The beat (and harmony, and occasionally melody) goes on…

Unnatural Disasters cover (revised)We’re approaching the halfway point in this year’s RPM Challenge, to record an album during the month of February, and things are progressing pretty well for me. The challenge is to record at least 10 songs or 35 minutes of material in 29 days. So far I’m up to 35:30 on 8 of my 9 intended tracks. That time will probably get reduced a bit as I master the tracks and remove some of the dead space at the ends of them, but I should still be well above 35 minutes, probably around 40.

As I’ve mentioned previously, my album is entitled Unnatural Disasters, and you can read more about it (and even hear the full in-progress tracks in streaming audio) on my album page. You can also find out more about my project on the RPM site.

Caucuses… what’s the point?

Tonight I participated in my first ever caucus. I had always been intimidated by them because, well, I had no idea what really went on at them, and I didn’t know anyone who ever went. But reading about them on Barack Obama‘s website, I realized that like a flu shot it’s quick and painless, so I went.

I suppose if I were really active in party politics, it might have been worthwhile. There were lots of people sitting in rows of chairs listening to an amiable guy fumbling his way through whatever he was supposed to be doing. (At one point, someone in the crowd spoke up that no one had seen the agenda, and asked if he could quickly go over it, which prompted him to yell over to someone else at the registration table and ask if anyone had the agenda. This was shortly after he had asked if anyone might volunteer to be secretary for the night’s meeting.)

But most of us were just there to say who we want to be the next president, or at least the person the Democrats put forth to potentially become the next president, so we queued up, “voted” (such as it was) and walked out.

I did actually linger for a few minutes after voting, but mainly because my son was already comfortable in a chair watching the proceedings, not that he even realized — or cared — why we were there. (I’m sure he was just thinking about Super Metroid.) I also wanted to chat with a neighbor who had shown up a few minutes after us.

Although the general experience was about how I had envisioned it (albeit more “church basement”-like, which should not have been surprising, given it was being held in a church basement), I was thoroughly surprised by the voting process itself. I already expected it not to be secret, but I was taken aback at just how informal it was. After signing in, I was handed a small, cut piece of yellow paper (reused from something — it appeared to be part of a flyer) and told it was my ballot. I was instructed to write the name of my candidate on the paper, and then I handed it to someone else holding a large envelope stuffed with similar slips of yellow paper.

And that’s it. About as low-tech and unofficial as can be. Yet somehow I’m supposed to believe, minutes after the caucuses closed at 8 PM, that CNN, MSNBC and the rest had reports from precincts that might, in any way, resemble the tallies of the contents of similar stuffed envelopes from around the state.

I realize that primaries and caucuses are organized by the state branches of the political parties and, what with the whole delegate system, are even more tenuously connected to the party’s nomination process than individual votes are in the Electoral College of the general election. So I suppose in some way this patently ludicrous voting process in the caucus is at least more transparent than the superficial formality of primary elections held in other states.

I guess if I’d stuck around I might have gotten more insight into how my little yellow slip of recycled takeout menu translates into the delegates the party sends to the convention this summer to vote for a candidate on my behalf. I might even have become one of those delegates if I had wanted to. But… whatever. It looks like my candidate is on track to win the state handily anyway, so I’m free to go back to my self-absorbed complacency on the matter, just like any other red-blooded American.

A ludicrously large bar of soap

A ludicrously large bar of soap!I meant to post about this a few weeks ago, but I just never got around to it. Then today when I discovered (never mind how or why, exactly) that Google does not have one single page in its index containing the phrase “ludicrously large bar of soap” I simply knew that I must finally make a post concerning the ludicrously large bar of soap.

For, you see, there is presently in the shower at my house a ludicrously large bar of soap. My wife received it as a Christmas present from her mom. Her mom is great with gifts, and she loves to go all-out. This year that meant finding an incomprehensibly, ludicrously large bar of soap.

Your average “large” bar of bath soap, you see, is somewhere in the realm of 4.5 ounces. This “Egyptian Cotton Moisturizing Bath Bar,” however, is a whopping 12 ounces. But knowing that it’s slightly less than three times the mass of an ordinary bar of soap does little to convey just how ludicrously large it really is. In its dimensions, it is roughly the equivalent of six ordinary bars of soap, stacked three in a row, two deep. The first time I attempted to use it I dropped it and the colossal thud was enough to raise the ire of the neighbors’ dogs. Woe to the poor fool who drops it on their foot!

But it is a very nice bar of soap. It has a pleasantly subtle, gender-neutral aroma, and it produces a wonderful creamy lather that is more than adequate for my daily cleansing needs. Plus, I don’t think I’ll need to buy another bar of soap until my kids are in college.

I hoped to locate an image of this wondrous bar of soap online, and surprisingly enough someone is apparently selling them on eBay. But this photo alone cannot possibly do justice to the magnificent size of the thing. In fact, even holding it in the wrapper, it’s hard to imagine how ludicrously large it will actually look once you take it out.

In order to better convey the relative size of this bar of soap to other, more familiar objects, I have prepared the following handy visual aid:

That bar of soap is ludicrously large!

Addendum, 2 minutes later: Just to see how frighteningly omniscient Google really is, I went there immediately after posting this, and once again searched for the phrase “ludicrously large bar of soap.” And yes, it was already there. It even said “2 minutes ago” in the search results.

OK, I’m a geek, but this was totally cool! (In a geeky way…)

Ever since I read Word Freak, an exposé on the world of competitive Scrabble by Wall Street Journal sports reporter Stefan Fatsis [wow, such a convoluted sentence, simply to avoid having to write “Fatsis’s”], I’ve been obsessed with improving my Scrabble game. (Excuse me, my SCRABBLE® Brand Crossword Game… er… game.)

For a couple of nights, SLP was into it (why does that sound dirty?), but she just couldn’t match my endurance (again… why?). So I had to resort to playing against the computer. I’ve been playing tournament style to boost my (unofficial) rating, playing mostly against the 1220-rated “Veteran” (whom I beat about 2/3 of the time) and the 1400-rated “Smart” (to whom I lose about 2/3 of the time).

Tonight my rating finally topped the 1300 mark (against Smart, no less), and I celebrated by playing one more game against Veteran. And therein came my greatest moment.

Veteran had set up the triple word column on the right edge with LAVE, and my draw that turn included the Q, the Z, and both blanks! I stared at the board for a moment before realizing I had a most unusual play (if it was actually a word). And so it was that I laid down QUIZZER through the E in LAVE, with the Q on the triple word and the (real) Z on the double letter, using the blanks for the U and the other Z, giving me 99 points. If only I’d had an S on my rack, I could have hit the other triple word as well, for a triple-triple-bingo, worth 356 points! (That’s among the highest possible scores for a single word, even though, as a fairly pedestrian word, it doesn’t carry as much cachet among Scrabblers as words like QUIXOTIC or MEZQUITE.)

I still ended up winning the game with several other high-scoring moves, including a ballsy (if anything Scrabble-related is ever even remotely “ballsy”) multi-turn set-up that allowed me to play EXITS on a triple word for 49 points, after having already milked the X for all it was worth. I almost screwed it up though. I had played LURID early on, to which I later added the double XI. Already I was planning EXITS, but I was missing the T. So to try to build it up even more, I played RIDE while waiting for the T, but… d’oh! I really should have just played RID, because I needed that E! Naturally the T landed on my rack in the next turn, but we were getting close to the end of the game, and I didn’t have an E! Without counting, I assumed they were all on the board already, but I got one in my second-to-last draw, and EXITS appeared! On the final turn, I was left with AINRT on my rack, which fit nicely in the same area to turn ER into TRAINER for the victory! 447 may be my highest single game score ever.

Yeah, I’m a geek. But I represent! (Saying that makes me even more of a geek, doesn’t it?)

Wow, looking back at that screenshot, I’m even more impressed with myself (if that’s possible). Tournament play uses a clock, just like chess, with each player limited to 25 minutes total (going over the time limit carries a steep penalty at the end of the game). When I first started playing computer Scrabble a couple months back, I’d usually use up almost all of my 25 minutes, but in this game my clock read 17:34 at the end, meaning I had only used 7 minutes and 26 seconds for the entire game! Of course, as usual, Veteran only used 15 seconds. One time I think the computer only used four seconds for the whole game. I think the computer needs a handicap on the tournament clock: the player gets 25 minutes and the computer gets 25 seconds. Yeah, that sounds fair.

I’ll stop now. If I go on, I may just have to beat myself up.

Day Out with Thomas

We have a 3-year-old son, which means, inevitably, that our house is filled beyond capacity with Thomas the Tank Engine paraphernalia.

Over the year-plus of his ongoing obsession with the little blue “Really Useful Engineâ„¢,” we’ve learned that the owners of the Thomas trademark will spare every expense where quality is concerned. They know, 3-year-old boys don’t care about quality. They want it, even if it’s crap, and they’ll whine until their parents shell out $20 for 10 cents’ worth of Made-in-China plastic.

Then, of course, there’s the wondrous phenomenon that is “Day Out with Thomas.” This is basically a traveling Homer Simpson-quality carnival (minus the moldy mattresses, but including several barely-appealing attractions partitioned with soggy hay bales), topped off by a teenager in a Sir Topham Hatt costume and an overpriced ride on a train pulling a flimsy full-scale model of Thomas the Tank Engine, apparently constructed of plywood and fiberglass, with a dry ice machine inside the funnel.

Now, if I seem a bit cynical and negative when it comes to an event designed to appeal to people just discovering the fascination of smelling their own underpants (trust me, it’s true), it’s only because the coordinators of said event went beyond simply doing everything on the cheap; I am convinced they threw in added touches that didn’t cost — or save — them so much as a penny, but were sure to add to parents’ frustration and dismay with the overall experience.

We arrived in Stillwater, MN for our own Day Out with Thomas today around 1:30 PM, a full hour and a half before our scheduled train ride. By 2:45, our son’s excitement was at fever pitch, so we were relieved and genuinely enthused, if not excited ourselves, when we could begin boarding the train. My wife and I viewed it mainly as an opportunity to get a taste of riding the Minnesota Zephyr without shelling out $71 each for the full-blown experience that includes a gourmet 5-course dinner.

But… oh, man.

We knew going into it that our $17 (each, mind you, including our 3-year-old) was only buying us a 20-minute ride. But we knew nothing of the distance, or lack thereof, involved. The ride consisted of 10 minutes out, stop, reverse, and 10 minutes back. Fair enough. But the train never surpassed the pace of a brisk stroll. At one point the train was passed by a guy on a bike. Seriously. The outbound limit of the journey, on a track that runs parallel to highway 95 on one side and the St. Croix River on the other, was just slightly beyond, but still within sight of, the wayside rest we used as a turnaround while trying to locate a parking space.

But our son loved it, which made it all worthwhile.

Wait, how much did I spend on those tickets…?