Mortal Jack-o'-Lanterns

What's the scariest/creepiest song on my iPod? Mortal City, by Dar Williams.

It's picture day!

Never ones to be normal, the Brunette and I went down to the Co-op and bought ourselves squash to carve instead of pumpkins. This is my butternut squash:

Butternut squash is pretty much solid except for the bulbous bit at the bottom.

All-in-all, though, I like the effect. Here's my butternut squash with the Brunette's buttercup squash.

Agricultural Hall of Fame

I stopped by the Agricultural Hall of Fame on the way to the airport yesterday. It sits just north of Interstate 70 close to the Kansas side of Kansas City. I only had an hour to spend, but I wasn't expecting much. Boy, was I wrong. There's was lots of cool stuff, like this modern telephone:

You might not be able to read the label. It says,

Call Director

This is today's most advanced telephone for business use, designed for maximum flexibility and convenience.

There was also this really scary metal clown head. There were several, in fact. This is one of a large collection of metal mechanical banks.

In addition to the clowns, there were hunters shooting bears, sailors throwing Jonah into a whale, and rockets and stuff. In addition to the mechanical banks, there was a grand collection of old toy tractors, along with a few full sized ones and old wagons and art and stuff. One small closet was devoted to displaying 200 different types of barbed wire.

So, the Hall of Fame wasn't just a lot of plaques like this one:

Most of the inductees seem to be lawmakers, industrialists, and scientists with the USDA. Roswell Garst was the only one who looks like a stereotypical farmer. Interestingly, his claim to fame was working on US-USSR relations during the '50s. He taught Soviet farmers how to grow corn, and Khrushchev visited his farm in Iowa in 1959.

I was greeted when I entered by a very cheerful docent who gave me a map of the place and let me know I could use a golf cart to drive around. In addition to the Hall of Fame, there is a separate museum, farm town, memorial, and train. It's a large complex, and I didn't have any time to visit any of the exciting features outside the Hall of Fame.

I did, though, make sure to take a picture of the giant chicken.

Ha!

Yeah, so I haven't moaned about travel lately because I've been safe at home. My thirty day break is over, though, and I'm back in the airport on my way to beautiful Topeka, Kansas.

And, yes, the dang Southwest flight is late again.

We're being told 35 minutes right now, but the night is yet young.

The picture attached is a preview of things to come. It looks like Southwest is switching from their letter system to a numbered system. I hope that this means we'll line up based on a number printed on the boarding pass when we check in on-line and not on a number assigned when we show up at the gate.

At any rate, this is a short trip for a final assessment, so I'm back on Tuesday. And I think I'm likely to stay in the area for a few months unless a speaking gig comes up. That's good news.

Slam (Nick Hornby)

Ok. The first thing you need to know about me is that I'm not stupid. I don't think you have to be stupid to say or do something stupid. That's really one of the points Nick Hornby is trying to make in his book.

So the second thing you need to know is that I have these friends who are kind of imaginary. It's okay, though, because I know that they are not real. Two of these imaginary friends are brothers: Bertie and Bob. And you don't have to be stupid to have imaginary friends.

It probably helps, but it isn't necessary.

That's exactly what I was thinking as I stood outside Bob's door. Bertie had brought me over to "talk some sense into Bob." He was holed up in his room again, hiding. I mean Bob, of course. Bertie isn't smart enough to be scared.

"What did he read this time?" I asked. "This place is a fire trap, by the way."

I kicked at the pile of posters covering the hallway floor. Bertie showed me an orange book.

"Bob," I said to the door. "That's a young adult novel. I thought we agreed you wouldn't read any more YA fiction."

The door mumbled back. I shot Bertie a look that said, Why did you let him read that book? But Bertie wasn't looking at me. He was rooting through the posters on the floor. He uttered a delighted gasp and held one up: Thomas the Tank Engine.

"I can do what I want. Nick Hornby is supposed to be funny," Bob said more clearly through the door. "And I'm an adult: I can do what I want."

I sighed. "Sure. Then what are you hiding in your bedroom for?"

"It was scary." Like all of Nick Hornby's books, this one was both funny and sad.

"Of course it was scary!" I shouted at the door. "It's YA. The whole point is to scare --"

"What's this?" Bertie asked. He held up a poser of an owl. It said, "O RLY?" I didn't realize they had made actual posters. "I don't get it either," I said. I turned back to the door. "Look, Bertie, he is just trying to scare kids off having sex. You don't have to have sex if you don't want to. Virgin is not a dirty word."

There was silence from Bob's door. I knocked my head on the wall. It's a funny book, I thought. Why didn't he just stick to the funny bits? Of course, life is funny and sad, but you can't tell that to Bob.

"Who wants to have sex?" Bob asked, finally.

"What?"

"Why would I be afraid of sex?" he said.

"I...what? Didn't you read this book?"

"Of course I read the book. I already know sex has consequences. I am an adult, you know. "

OK, by now I'm pretty sick of that three letter word. I knock my head on the wall again.

"What are you afraid of, then?"

"What if they start talking to me?"

I frowned. I scratched my head. I looked around. Bertie held up a poster of My Little Ponies. That would scare me, too.

"Posters can't talk," I said. One of the characters in the book converses with his poster of a sports star. "Honestly, Bob, if they could, don't you think you'd have heard them by now?"

The door was quiet again. Then the door opened, just a bit.

"Really?"

"Yes," I said confidently. "Really. It would be kinda noisy around here otherwise."

So, you know where I said you don't have to be stupid to say stupid things? Well, you also don't have to be a liar to tell little fibs to scared imaginary friends. My only defense is I was trying to make Bob feel better. At least, that's what I said when I returned to our house and stood among the tools and junk in the storage room.

"Please don't hold it against, me," I said. "Please, Farrah, come back."

Farewell Giornale Nuovo

Well, it's always sad to see a site go away. For quite a while, one of my daily blog reads has been Giornale Nuovo, which has always included beautiful pictures, often of older book engravings and art, and wonderful little snippets of background/history/biography. I've been carrying around a task on my to-do list to start linking to my daily reads, and I'm sad I never got to share this before it came to an end.

I was a big fan of the alphabets. Like this architectural alphabet and this human alphabet. Here's another architectural one.

I could link to these all day. We'll miss you, Giornale Nuovo.

Losing My Religion

At the end of the month, my company will no longer exist. It's amazing the depth to which I have let my self-identity become wrapped with the identity of the company as a niche organization with an elite team. And now it's going away and I'm a bit lost.

How stereotypical. I know it's stereotypical for a man to get his identity from his work, but this company really was different and it was a source of a necessary nutrient for me: esteem. At the RSDC in June, I was asked what it was like to work for this company. I said without a pause, "It's like being in a cult."

So now my cult is folding. Do I find another cult or give up on religion altogether?

Changes

So, my company got bought this weekend. It's a bit of a shock, though not so much as you might expect. Our founder/CEO was killed in a motorcycle accident. This was a very personality-driven company, so one might expect a sale eventually. When I joined, we were less than 50 and even now we're only around 150. The combined companies will make about 800 people. My colleagues seem worried about how the benefits might change, what's going to happen to our bench, and even what kinds of projects and customers the other company has.

Me? I'm worried whether an 800-person company will put up with a prima donna.

Ruffly Speaking (Susan Conant)

There was something about my jury duty that I failed to mention. It slipped my mind because it didn't really happen. (Keep in mind that the label "BookTale" up there at the top of this post means that this is a work of fiction. It doesn't necessarily reflect my opinion of dogs. Especially of chihuahuas, owned by zombies or not. 'nuff said.) I was sitting there in the chair on the corner of the large square table when one of the other jurors -- Number 23, I think -- tapped my shoulder. Juror #23 was a broad guy. He wasn't fat; he was just big, like a football player. In fact, he pretty much lived and died football if our little jury experience is any indication. He had compared every bit of witness testimony to a football metaphor.

"Whatcha readin'?" he asked.

I looked down at the book sheepishly. I didn't want to show him the cover. "It's a...uh...mystery and the, uh, main character has dogs."

"Really?" Juror #4 said. She had been knitting through all the times we had been back in the little jury cupboard. You'd be amazed at how many ways there are to tie two strings together. This woman could tell you them all. And she will if you giver her a chance. "I have a dog."

There was a long pause. The other thirteen of us looked at one another. I don't know what they were thinking, but I was definitely working the psychic waves of "don't ask, don't ask, don't ask." It didn't work.

"What kind?" asked Juror #35. She hadn't said much during our talks.

Number 4 put down her knitting and said excitedly, "Actually, I have a champion." Here she tumbled out a long alphabet soup of acronyms. I'd relay them to you, but I'm afraid we didn't keep a transcript. "King is a Norwegian Elkhound."

"Really?" squeaked Juror #8. (Juror #8 was an expert on insects. I think his continued comparison of the various witnesses to bugs did not really help us focus.) "My dog's name is King, too. But he's just a mutt."

"What are the odds of that?" asked Juror #35, who had lost all of her shyness. I kept myself from sarcastic comments about the uniqueness of the name King. Juror #35 picked up her bag from the floor and plopped it onto the table. "In fact, my dog's name is King, too." Her bag moved and I jumped back from the table. She parted the top of her bag and a chihuahua jumped out.

"That's a dog!" I shouted brightly. All the other jurors oohed and ahed over the little dog. Its nails clattered on the table as it walked from juror to juror to get the attention that was its royal due.

"Can I see the book?" Juror #23 asked. I had forgotten the book and casually handed it over. The cover of Ruffly Speaking had a perky dog and an old fashioned radio. The radio was rendered to suggest a skull.

"I'm not sure what the radio is there for," I commented.

"Do you like it?" Juror #4 asked.

"Uh--" I said, intelligently. "I got it through BookCrossing. I promised myself I'd read it all the way through." Sometimes life gives you a random book. When life does that, you have to accept it and plow through to see what life is trying to tell you. What was life trying to tell me with this book? Don't get yourself trapped in a room with anyone who is an 'expert.' I looked around at this crowd pampering an illicit dog and realized I could not tell this room full of dog lovers that reading the book was a bit like being stuck in an elevator with an obsessive grandparent who was sure that every little thing it is possible to know about her grandkids -- from how they part their hair to how long it took to potty train them -- is so incredibly fascinating and teaches you soooo much about human nature that total strangers would plop down money for the experience. Money that would be refused, of course, because this kind of knowledge sharing is a civic duty.

Most of the other jurors were busy with petting the clicking chihuahua and telling charming anecdotes about their own pets. I know we were instructed to stand by our feelings and not get browbeaten into consensus, but I was not interested in fighting these people.

"It's a mystery?" Juror #28 asked. "Could you tell who did it?"

I squirmed again. "Well, I'd hate to give it away," I hedged. Of course you could tell who did it. The person who hates dogs did it. The only question was which one of the dog-haters killed the nice man. Actually, the real question was whether anybody was going to do any detecting or deducting or other mystery stuff instead of continually lecturing us on dogs until we died, too.

I couldn't say any of that out loud, of course.

"But did you like it?" demanded Juror #4.

I tried to deflect the question with humor. "There must be a whole industry out there for this kind of thing," I said with a grin. "You know, mystery books with some kind of theme or quirk. I'm thinking about writing a book about a detective who works with a left-handed parrot with a speech impediment. But there probably aren't enough handicapped-parrot freaks." The room became icily silent (except for the tap tap tap of the tabled chihuahua).

At that moment, I was saved by a knock at the door. The jurors jumped up in a mad scramble to hide the dog, but the knock and ensuing panic freaked the puppy out and it skittered across the table into my lap. There was a sudden intake of breath from all the other jury members. I did the only thing I could think to do: I put the dog under my shirt.

The bailiff entered and asked us to return to the courtroom. I wobbled out carefully using Juror #23 to shield me from view. The dog licked my stomach and I nearly dropped it before sitting down like a guy with a serious belly ache.

"Good afternoon, jury," the judge said to us. She had been a friendly judge, but I think she was starting to lose patience with our stalling. I wondered if she was a dog person or not. I'm pretty sure the defendant was not. I sat hunched over as best I could. "Mr. Foreman, is everything OK back there?"

"Sorry, your honor," the foreman said. "I'm afraid we got distracted talking about a book."

"Oh?" the judge said. All of the jury, even the alternates, turned to look at me. Subtle, kids. Subtle. The dog's nails were gouging my belly. "And how was the book?"

"Well, your honor..." I sat up a little as I responded. The dog scrabbled and fell out of my lap to the floor with a small yelp. Upon landing, it started running around in circles and yapping. I sighed. "It's kinda like introducing agile software practices...Actually, I think I'll have to take the Fifth."

Pity The The

Are you old enough to remember the band called The The? You might recognize their song "This is the Day" or "Kingdom of Rain." At any rate, LibraryThing make an interesting point: try to find the band using their name on Google. What a mess! Every the ever written. I'm guessing that Google ignores duplicate words. Oddly, though, Yahoo gets it first try.

Done Duty

Well, it all ended today in mistrial. We couldn't agree on the verdict. It's quite an interesting process. Being in a jury is a little like looking out the back window using a paper towel roll. And the paper towel roll is held by the two lawyers. One points it at the far left corner of the hedge and the other points it at the foot of one of your patio chairs. Then, you're supposed to say whether there were ever any squirrels up the tree.

At the beginning of the trial, they gave us these small notepads and a pencil and told us to keep notes. I was sure throughout the trial that during deliberation we would be able to ask to see the transcript when we disagreed on something a witness said. But we could not. We had to rely on our own memories and the physical evidence that was actually admitted to the case. Not all the evidence and not even all the evidence that was mentioned. (For example, they had a cop read from one of his reports, but we didn't get to see the report.) So, when two of us disagreed about what one of the witnesses said on the stand, there was nothing we could do to resolve it. (And speaking of the cop, why is it that the cop repeating everything the witness said is not hearsay? It seems a bit unfair that we hear one person's point of view repeated three times (by the witness herself and by both cops).)

In addition, we were not told at the beginning what all the charges were. I was under the impression that there were only three charges, so when State droned on and on about some particular point that seemed unrelated to those three, I didn't understand why. I think we'd have paid better attention had we been told all seven counts at the beginning, especially if we can't review the testimony.

I'm disappointed that it ended without a verdict. It certainly seems like a waste of three days. But I hope in the long run it will help whichever side that is in the right fix its case. I think they should perhaps give the jurors some advice on conflict resolution or something. If two jurors have differing opinions, cross their arms, and state outright that they're not changing their minds no matter what anyone says, what should we do? The judge kept returning our notes with only, "keep deliberating."

At any rate, I think I learned a lot and would do it again. (Oh, and another piece of advice: Bring snacks. If you get shoved into the jury room to deliberate, the judge might not let you eat until the late afternoon.)

The Duty Goes On and On

Prosecution rested today and the Defense began. Don't know how much longer this is going to go on. I tried to get everyone interested in drawing names for a Christmas gift exchange, but nobody seemed excited about it. They actually think we're going to finish tomorrow. Silly jurors!

Speaking of names, though, I find it interesting that after a day and a half together, not a single person has offered an introduction or asked my name. Nor have I tried to introduce myself. We're all studiously avoiding personal subjects and, aside from occasional snarky comments from certain members of the jury, mostly we are either quiet or talking of the case.

A bit of advice, folks:

  • Dress in layers. From one hour to the next, the courtroom can go from hot to freezing. Mostly, today was freezing, but it sure warmed up in the afternoon. The judge is not sympathetic to this complaint.
  • Ignore the judge's time estimates. From the smallest estimate (I only need you to retire for ten minutes (which turned easily to 30)) to the most important (I expect this case to take two days (Day 3 begins in the morning)), the judge is a dogged optimist. I guess she'd have to be to keep coming back to view the sludge of human despair like this every day.

Bike Law Report

So, there's a lot of sitting around here. I picked up a copy of Trial Reporter, a journal of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association. The Spring 2007 issue has a couple of cyclists on the front. The issue is devoted to "Recreational & Sports Litigation". It actually seems to be a checklist for preparing to sue in accidents.

An article called Rules of the Road was written by Dennis C. Mitchell (who looks a bit like the guy from My Family). Here is what I learned:

  • A crosswalk is defined as "within the prolongation or connection of the lateral lines of sidewalks" where two roads meet. This is interesting because it means that the pedestrian has the right-of-way even if there are not lines painted on the road.
  • I don't think I buy it, but his opinion is that cyclists have the right-of-way on bike lanes and paths if not otherwise stated. Though the law is not explicit on this point, he thinks it could be argued. So, those stupid cars shading into the bike lane? They're both stupid and scofflaws.
  • It continues to be true that in Maryland, "any time a cyclist has the option of using a bike lane or shoulder paved to a smooth surface, the cyclist usually must use it." I can't say whether bike lane and bike path are equivalent.
  • Cyclists are prohibited from wearing ear plugs or ear phones, and they must have a bell.
Of course, nobody's gonna get convicted on this stuff, but he thinks it's all good fo r law suits. Ah, America!

More Duty

(ha ha, I said "duty"!)

So, I can't talk about my case, which is going into a second day today. However, I have two questions:

Why do we still need court reporters? The court reporter's job seems to be to sit over in the corner and type everything that is said. At the same time, everyone has a microphone and the session is being recorded. With all this recording technology going on, why do we need the court reporter? I wouldn't bring this up except that she keeps interrupting the testimony. What was that last line? Who? Can you say that again? I keep waiting for her to say, No, I know you didn't say that!

Why can't the jury ask questions? I think it would be a great addition to be able to ask for clarification. It's obvious that sometimes the witness is just not all that bright and the lawyer is deliberately misunderstanding, so we don't get the real answer to the question. Also, there are things that the lawyers say in the opening statements that haven't come up again in the testimony. I want to ask about that.

Doing My Duty

It's Jury Duty Day!

Yeah, that doesn't sound exciting to you, but I've been looking forward to it. I want to understand how our legal system works. I've been involved with court cases, but never from the viewpoint of the jury, the decision makers. I'm very interested in how this works, considering that there are people calling for special, secret tribunals to try suspected terrorists (read, "anyone the government wants to claim is a terrorist") without letting anybody know. The existing trial-by-peers system cannot succeed if we don't all participate.

Plus, I figured, there'd be a lot of reading time.

I am currently in the jury pool room of the Prince George's County District Court in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Apparently, there is wireless. At least, I'm picking up a faint non-secure signal. Oddly, I brought my laptop, but not my power cord, so there's only so much surfing I can do.

Here's a run-down of the excitement so far:

7:30Time to appear and sign in. I got here kind of early. A lot of people got here kind of late. Sit down in a big room with about 200 of my new best friends. There is a pair of restrooms, a refrigerator, and snack machines.
8:05The movie begins. There's an orientation video displayed to remind us what all the words mean and to show us what to expect. From this, I expect that the people involved in the process will all be wearing 70s clothes, all the women will have big glasses and Farah hair, and all the defendants will be sullen.
8:15The video ends with the reassuring words, "At least in this country, each case will be heard in an open courtroom..." All the late people sign in and the admin does a stand-up routine. We're all supposed to shout loud when called and we have to keep our summons for three years. She said a bunch of other stuff that I have already forgotten. Oh, we're going to get $15.
8:45The administrator starts calling names and handing out cards. The color indicates which trial you are assigned to and the number is your juror number. I am green juror number 4. I was so hoping for number 6. (There is one person whose last name is "Outlaw" and another named "Fugitive" (at least in Gaelic)).
9:10My group gets to go first to jury selection. It's a civil insurance case. There are a lot of questions about knowing the people involved. The first bite was for knowing the insurance company. Everyone who had ever had dealings with State Farm had to approach the bench and say whether it would affect their ability to serve. Everybody can stay.
9:20My first approach to the bench comes because I know someone who is trained in medicine. I get to explain that I don't think this will affect my ability to examine the facts. The judge believes me and neither lawyer objects, so I go sit back down.
9:25I am the first to get kicked off the jury. The video had told us to not take this personally. It doesn't mean I'm stupid or anything. I am excused because I have been involved in legal proceedings and insurance claims around an automobile accident. Since this case is about a car accident and injury, I have to admit that it's possible my experiences could affect my view of the case as it proceeds. I'm pretty sure I'd do okay, but it's best to be honest. The judge sends me back to the pool room.
9:30Back in the room, they are still giving out cards and sending off groups. I ask at the window what to do about being excused and she just takes my card and tells me to sit down. I'm not very clear on how I'll get back in the running to join a jury.
9:45I actually hear a clerk say, "I'm sorry Sweetie, you'll have to tell it to the judge."
10:00I'm still sitting here. There is a guy listening to music very loudly. We're not allowed to bring in MP3 players (a woman had to go back to her car at the entrance), but apparently an iPhone is okay. Also, we're now told that camera phones are allowed after all. Too bad we all left them in our cars. The music is getting on my nerves.
So, there you have it. I'm going back to reading this very inane book that I got through book crossings. Oop. Lost the wireless.
10:30I'm assigned Green 14. There are about 60 of us for this criminal case. There were about 15 for the civil case earlier.
11:00They asked a bunch of questions to the group, including "Have you been in a jury before?" About half had been.
11:30We're asked about whether we can sit for two days. Some Hill staffer whined that he couldn't stay because he was helping draft some legislation for Wednesday. Smug jerk.
11:35We're brought up one by one to get accepted or rejected by the lawyers. They don't ask any quesions, just thumbs up or down. I'm selected to sit. I think that we got through 35 candidates before we had 12 jurors and two alternates.
The wireless is intermittent at best. (Actually, the wireless is not really for civilians to use!)

Good Stuff

Just back from one excellent camping trip. All of the Maryland state park campgrounds on the western front were booked, so we traveled three and a half hours up into Pennsylvania to Ohiopyle State Park. The park has an excellent array of trees and mushrooms. At the center of the park is a major hub for whitewater rafting and biking. (Not whitewater biking, just biking.) The ATA trail rolls through the middle of the park. It links Pittsburgh to DC. Back in 2001, we rode through here on our way to Minneapolis. Aside from Wisconsin, this trail was the nicest part of the trip. It's a level ride through pretty good (for the East) mountains.

Turns out we had also been whitewater rafting here, though we had forgotten. So it was a good trip down memory lane.

We took a good long hike around the park for four hours on Sunday, so we were well exhausted when we hit the sacks. But we didn't crash before playing some good poker and making some big fires in that fire ring you see in the picture up there.

And even nicer, when we got home there was a knock at the door. The cooking zombie stopped by with a pie just for us! How lovely is that? It was good and delicious and Splenda sweetened!

No, uh, we haven't eaten the whole thing yet :)

It's made from a real pumpkin that she mushed herself, yum yum. I think it tastes a bit like sweet potato pie, probably because you can feel the texture of the pumpkin. And that's quite a compliment, because my favorite pie is sweet potato pie.

This is as close as Tubby got to it before we chased him away with forks. (Which suddenly reminds me of this joke about cannibals...) He's not usually interested in human food, aside from our glasses of water, of course.

Happy Campers

How 'bout this weather, eh? Disgusting.

Good thing we're headed for the mountains for a little outdoors experience this weekend.

Under Cover

There are covered bike racks at the Greenbelt Metro station, but they seem to go unused. This is probably due to a combination of lack of advertisement of the fact and non-competitive placement. The uncovered racks are in the center aisle toward the entrance bicycles can actually use (off Cherrywood Lane); the covered racks are on the side of the parking lot directly accessible only from the Beltway. Perhaps Metro didn't realize that bikes are prohibited from using the circular parking lot we call I-495? (More likely, they just never put bus service in on that side and since it was free space...)

At any rate, here is what four straight months of Kansas (read: not biking) do: I was wiped out by the little three mile ride to the Metro station. I'm going to blame it on the odd humidity and early darkness. It can't be my fault.

(Oh, look, a shiny new camera!)

Iceland

Ok, so this isn't my own content, but this is now my favorite song.

(I first saw this over at The Greenbelt, which doesn't seem to have anything to do with my fair city.)

Ralph Nader Races

Ugh. How terrible! My camera died. Otherwise, you wouldn't be stuck with this sad picture from my phone's camera. We came upon this table at a festival in Baltimore this weekend. The table is divided into four lanes, with starting gates on one end and nice flags on the other. Kids were placing bets on the outcome of the race.

The racers? Stuffed, automated pigs.

Believe!