Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Free Comic Book Day

Since we're currently traveling, and I don't have the time or access to resources I would at home, I get my news from an odd variety of sources. For example, it was a hotel copy of USA Today, perused over breakfast, that reminded me of the upcoming Free Comic Book Day on Saturday.

Free Comic Book Day

This year, FCBD coincides with the release of the Iron Man movie. However, Iron Man is not one of the free comics being offered--he only appears as one of the heroes in the Marvel Adventures title. Isn't that (wait for it) ironic?

Thank you! I'll be here all week!


Monday, April 28, 2008

Jane's Forbidden Book Kingdom

Over the weekend, D and I saw two movies from opposite ends of the genre spectrum: The Forbidden Kingdom (in a theatre) and The Jane Austen Book Club (on DVD). Both were enjoyable, for different reasons.

Kingdom is all archetypes and broad strokes, with plot points telegraphed hours in advance, sometimes immediately upon a character's introduction. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the story is based on Chinese legends*, and myths are sometimes built upon knowing what's coming, but it is all very silly. Good clean family fun, though, and you know what you're going to get within the first fifteen minutes.

Book Club, on the other hand, is all about the specifics of its characters and the precise mechanics of their relationships. The only story that didn't quite ring true was Prudie's. I haven't read the book yet, but D says Prudie comes off as much more sympathetic on the page; in the movie, her husband doesn't seem like such a villain, and their final reconciliation is a little bit too tidy.

But any show which advocates Ursula LeGuin's novels (and science fiction in general) is totally worth supporting. I firmly believe the world would be a better place if more women read science fiction and learned kung fu.

* Aside: When I was younger and on a serious Star Wars kick, my parents told me repeatedly (in a manner that would have made Pavel Chekov proud) how the whole Jedi mythos was ripped off from centuries-old Chinese Wu Xia novels. They were partly correct; culturally, George Lucas stole more from Japanese Samurai history, but many of the supernatural elements ("These aren't the droids you're looking for") are derived from Qi Gong. I suspect they were trying to get me in touch with my ethnic heritage or something. Didn't really work. It's tough for anything to compete with lightsabers, you know?


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Trash, Treasure, and Trade

THDI, a term coined by my friend Jeff, stands for "Trash Heap Development Index." Remember that for later.

Two weekends ago, as part of the process of moving out of our house, D and I sorted all our worldly possessions into keep/sell/junk piles. The "sell" pile (a.k.a. the "free" pile) turned out to be quite large, since we had a lot of things that could be easily replaced, and it would have cost more to store them while we travel around the country than to just buy new things later.

We rented a U-Haul truck to take all our "keep" stuff to the ABF terminal, where it would be packed into a 6'x7'x8' storage container, and also to haul the "sell" stuff to a group garage sale. (We called the Junk General to take away all the "junk" stuff.)

There was so much "sell" stuff, we weren't actually sure it would fit into the ten-foot-long U-Haul truck. Our friend Elena, who was helping us with the move, had a brilliant idea: She made a "FREE STUFF" sign and put it on the truck while we loaded it. Within minutes, cars were stopping as they drove down our street and random people were taking all sorts of crap stuff off our hands. It was great.

But the best was yet to come. After we'd gotten most of the furniture out onto the curb, a car screeched to a halt next to our U-Haul, and the African woman driving pointed to the sign and asked, "Free? Everything?"

"Yup! All free!" Elena said.

"Take down the sign! I take it all!" the woman said.

We thought she was joking, especially since she immediately drove her car past the truck and down the street. But it turns out she was just finding a parking spot. She walked back to the stuff piled on the curb, chattering on her cell phone in what sounded like French.

"You can take down the sign," she repeated, and went on to explain that she was calling her friend to come help her haul all the stuff away, and they also had a truck coming.

Her friend showed up, and they loaded a coffee table into the back of her station wagon. We weren't sure how they intended to take the rest of stuff--trust me, there was a lot of it--until the truck showed up. It wasn't a pickup truck like we had thought. It was a seventeen-foot-long cargo truck they had rented from Budget, being driven by three Mexicanos:

And then I recognized the woman and remembered where I'd seen her before. Earlier that day, she had come into the U-Haul store while D and I were picking up our truck, looking for a 17' truck. U-Haul only had a 14-footer available. As we were leaving in our puny 10' truck, we had seen the woman talking to the three Mexicanos, who were waiting outside in the shade.

As it turns out, the woman and her friend were from Senegal, and they were trolling garage sales and such for things to send back to Africa. I didn't talk to them myself, but my understanding is that they had a shipping container which they intended to load up with whatever stuff they could find in the bay area.

They did literally take everything. At one point, as they were loading a broken laser printer, our friend Sean pointed out its non-functional state and asked if they really wanted to haul that all the way across the ocean. The women waved their hands and said, "It doesn't matter. We Africans will find a use for it."

Remember Jeff's Trash Heap Development Index (THDI)? I'll let him explain, in his own words:
The way people handle trash in the developing world is interesting. Everywhere, the trash can is implemented not in metal or plastic, but by gravity (a perfect developing world technology substitution: it is simpler, cheaper, and available everywhere). If you don't need something, you drop it. It falls to the ground and that's it...

The problem with the gravity system of waste management is that the trash ends up everywhere, especially places where the wind blows it, or water washes it. So every morning, everywhere in the world from Guatemala to Indonesia (and probably all the places I haven't yet seen) the women carefully sweep their property and ensure that all the garbage is in little piles at the edge. Sometimes they light the piles on fire to reduce them to ash. An interesting detail in French colonies is that in intersections, they push the trash into the middle, making little trashpile rond-points (roundabouts). The drivers then carefully pass the rond-point à la droite, and a little bit of civility is restored to a place where dogs and pigs have the right of way everywhere else.

But the THDI is not about where the piles are, or what other function they serve. It is about what's in the piles.

The first morning I woke up in Chad I was restless and I wanted to go out and see the city. The safe area for walking alone in N'Djamena is measured in meters, so I pretty quickly exhausted the possibilities for sightseeing. The embassy of Saudi Arabia's back door was kind of interesting, and the gardener cutting the bouganvilla taught me some Arabic (he certainly wasn't speaking French), and finally the children helped me practice the conjugation of donner (to give). "Dons-moi un biscuit. Dons-moi du argent. Dons-moi un bonbon." After a bit, I became interested in the trash that had been pushed to the end of the street by the women that morning, and that had washed into the drainage ditch over the years. There was some good stuff in there! Empty cans of powdered milk (Nido, from Nestle), broken flip-flops, a tangle of wire that used to be a tire before it burned, and the tail of a goat. As I contemplated the trash, I realized Chad was a much richer country than I was used to working in, and that I'd have to take that into consideration as a new log.

You see, in Liberia, the trash piles have the things with absolutely no remaining value. There are flip flops, but they have already had little foam wheels for children's toys punched out of them. There are powered milk cans, but they are rusted from being put over too many fires to heat water, and they are from a cheap Dutch brand of milk, not Nestle Nido. The smallest useful scrap of metal wire is already in service holding some rusting taxi together.

The THDI of Congo is closer to Liberia, but certainly not quite as low. For instance, Congolese in the east have access to Uganda and Kenya, where they can buy raw materials like steel and wire. They fix their old motorcycles with new parts that arrive on boats in Mombasa and come across on good trucks on good roads. The THDI, then, seems to be related to the transit system and your proximity to rich countries.

I haven't been home for a while, so I am starting to forget... perhaps you can go take a look at your trash and see what your THDI is. What does it say about your life? Did my new metric make you want to "improve" your THDI?
D and I feel pretty good about our THDI at the moment. We gave away a lot of our usable stuff to friends who would get good use out of it, and most of the rest of it is on its way to Senegal right now, where it will either be used in its existing form or stripped down for parts--I'm not sure what they'll do with all the 3.5" floppy disks, but I'm sure it would be interesting to see.

It is a little weird to think that a lot of our stuff was actually manufactured in Asia, shipped to America where we bought it, and is now being shipped back to Africa, where some pieces will see more use than they ever did in our house. But it also seems serendipitious that the women were from Senegal, which is one of the first places Jeff visited when he began preparing for his new life as an MSF logistician. It's a small world, and we're all connected in some way. Good to remember that.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Smart People

Editorial Note: Since I'll be on the road for the next few months, most of my blogging will happen over on Travels With Our Cats. You can subscribe to both blogs using my combined feed from Yahoo! Pipes. (Not responsible for any damage to the space-time continuum caused if you add this feed to Google Reader.)

It's been a long time since D and I had an actual weekend to relax and have some fun. The last month has been consumed, first by the Midnight Madness Game, then by packing and moving out of our house in Mountain View, and finally with preparations for our big summer-long road trip. We didn't actually get a chance to slow down and breathe until after we'd driven all the way down to San Diego, the first stop on our sightseeing trip.

So, on Friday night, we went out to the movies. D gave me four to choose from: The Forbidden Kingdom, Leatherheads, Smart People, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. About that last one--I should point out that she normally doesn't go for comedies, especially ones featuring broad physical comedy, but we love "How I Met Your Mother." And it sucks that the hotel's broadband connection won't support streaming video from But that's another post.

I probably would have picked Forbidden Kingdom for some lighthearted fun, but by the time we finished dinner, it was too late for that or Leatherheads. So I went with Smart People. It's not a perfect movie, but it turned out to be a great choice for us at that time. Dennis Quaid gives a wonderfully subdued performance--totally against type for him--and Thomas Haden Church steals the show with some absolutely essential nudity and profanity.

Going in, D was afraid it might be "one of those movies," meaning an overwritten indie talk-o-rama that doesn't know when to shut up. It wasn't; in fact, there's an economy of dialogue that balances the significant, wordless moments. I wouldn't recommend Smart People for everyone, but it's a nice, quiet, human story with some good laughs. Look for it on DVD.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Separated at Build

When we met our landlord this morning to do the final walk-through of the house we'd been renting on Calderon Avenue, he told us about another house on the other side of town with the same distinctive facade. Whenever we gave directions to the house, we told people to look for the "hobbit porch:"

We had to see it to believe it, so we drove over to Oak Street and found the doppelganger for our house. Not only did it have the same round porch design, it also seemed to have the same floorplan, down to the placement of the chimney and the units in the back:

Uncanny. Now, the question is, which house was the evil twin, and which one was the good twin...?


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Today In History: One Week Ago

Last Wednesday, for my belated birthday present, D took me on the "Deluxe VIP" Warner Brothers studio tour. (I didn't want to do it last fall because of the writers strike. I won't cross a picket line.)

The tour was a full five hours on the WB lot, including lunch at the commissary and walk-throughs of actual production areas (standing sets for "ER" and "Chuck," exteriors used in "Gilmore Girls" and Ocean's Thirteen, etc.). Lots of fun! As shown here:

WB Studio Tour

No photos were allowed in the studio museum, where the whole second floor was dedicated to some kid named Harry Potter. But my favorite exhibit was on the ground floor, of several memos from an executive first greenlighting the production of Bonnie and Clyde, then later writing a follow-up note saying he really should have read the script before agreeing to spend a whopping $1.6 million on something that had "no redeeming social value" (read: pr0n) and he was concerned about the commercial and critical prospects for the picture and could they maybe at least get some actual stars in the cast?

Some things never change. A Martian wouldn't say that!


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Death, Taxes, and Change

"[I]n this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
-- Benjamin Franklin, letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy (1789)

"Nothing endures but change."
-- Heraclitus of Ephesus (c.535 BC - 475 BC)

The house is all packed up, the cleaners have gone through and made the place spotless, and D and I went through today and spackled a few rough spots. The cats survived their first day alone in a hotel, and the Prius had its 45,000-mile service. So we're all set for our road trip. You can read all about it on our blog, Travels With Our Cats.

And speaking of change:

That's probably eight to ten years of coinage, collected in a box by our front door as we came home from spending petty cash. Which is less than four nine cents dollars a year, or two and a half cents a day. So the next time you have some spare change, remember that it will be more valuable to the homeless guy asking for it on the street, and you should just go home and adjust your 401(k) salary withholdings.

ERRATUM (21 Apr 2008): I just realized that we took a whole bunch of change out of that coin box a few weeks ago to make a wedding present for our newlywed friends Ken and Jerry. (We couldn't swing a suitcase full of cash, so we went for a lunchbox full of change instead. They were amused.) I've corrected the figures above.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A New Blog

It's a family thing: DeeAnn and I will be blogging about our road trip/big move on Travels With Our Cats, and as the title implies, we'll see if we can also coax Bayla and Jasper into posting every now and then. In fact, since we humans might be frequently tired from all the constant sightseeing and driving, the cats may supply most of the commentary on our trip from the comfort of a series of pet-friendly hotels across the US...