And it ends like this:

Kurt Vonnegut’s humorous humanism had a profound effect on me in my teens. Cat’s Cradle and Wampeteers, Foma, & Granfaloons, in particular, shaped my view of the world. I think I may have read everything that’s he’s published in book form, all but his most recent book of essays. Years later, a Ben Folds Five song, Alice Childress, struck the same chord that Vonnegut played in me: “…the world is full of ugly things that you can’t change. Pretend it’s not that way… that’s my idea of faith. You can blow it off, and say there’s good in nearly everyone; just give them all a chance.” It’s that message that raises hope in me, that informs my take on how to get through life: people are basically good. We don’t need someone looking over us, we can look out for ourselves and help each other along. He told me how you don’t need to believe in God to try to be a good person, an idea which isn’t very fashionable right now.

In high school, my circle of friends read (and frankly idolized) Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. Brautigan, the off-Beat poet, had that same deceptively simple profundity that mattered more than what was contained in the words. Later, several of us fell deep into the twisty big world of Robert Anton Wilson, who had the same sort of message, but delivered it in a much bigger package, wrapped in layer after layer of paper. The world is complex: be simple.

Brautigan talked about the beauty of life and relationships in his books of prose and poetry. He took his own life, alone, in 1984, the same year Vonnegut tried to do the same. The same year I was getting acquainted with both, though I didn’t know that then. So it goes.

Wilson died earlier this year. He liked life, and helped me like life. Before he died, his fans sent him donations to cover his medical debts; he asked them to buy his books instead. So it goes.

Vonnegut spent his life in a cynical, hopeful string of books. He talked about morality and mortality and how we shouldn’t treat other people. He fell down, and damaged his brain. He died yesterday. So it goes.

He’s in heaven now.

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.

Dining Down Under

I’m no gourmet… in fact, I’m somewhat of an anti-foodie. Dining at expensive restaurants and dedicating one’s self to culinary arts seems like a waste of money and time, respectively. I like good-tasting food, sure, but I don’t think it’s very important. Maybe that’s why I have such an easy time being a vegetarian; it’s just not worth the ethical cost for me to eat meat (also, meat’s kinda gross… I helped butcher my fair share of pigs and deer and, yes, squirrels when I was growing up; I have literally made sausage).

But the very fact that I’m a strict lacto-ovo vegetarian (I eat milk products and eggs) means that I focus on food more than I would otherwise, if only in what I avoid. Is that irony? I guess my exception to this is that while I have a very high tolerance for repetitive meals, I do enjoy novelty in my diet. So, dining in Australia was great for that.

Sometimes when I travel, I find it a little challenging to find food. (My friend Cameron, also a vegetarian, has a pretty sensible policy on this… he suspends his vegetarianism while visiting other countries, in large part to sample the local color; it’s too bad I’m so dang stubborn.) But Australia, for all its meaty reputation, is actually pretty veg-friendly. For one, it has some great Thai restaurants, like the one I mentioned earlier. For another, it has pies.

Yummy, yummy pies…

Now that I think of it, M and I had pies there last year, but we just sorta stumbled on the pie stand. This time, I was with locals, and I was made aware that this was a quintessentially Australian dish. You can get them all over the place. We don’t really have them here in the States… the closest thing we have is what we call “pot pies”, and they’re usually frozen, not something you get in a restaurant. They have whole restaurants that serve nothing else! These aren’t your typical 8-inch fruit pies, but little 5-inch savory pies… and they make veggie pies (also spinach “pasties”). I had these pies for breakfast, and they really hit the spot.

After arching… archerying… shooting arrows, Andrew and I went to another Aussie standby, the sidewalk cafe restaurant/bookstore, where I got (what else?) a gourmet pie. But this one wasn’t as filling as I needed after a bit of a workout, so I ordered a second dish, this one off the kids’ menu. When the waitress served it to me, I kinda hoped she’d say, “Do you come from the land down under?” But she just smiled, and gave me… a vegemite sandwich.

It had butter on it, and was much better for it. Andrew said that’s the only way to eat vegemite. I agree.


My host, Andrew, was around today, and he suggested we engage in one of his weekend hobbies: archery. I’ve always wanted to try archery, and had even signed up for a class in high school (but unfortunately never got the chance… the thuggish coach explained that there wasn’t enough equipment, so the girls would learn archery while the boys “got” to play football; do I sound bitter? I hope so). So we drove to Olympic Park, where the 2000 Olympics took place; the archery range was the site of the Olympic archery competition.

It was a lot of fun: I paid $20 Australian for an hour-and-a-half session, with a droll lesson included, as well as periodic tips throughout. I used a recurved bow with a 20-lb pull; Andrew had his own snazzy collapsible 40-lb bow. We shot around 10 “ends” (rounds of volleys, with six arrows to an end) at a target 20 meters away, and Andrew assured me that I did adequately. My top score was 41, out of a possible 60 (that’s around 68%… a high “D”. Me fail archery? That’s unpossible!). I missed the target completely on a few arrows, but got at least one bullseye (10 points) and several gold-ring shots (9 points). For the last 4 ends, they attached balloons to the bullseye, and while I missed it the first end, I popped it the last 3 rounds. I was pretty happy about that. My technique definitely got better as we progressed, but my arms and fingers got more sore. It’s a surprising amount of work to hold the bowstring back while you’re aiming, compounded (pun partially intended) by the trembling as my strength sapped away, making aiming even harder. I’m not an athletic guy, but if I went again, I think I could make a decent showing when I was fresh.

I think I got a bit of a traveller’s cold, so we laid low the rest of the day back at his place, doing a bit of work, and then walked to his favorite local Thai place for dinner… amusingly enough, called Sawasdee, the name of my favorite Thai place in Raleigh. I had a delicious green curry noodle tofu dish, with just the right amount of spice to leave me glowing and alleviate the cold symptoms.

Opera (Not the Browser)

I worked all morning on until mid afternoon, but I felt a bit silly sitting in front of a computer all day while Sydney was just a short train ride away. I’d flown all this way, and it seemed a shame to waste the chance to do some Australizing. The same urge made me take a dip in the ocean at lunch on Thursday. The water was nice and warm, and the waves at Manly Beach made for a pretty vigorous splashing around. But today I felt a little less ambitious, so I went down to Circular Quay, walked around the harbor, and saw the exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art (which M and I had enjoyed last year). Then I walked around the Opera House into the park area. After a while, I began to recognize some landmarks from last year. Once again, I was stunned by the giant bats that hung like strange fruit from the trees. After walking around for an hour or so, I stumbled onto a grassy area we hadn’t seen… there was a large pond with little islands, and birds all around. I relaxed and read for a while. Towards dusk, the cockatoos got really active, and were screaming and swooping low over the heads of people lounging on the green, and I took a bunch of pictures of them. It’s so odd to see them common in the wild, a sort of context shift from them being relatively rare pets.

When the park was closing down, I strolled back past the Opera House, and the courtyard was fenced off, with a huge crowd on the stairs. I went by the ticket booth to see what was going on, with the idle thought that I might get a ticket (though I was sure the prices would be too rich for my blood). I was a little relieved when the cashier told me it was sold out. But as I passed by the front gate, I heard a loudspeaker announce that they would be letting people into the courtyard to watch that night’s opera, La Traviata, on the giant plasma screen… which is what all the people outside had gathered to see… and, I gathered, paid to do so. So I figured, what the heck, and loitered a few minutes. Sure enough, they opened the gates to rabble of my ilk, and I lay down 20 feet from the screen to watch the concurrent performance.

I have to admit that I’m not an opera fan, but it was worth it for the novelty of seeing an opera at the Sydney Opera House (even if I wasn’t inside). I wasn’t really taken with it… some of the music was nice, but that style of overblown range-roving singing gets on my nerves. Of course, the plot was inane and nonsensical, and (spoiler) the heroine died “tragically” at the end. I think I’ll stick with musicals for my infrequent music-story-mashup fix.

I kept missing M throughout the day… she would have enjoyed it, but with me in a conference the whole week, it didn’t make any sense to bring her along this time.

Party On

When we were hunting for a new house this past Summer and Autumn, M and I wanted a place that would be good for parties. It’s not that we have thrown a lot of parties in the past… it’s that we wanted to change that. Well, we found a great place: spacious living room and kitchen, and a screened-in porch with sliding glass doors that joined the two. And we have had a few small dinners and hosted one Meet-Up. But we haven’t been holding parties, not even a housewarming. This year, that changes!

Our collective New Year’s Resolution was to throw a party a month for the next year. We succeeded –just barely– in that crucial first step… throwing the first party. We screwed up a little, with both of us so busy and thinking the other was sending out the email invitation, we only sent it out on Thursday, the day before the party, so we weren’t surprised that not many folks showed up. But we had fun anyway, and now we’re better prepared for next month.
Next month being Chinese New Year, we’re throwing a Chinese New Year’s Eve party on February 17. What exactly that entails, I have no idea yet, but it’s probably got something to do with dragons, pigs (next year’s Chinese zodiac animal), potstickers, and fireworks.


I was really happy to see the ground covered with snow this morning.  I grew up in the Midwest in the 1970s, and we almost always had a lot of snow every winter (a foot or more at a time, sometimes).  They don’t seem to get as much out there these days (global warming?), and we missed a white Xmas when we were back there.  I didn’t think I’d get to see any snow this year, but lo and behold, we got a nice, manageable inch of powder.  I even saw a snowman in Carrboro while driving to the vet!

Comic Book Theory and Praxis

Last night, M and I went to see a lecture by comics-theory guru Scott McCloud. He is doing a 50-state lecture tour with his entire family, including his wife and 2 animated daughters (energetic, that is… given that he’s a comics artist, I didn’t want to give the impression that his family is imaginary).

In the early 90s, he wrote a book called “Understanding Comics“, and followed it up in the Internet era with “Reinventing Comics“, which dealt with the potential that the Web offered for the comic form. Both of these books were definitive treatises on the history and nature of the comics form. Now, he has a book called “Making Comics” that puts it all in practice. His lecture summarized all 3 books in an hour and a half, and went very well. His older daughter did a short but amusing slideshow of their tour-to-date afterwards, and he closed the evening with a Q&A session and a book signing.

I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, and I was thrilled to see him speak live.  I guess I could have probably seen him speak at a comic book convention or something, but I’m just not that invested in fandom.  I read comics like I read any other literature, I don’t make a lifestyle out of it.  The folks in the audience were mostly design students and faculty, I think, and I had some very interesting conversations before and after the lecture.

The lecture was sponsored by NCSU in Raleigh and, a very hip on-demand print publisher.


A buddy of mine, Aaron, founded a startup based on some ideas for a content management/communications tool, which morphed into a very nice wiki. The company name is MindTouch, and the wiki is called DekiWiki (“smart wiki” in Japanese and Hawaiian, respectively). The software is an open-source branch off of MediaWiki (though with major improvements in the interface, IMO), and is available for free; the company sells support contracts and special hardware, IIRC. It’s pretty common for a company to give away software for free… my own employer, 6th Sense Analytics, has opened the source code for the SVG charting package I wrote for them, for example, because it’s not our core business. MindTouch is doing pretty well, and has had lots of positive exposure.

So, they did a bit of shameless promotion and posted an article on Wikipedia about it. Nothing wrong with that, there are lots of other wikis described there (including commercial ones).

It got deleted.

They reposted it.

It got deleted.

They asked what was up, and got a series of (lame, contradictory) answers. They tried reposting, and I edited the entry to clarify it and to downplay MindTouch and talk more about the free, open source software itself. When I tried to save the entry, I got a message instead:

“This page has been deleted, and protected to prevent re-creation.”

Say whuuuuuh?

There is supposedly a process whereby pages get marked for deletion, and undergo review. Anyone could have edited out the commercial aspects of the entry (which wasn’t all that egregious, just a blurb on the company itself). But they deleted it without following their own guidelines.

I like Wikipedia, for all its flaws. It’s a successful experiment in massive online collaboration, in my opinion, and I use it all the time. And I’m glad it hasn’t degenerated into an advertising morass. But don’t screw with their bottom line.

I’m not sure I would call this censorship, but it’s too dang close for my tastes. Read the talk page and draw your own conclusions.

Happy New Year!

We did a bit of travel for the holidays this year. For Christmas day, M and I drove down to Orangeburg, South Carolina to see her grandmother, who runs a blueberry farm. The property itself is all decked out in decaying Southern glory, complete with a large ancient manor-esque house, fallow fields, and abandoned outbuildings. Strolling around M’s childhood grounds, we discovered an amazing fungus we’d never seen the like of before. This was one freaky, funky fungus, I’m telling you, and I will devote an entry to it soon, along with some stunning photos.

Then we drove back to fly out of RDU to my hometown of Jefferson City, Missouri. And by “fly”, I mean, we flew from RDU to STL (St. Louis) and took a shuttlebus to JC, 2 hours away. And by “took a shuttlebus to JC”, I mean took a bus to Columbia, 30 miles north of JC. You wouldn’t think a capitol city would be so hard to get to. (To be fair, we could have flown into Columbia Regional Airport, but the leg from STL to COU was too expensive). I normally only see my family once a year, so it was nice to visit them, and see old friends who are still in the area (or who are visiting their own families for the holidays).

One such friend (codename: Jello) had flown in from Hokkaido, Japan, where she teaches English at Sapporo University. Jello and her teacher friend had just driven back from St. Louis, where they saw a Dale Chihuly exhibit at the Botanical Gardens. M’s uncle is a glassblower, and we really like Chihuly, so we made a snap decision to take the bus up a day early and spend New Year’s Eve in St. Louis. We wondered about how to get around and where to leave our luggage, but in the end, it was easy… we just rented a car when we got up there.

The rest of the evening was not as straightforward. When we got up there, the Gardens were closed, although their phone message said they’d be open (or at least, only mentioned Christmas Day as an exclusion). We were really disappointed, since we’d come up specifically to see this (instead of going to a friend’s party). To make matters worse, it was as cold and windy as the dickens! But we tried to make the best of it, and drove downtown to see First Night.

I haven’t spent much time in St. Louis, so I didn’t know where to find dinner. I’m a vegetarian, but usually can eat at most restaurants… however, the ones downtown seemed to all have prepared overpriced meatfests for the occasion. We were referred to Govinda’s, a krishna eatery, but when we found it (on foot, having paid for parking), they were serving the dregs of an unappetizing buffet. But a nice Hindu woman there gave us a ride to Euclid Street, where we found (after a conversation with a waiter at one restaurant) a nice place called Wildflower. Afterwards, we walked (a long ways) back to First Night, which was unfortunately winding down. We took respite from the cold in a theater where The Zany Umbrella Circus was doing a vaudeville act, then continued on to the outdoor stages. Mysteriously, the last act was an DJ playing 80s music while break dancers performed. Break dancers. I swear. But within the hour, the fireworks display signaled midnight and the new year.

We still had hours to kill until our flight took off the next morning at 8, so we looked for an all-night diner. We got a recommendation for the Courtesy Diner, which was small and crowded, and we weren’t really hungry… we just wanted a nice place to chill out and be warm. A nice waitress there directed us to her favorite coffee shop, Cairdeas Coffee in Dogtown (the Irish quarter of St. Louis). We drove by, and to our surprise (this is after midnight, recall) the lights were on and there were people inside. But when we went in, we discovered it wasn’t open for business… they were holding a neighborhood New Year’s Eve party. But they were friendly and invited us in, gave us hot chocolate and wine, and offered us food from their potluck. It was a boisterous, drunken crowd, and we had a great time.

When we were leaving, a couple of hours later, they suggested we go to Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, a local institution. The harried staff there served up some rather good pancakes (pecan for M, potato and applesauce for me), and then we drove out to the airport to return the car and check in for our flight. M napped, and I worked a bit on my laptop. I slept all the way home. Our friend B picked us up at the airport, and we were home.

It wasn’t the evening we expected, and we didn’t see the Chilhuly exhibit, but we had fun anyway. When Tennessee Williams wrote, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”, it was in a pretty creepy context. But it really was the basic goodness of people that made a fun time out of what could have been a lousy evening.

A Real Weekend

After the rather intense week-long meeting I hosted, it was nice to kick back this weekend.

We started off by attending the office Christmas party on Friday night in Raleigh, at an upscale Mexican eatery called Jibarra. (Contrary to what you might expect, it was actually fun, since all my co-workers are pretty cool.)

Saturday morning, we showed my friend Andreas around Chapel Hill. He and Erik (both SVG guys) stayed in our guest apartment for the week of the meeting, and Andreas stayed an extra day. We brunched at Weaver Street Market (the local organic community grocery/hangout for yuppies and hippies), then walked along Franklin Street (the main strip) to UNC campus. Andreas took snapshots of old buildings that caught his eye (and which, naturally, had previously escaped my attention). We browsed for used books and saw the local sites, dropping him off at the airport in mid-afternoon.

That evening, we hosted about 20 people for our monthly local atheist meetup, where the conversation turned largely on politics, as is pretty normal (when I’m around). The meetup is generally at someone’s house (much easier to do the ritual sacrifices that way), and this is our first time to host more than 2 or 3 people at our new place. Turns out one of the women, who we’ve known for a while, knew the previous owners of our house! She and M and I talked about Morocco, since she’s planning a trip there.

Then, on Sunday, M and I went to see a play in Raleigh. It was a Burning Coal production of Einstein’s Dreams, adapted from Alan Lightman’s novella recounting permutations of how time could have worked (but doesn’t). I like geeky plays like this… I loved Arcadia and Proof, and I hope to see Copenhagen and Fermat’s Last Tango. We topped the day off with a delicious Thai dinner at Sawasdee… our first visit to this quirky little restaurant. Boy, I sure wish Chapel Hill had better restaurants.

Okay, I confess that I also coded a bit and took care of some stuff for the new SVG logo, but on the whole it was my first relaxing weekend in a while. Oh, and I played some Zelda on my Wii!