if you have really long fingernails, it's hard to type."

"I have to admit I wasn't aware --"

"It's true," he insisted. "Unless you've got really short nails, then typing is troublesome. But if you glue these onto the tips of your fingers -- pick a size that's longer than your nail, of course..."


"Well, women glue stuff to themselves all the time, right?"

"All the time?"

"Sure. Well, at first, I did try little Velcro straps, but that didn't work at all because they were too hard to fasten."

"And forget about buckles," I said.

"Exactly!" he beamed. Luckily, we were interrupted by the arrival of food. I wasn't kidding about the sucuk, you know. Of course, Bertie swiped half my toppings.

"Anyway," he said, eventually. "What do you think of my idea?"

"I'm sorry, Bertie," I said. "I have to say it's a bit of a turkey."

Riders Advisory Committee

It seems that our little Metro system has decided to take applications for a Riders Advisory Committee. After trying my hardest to use the system within the constraints of my workstyle (as opposed to lifestyle!), I think I could provide some insight for Metro's planning and decision making, so I've just submitted an application. Here is a quick extract.

Identify improvements to the Metro system you would seek to work on through the Riders Advisory Council and strengths of the system you would seek to protect below.
...Finally, I'd like to know why the seats on rail cars must have arms.

Broccoli Schmoccoli

A Community Report

So, we here in Greenbelt are proud of our little cooperative community. We're also proud of our cooperative grocery. So, I get a little grumpy when I read Scan furniture dissing us:
Back in 1960 Scan began by selling a single chair in the Greenbelt Cooperative - a grocery owned ... That was over 45 years ago. A lot has changed over the years. The Greenbelt Cooperative is gone, Scan is now privately owned and you won’t find any broccoli in Scan showrooms.
That's all well and good, but our cooperative is still here, thank you very much. And it doesn't sell your stinky furniture any more since you abandoned our less-than-wealthy county for greener pastures over on the other side of the city, you elitest joiners.

Dry on the Vine

I'm not sure when this blog turned into a picture-fest, but here's another one. This dry spell has been great for randomly biking to work, but it has not been kind to the rainbow pepper plants. They are crying out for rain.

Yard Sale Yard Sale Yard Sale

Looking for a yardsale? Then, friend, where you want to be is in Greenbelt on Saturday morning at the GHI Community Yard Sale.

Need a map? Click here.

God Is Purple

Oh, forgot to mention that when I decided to try these occasional bike jaunts out to Sterling I wandered down to get my bike out of the garage and discovered that its chain was still jammed from the last long ride I did. I worked on it with some cleaner and grease, but I couldn't get it to go back to its flexible self. I didn't want to give up on my little bit of exercise, so I took the Brunette's bike.

Oh, I was only slightly embarrassed to be seen riding along on a swoopy purple bike. But at least it doesn't have tassels.

Too Much of One; Not Enough of the Other

So, I get to work with no problem, but I can't get back onto the MetroRail until after 7 (preferably after 8, to be honest). A few times, the Brunette has driven out to pick me up. It doesn't save gas, but it keeps us at one car (and I get to see her earlier). But what's a cyclist to do when his wife's away?

Probably something stupid.

Heck, I say to myself, it sure looks like there's a nice little bike trail all the way down to Rosslyn. Why don't I just bike on down to the city, get something to eat, and then ride the rails home later in the evening?

I mean, how far can it be?

I'll tell you, it's more than 25 miles. Twenty-five is how far I got before I gave up in Ballston. I had to stop to find something to eat and it was getting dark, you know. (Oh, and I was completely zonked.) I got a nice kebab at the Food Factory.

Still, it is a nice ride. There are way too many stop signs. I'm not the fastest rider out there and I'm on a hybrid, but the stop sign density keeps even me from picking up any speed. Just when you get up to a decent clip, another stop sign appears. On the other hand, the stop signs do provide one with philosophical nuts to chew over during the ride. Consider these truths:

  • If a crosswalk exists, then cars must yield the right-of-way.
  • If a stop sign exists, the user must stop.
  • What do you do when there's a stop sign on the bike path and a crosswalk on the road?
At any rate, while there are way too many stop signs, there are other amenities. One example: ice cream shops! Well, there are two ice cream shops. And the two are both in the same town. But, still, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Washington & Old Dominion Trail

As I described here, my biggest worry with the long public transport ride out to the Dulles region is unreliability leading to connection mismatches. If I miss one part of the linkage, I could be out at least an extra hour.

So, you might understand if I panic if the 5A breaks down.

When I boarded the 5A at L'Enfant this morning, I was impressed because it was obviously a fairly new bus. Not only was it clean, but the bus driver's seat was on shock absorbers. As we bounced along the highway, the digital stop display and recorded messages about remembering your things nearly made me feel like I'm on rail instead of road. However, about halfway between Rosslyn and Herndon, the idyllic journey was interrupted by an annoying beeping alarm. The driver looked down to his dashboard to see a flashing red indicator and whipped out his mobile phone for assistance.

But the phone didn't make the beeping go away. When we limped into the Herndon/Monroe Park & Ride, he pulled the bus over to the curb and announced that the bus was not going to make it to Dulles Airport. The next bus was scheduled for an hour later and if it didn't connect well with the Loudoun bus at IAD, it's likely I would have been two hours late and freaking out.

Well, I'd have freaked out if I cared. Today, I brought my bicycle.

In order to avoid the Loudoun bus, I've tried a couple of mornings bringing the bike to this park & ride and hopping up to the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) trail for a short six or seven mile ride to work. Not only do I avoid the connection fears, I generally beat the Loudoun bus's scheduled arrival, and I get some exercise, to boot.

This has been my first experience with taking the bike on the bus. The racks on front are terribly convenient and easy to use. It's quicker to put the bike on the bus rack than on the rack at the back of my car, to be honest. In fact, the bike on bus is nicer than rail because you don't have to stand there holding the bike and you don't have to worry about whether it is rush hour or not. (Bikes aren't allowed on rail during rush hour, and even if they were, you wouldn't want to do it.)

So, I'm feeling pretty chuffed. The bus broke down on the way to work, but I wasn't late. Nope, I was ten minutes too early to even get in the building.

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Hold on tight! I'm fiddling about with the way things work here on Swapping Tales. I moved over to Blogger's commenting system. Can't do the Feedsweep of comments anymore, but at least I get an email when you make a comment.

So now I can stare forlornly at my email system waiting for comments instead of obsessively reloading my own blog every 35.2 seconds.

I'm also adding a categorization feature. Let's see how it works.

Filed under:


I'm not sure what to make of it, but it seems like fun: It's called Library Thing, and it lets you catalog your own library. I think I'll use it to organize my little book tales a little better.

For now, I just have it showing random books from my library (over there in the left hand corner; go ahead, I saw you were peeking).

I hope the FBI doesn't get all excited about this...

No Intelligent Life at Toyota

Is Toyota really meaning to insult all those SUV drivers out there? "Nobody intelligent around, dude. The only person I see is you."

Vellum, by Hal Duncan

A Saturday Afternoon, August 1437. A young lad and his younger sister listen at the door of their cottage in the forests of what will some day be called Southern Germany. Their father is a poor woodcutter and sometime joiner. Their larder is never full at the best of times and its barrenness is a constant beginning and ending point for arguments between their father and stepmother.

The boy crouches on the stoop, all muscles tense. He is locked in place but ready to sprint if the door should open. The voices inside spiral up in volume, and the boy makes a decision. He understands that the moment for action has arrived.

"Come along, Gretel," Hansel says. "We will go play in the forest."

A Saturday Night, August 1894. A girl leads a boy as they run through the forest. The wooded slopes of the American Appalachians are never easy footing in full daylight. At night the path is treacherous. Roots spring into being across small ravines and grab at the boy's feet. He falls and cries out to his older cousin.

She stops her flight and returns. They are both panting. Now that the world has stopped moving, she can see that it is much too dark to see properly. There may be a full moon, but it makes precious little difference under the heavy tree-cover.

"It is so late! We must find shelter and rest, Hank," Greta tells her cousin as he climbs to his feet.

"How 'bout over there?" Hank points to a nearby clearing. Was that there before? Greta can't remember. The moonlight sparkles on a beautiful small house. It is brightly painted, especially along the gingerbread trim.

"I'm not so sure," she starts, but Hank is already marching to the cottage. Witch or no witch, he wants to lay down.

A Sunday Morning, August 2005. There is a knock on my door. I open it to find Prasad and Neil (or is it Gary? Why can't I remember this kid's name?) on my doorstep. These weans are imaginary denizens of my neighborhood. And they aren't following their script.

"What are you doing here?" I ask. "You're supposed to be knocking on the next door up."

Prasad adjusts his tie, then his glasses, and shoots his cuffs preparing to answer me. Paul simply plows right through into the living room.

"Your neighbor is not a witch," Prasad explains to me, with that tone he uses. You know the one I mean: you probably use it to explain things to your cat. It's the tone that stresses how hard it is to find single syllable words for every single conversation. "She has some, erm, troubles with her mind, certainly, but it has been the way of many generations to abuse the mentally ill."

Now that I think about it, it's really more the tone the cat would use to explain things to you.

1437. "She's just a lonely old woman," Hansel reassures Gretel with a whisper. Gretel is not reassured, but she puts on a brave face for Hansel's benefit. Older brothers need to believe they know what they're doing.

"Would you like something to eat, my pretties?" calls the gingerbread cottage's occupant. "Come along into the kitchen, why don't you?"

2005. My conversation with (lecture from?) Prasad is interrupted by a crash from the kitchen. This is quickly followed by a short, high-pitched "Ooops!" So we run into the kitchen. It is a dire mess: all the cabinets open, spice jars and boxes everywhere. Lawrence is rooting through the cupboard closest to the refrigerator.

He is coated in flour.

"I knocked over your flour box," he says. "Sorry."

"What in the name of all that is holy and just are you doing?" I ask, reasonably.

"Where is your food coloring?" Prasad asks as he joins Mike's search.

"Food coloring? Whatever for?" I try to sweep up spilled Splenda with my hands. Prasad hands me an orange book. I look at it with horror. "You haven't been reading this, have you?"

Don't get me wrong. Vellum is a wonderful book. Quite a recipe: Take a little James Joyce, fold in a glop of Perez-Reverte and dust in a little nanotech. It's only that I would have thought it was a bit adult for these wee lads.

I'm often wrong in this area, to be completely honest.

"Don't worry," Prasad pats my elbow reassuringly. "Although he starts off at 1.27 'F-words' per page, by the middle of the book he's down to .42 per page, or so."

1894. There is a cave behind the house. Hank and Greta peer inside nervously. It's awfully dark, and a cool breeze emerges from the yawning mouth to caress their cheeks. Hank shivers.

"I guess we'd better get on with it," he says. The old man whose home they had found had offered them food. When he realized his cupboard was bare, he asked Hank and Greta to fetch provisions from his root cellar.

"I fancy it as a 'root cellar'," the old man had wheezed at them. "But it's really just a small hole in the hill out back."

"Quite a big hole," mutters Greta in the dark.

"But he said not to worry," responds Hank. He holds up a bird cage. "As long as this bird is happy, we'll be fine, he said."

"What's that?" Greta interrupts.

2005. "That's called Irn Bru," I say and move the fluorescent orange bottles out of his reach. "We'd use that for Snow White or something else with poison. This is the Hansel & Gretel story. Why do you want food coloring?"

"It's a little idea we got from Vellum," Duncan explains. I don't like the sound of that at all. I'm starting to worry these kids are in over their heads. All I can think is, what will the Brunette say if I let these kids tattoo themselves with food coloring?

"If you think I'm going to --" I start.

"Oh," interrupts Prasad. "What about bread crumbs?"

"I, uh." They stare at me for a second while I flounder for a word. Luckily, Richard's mobile phone rings. It's his mother. I'm saved. Thank you, thank you.

"Ok, mom," says Al (or is it Hal?) eventually. "C'mon Prasad, maybe we'll try to make paper and ink some other time."

New From Ronco

A Sporting Report

Ok, we went to our first Nationals game today and I only have one question:

What's the deal with the guys riding around shooting t-shirts at the crowd? Is this some kind of homeland defense training or something?

At any rate, we decided to go see a Nationals game today on the spur of the moment. We came to this decision at 11:45. By 12:30, we were at the stadium buying $7 cheap seat tickets. Is this a great place to live, or what?

Sadly, after 42 different pitchers and three thrown bats, our Nats weren't able to defeat the Braves. But they did make it interesting: at the top of the ninth, in fact, they were one out away from winning. But it was not to be.

Still, and all, it was a fun game and (aside from food) not terribly expensive. The weather was perfect. Personally, I like the old stadium with its curvy overhangs and view of the Anacostia.

We Will Arrest You If We Haven't Authorized You

Freedom isn't Free, and Neither is the Freedom Walk

If you didn't pre-register (i.e., give the DoD your name and email address), then don't go walking downtown tomorrow. This from the Washington Post:
The march, sponsored by the Department of Defense, will wend its way from the Pentagon to the Mall along a route that ... will be lined with four-foot-high snow fencing to keep it closed and "sterile," said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense.

I just love the word "sterile", don't you?

Oh, and since we're at "war" with a shadowy organization, the President can lock up anybody he wants. This from WTOP:

"The exceedingly important question before us is whether the President of the United States possesses the authority to detain militarily a citizen of this country who is closely associated with al-Qaida, an entity with which the United States is at war," Judge J. Michael Luttig wrote. "We conclude that the President does possess such authority."
Last time I checked, Congress gets to declare war. And we haven't declared war since World War II. Darn activist judges!

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Well, automobile, train, bus, and airport, anyway.

As you may recall, I'm a development environment and process consultant. I wander from client to client teaching about software development process, installing development environment support tools, and mentoring/coaching projects to transfer knowledge about administering toolsets (like Rational ClearCase/ClearQuest). The nature of my job is that I mostly hang out only long enough to get a project up and running or to lend a hand to get over a hump. I don't really have a permanent place to call my workplace.

In many ways, this is exciting and interesting. I rarely get bored before I have to go off and do the next thing. I generally get to move on before inertia and disgruntlement set in. And sometimes I do get a longer (say 4-8 months) gig doing real work just to keep on top of the game.

But it doesn't make it easy to plan a commute. And sometimes the location of an assignment can put a strain on our commitment to remain a one-car family. (How sad. There were two years when we were able to be a no-car family. But that was a different job situation and a different country altogether.) This spring, Germantown was outside of reasonable public transportation (at least when originating in Greenbelt), but when the Brunette needed the car, she could at least drop me off in the same state we live in.

This month, I'm lending a hand to a company near Dulles Town Center. It's 40.2 miles from my home. That's a hike. The timeframe is a bit open-ended, but I think we're looking at six weeks. Oi. Even before Katrina, I looked at the gas prices over $3 a gallon and said: Surely $3/gallon and a 40.2 mile trip combine to make Metro a financial alternative? I doodled out the numbers and driving (including tolls but not wear/tear on the vehicle) was still two dollars cheaper than public transport.

Still, close enough to give it a try, eh? It is possible to get there by public transit: Train from Greenbelt to L'Enfant Plaza. Metro bus from L'Enfant to Dulles Airport (IAD). Loudoun County bus from IAD to the worksite.

I was worried that Metro reliability would let me down. The Metro bus runs only hourly (surprisingly infrequent considering it was crowded every time I rode it - at $3 per passenger, a pretty good cash flow for Metro). So, if the train was delayed, I was going to lose an hour in the morning.

But the four times in the week that I rode, the train-bus connection was flawless. The problem was on the other end. The Loudoun bus runs only every hour, too, and it does not sync well with the Metro drop-off. Of the four mornings, three had the little Loudoun county bus missing us. Twice, it came five minutes too early. Once it came 45 minutes too late (or was it 15 minutes early for the next run?)

Sorry, kids, but it just isn't possible to walk into a customer's office an hour late on a regular basis. And it certainly wasn't pleasant waiting around in the afternoon for the hour-late bus to show up. ("The bus driver says nobody was there when he drove by," said the receptionist when I called. "Nobody was here," I replied, "because he was more than 15 minutes early. I know, I was standing here.")

On the best day, the trip took 2 hrs, 15 minutes. The worst day: 3 1/2 hours. That's each way! I want to support public transport, but this just isn't workable. I believe the reluctance of most people to join the public transport crowd is not solely due to money. There's also the extreme inconvenience involved.

The best day of the next week driving? 1 hour, 5 minutes. The worst? 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Buy 'em By The Bag!

A Restaurant Report

So, the Brunette wanders off for a day-trip with her mother and what do I do? That's right! Go eat something extremely bad for me. It might not rate historic status, but Little Tavern always means a return to my childhood. Laurel, MD, is not at the top of anybody's list of fine restaurant locales, but it's the only place I know that still has one of these little green buildings actually operating as a Little Tavern.

The siren song of Little Tavern is sung by tiny burgers. They are not good for you and are not even particularly appetizing. But I find them awfully comforting. The building is in pretty bad shape and I always expect to be offered a drug sale in this neighborhood, but it's worth the trek. And they must be doing well, because every window had a "Help Wanted" sign.

As for the health, well, I'm going to make up for it with a long bike ride, tomorrow. Really. Sure.

Greenbelt Labor Day Festival 2005

I suppose that I'm something of a failure as a blogger. I rarely keep this thing updated in anything resembling a regular schedule. I veer from diary entries about my favorite toe to random grumpy reports on commuting to strange little fictions about books and restaurants.

And it's now Wednesday already and I'm just now getting around to posting stuff about the Labor Day Festival this last weekend.

Boy, a game of "Destroy the Earth" might just be the picker-upper I need, eh? I don't know what those astronomers were thinking when they decided it would be a good idea to let people pretend they're comets and meteors attempting to destroy our wee little planet. It's not exactly that cheerful, all-American thing you're looking for on Labor Day, right?

On the other hand, there are always horsies! The parade was wonderful: not too crowded, lots of things to look at, and did I mention not too crowded? Nobody tried to stand in front of us at the last minute. We had a fine tree-shaded spot at the corner across from the gas station. I hope you all run out to the parade next year; it's worth the trip.

The parade seemed to be overrun with Red Hat Ladies, but there were also a lot of fire engines and beauty queens. And, of course, there were things you might only see in a Greenbelt parade: environmentalist drivers, 1930s re-enactors, peace-niks, and animal-welfare marchers. After the gay/lesbian pride crew went by, I spotted a Muslim woman with a little rainbow flag.

Yeah, this is a great little town!

More pictures here.

Drop A Penny

"I'm worried," said the Brunette when I returned from the restroom. I patted her hand.

"No worries," I said. "Weren't the appetizers delicious?" I'd have thought she couldn't help but nod at the wisdom in that. After all, the chicken satay and the veggie cakes had been wonderful. I could have had three more dishes of each with no problem at all. And there was more to come!

But instead of nodding, she gave me a puzzled frown.

"I'm not worried about the quality of our upcoming entrees," she said and took back her frown. "Yesterday's lunch was grand. Tonight should be no different."

Yes, that's right. In between samping books and authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, we had wandered down to Time 4 Thai and gotten ourselves ensnared.

"Then, why are you worried?"

"Because you've been to the bathroom five times since we got here," she pointed out. I hadn't realized she'd been counting. I smiled reassuringly.

"Oh, that," I said. "I'm not actually using it every time I go."

"Stop patting my hand," she said. "What have you been doing, then?"

"Throwing coins into the fountain."

"Fountain? What fountain?"

"The one in the men's room," I said. "It's a nice one. Metallic, against the wall. Rippled so the water makes this relaxing sound as it falls." I searched my pockets for more change.

"What are you wishing for?" she wanted to know.

"Oh, for the food to continue to be excellent," I said. I haven't had good Thai food in so long, I didn't want the experience to stop. "And it's working! Every bite tastes better than the last."

She deepend her frown. "There wasn't a fountain in the women's room."

"Well," I said. "This is Europe, after all. They're not always as progressive in matters of gender equality as we Americans."

That made her roll her eyes. "I don't think it's a fountain," she said.

"Oh? Then what--"

"Excuse me," the head waiter interrupted. "I'm sorry, but there has been a delay. Something's gone wrong with the water supply. We hope to have it fixed, soon."

"That's definitely not what I wished for," I said when he had gone. I harrumphed for emphasis. "I wonder--"

This time I was interrupted by laughter from the wait staff. The head waiter noticed our attention and came over to explain.

"It seems," he said with a smile, "that someone's child has filled the men's room, um, equipment with pennies. The obstruction automatically shut off all of our water. We'll have it fixed soon and your food will be out directly."

We nodded him politely off. The Brunette gave me a look.

"What?" I said.

"Have you learned anything from this?" she asked.

"Well," I said. "I learned that I was being cheap. I should have thrown in tuppence and asked for the place to be cleared of kids, too."


I don't know about you, but I find empty carnivals kinda creepy. This picture is from a survey of the activity going on over at the center of Greenbelt in preparation for its 51st annual Labor Day Festival.

DC Blogs

Well, the guy over at DC Blogs is going on a break, so there's no point in trying to think of something interesting to say until after the holiday.

Don't worry, I don't suppose that really changes much around here, anyway.

Is Janeway Next?

The last time I saw Othello was at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre with Captain Picard in the title role. Now, it looks like the Shakespeare Theatre is returning to the original race roles, with Captain Sisko performing the title role.

I wonder if Kate Mulgrew is busy for next year?

Local Book Festival

After the WorldCon and Edinburgh International Book Festival, it's nice to return and find that we already have something to do in September. Our own little city's book festival is 24 September. Not quite the same flood of SF/Fantasy as last year, but maybe a little plain vanilla fiction will be a nice change for a bit.

I Paid More than $27 for Less Than 10 Gallons of Gas Today

That's all I wanted to say. Just, I came back from Scotland and was shocked by the gas prices. Garsh.

Garden Door

We're back at The Goat after a quick night up to Perth. We stayed with friends in a country house that was just the kind of place that has Agatha Christie murders. Fortunately, nobody got hurt last night and we're safe in Glasgow again.

Actually, the house and grounds are now a retreat center. Click here to see further pictures from the Scotland trip.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

A Quick Report

Free wireless in Edinburgh at All Good Coffee shop. It's nice to have a free connection and the coffee's not bad, but the signal's a little weak and it would be grand if they had Splenda.

At any rate, the book festival has been interesting. We need to get over to meet friends, so I'll just report this conversation I overheard in line for Jasper Fforde last night:

WOMAN ONE: I just love his books. Have you read them?

WOMAN TWO: Oh, just the first one --

W1: Did you like it? Oh, you must have loved it because you're here.

W2: Well, I just wanted to see what sort of man would write a book like that...

If you get a chance to see Mr. Fforde, take it. He's terribly funny.

Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk

I'm going to let you know right up front that Bob and Bertie don't really exist. They are mere figments of my imagination. These brothers are not me, and I am not them; but they wouldn't exist without me.

It's quite a responsibility, let me tell you.

So, from time-to-time it amuses me to help them out of predicaments and moderate their arguments. They're rarely grateful for my assistance, to be completely honest, but I perform this little service anyway. It's only fair.

They are my responsibility, after all.

And that's why the three of us are sitting in the New Deal Cafe. Bob and Bertie are pretty freaked out. I keep trying to explain to them that nothing should cause them so much stress, since they don't really exist and all.

It's not an approach that works, but it's my approach.

What are these imaginary brothers upset about? Once again, it seems they've got a hold of a book.

"I warned you about that," I say. "Which book?" Bertie holds up a silver paperback. I roll my eyes.

"It's disturbing," Bertie says defensively.

I sigh, not inwardly with discretion, but externally, with a gush of wind and the full force of my disdain. Bertie is always disturbed when he reads. Survivor is written by Chuck Palahniuk, who also wrote Fight Club. Personally, I spent the entire book wondering if Tender, the narrator, was going to turn out to really be the girl. Or his twin brother.

"You guys are not twins, you know," I tell Bertie and Bob.

"Well, not identical twins, no," says Bob.

"Bob, Bertie is three years older than you are. That's an awfully long birth process."

The two of them just stare at each other. I go on to remind them that they don't really exist anyway. Oddly enough, this doesn't seem to calm them down any more than the first time I mentioned it.

I have to flounder around a bit trying to figure out what is bothering them. If the twin brother thing isn't it, then it must be the whole work thing. Two of the main characters are stuck with unusual jobs. It's best not to think about Fertility's job, but here is how Tender describes his job:

Part of my job is to preview the menu for a dinner party tonight. This means taking a bus from the house where I work to another big house, and asking some strange cook what they expect everybody to eat. Who I work for doesn't like surprises, so part of my job is telling my employers ahead of time if tonight they'll be asked to eat something difficult like a lobster or an artichoke. If there's anything threatening on the menu, I have to teach them how to eat it right.

"Don't worry," I say, after I get another diet Cricket. "You'll never have a weird job like that. Trust me, I know everything about you."

"A job like that?" Bertie repeats as if the thought of a job had never occurred to him. "Why would we want a job?"

And it's true, a job has never been high on Bertie's list of wants. I decide to let this discussion track fade, because Survivor taught me that knowing too much about your own future can ruin your life. At one point, the narrator rants --

I need my moisturizer. I need to be photographed. I'm not like regular people, to survive I need to be constantly interviewed. I need to be in my natural habitat, on television. I need to run free, signing books.

"Who gave you this book?" I ask gruffly.

"Uh, our friend Heloise," says Bob. Now that makes some sense. The book is full of hints -- like how to cover up a bullet hole in a wall with toothpaste.

"I see. And you're worried that she was trying to send you some kind of message, right?" I lean back and cross my arms. I'm not sure whether to point out that they don't exist, since this is a dicey moment, talking about suicide and all. The book is a virtual love sonnet to suicide. It's on everybody's mind.

A guy's calling to say he's failing Algebra II.

Just as a point of practice, I say, Kill yourself.

A woman calls and says her kids won't behave.

Without missing a beat, I tell her, Kill yourself.

A man calls to say his car won't start.

Kill yourself.

A woman calls to ask what time the movie starts.

Kill yourself.

"Message?" asks Bob. "What kind of message? What's the book about?"

"About? What do you mean 'about'? Haven't you read the thing?" They had not. I have to peel off the label from the bottle of diet Cricket to keep my hands from strangling my progeny. It takes me a moment, but I finally swallow my creator-pride and ask what their problem could possibly be, "Considering," I remind them, "you don't actually exist."

"We can't agree on who gets to read it first," Bob says. I'm so astonished I can't speak. they came to me with such a piddling little problem? How long have they been brothers that they can't work this out on their own? I refuse to do every little thing for them. Sheez.

I must have said some of that out loud, because Bertie turns to Bob and says, "I told you he can't help us." Bob shrugs. "He doesn't really exist."