Saturday, July 25, 2009

Random pictures

Kevin dropped some change getting out of the car. Ashley whipped out her trusty LED pig flashlight (complete with oinking sound effects) to search the gutter.

The tail lights, brake lights, and blue LED made a pretty picture, or if it uploads, video.

Otto demonstrating proper stick chewing technique for Bailey.

Ashley and Otto demonstrating their preferred car riding technique while stopped at the gas station. This technique is NOT condoned by Brain Barrel, its staff, owners, or subsidiaries.

It's on!

Well, it's faint, but it's there. Just like it was on the other five that Ashley did. We know it's very early, but we're still excited.

To celebrate, we had smoothies and waffles.

Enormous moth

It's hard to tell from this blurry photo, but this enormous moth had a wingspan of about 6". Ashley thought it was a bat. I jumped out of the car and grabbed a picture with my phone.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Aggressive Advertising

Ashley has been enjoying the convenient location, hot and cold beverages, and friendly personal service of our local drive-through coffee hut "Mocha Mountain" (?) on Route 65. Note the tastefully subtle billboard advertisment one of their competitors purchased overlooking the hut:

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Last Thursday I met with a couple of folks from the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council and a little community center in Coraopolis, a town just a bit down the Ohio from Bellevue. This is going to be my new volunteer activitiy, and it's not exactly what I had planned!

A couple of weeks ago I did a four day workshop on becoming a tutor for English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Normally tutors are matched with one or two students based on the information in their application and the needs and preferences of the students. The coordinator for the section of the city that I signed up for saw that I listed computers as an interest, and by chance had just received a request from the Coraopolis community center for someone to help out with the computer lab they are setting up. She asked me if I would be ok with forgoing the usual one-on-one tutoring setup and instead helping them out with basic computer classes.

The idea of a whole class (all of five or ten people, depending on who's interested) is actually pretty daunting. I'm a nerd, I explained carefully, and most weeks at work I don't actually have to interact with actual people. The idea of working with a student whose english skills were on a par with my social skills was one of the things that attracted me to the idea of ESL tutoring. A class is definitely further outside of my comfort zone than a lone student, and I couldn't guarantee I wouldn't mess it all up and scare off their clients.

That's ok, they said, a six week basic computer class hasn't ever killed anyone, to their knowledge, and they did computer classes all the time, the curriculums are all set up and ready to go, I would do fine even though it wasn't exactly what was covered in ESL class, and the students are really enthusiastic and perfectly nice people.

"Fine", I decided, and my deeply supressed inner action hero growled "let's do this thing" and pumped an enormous metaphorical shotgun. So now I just need to get my schedule sorted out, pick some days, get some material from the coordinator, and then get down to the business.


There was a short thunderstorm yesterday, followed by an incredible rainbow over the city. Here's the saturation adjusted shot I was able to get, shooting blind with one hand out the car window while driving. Please don't tell Ashley, or she'll bring it up any time I criticize her driving.

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New Office

A nice change at work: I have been assigned an office! Now I have a door, a window, a light switch, twice the height of wall, and instead of elasticized carpeting material I am surrounded by blond wood paneling. For my birthday I was given a couple of plants, too, which I haven't had time to kill yet.

My old cubicle is slated for occupation by a new modeler to join us by September. It is withing yelling distance of my boss's office, which will be handy for getting up to speed on the project.

Sadly, I will no longer be able to bring you updates of the copier repair guy's nasal congestion problems.

My office

My decorations

My view

Les Mis = Iran

After the 4th of July weekend Ashley and Mom and I went to see the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's production of Les Miserables. Ashley taught "Can You Hear the People Sing" in French last year (she insists on pronouncing it "A la volonte de POOP"), and I think she's been teaching Gavroche's "Little People" song ("isn't that supposed to be sung by Napoleon?" I asked). Also, one of her co-workers was in the cast (and did a great job), so we had every excuse to go see it, and our impulsive decision was well rewarded by a great production.

Ashley said the staging was toned down a bit because they couldn't afford the expense of a rotating stage, but it was very effective nonetheless. Some of the leads were veterans of the original Broadway cast and all of the other performers lived up to their standards, I think, except for Eponine who sang a little too pop-style for my taste, and the kids, who I shouldn't be too hard on even if Cosette swapped some words around and Gavroche's song had to be abridged. Also, M. Thenardier was HUGE, easily 6' 6", towering over Jean Valjean, who was himself of appropriate size to lift carts etc.

I'd never seen a production before, but as the music started I realized that I had listened to it repeatedly on tape cassette decades back when it was one of Maya's favorites. I think she even had the poster up in her room after she came back from college.

But watching the show the theme that came constantly and depressingly to my mind was Iran. I need to read a little bit of the backstory for Les Miserables (actually, I just bought the whole book) before making comparisons about the actual events depicted in the story, but based on the stage production it is hard to miss the parallels.

The rebellion by the students is one thing, maybe just striking because they are starting to seem young to me. The French students drinking in the taverns is parallel to the secret parties held by Marjane Satrapi, her friends, and her parents in "Persepolis". The young and rebellious find their own space away from the government to be themselves and make their plans for life and for change.

Les Mis hints at some of the difficulties of even knowing what is going on in the chaos of a revolution. There is the infiltration of the rebels by the policeman Javert and his eventual mock execution. Who can be trusted? Who is informing on who? There is the escape of Jean Valjean through the sewers. Who really died? What happened to the body? Those are the foggy uncertainties which the twitterers were working to dispel, and which still shroud the backstage maneuvering of the political leadership in Iran.

The big difference of course is that the Iranian opposition is not violent, and doesn't hope to oppose the regime by force. The rebels in Les Mis had the violent examples of the French Revolution and American Independence as the mechanisms for change in society, while we have the more civilized examples of Gandhi, Mandela, and King. In both cases the willingness to face lethal violence, either certainly or just probably, is shared.

But the biggest parallel is between Eponine and Neda, young women carried along by the revolution but not at its heart, and killed as collateral damage of the government's suppression of dissent. In Les Mis Eponine's death is tragic because it is forgotten. The rebellion fails, and Marius runs off happily with Cosette, and Eponine lies dead and unclaimed.

Hopefully the Iranian political conflict will be decided by public opinion within Iran and without and will not be wiped out by a Stalinist purge. If it remains a primarily political conflict then hopefully Neda will be able to remain, however tragically and unintentionally, a symbol of the evils of violent repression and a tool for the reformation of Iranian government and society.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me! And films.

It's that time again, and I already got my first birthday present...a new digital camera! Thanks sweetie! That should make pictures posted here more frequent and less blurry.

I'd like to thank Ashley for enthusiastically giving Ethiopian food yet another try, despite that traumatic first exposure in the basement restaurant in D.C. It sounds like she's coming around to the food, if not to the bread, injera, which I think is a marvel of bread technology, halfway betweeen a tortilla and a crepe, and many people don't really like. Also, I could never remember what injera was called until I heard someone say the name and I tried to make a tasteless pun about assasinated Indian Prime Minister InDira Gahndi.

I'd also like to thank everyone who came to celebrate with me, and I'd like to apologize about any nightmares or epilepsy that anyone may have experienced as a result of their exposure to the experimental films I made them watch.

That being said, I am really glad that I got out to see some artsy film stuff. It's been ages since I got to see anything really weird at Cinema 21 in Portland or from Trilogy. I realized this watching the scene in the third "Pirates of the Carribean" movie, the one with the extended shot of just Johnny Depp's nose and a peanut, and then the rocks that turn into crabs and try to eat him. Delightfully weird. Anyway, at the Pittsburgh Filmmaker's film kitchen we got to see:
  1. A behind the scenes look at a local university's production of Pinnochio, with lots of puppets and shadow puppets;
  2. A short film about a young actress returning to Pittsburgh from L.A. and meeting a very weird ex-classmate at the bus stop;
  3. An experimental short film trying to do something with the numbers representing the letters L-I-G-H-T and the number of frames and cuts in the film ;
  4. A film of someones family photos and snippets of interview with family members - memorable line was "sometimes I look at a picture and I don't remember that I drew it";
  5. A seizure inducing animation half way between "Heavy Metal" and "The Simpsons" with strong influences from "Beavis and Butthead". Memorable image was the power cord of the T.V. glowing with the same energy as the I.V. lines of the elderly couple watching it.
  6. A kid having a bad dream about becoming prematurely old and confusing his mother for transvestite zombie naughty nurse ("someone was abused by their parents" said Ashley);
  7. Something with a rabbit suit and a banana and a record player;
  8. Something with a bleeding dying abused woman;
  9. In a brief acknowledgement to the existence (if not the value) of narrative, a loosely strung together short about the Queen of Fantasy who sends her anally expulsive devil minion to a drab and dusty Pittsburgh to retrieve a depressed and dreamless damsel and bring her back to their seventies era panelled basement appartment for cake and to try on a fabulous wig, but it's really just all a drunken dream at a party, but it's actually real because the devil shows up...or something.
So...thanks to the artsy types for remaining weird and sharing it with us, and thanks to my friends for even considering coming to my party next year.