Tuesday Sep 14, 2004

Christmas Shopping Made Easy

I am so glad that inconvenient ban on assault weapons has finally expired, and am grateful to both the executive and the legislative branches of the federal government for resisting the urge to renew it, or -- perish the thought -- make it permanent.

I mean, I have been wanting for years to get my wife a Kalashnikov; the streets aren't so safe these days (despite the rosy statistics being trotted out by the administration), and nothing would make me feel better than to know that my sweetie is packing a military-grade, automatic weapon in her Subaru. With a big magazine in case the mere sight of the thing doesn't scare the bejesus out some would-be assailant.

For the kids, and for me personally, it's a dream come true. I mean, we could get the dumbed-down versions of these things under the ban, so it's not like we were "naked" -- but I've been lusting after a real Mac 10 for as long as I can remember. Who wouldn't?

I've guess I've always been a Mac guy at heart.

Friday Sep 10, 2004

WAY TO GO, JOE!!

From the Joseph N. Hermann Youth Center Newsletter, September 2004:

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT

In this edition of "Member Spotlight," the featured member is most likely to be found outside in the skate area. He is an extremely original high school student about to enter his junior year at North Andover. This Spotlight recipient is quite modest, and probably doesn't realize what he did in order to receive the honor of being recognized. The humble member that you are about to meet is Joe Solof, the man, the myth, the legend.

Joe has been a member of the Youth Center since the sixth grade; now five years later he still has a strong presence here. Initially, his involvement was through our Joseph Walsh Summer League, but now he is a skate area devotee. On any given day he can be found tearing it up on his skateboard, and when he is tired from all the strenuous activity skateboarding demands, he is playing 45's [note from the proud papa: I have no idea what this means!] in the shade. Joe has been a pioneer in 45's mania outside in the skate area, and his knowledge, as well as a few other skaters', has incited an entire craze of intense card playing of the local Merrimack Valley tradition.

Aside from cards and skating, Joe still plays basketball, taking breaks from landing tricks in the park; he uses the outside court quite frequently, to either shoot around or play a friendly game. Joe is an all-around good guy with an eclectic taste in everything from sports to clothes; Joe is well-noted for his keen fashion sense, particularly his briefcase that is home to his infamous Pittsburgh Playing Cards for 45's.

Joe Solof is a man with a plan. He is committed to the idea of becoming a high school History teacher, a profession that he will strive tremendously in pursuing. Suiting to his plan in becoming a teacher of history, his favorite subject in school is history. It is obvious in speaking with Joe that he is an extremely intelligent person, and his potential is boundless. In the past few years, more frequently in the last few months since his best friend Kevin has worked here, Joe has been an enormous help to the staff, especially in assistance with the skate area. Joe is one of the older members out at the skate area, and he is highly respected and looked up to. He is the type of person that leads by example, and he is an excellent role model. Joe is always assisting Kevin and other staff with the daily requirements of the skate area, and never once does he ask for recognition or even a thank you. Joe is the type of person that acts out of generosity not compensation.

If Joe could ask for anything to be added to at the Youth Center it would be a barn to put over the skate area, so that skating could continue all winter long. Joe says that he likes the Youth Center because, "It's a nice place to kick back and relax at." The staff at Youth Services believes that it is kids like Joe that help to make the Youth Center "a nice place."

Thank you Joe for all that you do; you are truly a remarkable person and deserving of our "Member Spotlight."

Saturday Aug 28, 2004

Pitch Black at 8 PM

Time is passing, and despite the heat and humidity, summer is almost over.

Most significantly, we took my Lizzie to college yesterday... and left her there.

I'm still in something of a state of shock. The actually dropping-off part was easy enough. Some nice kid helped Marta and Lizzie carry everything up to her third floor room while I circled the campus looking for a parking space, so I dodged a bullet on that one. (You see, the set of stuff contained in 'everything' is much heavier, high-tech-er, and more expensive than the clock radio I showed up with twenty-seven years ago!) When I got there, Marta was lining the drawers with some kind of drawer-liner-paper, and unpacking the suitcases. After I returned from a long expedition in search of a men's room on the girl's floor, I occupied myself by sort of pacing around the small double, trying to stay out of the way. My interpretation of being helpful and parental, supportive but not intrusive. Shortly thereafter, Lizzie announced "okay guys, we're in good shape here, time for you to go!"

(Actually, I forgot to mention the part where I sprinkled her room with holy water and chanted the Troparion of Theophany, "When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan...", which you sing at house blessings. I think she threw us out just after that.)

So that part was mercifully easy.

In fact, the only crises of the day were not having a co-ax cable to plug in the TV/DVD player (see what I mean?) or a cord to hook up the phone. (Obviously not a big deal since she has a brand new cell phone and unlimited mobile-to-mobile minutes.)

There have been a few more crises since -- I won't go through the list, 'cause what could be more horrible than having your new friends read about you in your dad's blog (kind of the 21st century equivalent of him showing them your baby pictures) -- but I think they've taken a bigger toll on me than on Lizzie. On Marta too. (Not sure where Joe and the dog stand on the whole thing.) Suffice it to say that it's harder sending your kid off to college than it is going yourself. By an order of magnitude.

Anyway, the nice folks in her dorm handed me their newsletter as they pointed us back to the parking lot. And included in the advice from parents past was a book recommendation, Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years by Helen E. Johnson and Christine Schelhas-Miller, which is now on order from Amazon.com.

If I could solve all these crises by sending money, I would. Something tells me they're going to be much harder and more interesting than that.

I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday Aug 18, 2004

Olympic Magic

Well, I'm here doing what I used to do every four years (when the Summer and Winter Olympics fell during the same year), and now, every two (as they alternate): staying up way too late each night, unable to tear myself away from the unfolding dramas. I have to force myself to sit down each night to watch. Not because I don't enjoy it, but because it's so easy to try to catch up on my email, pay the bills, putter around the house (work on the blog... :) -- and it's so important to watch what's going on on this global stage. Even if it's keeping me up, night after night, way past my bedtime.

With a few occasional exceptions -- like Tanya Harding's crew going after Nancy Kerrigan's knee with a hammer a few years back -- it's all about the sport, all about these beautiful kids, representing their countries and their generation, ultimately representing all of us, and the best in us. Yeah okay, I'm sure there's a lot of messing around when it comes to picking the host cities. But those are the grown ups. The kids, they're just in it to see how far they can push the envelope, how far they can push themselves.

Though they obviously still have their issues -- and big ones -- the North and South Korean teams marched into the Olympic Stadium together last Friday during the opening ceremonies. Wouldn't it be cool if the Israeli's and the Palestinians could do the same thing? The US and... anybody but Great Britain?!

I have this feeling that if all those guys out there chanting "Death to America" could put together an Olympic team, and just play with the rest of us, things would be better. If we all could just set aside our differences for two weeks, and sit back and enjoy watching the world's best doing what they do best, I suspect anything would be possible.

Hey, Paul Hamm just took gymnastics gold and proved it. (And just as cool -- you can read all about it in The People's Daily!)

Tuesday Aug 17, 2004

Walkie Talkie

Would you believe I forgot to mention, in my review of the Sony Ericsson T637, it does Bluetooth?! (As well as infrared, GPRS, USB, etc.) I picked up this snappy little Motorola wireless headset today, and by setting up voice commands on the phone, I can pretty much call anybody without taking the phone out of its case. Push a button on the headset, say a name, and it's dialing for dollars. I can even check my voicemail, now that I've uncovered the secret of the missing 'p'.

Okay, I think I'm finished now. :)

[GET IT]

Sunday Aug 15, 2004

Sony Ericsson T637 Camera Phone

Way back when, I mentioned that I had my eye on a new cell phone. A (literally) shiny new Sony Ericsson T637 camera phone. Its color is described as "Liquid Black", and the designers used black, clear, and mirrored surfaces to great effect: this is one snappy gadget. Yeah, I gave in last Thursday and traded up from my "old" Nokia 3560.

Overview: Ostensibly, I traded up because I wanted to switch to a Cingular Wireless calling plan with Rollover Minutes (what you don't use this month carries over for use in subsequent months), and the only way they'll put you on a new plan these days is if you purchase a GSM phone, as they're trying to migrate their subscriber base over to the better technology. (I'm not actually sure it's newer -- the US is seriously lagging in this regard, with the rest of the world having standardized on GSM years ago.) But I also moved because of the more obvious Java support (like a big Java Powered logo that takes the screen when you launch a Java app, and a smaller logo in what would be the menu bar area on a PC), and the included killer Java app, a real Instant Messenging client. The whole network connection model (GPRS) is different and better, with usage based on packet transfer rather than the sort of clock-is-ticking, "dialup connection" provided by the older Nokia. Also... just look at the two of them. No brainer doesn't begin to cover it. Looking at the Nokia is like looking at my leisure suit high school graduation picture from... em... a while back. What was I thinking?! (Let me be fair, though. The Nokia did what it did flawlessly, and I had it thoroughly customized to my tastes and preferences. And at the time I got it, which was not all that long ago, it really was state of the art, including Java. I'm sure if I compared the new phone with last year's Sony Ericcson, their older phone would suffer equally by comparison.)

Migration Issues: It took a couple of days to get (mostly) migrated over to the new phone. The bulk of the transition was obviated by the VoiceConnect service I described in an earlier posting; i.e., with the exception of the ten or so entries I keep stored on the phone itself, everything else in my Pilot address book is in sync with the VoiceConnect service. One glitch: when they moved me from my current calling plan to the new one, they initially neglected to transfer VoiceConnect to the new contract. (Not for lack of asking on my part. :) While it only took one call to customer service to reenable me, I appeared to VoiceConnect to be a new customer -- i.e., empty address book. Would have been a big bummer if it wasn't all in my Pilot, quickly restored upon the first new sync. You can tell VoiceConnect to confirm any changes and deletions prior to completing the sync, which is always a good idea. (My nightmare scenario was VoiceConnect 'updating' the Pilot to a clean slate, but it did the right thing and worked flawlessly.)

On the down side: I miss the one-touch dialing Nokia offered, for nine select numbers in my phone book. You could press and hold the numbers 2 through 9 and the linked entries would be automatically dialed. With the Sony Ericsson, you hit 2 through 9 and then press the Call button and the same thing happens, but it's two touches instead of one. If you press and hold 2 through 9, the phone book opens up to the entry beginning with the associated letter of the alphabet. I.e., press 2, and the phone book opens to 'A'. On both the Nokia and the Sony Ericsson, pressing and holding 1 connects you to your voice mail. Which brings me to the second thing I didn't like, or at least struggled with. There's no documentation on how to enter a 'p' (short pause) in your dialing string. Without said 'p', retrieving your voicemail means that after auto-dialing the phone number, you have to enter the rest of the lengthy sequence by hand. Not good, especially with me behind the wheel, and all the problems I have walking and chewing gum and such. Fortunately, the second guy I talked to at Sony Ericsson (Cingular and the first S.E. tech support rep had no idea) told me to press and hold the number 7 (which is associated with 'p' on the phone pad), and it worked like a charm. Would have been so much easier to include it in the documentation. And the third thing, though this is just a nit: when the code sequence is being transmitted -- i.e., any numbers following the 'p' -- you can't hear them. It's silent... and you wait, not knowing if the right thing is happening in the background, or if you've been disconnected. I prefer to hear the comforting chirps in the background. Minor nit, like I said.

On the up side: In every other way, though, I much prefer this phone to the older Nokia. There's room for more of everything: voice commands, voice dialing names, phone book entries, everything. The screen is much easier to read in any kind of light (the Nokia's was impossible to read without the backlight on), and its color and resolution are beautiful. The quality of the games is resultingly much higher; though they only include one, it's practically arcade quality. There are plenty of links to Cingular's site for downloads of games, ringtones, graphics, etc., so it's quite a solvable problem. I downloaded a snappy polyphonic ringtone (ZZ Top's "Cheap Sunglasses"), and the Cingular service is kind enough to let you take failed attempts off your direct bill yourself via their My Wireless Window portal, without having to wait for customer service to open (assuming you do this all late at night, like I do!) or navigate the voicemail tree. In fact, the portal is the only way to do it; customer service will send you there when you finally do get through to them. The WAP browser is tolerable -- faster under this network service than the Nokia's, and again, you're connecting and paying by the volume of data transfered, not by the minutes connected.

Instant Messaging: The Instant Messenging client, which offers two or three alternative services in addition to AIM, works well, or at least as well as the AIM service itself. (I have occasional trouble connecting with the AIM servers via my TIK and GAIM clients, and my success rate is similar over the phone.) But seeing my buddy list, and who's on line at any given moment, is a thing of beauty. You can even tell AIM to forward incoming messages to your phone, and it puts up a special phone icon next to your name on your friends' buddy lists when you're logged in. (Again, because it's a packet transfer scheme vs. a dialup connection, you can stay logged in relatively indefinitely without running up the national debt on your phone bill.) You are automatically provided with a "Mobile Device" category on your AIM buddy list, and any screen names you list there will appear on your phone. It's a relatively decent way to deal with the lack of screen real estate on the phone, vs. the hundreds of names you may keep on your PC. (And by the way, when I say PC, I mean in the generic sense. I use Java Desktop System today, and I'm a Mac guy from way back, former Apple higher ed reseller, former Apple employee. My favorite desktop, bar none, is a JavaCard on SunRay, but if I have to be my own sysadmin, I'd take JDS or a Mac any day of the week. Actually, with JDS's new centralized software management and configuration capabilities, I can use a whizzy laptop and still leave the driving to somebody else -- the best of both worlds.)

Camera Features: Finally, it is a camera phone, so if you're buying it for its photographic capabilities, I should mention that... em... National Geographic is not going to be publishing what you shoot with it. There are three choices of resolution, 120x160, 288x352, and a (whopping :) 480x640, and a number of special effects including black & white and sepia. They include a little convex mirror right next to the lens, so if you are inclined to shoot arm's length pictures of your own mug, they make it possible not to cut anything off. Weird, but handy, I suppose, if you're short on willing and capable friends. There is a flash unit available as an add-on, but I suspect that would be overkill. This is great for snapping pictures of your friends and associating them with names in your phone book (matched to Caller ID), so that when so-and-so is calling, their face shows up on your screen. I would not ditch the Nikon and trash the Kodachrome just yet if you are serious about photography.

But let's be reasonable here. After a $50 rebate, the phone costs $80 -- and for that, it provides a wealth of convenience, utility and fun in a very small, very stylish package.

This one's a keeper.

[GET IT]

Thursday Aug 12, 2004

The New Face of MIT

Check it out: Beauty & the Geek: When Stereotypes Collide.

This is not the MIT that I remember. My classmates looked more like Click & Clack, or the late actor Erland Van Lidth. (I couldn't find a picture of him online, but the fact that he played characters named "Fatty", "Grossberger", and "Terror" should tell you something.)

James Woods, there's another MIT icon. Or Tom Scholz. Check out those legs!

Dolph Lundgren, now there's a step in the right direction. In fact, he and I were often mistaken for each other back in our 'Tute days. I would take his finals for him, he would spot me in the gym.

Maybe Miss Massachusetts isn't so newsworthy as all that...

Wednesday Aug 11, 2004

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

WARNING: This little number is rated PG-13.

Philip K. Dick answered this question in his book of the same title back in 1968. (This book, by the way, was the inspiration for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.) So the question of the day is, "What do deacons dream about when they have anxiety dreams?"

Last night's was a doozey.

I'm at my church in Worcester, and the bishop is there. (I won't say which one, but not one of the ones in our archdiocese. This is a purely fictional dream.) I've prepared the chalice for him prior to the start of the service, and he looks at it and says to me, "Would you mind emptying that out for me, and putting in something with a bit more of a kick to it?" (I am not making this up!)

I hold up a bottle of Jack Daniel's, but he wants to stay in the wine family, so Fr. Mike comes up with a bottle of something pink. I would have figured that chablis (that's pink, isn't it?) would have less of a kick than the Taylor Port we ordinarily use, but I'm not much of a wine guy, so you can't count on me to get it right in my dream.

In the mean time, I'm in the back of the church, still looking around for wine alternatives. And just looking around in general. Very relaxed. I look at my watch. It's three minutes to 10, but I figure I'm fine since the service doesn't start 'till 10:30.

Then I remember that the service starts at 10:00, not 10:30. Oops.

I bolt to the front of the church, and make it there just in time to hear the archdeacon do the first set of petitions. (Once again, the archdeacon is nobody from our archdiocese. And I remind you, this is a fictional dream. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, yadda yadda yadda...) It's my turn to do the next set of petitions, but as he looks (actually, glares) over at me, I realize that I'm standing there in my blue boxers, and that'd be about it.

I look over at him and mouth the words "I'm going to go put on a cassock, okay? Can you take this one?"

He glares at me again as I go running off to some dusty storeroom, looking for my suitcase (in which I keep my cassock, vestments, etc.). I find one that looks like my suitcase, but it's the wrong size, and when I open it up, of course, no cassock.

At that point, I woke up in a cold sweat.

Life was so much easier when all I had to be anxious about was sleeping through a final exam, or turning up at school in my pajamas...

Wednesday Aug 04, 2004

Who knew he could even type?

POTUS blogging? Unbelievable. Check out George's Blog, and read about the CIA's reaction.

I wonder if he can key the launch codes right into the iMac, or if he still drags along that guy with "the football"?

Monday Aug 02, 2004

Missing Mom, One Year Later

One year ago today, my mom passed away after a relatively short struggle with cancer. For those who missed it the first time around, I will reprise the obituary my brother Michael wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; it's a little over the top, but he is my brother, after all, and there is doubtless a strong family resemblance:

Caryl Wilde Solof -- poet, entertainer, world traveler, adventurer, life seeker, love giver, friend maker, mom/daughter/sister/mother-in-law/grandmother extraordinaire -- passed away Saturday evening surrounded by those she loved and those who loved her. She leaves behind a family who adored her; friends in numbers too great to comprehend; memories of a life filled with overwhelming love and passion for family and friends, travel and nature, poetry and writing, songs and laughter; and a heck of a lot of Boyds Bears.

Memorial Services will be held at Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York on a date to be announced. In lieu of flowers, Caryl's request was that the contributions in her memory should be made to Family Hospice and Palliative Care (Suite 203, 250 Mt. Lebanon Blvd., Pittsburgh, PA 15234, 412-572-8820), whose help, care and support during the recent weeks were, plain and simple, a gift from God; or St. George Orthodox Cathedral (30 Anna St., Worcester, MA 01604, 508-752-9150), her son's congregation, whose love and support never faltered during tough times. Caryl's last words were "I'm still smiling!" We are too, mom...we are too.

I am not smiling as much as I used to, however. For anyone who's going through the same thing, I can only tell you that based on my experience, it's easier than you think it will be to let go (especially if the one you love is suffering) -- and harder than you think it will be in the long run, even (perhaps especially) one year later.

Last night, for whatever reason (most likely Mom at work from "the other side"), I was flipping through the July issue of Oprah Magazine, which was lying on our kitchen table, and happened upon the following observations on grief. Dr. Phil writes to a woman preparing for the loss of her mother: "So what should you expect? You should expect that this time will be painful but manageable and that however much you think you're prepared for the finality of this loss, the actual gravity of your mother's passing will probably have more of an impact than you anticipate."

That certainly jives with my experience.

And he continues: "Most important, you should know that just like the generation before you, and before them, you will get through this."

I certainly hope that is the case.

In the mean time, I still have e-mails from Mom saved in my inbox, and a book of her poetry, which she self-published last spring when she was diagnosed. My brother even taped her, talking and playing the piano, the week before she passed way. I haven't been able to bear to look at any of this, at least thus far. Maybe now, a year later, it's time to try again. A year's an awfully long time to go without hearing my mother's voice.

Wednesday Jul 28, 2004

Political Considerations

I've been dreading this week, as the Democratic National Convention has taken over the city of Boston. Partly because, for security reasons, they've shut down most every major roadway into or out of the city. So far, though, the long anticipated traffic jams have not materialized. But mostly, because of the threat of another big-ticket terrorist attack, as so many have warned us about. I am on pins and needles, hoping and praying that that does not materialize either.

But for as eager as I am for this all to be over, and for everyone to go home, and for life in Boston to return to normal, I have to admit I've been fascinated to watch the convention itself unfold. I've only heard bit and pieces of the speeches, but what I have heard has really affected me and impressed me in ways I did not expect.

These are some initial observations, and I have to warn you, I'm about to express some political opinions here. If that sort of thing bothers you, please don't read on. I'm grateful that we all have the right to express our opinions in this country -- though that right seems more in jeopardy under the current administration than it has in my lifetime, and that, to me, is a very scary thought.

I thought Bill Clinton was amazing. He had intelligence (another difference from the current administration, in both the espionage and cranial senses), a sense of humor, self-knowledge, and good heavens, what a powerful speaker. I do not disavow my earlier, entirely lousy opinion of a guy who would have been fired from every workplace I've ever worked at for what he did with his intern, and for lying repeatedly, publicly, and under oath. But it's been so long since I've heard such compelling oration and felt such leadership presence from a President (excepting the replays of some of Ronald Reagan's speechs when he passed away), it was completely refreshing. He can pronounce "nuclear". He didn't smirk. I can hardly believe those things would mean so much to me.

The juxtaposition of his Presidential competence with his un-Christian behavior, contrasted with the current President's lack of competence (remember, I'm just stating an opinion) and staunch Christianity, made for an interesting discussion with my now-eligible-to-vote daughter about the extent to which any one factor, whether religious belief, support for or opposition to legalized abortion, stem cell research, etc., should govern the choice of candidate. Factor in the statements made by certain Roman Catholic bishops, and even some Orthodox, on the propriety of Christian politicians supporting certain positions, and the propriety of Christian voters voting for them, and it becomes a really interesting and complex discussion.

I thought Ron Reagan was very effective last night, in his speech on stem cell research. Personally, this is a topic I find very troubling. No doubt the medical advances such research will bring will save many lives, and in every likelihood, the lives of people close to me. At the same time, to my mind, the embryos from which these stem cells are harvested are human beings, not just in theory, but in fact. Left to their own devices, they'd turn into people just like the ones who'd benefit from their curative powers. And anything that trades off one human life for another, again in my opinion, puts us on a pretty slippery slope. Reagan said that these embryos (and I'm paraphrasing here) "have no brain, no spinal cord -- they feel no pain." I can think of many other situations where we would never callously terminate a life because it was lacking these capacities. At what point is someone or something a human being? At what point do we recognize, value, and protect their life? I'm not claiming to have the answers to all these questions, though I do support my church's teaching that life begins at conception. I'm simply saying that it is a troubling issue for me, and I appreciate and respect the competence with which Reagan presented his position.\*

I thought Teresa Heinz Kerry was fantastic last night, not so much because of what she said, but because of who she is and what she believes in. In fact -- and now, look out, this is going to get really political -- it seems to me that in general, the speakers at this convention, as I described it to my wife last night, "really seem to want to help old people and children, and are not just saying it to get elected." They really seem to value the things that I do, both domestically, and especially in terms of our place in the world. I can't remember who said it, but I thought the remark that "we will be more secure by isolating the terrorists rather than isolating ourselves" captures one of the biggest grievances I have against the current administration, and one of my fondest hopes for the next. It never ceases to amaze me how much damage we've done to America's place in the world in a mere four years. I can only hope that we can un-do the damage in some reasonable period of time.

In case you're wondering, after all this flaming political commentary, I'm actually a registered Republican. Okay, I'll 'fess up -- I became one so I could vote for John McCain in the last presidential primary, and I never bothered to switch back. I probably would have voted for McCain if he'd been running against Al Gore. So I'm not a party-guy in the traditional sense. But it's becoming clearer and clearer to me that what they're saying in Boston -- even if I can't get over reprehensible personal behavior on the part of our leaders, or if individual positions are being taken that I don't agree with -- what they're saying in Boston is striking powerful chords with me. And for as much as I wish this convention were over, or at least somewhere else, it means a lot to me that it's here, and I'm proud that we're hosting it in my city.

And you know that I'll be tuning in for the next two nights, hoping that Edwards and Kerry can live up to their introductions.

----------
\*My friend Wayne sent me a fascinating article which looks at the morality of Stem Cell Research in Jewish Law. Very cool!

Saturday Jul 24, 2004

Viva Las Vegas, Part Trois

In this third and final installment, here's the scoop on three of my favorite Vegas attractions.

The last time we visited "Everything Coca-Cola", maybe four years ago, we had a blast. The third floor of the building featured Coca-Cola products from all over the world, which you could sample to your heart's content from twenty-some free dispensers. Some of the beverages were totally unlike what we drink here in the US -- it was a real eye-opener. My favorite part, however, was this sort of Rube Goldberg fountain contraption on the fourth floor that shot soda water in a huge arc, landing it in a cup which contained just the right amount of syrup (Coke's secret sauce) to produce the perfect, freshly mixed drink. It was amazing -- the best thing I ever tasted. I became so enamored of Coke on that trip, I started drinking it by the bucket at home. I couldn't get enough. Then I checked the scale... and eventually switched to the (nasty-tasting, battery-acid-lite) diet version. It just wasn't the same. And neither was "Everything Coca-Cola" this time around. The top two floors of the attraction were closed down (permanently, as far I can can tell -- I couldn't even find a good URL to link to), leaving only the retail store on the first two floors. Yawn. They did offer one international sampler at the soda fountain on the second floor, but it wasn't the same. Not even close. This one's off my list for our next visit. (You might have better luck visiting the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. I think they feature the stuff their Las Vegas location no longer does.)

On the other hand, M&M World was even better than I remembered it from last time. In addition to a great retail facility (M&M's don't come in quite as many colors as Crayola Crayons, but they're close), on the fourth floor, they have an exhibit on the M&M NASCAR Racing Team, and also offer for sale the most garish and wonderful logo jackets. (What you see here in twill, they offer in leather.) But the third floor is the real treat. A 3-D (more on this shortly) movie featuring both live actors and cartoon candies in search of the "M" one of them lost in a poker match. They really did a nice job on this -- the kind of thing anyone would enjoy, from toddlers to grandparents. Even my teenagers got a kick out of it. Step back for a bit, and think about all this company has made, brand-wise, from some candy-coated chocolates -- to the point where the candies star in movies, and a $350 leather jacket seems like quite a desirable souvenir -- and you have to give them credit. This one's a keeper for the next visit, to be sure.

Star Trek: The Experience is for me, though, the pinnacle of Vegas attractions. In addition to a great retail facility with every sort of Star Trek merchandise you can imagine, and the tasty Quark's Bar and Restaurant (they're particularly proud of the Holy Rings of Betazed and the Flaming Ribs of Targ), and, in their museum section, the largest collection of Star Trek paraphernalia in the world, they now feature two interactive adventures.

"Klingon Encounter" has been around for a few years; this was my third trip through. Under the pretext of being rescued from Klingon kidnappers hoping to take Jean-Luc Picard out of the picture by absconding with one of his ancestors (you, or one of your fellow tourists!), you get a very cool virtual roller coaster ride that starts out in a wormhole and winds up in an elevator shaft at the Las Vegas Hilton (which hosts the attraction as a permanent exhibit). Very much fun, very realistic pitching and yawing -- so if you get motion sick or don't do roller coasters, maybe this is not the thing for you. They still barf in the 23rd Century.

The piece de resistance, however, is the new "Borg Invasion 4D", the next generation (no pun intended :) in virtual, interactive experiences. The 3D aspect is provided, as it is in the M&M movie, via the same old 3D glasses we remember from the B-movies of yore (or more recently, Spy Kids 3-D). The fourth D is... em... tactile, and I don't want to tell you much more than that for fear of ruining the surprise. Suffice it to say that at one point in the movie, everyone on the bridge (oh alright, in the theater) was screaming. I was neither the loudest nor the least loud, but I was right in there with them. (To be fair to the M&M folks, they also include some tactile elements in their movie, so I suppose they could append the 4D moniker as well, if they chose to. But I would much rather face a room full of hostile fat-pills than one Borg with his... eye... on me, and the Star Trek adventure conveys the tension brilliantly.)

One ticket gets you admission to the museum and both adventures -- but it's a $30 ticket, so this isn't exactly one of those 'free' Vegas attractions you hear so much about. For a Trekkie, however, it is a pilgrimmage you must make, and more than once. For spouses and children of Trekkies, it is the perfect way to show your love for him or her, and you will endear yourself to them forever.

Finally, one other adventure we experienced without intending to: the Las Vegas Strip Trolley. Avoid it. It's hot, crowded, SLOW, and offers 4D elements you really have no interest in encountering, such as lack of oxygen, sweaty tourists packed in like sausages, and in our case, a conductor who thought her Frau Farbissina-like screams of instruction were funny, but they were really only painful.

For another take on your own Vegas Vacation, check out USAToday's Good bets for fun in Las Vegas.

Friday Jul 23, 2004

The Mother Of All Campaign Ads

This bi-partisan campaign ad is sure to offend both Republicans and Democrats, Bush fans and Kerry fans, in equal measure.

Rated PG-13, by the way, so don't play it in front of the kiddies.

Wednesday Jul 21, 2004

Viva Las Vegas, Part Deux

As promised, here's a quick tour of the Mandalay Bay's pools, where we spent the bulk of our waking hours last week. (Not at the slot machines -- sorry to disappoint you!)

If you go to resort's beach page, on the left hand side of the screen, you'll see a three slide animation showing the beach/wave pool area, a perky lifeguard (of whom there were many, all sporting these flotation belts that look like the thing Fat Bastard wore around his waist when he was masquerading as a sumo wrestler in Austin Powers 3, though of course it looked better on them), and finally -- my favorite area -- the "Lazy River". There's a nice little virtual tour of the beach as well, which is essentially what you'd see if you were Linda Blair in The Exorcist and you could spin your head around 360 degrees without getting a crick in your neck.

I'm all done with the bizarre movie references now.

Anyway, the big questions are (1) do you go for the cabana at $100 per day, and (2) if not, where do you sit?

While lots of friendly folks had recommended the cabanas -- which include ceiling fans, televisions, even those nifty spray misters -- we found that by carefully selecting a spot to sit, we could live without them quite happily. They may be more necessary on peak days, during peak seasons, when unoccupied lounge chairs are few and far between. (You may need to reserve them up to a week in advance under those circumstances.)

On the beach near the wave pool, there are lots and lots of chaise lounges, tightly packed together. So my advice would be to get there early (by 10:00, say), and select something at the very front, at the very back, or not too far from one of the walkways leading down to the water. That will minimize the time you have to spend picking your way inchingly between your sunscreen-slathered neighbors.

The wave pool itself is really sweet: medium sized waves (not big enough to knock you over unless you're pretty tippy to begin with), coming at a fixed, leisurely pace, clean and sand-free. It doesn't have all the romance of the real thing, to be sure, but then again you aren't going to get bowled over only to come up with your swim trunks full of sand (in all the wrong places) either.

Along the banks of the Lazy River, there are fewer lounge chairs, but if you pick carefully -- and my recommendation would be the ones nearest the Border Grill -- you can get close to the river; under a palm tree which provides, on that side of the pool, afternoon shade; and depending on your preference, within squirting range of one of the tree-based misters. It doesn't get any better than that, except when the cocktail waitress strolls by to deliver your Banana Banshee.

The Lazy River itself is maybe two people wide if they're in tubes ($20 per day), three-four people wide otherwise, and follows a looping, roughly oval-shaped course. The water moves a long at a not-all-that-lazy two miles per hour, which is a nice cruising speed if you're floating. You can even, more or less, "water ski" on your feet -- the friction on the bottom of the pool is only slightly more than the push of the current, so if you're light on your feet, you can get quite a ride. Very relaxing! (Do watch out, though, for the two waterfalls you float under; the water comes down pretty hard, and knocked the Foster Grant's off my head the first time around.) It's even more fun to lounge on the banks and watch your neighbors float by.

There are three other, more traditional pools (for the less imaginative): one near the Lazy River, that looked quite nice; one further away that my wife and daughter preferred because it was quiet and much emptier (though it overlooked a parking lot, which took all the magic away for me); and one I guess I never found!

Can't complain, though. Between the four I did find, there was always a space for me, for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and another Banana Banshee.

Next installment (of the blog, not of Harry Potter), we'll go off property to "Everything Coca-Cola", "M&M World", and "Star Trek: The Experience." Stay tuned!

Monday Jul 19, 2004

Top Ten Signs There's Something Terribly Wrong At McDonald's

This is apropos of nothing (and thus the perfect non sequitur), but they played it on the radio this morning as I was driving into work, and it cracked me up. Dating back to December 18, 2002, here's David Letterman's "Top Ten Signs There's Something Terribly Wrong At McDonald's":

10. Your order Filet-o-Fish and the cashier makes the sign of the cross
9. Lowest-priced item on the Dollar Menu is 80 bucks
8. Employees are warming buns in their pants
7. Iraq helped them prepare their 12,000-page nutritional information report
6. Everything is "McXpired"
5. One of your "French fries" is wearing a wedding ring
4. Hans Blix is snooping around the back with a Geiger counter
3. Seconds after you order the McNuggets, you hear frantic squawking from the kitchen
2. A new hamburger is introduced called "The McWidowmaker with Cheese"

And the number one sign there's something terribly wrong at McDonald's:

1. Happy Meal toy: cigarettes

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