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Dear Hillsboro...

Thursday, May 29, 2008
Dear Hillsboro,

Please, for the love of all that is holy and right in the world, PLEASE increase the size of your street-name signs. (And perhaps put a few more of them in useful places - like intersections.) For those of us that are misfortunately myopic, even with my contacts in I can't actually read the street names until it's usually too late to do anything about it.

Compound this, of course, with your insistence on funneling all traffic to your few major roads, and suddenly I have to pick a lane to be in (for instance, if I want to turn) long before I have any idea what road I'm approaching. It's tons of fun. Thanks.

Also, I'd be happy to join any urban-planning committee you might happen to have.

Respectfully yours,

Burton Simmons

Movie Review: Charlie Wilson's War

Wednesday, May 28, 2008
On a whim, I rented the movie Charlie Wilson's War, which I'd heard good reviews of - but that's about it. It had never really appeared on my radar other than in a "hey, that would be interesting to watch" sort of way. Well, I rented it tonight and finished watching it moments ago. I can safely say that it was all kinds of enjoyable.

The movie, for those who are unaware, chronicles Congressman Charlie Wilson's funding of the Afghanistan Mujahideen during the late 1980's and their role as a proxy in the Cold War. We get to watch the whiskey-drinking, womanizing Congressman (played by Tom Hanks) as he, a wealthy Texas backer (played by Julia Roberts), and a foul-mouthed CIA operative (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) figure out the best way to help drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

First off - and I didn't know this until I watched the credits - the screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin. Aaron Sorkin is known for writing fabulous dialogue and this movie carries on that tradition. The whole thing was written with such a dry voice that I couldn't help but smile through the whole thing.

Secondly, the acting was superb. Every actor involved was amazing - though I must confess, Philip Seymour Hoffman was especially enjoyable. (Apparently, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his part, so I'm not the only one to think so.)

Finally, the execution of the movie - the pacing, the editing, the presentation - were all fantastic. Really. The movie was quite good - one of the better ones I've seen in a while.

All in all, I recommend Charlie Wilson's War. It's a fantastic movie - and the lesson at the end is especially relevant. Check it out!

On the road again...


So I ran into an article while surfing Fark.com that was from the US Department of Transportation, entitled "Americans Driving at Historic Lows". It seems that the huge increases in the cost of gasoline definitely have an effect on the driving Americans do; we drove 11 BILLION fewer miles in March of 2008 than in March of 2007. That's pretty awesome news.

However, what I found really interesting about that article what the following:
Total VMT in the United States for 2006, the most recent year for which such data are available, topped 3 trillion miles.
That's 3,000,000,000,000 miles in the United States alone. That's... a lot. We could have driven the Earth's orbit around the sun something like 5,000 times (roughly).

Consider this another way, however. If the average vehicle driven in 2006 got about 25 miles per gallon (not tough to imagine) and the average cost of fuel in 2006 was, say, a conservative $2.50 (it was probably higher), then Americans spent something like $300,000,000,000 on gasoline. The CIA world factbook has the 2006 US GDP at $13.13 trillion. That means that 2.284% of our GDP was on fuel alone.

That's a lot of money.

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Monday, May 26, 2008
My girlfriend and I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull last night. I'm going to start out by saying that it was "pretty good". However, since it's the fourth in a beloved series (and George Lucas has taken to destroying anything I had a fondness for as a child) I probably have hopes and expectations for this that I wouldn't put on a standalone film. As films go, this was by far better than most other action/adventure films... but was is at good as the rest of the Indiana Jones movies? Was it even as good at Temple of Doom?

Warning: Reading much further in this review will probably spoil the movie for you. You've been warned.

So we all know that Harrison Ford has, amazingly enough, aged in the last twenty years. That simple fact, however, has caused no degree of consternation among viewers, where Harrison Ford only aged something like nine years in the filming of the first three films. He has, however, aged gracefully and, being the fabulous actor that he is, played the part of an older Indiana Jones fabulously.

In fact, the acting for the movie was pretty darned good all around. My hat goes off not only to Harrison Ford, but to Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett and John Hurt. They played the characters convincingly. Also, thanks to Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed well. However, the story (I'm looking at you, George Lucas) is a little... strange.

Whereas Indy was fighting the villainous Nazis in the first and third film, now, being set in the mid-50's, the Soviets are the bad guys. They having a hand in coercing Indy into looking for a crystal skull and the kingdom to which it belongs, and does so. He spends far too much time underground with creepy people hiding in the shadows and skeletons hanging off the walls. There are gratuitous scenes with giant CGI ants. Still, the music is solid and the pacing is fun.

However, I'm going to be honest. The alien "interdimensional being" angle to the film was a huge distraction. It really seemed to take the film in a different direction from the others. Whereas it was always a religious power that was being sought before, now it's the treasure of interdimensional beings. It just didn't fit. I mean, when I'm in the middle of the movie rolling my eyes and muttering, "That better not be a spaceship," it's distracting. (It wasn't a SPACEship, though. It was an interdimensional being-ship.) See where I going with this?

Despite my griping, however, I enjoyed the film. It was fun, it certainly had the visual look and feel of an Indiana Jones movie - just not the theme. I would happily watch it again in concert with the rest - but I probably won't pay full price in the theater to see it again.

All in all, it was a good movie. It wasn't great, but it had big shoes to fill. I just want George Lucas to stop making films before he manages to ruin anything else.

Taking the train

Saturday, May 24, 2008
As has been reported lately, gas prices are on the rise. Fuel in Oregon has been near (or at) $4/gallon recently, and this makes my frequent trips up and down the I-5 corridor increasingly expensive. With a girlfriend in Eugene, a job hunt in Portland, and an apartment in Salem, going back and forth is starting to afflict the pocketbook even more than the pocket-watch.

So, with the opportunity to head south for an evening - but with a ride back north guaranteed the next day - I realized that I could drive it both ways for roughly $20... or I could take the train for $18. (It would have cost less for a non-mid-day ride, but this is when I wanted to head down there.) As a result, I'm actually composing this blog (offline) while sitting in a generously sized coach seat on Amtrak's Starlight Express.

The TRAIN

Interestingly, I've looked at the price breakdown before and, for the first time in my memory, not driving is the cheaper option. I started to wonder if I wasn't the only one figuring this out. I asked the Amtrak person behind the counter about it. "So, with gas prices going up, are you seeing a corresponding increase in ridership?" "Absolutely," she responded. I see this as being a boon for Amtrak, which seems to have been historically been afflicted with low ridership (and corresponding budget problems.)

What's really interesting about this experience, though, is that - being unemployed - I'm not in a real hurry. I've got time. So, although it takes an extra 35-45 minutes of my day to be on the train, I can spare those minutes. They're not currently costing me anything. As a bonus, I can also read a book while traveling... or write a blog post.

Magical Blogger Mood Ring

Thursday, May 22, 2008
Current Mood: Blue

I'm having a really tough time right now. After the thrill of graduating, I've been focusing on the job hunt... and it's not been going well. I'm trying to get into IT Management or Product Marketing for a technical product in Portland (the two fields are remarkably similar, actually) but the jobs that pay what I sort of need to make just don't seem to be there - or they won't call me back.

It's rough. I have the fantastic support of those around me, but this has been a very hard experience, filled with rejection (or worse, nothing.) Yet every day I manage to get up and do it all over again, trying to learn from my mistakes and move forward.

It's hard. It really is.

Book Review: The Undercover Economist

Wednesday, May 21, 2008
I recently finished reading the book The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford. At about 250 pages of content, the book was a fairly fast yet entirely interesting read, and it piqued my interest in Economics more than any class ever has. This is, of course, possibly due to his command of the English language and unmatched wit.

Part of what makes the book so interesting is that he'll take something simple - like the cost of a cup of Starbucks coffee in Washington D.C - and deconstruct the reasons behind the cost (and why not all that money goes back to Starbucks). He actually does this for many different things, from apartments in Manhatten to used cars - but he also explains some of the problems that go into the pricing. Of course, the book, being written by an economist, takes a "free markets are awesome" approach to solving the problems of the world.

I find that I'm still unconvinced by the concept of comparative advantage. I mean, it makes perfect theoretical sense. However, I feel that he (and economists in general) fail to factor in nations and national interests when talking about it. Sure, in the classic example Poland should produce wine and England should produce cloth. But what if Poland wanted to wage economic warfare? What if Poland found that, as a nation, it could advance its interests by forcing England to produce more wine, which was less efficient? Comparative advantage seems to fall apart mighty quickly for me when I examine it through a political lens - I feel it only will work if everyone agrees that it will work.

Also, while admitting that I'm not an economist, it seems that free markets have one huge flaw: they're entirely reactive in nature. There's little to no incentive to be proactive in completely free markets, since the information in very "now" in nature. Again, I could be wrong, but I don't see any forward-looking tendencies in a completely free market.

Nevertheless, despite my small criticisms, this was an excellent book and I wholeheartedly recommend it. The ability to discern complicated subjects into an easy-to-read yet informative book is rare, but Tim Hartford seems to have it!

Note: Vilfredo Pareto... this guy has been popping up all over the place for me!

D

Saturday, May 17, 2008
According to Blogger, this is my 500th post.

It's worth noting that, since I've been doing this for about 32 months now (just under three years), I've put up approximately 15 posts per month. That's one every 2-3 days. Of course, my readers know this isn't true since I tend to post a flurry of posts at a time. Perhaps I could do better... but perhaps not. We'll see.

The other thing to note is that it's my 500th post attempted. There are probably a dozen posts that I started but never finished. Since I never deleted them, they still count. Still, the 500 number is pretty accurate.

Some of my favorites thus far:
Kick-Ass Spaghetti
Flog the Bastards
What's the real message?
Far Out
Interlude with desperation
The state of our union
Sunchips & Math
Statistics of a Successful Trip

Okay, I have a lot of favorites. That's just like the first 8 months of them. Maybe I'll list more sometime. Still... FIVE HUNDRED, MAN. FIVE HUNDRED!

Dana Carvey @ Spirit Mountain

I had a friend take me to see comedian Dana Carvey perform at the Spirit Mountain Casino last night. While fun, event as a whole was a lot more lame than it could have been.

Dana Carvey CAN be funny...

Let's start with "the good":
  1. Dana Carvey can be funny. I've enjoyed a bunch of his stuff, and he has a casual and funny air about him. He's clever, knows how to deliver a line, and can elicit a laugh from the audience.
Okay, so that list is pretty short. The next list, "the bad", is going to be pretty long:
  1. Spirit Mountain Casino kinda blows. This is going to get several entries on the list, but the first reason I noticed this was that they served alcohol near the event. Not at the event, mind you, but in a space roughly 40' x 20' outside. You could buy a drink (or get water) but no liquids at all were allowed inside the room, so you had to stand outside and drink whatever you got, and they had security guards keeping you in the little imaginary box while you did so.

  2. Dana Carvey's material seems... dated. Like a lot of stuff that used to be funny but just lost its relevance, some of his stuff seemed to "miss".

  3. Did I mention that Spirit Mountain blows? Seriously, after being liquid-free (including water) for an hour and a half, we tried to go to the bar to get a drink. Oh, too bad... that was full, and they had a guy outside letting us know. We could go pay $30/plate for dinner (we'd already eaten) if we wanted to get a plate in the dining area, but the bar was full for quite a while.

  4. Spirit Mountain, being a casino, reminds me of why I don't go to casinos very often. Just a lot of video slots machines. Nobody looked like they were having any fun, and I can assure you that I wasn't either. I tried playing video poker for a bit, but it's just wildly unsatisfying. Perhaps if I'd been able to find a blackjack table...
In the end, I had fun, yes. But I also ended up driving about 45 minutes into the middle of nowhere to go to a crappy casino and watch a comedian from my youth give a performance under bizarre conditions. If I want to see a comedian, next time I'll just go up to Harvey's Comedy Club which is set up so that people have fun and also has the benefit of being in Portland. If I wanted to go to Spirit Mountain again, I'd just head for the buffet.

Master's Degree

Sunday, May 11, 2008
In case you missed the announcement, I have - as of a few hours ago - earned my MBA (with honors!). 22 months of work later, I now have that fancy diploma. So awesome!

me in my regalia

Of course, now I'm no longer a student... I'm just unemployed.

Head Wound

Thursday, May 08, 2008
Those who know me know that I'm a fan of the Portland Eastbank Esplanade (even though it's not entirely perfect.) An incident there yesterday, though, made me wonder if some improvements aren't needed.

As I was walking north along the east side, just past the floating walkway, a fellow on a bicycle stopped in front of me. "Be careful," he said, indicating the path he'd just come along - and the path I was heading towards. "Something's going on up there." I looked up to see a gentleman sitting on the curb about 50 feet ahead, clutching something to his head and being tended to by someone else. "There's a bunch of about six Mexican guys up there, and one guy's covered in blood," offered the fellow.

The wounded man started half-walking, half-stumbling towards us. It became obvious that he was bleeding from the back of his head, and he had taken off his shirt and was trying to stop the bleeding with it - a white shirt was now stained deep red. The fellow on the bicycle and I agreed that we should call for emergency services. As the wounded gentleman approached, glancing with either nervousness or suspicion behind us, my new friend was calling for police and medical help on his phone and I started to help the man, instructing him to keep pressure on his wound (though trying not to get any blood on myself.)

The problem is, I don't speak Spanish. He was very uncommunicative, and - aside from stopping to stand (and bleed) near us - didn't say anything. At this point, two women walked up and started helping him and the gentleman on the bicycle and I called for help again as the wounded man started to pass out.

I will say this for the Portland Police and Fire services: they were there within 10 minutes. Furthermore, as I'll get to in a bit, they couldn't just drive up to the scene. They showed up and immediately took over. Somehow I blinked and there were two officers and five fire department EMTs on the scene. As the medics tended to the wounded man, the police started taking names and numbers of potential witnesses.

As best as I can figure, the wounded man was part of a group of people who routinely hang out in the areas off the path of the Esplanade. Largely unseen, they generally don't bother anyone (at least as far as I've heard.) However, in this case, one person assaulted the other (I heard reports of "those guys over there said that the guy who hit this guy went that way") and that led to our situation. This area is apparently a favorite of those on the grey side of the law as emergency access is very limited. As one police officer described, they and the medics had to park up near the Rose Garden and walk down to the scene - at least five minutes on foot. (That makes their response time even more impressive!) Furthermore, they would have to carry this guy out.

The problem with emergency access is that there's no way to get to most portions of the Eastbank Esplanade. It's sandwiched tightly between I-5 and the Willamette River, with very few (if any) opportunities to get a vehicle anywhere near it or on it. As the police officer explained with frustration, "If someone's actively being attacked, we just can't respond quickly!"

I don't know how they'd solve the problem. I, however, can at least say that they were very responsive to our call, and that I'm glad the man received the help he needs. Violence near the Esplanade always troubles me as I tend to think of Portland as being a safe city, but in this case I think it was not part of a patten.

Movie Review: Iron Man

Saturday, May 03, 2008
My girlfriend and I saw Iron Man today (on opening day, no less), and to save you the trouble of reading what I'm about to write, I'll just say that it was awesome and worth every penny.

Okay, with that out of the way, here's the rundown. Wealthy womanizing weapon designer and manufacturer Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr. gets himself kidnapped by terrorists. He ends up manufacturing a mechanical suit for himself instead of a missile for them (easy to confuse the two, really), and busts out, gets home, and swears off the weapons business. That doesn't go over well with Stark Enterprises president Obadiah Stane (played by Jeff Bridges, or, as he is universally known as, "The Dude"). Stark's assistant Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) helps out - as does his buddy Jim Rhodes (played by Terrence Howard) - as Stark makes himself an upgraded suit with which to help those being harmed by the weapons he built. Awesome-ilarity ensues.

Not only was the acting well done in the movie, but the direction was great, the pacing was perfect, and the special effects weren't special at all (that's the way I like 'em - you don't notice them!) The movie had a great ratio of awesome-to-suck, inasmuch as it had high levels of awesome and very low levels of suck. It was fun in all the right places and conveyed a superhero exactly as it wanted to. It never took itself too seriously, nor was too campy. In other words, it did the job of being entertaining for 126 minutes. I left the theater thinking, "That was definitely worth the price of admission."

Final word on Iron Man: Dear God, it was fun. See it.

Airwolf is Airwolf

Thursday, May 01, 2008
I'd like to thank the good folks at Ars Technica for cluing me into one of the greatest things available on the internet: Airwolf, streamed right to your desktop.

Now I know I'm not the only one to rave about Airwolf. Thanks to the power of the 'tubes, you can be a fan, too. Having (most of) the episodes available to watch (with limited commercial interruption) is awesome, though I'll admit it doesn't make it easy to fall asleep when I'm watching them late into the night.


I understand that there are those that are unimpressed by watching shows on the computer. I might be one of them - if I actually owned a TV. But since I don't, it makes little difference to me. This... this is Airwolf.

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