Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Big Round Numbers (Un Centinaio e C’ho il Dente Avvelenato)

Well I checked the count thing and this is my 100th posting. I don't usually make a big deal out of large round numbers, because if people only had nine fingers I would have been celebrating my 81st post as if it were something special. And the year 1458 (9^3 * 2) would have been when all the computers probably would have had trouble. Calixtus III might have died in a related airplane crash.

Other than the extent to which other people's superstition about big round numbers affect me (like stock market indexes, for some dumb psychological reason), I don't really give much thought to them. I do maybe believe in a bit of karma now though.

Yesterday while driving to work, a road crew stopped their work trucks in my lane and started placing cones immediately. It was annoying because they didn't wait for the light to change, which would have given people the ability to change lanes and continue on with life. So I was stuck behind the trucks and the grinning idiot worker placing down 5 feet of helpful road cones.

Like anyone in this situation, I indicated that I needed to get over to the right into the next lane of traffic. So as the cars whizzed by, eventually the light at the next intersection changed and everyone started slowing down as the line of traffic to my right built up. About to turn in behind a car just in front of me to the right, I did one last scan of the mirror and saw a gigantic white SUV speeding up and cutting off my only escape. On purpose. Because they were being sociopathic. Really.

So like a good ticked off individual, I layed into the horn. They thought it was funny, one of them pointed. I got behind them in the right lane as the light ahead changed to green and cars started moving. They are looked back at me, so it was most unfortunate that they didn't notice the light changing yellow, then red.

But, I'm pretty sure they saw the bright flash of the camera controlled intersection as they accidently ran through the red light. I waved.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Recent Race (Gara Ubriaco)

On Saturday night, I went to an outdoor wine tasting at a local doctor friend's home. It was a great event with about 50 people, a live band, and strung party lights on the enormous porte cochere (that's a big driveway, not a portable WC or something like that). I'd played cards with this guy before and as things were winding down, a group of us made arrangements to play a cash game this coming Friday.

Someone changed the subject from going out to the rifle range to try out so-and-so's 50 caliber semi-auto rifle to the subject of betting on car racing (you know, typical Texas chit chat). The esteemed doctor host then said 'Hey, you all should check out my son's four wheeler ATV, maybe we can race that?'

His neighbor and coworker at the hospital was in, and then reluctantly, all of us were. I don't know if it was the thirty bottles of previously bagged and numbered wine talking, maybe the tequilla shots after, or even the expensive cigars, but we all made our way out to the street following the host pushing the gasoline-powered knobby wheeled ATV out to the street.

It was kind of late (1 AM) and the crowd had thinned out, so four of us stood there, ready to impress the women of the party who still remained safely listening to music in aforementioned porte cochere (Note to self for future reference: impressing the women after drinking is precisely how all kinds of jack-assed things happen). It was dark, of course there was no helmet, because, hey you didn't want to be labled a pu$$y.

The objective was to race from a starting point at the curb around the block in a rectangle about .75 mile or a bit over 1km. The doctors fired up the IPhones with timer apps down to the millisecond. The first guy pulled down to the curb with the engine sputtering. Apparently he knew everything about ATVs so he was going for the quick intimidation win.

At the mark, he was off! At the first left turn about 80 meters / 250 feet, he almost fell off the danged thing with a sharp turn. We stood there for a while and didn't hear or see a trace of him, then we heard the lawn-mowerish engine whine of the ATV and between some houses we caught sight of the headlight and a crouched silhouette on the ATV. After a few more seconds he came back into view and the doctors clicked off the timers at one minute and three seconds. Everyone was duly impressed.

Unfortunately, my turn was next to follow the speed demon. It had been forever since I'd been on one of these, I think the last time being a bonfire / drinking party in the small oil town west of Fort Worth where I went to high school.

After some embarrasing searching, I finally found the thumb throttle (it wasn't a throttle like on a motorcycle), everyone shouted go, and I 'floored' it. Halfway down to the first turn, I stood up on it as I was racing along (so if I had fallen, at least people would have had a good laugh about all of my trial). Then I quickly crouched down for the first turn. I remembered from way back that extra stabilization on the turns was beneficial, so I put down my right leg and my foot was out to the side scraping the ground as I made the left 90 degree turn.

I did this a few more times barely reducing the throttle on the turns and going all out full throttle on the straightaways. Everyone said I clocked in at 58 seconds, and at first I didn't believe them. But then I watched everyone in sequence trying to beat my time, the doctor who owned the ATV, even the first guy with a second try, but my record stands until this day (of course, it's only been three days).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Delayed Un-gratification

So on Friday I was checking through a particularly large pile of mailbox leavings.
Throwing out the small book's worth of ads and credit card offers, I noticed the rare gem of a real piece of correspondence. Well, not actually, it was from Hertz. For those of you in a different country, oh wait, I guess you have Hertz there too.

Opening the letter, my eyes fell on some charges and official looking documents from the municipal police of Como and Venice. The pages had their logo anyhow. I started daydreaming about how incredibly scenic both of those places are, but then quickly snapped out of it. It had been around seven months since I was over in Italy. My first thought was that this was some sort of scam and I quickly doublechecked the postmark for 'Nigeria' or some such place.

Unfortunately though, these infractions were real and the kind of thing those of us from the US are not familiar with. More specifically, I had driven into some limited traffic zones (ZTL) while touring around with my hired car. The ZTL areas are accessible to local drivers only, and only during certain times and moon phases.

The signs themselves are quite small and sometimes difficult to spot. Luckily, they used the red circle on a white background so it's a bit like 'Where's Waldo' (Wally for the UK types). Of course this finding game will cost you around 100 euro per infraction automatically enforced with computerized cameras. 'Where's Waldo' never kicked me in the nuts like this...

*Actual size of sign...

These limited traffic zones seem nefarious to visitors because as you are driving along trying not to be hit or get completely lost, the tendency is to follow other vehicles. You know, so you don't end up driving demolition derby on the floor of the Colosseum, or maybe floating behind a gondola in the Venice lagoon.

The actual purpose of the Zona Traffico Limitato is noble, it helps keep the old monuments in the town centers less exposed to pollution and not as many cars actually on the road so it looks nicer. But, it can't be ignored that this is a major money maker for the cities of Italy. I read a statistic that just the city of Firenze (Florence) rakes in 53 million euro per year in ZTL tickets.

Trying to remember the specific times of my infractions, I thought of driving in Como and remembered cutting across town to avoid driving out in the wrong direction (I had to get to my rented villa before dark and it was late).
I still can't remember what I did wrong in Venice. I have to presume it was on the land side (Mestre) because there aren't many roads on Venice itself and my rental car wasn't amphibious.

Since I remember being guilty on the first ticket at least, and it's impossible to fight the bureaucracy, I'll pay of course. I plan on paying my two tickets when the euro goes less than the dollar in a few weeks. Hah.

The weekend was great, the culmination of which was a wine tasting party which ended with time trial racing on a four wheeler ATV in an expensive neighborhood at 1:30 AM, but that is a post for another time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Voting (Suffragium)

I've experienced a political confluence since some of the bloggers from the UK wrote about the recent election, and this past weekend, two friends of mine ran for local political office to keep their seats as city council members.
My friends both won, partly because of my considerable influence in the local political landscape and also because they ran unopposed. For the UK readers, I had nothing to do with David Cameron's win.

After thousands of years voting has not changed all that much, computerized touchscreen voting booths with smartcard ballots were used this past weekend. It's written in ancient sources that ancient Greeks used a large show of hands to vote and that an estimator (who I'm certain was impartial in every vote) tallied it all up.

Romans were fond of giving everyone black and white pebbles so the voter could drop the color representing their choice into a voting pot. I wonder if when exiting the polling place (comitia), there were laws about not checking the pockets of voters? A candidate's thugs might have threatened to beat the tar out of people who still had the 'wrong' stone in their possession.

But luckily, the pot and stoner voting (smoothly increasing hits, oops there's another one) was usually used to pass or repeal laws instead of candidate selection. Leges Tabellariae moved the ancients away from pebbles and into paper or lead tablets for the votes, at which time the ancient Romans sneered at the slightly more ancient Romans and called them animals.

To change topics completely, has anyone ever had a sunburn so painful, it feels like you are floating down a 'lazy river' of fire on your back? Or maybe two hundred midgets are putting out their cigarettes on your back simultaneously?

I was out working on stone this weekend and forgot to wear a shirt, or sunscreen. And I'm paying for it now, still, dearly. Normally I notice the sun starting to affect me, but the cool wind kept me unaware that outside was actually a convection oven.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Stars At Night (Stelle Della Notte)

Last night poolside with a glass of wine in hand, I looked up into the night sky. The moon wasn't out yet, so even in brightly lit Dallas the stars were plainly visible. Dallas isn't the heart of Texas, so pay no mind to the song lyrics 'The stars at night are big and bright'.

First, I found the 'North Star', or Polaris as it sometimes called since the ancient peoples named it after a popular brand of automated pool sweepers.

They say that we might have a different North Star soon, in a few thousand years.

Then my eyes swept westward and I noticed an unusual star, or it might have been a small cluster of stars. The center one was white and got noticably brighter while I was looking at it. Then a green light emanated from the cluster, which I thought was fairly unusual. The white light in the center seemed to pulse at a steady interval, almost like a strobe light.

By this time I thought about calling NASA to report it, because it seemed so strange. I heard some faint noise coming from the direction of the star cluster and the light changed from a green to a red. While this was going on, the stars passed overhead and turned south.

In outdoor project news, I set out chalklines for more of my detailed tile work. A handy trick for making sure the wind and rain do not erase your elaborately laid and measured chalk lines is to put clear acrylic spray paint over the lines. I guess it wouldn't protect against acid or falling planes, but for normal events it's fine.

Is anyone having issues with pollen this spring? I put myself to the test this weekend at an outdoor art show called 'The Cottonwood Festival'. (At this point, I'm pretty sure I'm allergic to Cottonwood). Worth it though because I bought two works and found some higher than normal quality local artists. Ciao