Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Three Days and Change at Sámara

Maddie and I landed in Liberia, Costa Rica, a bit after noon on Friday 8/20, and we left almost exactly a week later, after noon on Friday 8/27. The dividing line in the middle of that week was Tuesday, when we drove from the Pacific coast at Sámara over to the Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, which is more or less in the middle of the country.

Friday evening to Tuesday morning struck us as exactly the right amount of time to spend at Sámara: enough time for the activities we had in mind, without rushing the beach-vacation schedule. I think it's good to attain a balance in this way. You get your day at the beach, and later you get your walk in the park.

The drive from Liberia to Sámara is about 70 miles, and we covered that in a couple of hours. The idea of driving in Costa Rica had begun to freak me out shortly before we left. After my customary procrastination (which affects everything I do, including vacation plans) I'd finally gotten around to reading the practical advice in the guidebooks about travel. The guidebooks give you advice on how to ford shallow rivers in a 4x4, and generally tell you that driving is not for the faint of heart. So I was imagining scary things. The 4x4 thing is good advice, but really, sticking to the major roads isn't all that nerve-wracking. (Also, with a GPS, you can thwart Costa Rica's issues with inadequately signed routes.) The Pan-American Highway is more or less like a state route here, and the secondary roads we were on were like hilly local roads, albeit with no shoulders, monster potholes, and frequent one-lane bridges over creeks. Driving in the afternoon in August means you'll drive through some thick showers.

We stayed in a marvelous B&B in Sámara called Entre Dos Aguas, run by a youngish couple of expats from New York, Brendon and Lilah. The place nestles into the hills right inland from Sámara, with treetops surrounding the property. There's a pool, a couple of pavilion structures sheltering the breakfast area and a patio with hammocks. There are butterflies and leafcutter ants. The bathrooms have stone shower nooks. The owners' pets lend a distinct personality: an old, gray-brown dog with a lame back leg, a retired-small-town-sheriff expression, and a pervading aroma of old wet dog; a small, visibly curious orange and white kitten; a somewhat older gray cat, which the kitten would bother and play with whenever it had a chance; and one other less distinctive dog and I think one other cat, which mostly kept to itself. Breakfasts were eggs, good coffee, and a plate with pineapple, papaya, and melon.

Beach bar.

Sámara has a good pace as a beach spot. There's enough tourism so that there are restaurants, beach bars, and surfboard rentals, but it's fairly quiet. (We were there off-season, of course, which would have something to do with this impression.) Friday night it was rainy, so we walked down the hill into town and had dinner. A small population of untended horses was hanging out in a grassy lot there, and from one stand of trees emanated a noise of what must have been frogs, a truly alien-sounding cacophony of quickly rising "mwwoy-OYP" noises.

Most of the other rainy parts of days we spent chilling or napping at the B&B.

Saturday morning broke from a drizzle into beautiful beach weather around 8:30 in the morning, so we took a long walk up and down the beach, which is a wide and flat crescent. The sun is surprisingly intense, even early in the morning. In the sand, hundreds of two-inch-long, red-orange crabs dig burrows at low tide and scurry around. (There are no seagulls: good for beachgoers, and good for crabs.) We waded into the warm Pacific until we'd had enough fun getting knocked around by the waves. We'd staked out a place in the shade, but I still sunburned my shoulders by letting my guard down for maybe 10 minutes on another walk down the beach. Later I had an impressively satisfying hamburger for lunch at one of the beach bars. We swam at the B&B pool while a variegated squirrel gnawed (surprisingly loudly) through a coconut in the tree above us. We napped in the two patio hammocks.

In the hammocks is where we were first acquainted with the howler monkeys that hang around the B&B. There's a mama monkey with a 2-month-old baby and an adolescent son. The owners of the adjacent property apparently had left food out for mama, and so the monkeys hang around the area a lot. None of them howled while we were there. The son is the least shy one. He'd showed up alone on Saturday afternoon, hung above Maddie's hammock for a minute, then went ahead and dropped into it before she could go anywhere. (Maddie: "I'm not sure why my instinct would be to close my eyes and curl into the fetal position, but . . .") He play-gnawed at her knee for a second, which I think was when the decision to exit the hammock occurred, and then he sort of prowled around getting a sense of us, while we tried to keep a little bit more distance than he wanted to. Brendon was there before too long, filling us in that the monkey was a frequent guest and also harmless.

I hadn't ever considered whether there was a test for boyfriends on "will he defend you from monkeys," and I did not acquit myself very well. I tried to get the big ol' dog to distract the monkey, but the big ol' dog just looked at me with his ol' tired eyes. The kitten and the monkey, both very curious and very wary of each other, tended to have a precious interaction. Later on we saw mama monkey and the baby, who mostly hung on mama's back but would cutely try out his climbing skills on the second-floor B&B railings.

Sunday was pretty similar to Saturday, to my memory. Somewhere Maddie wrote down what we did each day; I must be forgetting something more specific already. Sunday was when I noticed the leafcutter ants at the B&B -- not too many of them, strolling individually along a 40-yard stretch of walkway carrying their bits of leaves. As you may recall, I'm fascinated by ants, and I'd really hoped to see some leafcutters in Costa Rica (they're agriculturalists! fascinating!), and it turns out you'll find them pretty readily if you're someplace at least partly forested and you keep your eyes open. Later in the week, near Arenal, we saw some impressive chains of leafcutters: they keep very tight trails, and when they have a big operation going it looks like an engineering project to move an entire treetop underground piece by piece. Anyway, so I happily watched individual ants scissoring off pieces of leaf on the ground for 20 or 30 minutes.

Monday morning we did a guided kayak paddle (with one other vacationing American couple, who were visiting Costa Rica for six weeks before moving to Montana, lucky bastards) over to Isla Chora, a small island about 45 minutes out from the beach. Once there we snorkeled for a good half-hour in moderately choppy conditions -- there were some tropical fish to see, which are always interesting, but nothing too wild. The island has a little beach in front of a rock cliff. Both the beach and the rocks are crawling with tiny hermit crabs, and the rocks are additionally populated by a number of iguanas, which we threw bits of banana to. On the paddle back the guide, Marco, noticed and steered us to a pair of mating sea turtles. Apparently they just float out there in the water, oblivious to the world, for a half hour or so.

Jack & Maddie on Isla Chora.

The B&B had a connection with a massage guy, so we called him in and spent the lazy (and eventually downpouring) part of Monday afternoon getting our respective tensions worked out.

And I guess that's pretty much that! Tuesday morning we got an early start, so we really just packed, showered, ate breakfast, and distracted the adolescent monkey away from the second-floor bedroom door so that the Brooklynites staying inside could leave their room. And from there we were on the road to el Volcán Arenal. Which is a story for another day! Like tomorrow.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Today's Silver Pirates Lining

The Pittsburgh Pirates news has curdled into the usual, late-summer morass of pathetic on-field incompetence and nobody caring anymore how many games they lose this year. But news comes this afternoon that Rinku Singh, one of the two Indian pitchers signed into the system last year as a publicity-friendly crapshoot, has been promoted from the rookie league affiliate up to the short-season single-A club. Obviously the chances of one day reaching the big league for any given player in the low minors is pretty low, let alone for one who never played baseball prior to signing a contract, but I continue to find it impossible not to root for the guys and I'm happy for Singh that he's merited this step (I can't think of a reason he would be promoted for mere publicity). The Million Dollar Arm Blog seems to have slowed quite a bit in its updates but we can see there some photos of Singh and Dinesh Patel meeting President Obama, Kal Penn, and other notables in Washington, D.C. this spring; shaking Obama's hand is probably more than most of the Pirates franchise's young pitchers can claim. Although perhaps Colton Cain or Zack von Rosenberg or someone, after making the major-league roster, will receive a medal of honor for anchoring the millenium's first non-losing Pirates team from President Huckabee or whatever other horrifying person will have been elected to lead the nation by 2014. But see, already the silver lining has begun to gray over.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Back from Costa Rica!

I'll have more to recount from the vacation later, but for now, Maddie & I are back from Costa Rica, as of late Friday night. We had a great time: four days at the beach in Sámara, then two in the vicinity of Arenal Volcano, more or less in the center of the country. (The volcano did erupt, a little bit. It erupts a little bit on most days.) It's the rainy season there, so we saw an afternoon shower more often than not. The weather did stay nice when we had nice-weather plans, for the most part. I spoke a little Spanish, but not much -- partly because of the amount of English spoken for the sake of tourists, partly because of my limited comprehension of anything complicated -- but it did come in useful. Driving, about which I was anxious and preoccupied for a week before departing, was not nearly as stressful as I'd anticipated. I wish we had 1 or 2 more days there, always and everywhere a lingering feeling after a good vacation.

Highlights included the straightforward relaxation on Playa Sámara, the howler monkeys that frequently visited the B&B where we stayed, a morning sea kayak excursion, authentic bratwurst eaten along the hilly road near Lake Arenal, tasty betidos and tropical cocktails, the bits of volcanic activity seen from the Arenal Observatory Lodge, the typical ecotourist's tour of forest canopy by zipline, and several hours of prototypical luxury in the volcanic hot springs of Tabacón. Plus, in general, the large amount of time spent outdoors, and the various observations of crabs, iguanas, sea turtles, leafcutter ants, squirrels, vultures, hummingbirds, oropendolas, basilisk lizards, and one white-nosed coati.

Monday, August 23, 2010

of mild side project interest

Pete's in Berlin and Jack's in Costa Rica but I think I can do this without complete dereliction of mild interest duty: I'm going to try to blog about all of Shostakovich's musical works in a row, one at a time.

Or at least all of his commercially recorded works, which after some preliminary searching is most of them. I'm hoping this will harness my most recent upswelling of Shostakovich fanaticism to some productive end and kickstart me into writing about something on a very regular basis. I'm also interested in whether I find anything coherent to say about my response to the composer's body of work. I'll be tilting at a rate of 4 or 5 pieces per week, at least initially; we'll see if I can achieve and sustain that rate. Should be fun!

I'm calling this project The Exhaustive Shostakovich and it's located, at least initially, at ExhaustiveShostakovich.wordpress.com/ . I'm hoping to continue to dress up that site in form and function (how many bachelor's degrees of computer science does it take to adequately customize a Wordpress blog?) but it's up and going now, or should be, with a fresh post about the scherzo in F-sharp minor, opus one. The risk of embarrassment in front of the committed Of Mild Interest readership will, I hope, encourage me to get it fully up and going in the next couple of weeks. I will continue to post non-Shostakovich-related content here.

At any rate, if the concept sounds, well, mildly interesting to you I'd be happy if you read along as I roll it out. At the moment, putting up one post there has failed to accelerate my typically pokey writing pace, so I should pedal on into the office.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Carol On

Stu's public radio work-friend Mark, who came along kayaking two weekends ago, did a really nice short bit earlier in the summer on the Harkness Tower carillon on campus here. I recommend a listen, here. And with the video link on that page you can hear what a Ray Charles number sounds like on an eight-octave bell tower.

The carillon is back in business after being closed for repairs most of the academic year. The university carilloneurs club -- it's an undergraduate organization -- managed to obtain funding to rent a mobile carillon on a truck. It looked like a compact console in a bathroom-sized pod, with the bells arranged all around it and visible through a glass (or maybe plexiglass) enclosure. Over the winter it was parked in a lot by the science building, a block away from my apartment. One of the more interesting concerts I attended last year involved hanging out after work in that parking lot, after sundown in the middle of December, drinking the hot chocolate the carilloneurs provided. A uniquely satisfying experience, albeit a freezing cold one. I'm glad to have the actual carillon back in the city's soundscape.

As the radio bit notes, the carillon as an instrument is 500 years old this year, by some measure or another. They're Dutch in extraction, which perhaps explains some of my natural affinity for them. Happy birthday, carillons! New Haven would not be the same without you.

* * * * *
Also on the topic of unconventional Dutch instrumenture, you owe it to yourself to read New Haven music blogger Dan Johnson and become acquainted with the Museum Speelklok, of Utrecht.

Aber die Wildcat Band ist besser


So, I'm not sure if I blogged about this back in the day or not. But most of you should at least be at least mildly aware that there exists in the world a textbook for teaching German to American students, which dates from, say, the mid-90s. (I've actually got a copy of said book that survived the book-purge of pre-Berlin and is safely stacked in a storage locker with the rest of my remaining shit in North Miami.)

In this book, there are some young characters. They hang out and make small talk. Sometimes they go to ice cream parlors and order sundaes. Hawaiian sundays. Hawaiibechers.

My first trip to Berlin, in '07, I sought out the Hawaiibecher, but did not find it offered anywhere.

In '08, I came a bit closer when my language class teacher had heard of such a thing, and could even describe it exactly. Apparently Hawaiibechers really were all the rage back in the early 90s.

So here we are in 2010. And I wasn't really even thinking about Hawaiibechers anymore; hadn't bothered to check any of the ice cream shops I passed for it (am probably too busy trying to find, like, myself, or something). But then today, I was out looking for olives, and I passed an ice cream shop. And it had these old sun-faded posters of their various offerings. And I couldn't help myself--I'd already been to several grocers and had found olives (or, like, myself) yet, so was a bit downtrodden--I had to stop and look.

And, of course, the hawaiibecher wasn't on any of the old faded posters. But then, I turned the corner, and on a shiny new poster, on the left-hand side, three rows down, there it was: a Hawaiibecher. Holy shit! They do exist!

But they cost nearly 4 euros! Fuck that! Who wants to pay that much for an ice cream sundae? Not me, not me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

so much in the fighter zone

The second and final part of "Super Foot to Head" here. Part one here. Something of an explanation from me here.

An excerpt from the thrilling conclusion:

I CHALLENGE YOUR BOSS, i exclaimed. as he emerged from the shadows of an alley i could recognize The Chief because he was so many feet taller than the rest of the toughs. he had war tattoos all over his face and he was carrying a weapon that only a dungeons and dragons freak would know what it was, it was like an axe head at the end of a long pole. he took off a ceremonial ninja star from a chain around his neck and threw it fast at my arm, where it shattered my japanese watch. YOU MOTHERFUDGER, i shouted at him, not like i was losing it but just real cold, YOU DONT EVEN UNDERSTAND HOW MUCH ITS ON.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Time Log: The Web-Comic

For those of you who enjoyed (and I know all of you did), the ten-year's-in-the-making Time Log comic that my friend Nick and I, with help from artist Shawn Atkins, finally got into print earlier this year, we've got a much-less-time-in-the-making-but-still-just-as-awesome Time Log web comic up and running over at Audioshocker.com!

As you can see, the web comic takes up right where the book left off. It's going to run weekly, serialized into strips about the length of this first one. It's gonna be great! Read it every week!

Notable Quotable

Kyle's sister's boyfriend's father Rick, at dinner this evening:

A buddy of mine got a new cell phone a while ago. He was about 50 years old at the time. He said, 'The new number is really easy to remember, it's 3843.' I said, 'What's so easy about that?' He said, 'Well, I used to be 38, and I used to be 43.' And you know, I've never forgotten the number.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

RIP Nellie King

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that former Pirates player and broadcaster Nellie King has died. I hadn't heard of him until this past Christmas, when Mom and Dad got me a copy of his recent memoir, Happiness is like a Cur Dog, which I found to be a charming read. Along with documenting a tough childhood and (more amusingly) his passage through the minor leagues in the late '40s and early '50s, he warmly describes his contact with a few local sports heroes, principally Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente, and for me (for whom everything prior to the Bucs' 1988 season is prehistory) reinforces a sense of pride and history in the Pirates franchise that has obviously deteriorated badly over the past two decades. So, although I don't know King's broadcasting work, he's recently enhanced my appreciation of the hometown baseball club a good deal.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Flow Chart

I feel like the most popular global warming worries tend to focus on spectacular disasters (sea level rise, hurricanes, catastrophic loss of adorable baby polar bears) and a little less on the unsexy matters of drought and agricultural failure. Consequently I'm less viscerally alarmed by Russia's rampaging wildfires than by the reports of their wheat harvest dropping by more than a quarter from last year. I don't know a lot about agriculture but I feel like (1) we probably can only take a limited amount of screwiness in our breadbaskets and (2) this is the sort of thing it's very hard to "adapt" to in the fuzzy way that climate optimists figure we will. I mean, I don't think this is the eco-apocalypse, but I think in a bunch of places it's going to look something like this.

(Weather blogger Jeff Masters notes that, so far in August, Moscow is averaging a whopping 27ºF hotter than average. Most of his post concerns the deadly monsoon rains hammering Pakistan, which he notes shuold be occurring with more frequency as temperatures continue to rise.)

Anyway, I mention this as a tangential lead-in to sharing this rather excellent diagram of U.S. energy use, which I saw on some blog or other several weeks ago. (Today I'm pulling it from here; this was posted in 2007.) I'd rather think about elegant illustrations of data than the problems those data incur in real life. And I think it's eye-opening, too! (At least if you see it a bit larger than Blogger permits. Click for bigger.)

On your left are the energy sources, on the right the categories of how it's used. A couple of takeaways:
1. Note exactly how tiny the non-fossil-fuel sources are in proportion, and how we're not exactly around the corner from scaling them up to meet our needs.

2. Those big gray flows are lost or wasted energy. Note especially how inefficient electricity generation is.
This style of chart is called a Sankey Diagram, and you can find a whole blog devoted to them. The namesake was an Irish engineer named Matthew H. Sankey. Most frequently the diagrams seem to be applied to illustrating energy use. (There's a particularly sweet one here.) The seasoned nerd will note a family resemblance to the famous Napoleon-in-Russia map of Charles Joseph Minard. (Minard, in fact, made a number of maps in this genre -- search the Minard tag on this blog.) The Minard maps predate Sankey by a handful of decades. One of the more interesting items coming out of the local ivy-league book factory, actually, is a Minardesque compilation of maps relating to the African slave trade, which shows that the idea has staying power.

So there's your day's reading on innovative graphical presentation of data. You're welcome!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Coffee Cup Recap '91

One intriguing angle on the Pirates' recent replacement of two coaches is the baseball career of the new bench coach, Jeff Banister. He's a Pirates organization guy, but you'd be forgiven for having forgotten his playing days: a catcher, Banister was called up to the Pirates for all of 5 days in 1991, briefly replacing an injured Don Slaught. In his only major-league action, Banister pinch-hit for Doug Drabek against the Braves and hit an infield single. Thereafter Banister never returned to the bigs.

But here he is on the field again, or rather the bench, albeit only in the capacity of periodically yelling at Ronny Cedeno, or whatever the Pirates' bench coach does. Welcome back, Jeff Banister!

If you're tempted to think of Banister's experience as the prototypical "cup of coffee" in the bigs, well, there are some even more classic cases, as delineated in the oddly phrased Wikipedia page for Notable Baseball Cups of Coffee. Moonlight Graham, the Field of Dreams character, turns out to have actually existed, for one thing. For my money, the most unlikely baseball cup of coffee is Robin Yount's brother Larry -- you really can't make this up -- who appeared as a relief pitcher for one game for the 1971 Astros, hurt his arm while warming up, never threw a pitch, and never got back to the majors.

I don't know if they intend to keep Banister in this role long-term or if he's just a fill-in, but I think it would be nice if they made July 23 some kind of "Jeff Banister day" at the park next year to salute his one day as a player. Can they find video of his infield single for the jumbotron? They could play that and set off a few fireworks before the game. Or maybe they could do a bobblehead. Who doesn't want a bobblehead of the Pittsburgh Pirates' bench coach?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Just Soundward of Darien

Here, today, is a perfect day for kayaking in the Long Island Sound, bright and hot. Connecticut may be at its best when you can get into the Sound. I took the train up from NYC to Stamford, where Stu moved earlier in the summer, and a short drive later we met our three other companions in Rowayton, a tony community just south of Darien. I think both count as greater Norwalk? My Connecticut geography gets pretty fuzzy outside of New Haven.

In any case, it's a simple proposition of renting kayaks, paddling out about an hour and back, observing terns and boats and expansive villa-like homes on the waterfront. It's good material to work with in August, and a fair amount of exercise too. Afterwards we had lunch at a luncheonette in Darien proper, a town awash in the cash-flush cuteness of the southwestern part of the state.

I should stop taking it for granted that there's good waterfront stuff to do near where I live. It's definitely a strong suit of the state.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Friday Night Is Laundry Night

Yeah, but the weekend is going to be eventful, with a wedding to go to in NYC tomorrow evening (wind ensemble buddies Andy and Lisa) preceded by outer-borough hanging around with the girlfriend, and on Sunday a kayaking excursion with Stu and a different Andy, weather permitting, which it seems like it should. And after work today I played a few satisfying chess games with Alex. So I feel like my social calendar permits some Friday night laundry-doing sans shame.

The face is probably about 80% now, and functionally better than that. My right eyelid is weak but I can close it all the way now (and therefore can sleep without a gauze patch on), and everything is basically working except for my lower right lip. All the improvement occurred between the 2- and 3-week marks of onset, and things have been static for about another week now. So I suppose I'll wait out the last improvement. I assume this means there was some limited nerve damage in there after all.

Really I'll be happier when I no longer have sinus pressure and popping ears, which has been coincidental with the Bell's from the start. (I don't know if they're more related than that.) It's a very mild inconvenience, but it makes me feel like I'm still not back to normal. The behind-the-ear headache has long since stopped, however.

Monday night I ducked into the city to see Pete ever so briefly before he flew to Berlin -- had drinks & dinner with him and his friend Dan, with Maddie joining us for part of the proceedings. I forget already the name of the fancy-ish pizza spot we went to on First Avenue. Beers were at the quasi beer garden Zum Schneider, which I can tell you (based on a different excursion there earlier this summer with Andy and Lisa) is even better when you order a huge pork dish.

I'm hoping to push myself into the habit of writing more, once again. Even casually it's an inertial phenomenon somehow.


Pete is, I think, getting himself settled in Berlin for the next couple of months, so it falls to me to tease this here: In his "Culturology" column at his college chum Nick's AudioShocker site, Pete is running a short story I wrote for him a couple of months ago, "Super Foot to Head". It's going in two parts; part one is up today, with part two following, I guess, next week.

Pete gives some introductory background, but briefly: Pete came to Pittsburgh over Memorial Day weekend with a pile of short stories to grade for the intro to creative writing course he was teaching. He mentioned one, about a mixed martial arts tournament, called "Foot to Head", which I thought was an awesome title for a short story to have. So a couple weeks later I wrote him my own intro-to-creative-writing-style story about an MMA fighter, to try to do justice to the title.

A representative sample:

like i said before, the other guys short story about me was Foot To Head, i dont know why he named it that. maybe because of fighter energy flowing all the way up my body from my foot to my head or something. what i do know is this short story is Super Foot To Head because of the incredibly powerful way i put my foot to that guys head in the alley. imagine if you put three pounds of medium rare ground beef in a hollowed out honeydew melon and then shot it with a shotgun. IT WAS EPIC. when it was over i was just standing at the end of the alley breathing with busted up head meat dripping off my shirt, i was so much in the fighter zone. i looked at my watch, i had seven minutes left til the match. it was just the beginning.

Pete and then Nick liked it sufficiently well to upgrade it from "bizarre joke e-mail from sibling" to "something on the Internet". I hope that other fans of the SERIOUSLY HARDCORE will enjoy it as well.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Poems on the Internet

Poems by Pete, on the internet: here.