Sunday, January 29, 2006


Humans are, among other things, a very playful animal. Give us a tool and some leisure time and we'll find a way to make a game out of it. Heck, don't even give us the leisure time, we make games out our work. We even make games out of our games. This is a topic that fascinates and entertains me. I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll probably mention it again. I mention it today because my brother recently received a GPS receiver.

A GPS receiver has only one real function – to tell you where you are. In theory it can do so to within six feet although in practice the error tends to be somewhere around 50 feet. Some receivers can do complicated things with that information, such as display maps or determine your average speed, but all these tasks boil down to the fundamental ability to tell you where you are.

At first glance, knowing where you are doesn’t seem like a very good game but it turns out we’ve been making it a game for a long time through orienteering races, road rallies, and the like. The game there, however, isn’t really knowing where you are it’s figuring out where you are and figuring out how to get from where you are to where you want to be. The GPS receiver pretty much gets rid of the “figuring” part and a GPS can do this without using landmarks, without references, and without even knowing where you WERE. That’s new, so it requires a new game, but what kind of game can you make out of that? In two words or less: treasure hunting. In one word or less: geocaching.

Geocaching is a game designed specifically for GPS receivers. X marks the spot where X is a member of the set of Cartesian coordinates. It works like this:

One person hides a container and then posts its coordinates online. The seekers put these coordinates in their GPS receivers and then head to the listed location. Once there, they start searching about for the container (unless the hidden container is about 50 feet across, just the coordinates won’t be enough to find it). Sometimes there are items in the container (key chains, knickknacks, Happy Meal toys, etc…) sometimes it’s just a log book. If you find it, you’re supposed to take an item, leave an item for the next person to find, and record your visit in the log book.

This is what my brother and I did last Sunday. We went into the woods (although these things aren’t always hidden in the woods – you’ll find them pretty much anywhere you can get a GPS signal) armed with coordinates for three different caches. It turns out that 50 foot accuracy still leaves a lot of ground to cover. We couldn’t find the first one on our own and had to call his girlfriend so she could read us the hint online (we were, perhaps a bit cocky, and didn’t bring any of the hints with us). The hint wasn’t really that helpful. It directed us to look near a fallen log. It also mentioned bark and leaves. That’s about as useful as giving someone an address for a house in San Francisco and telling them: “You can’t miss it, it’s on a hill.” We spent an hour looking and finally gave up.

It took us less than twenty minutes to find the second one (we left a kinder toy and took a crab pin). By that time it was starting to get dark so we left the third cache for another day.

It was a good day – admittedly frustrating at times, but we ended with a victory (and a list of items we intend to bring in the future to make things easier). I’m looking forward to our next attempt.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


I'm not a coffee drinker, I never have been. By the time I was even allowed to drink coffee, I had no interest in it (it's strange which of your parents' rules stick with you and which ones don't). I had friends in high school, and later college, who couldn't start the day without it. That just seemed dangerous to me, why create that kind of weakness for myself. Not to mention the fact that it tasted awful no matter what I put in it. So I avoided it.

That is, I avoided it until I started working for a construction company for my first full time job. Even then I managed to avoid coffee for the first six months, then I cracked. Not because work started at 5:30am, but because it started at 5:30am AND I was working outside. DC is not Connecticut, but it's not Georgia either. Working outside in the winter can be a daunting prospect. You can only do so much with layered clothing and still retain the mobility to scramble around a construction site (especially when you have convinced yourself they're transferring you to the office soon and it's not worth buying new stuff you'll just ruin in the few weeks before that happens). I turned to coffee for additional heat.

Of course, I drank it black. In my few previous experiences with coffee, sugar and cream had done nothing to help. So why slow down the process?

That was my one foray into the world of the regular coffee drinker and it did not last long for two reasons. The first reason is that coffee is a diuretic and, being on a construction site, I didn't have access to what we in the industry referred to as "plumbing." There was a plumbing-alternative, but it was not a pleasant experience.

As for the second reason, it took me a little while to pick up on this, but apparently coffee is a stimulant. The effect, at least on me, is noticeable. And by "noticeable" I don't really mean "noticeable," I mean "obnoxious." Most coffee drinkers start at Sluggish and transition to Alert. Nothing so subtle for me. I start to sing, to beat out tunes on whatever happens to be within reach, to talk much much much more (and faster) whether there's anyone there to talk to or not. It's not pretty. And by "not pretty" I still mean "obnoxious."

So I stopped drinking coffee shortly after I started and switched to cocoa, or even just plain hot water. Really, it was best for all.

There's a Senseo machine in my office now. It produces smells that suggest my objection to coffee on the grounds of taste may no longer be valid. The office conveniently has functioning plumbing that is cleaned on a regular basis, so that objection is gone, too. But that last one, that's a doozy, and as long as coffee continues to be coffee, it's not going away. Trust me, it's still best for all involved if I continue to leave it alone.

Friday, January 13, 2006


I got my hair cut last week (yes, all of them). At the end, the lady cutting my hair asked if I would like any gel in my hair. I told her, "No, thank you." It's what I always say when I'm asked that question. I'm not sure why I bother.

This is a battle I always lose. Actually, battle isn't quite the right term; that would imply my actions have at least some impact on the outcome. They really don't. I have come to the conclusion that my will in this matter is merely a subject of curiosity to the hair cutters, a fact they find as relevant to my hair cut as say, the number of kangaroos in Australia (50 million). They file this tidbit away, possibly to discuss with their coworkers later, but it does not affect their immediate actions (namely the process of smearing gel in my hair).

I think I might know why. It's my cowlicks. I have two (three if we're counting the one in my beard, but we're not) and they make life difficult for anyone cutting my hair. If the hair around them is too short, it will stick out in all directions. Even when I remember to warn them about the cowlicks, my hair cutters almost never leave it long enough.

This, then, is what I suspect transpires: The hair cutter cuts my hair too short (honestly, it's hard not to). The cowlicks leap into action and give my hair the appearance of having been cut with a katana and combed with an eggbeater. For me to walk out of their shop looking like this would not be good for business. So the hair cutter breaks out the gel or the spackle or whatever compound they plan to use to address the problem and then asks me that perfunctory question whose answer they have no intention of heeding.

That's only speculation, though. Since I have to take off my glasses to get a haircut, I have no idea what really happens. Once my glasses come off you could replace my hair cutter with trained monkeys (or even layman monkeys) and I wouldn't know the difference until they started searching for nits.

In any case, I've resigned myself to the hair gel. I'll still answer "no" when they ask (mostly because it amuses me to tell this story) but I've learned not to expect any real say in the matter.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


My schedule is a bizarre and complex algorithm, possibly fractal, beyond the ken of most mortals. Thanks to its twisted format I found myself with four days off last week (after having worked midnight New Year's Eve). For two of those days I was sick. On the third (a Thursday for those of you following along at home), I spent a large part of the day with my girlfriend. We repotted most of my plants. I also did laundry when I got home. On Friday, I put away the laundry then drove my girlfriend and two of her coworkers to a spa, having agreed to chauffeur them around town for a Girl's Day Out (they did not wish to undo three hours of professional relaxation by attempting to navigate DC traffic immediately afterwards). I used the time to take care of several errands, wandering around the mall. This included perusing cards in Hallmark and buying a gift for a friend. It was somewhere around the second hour that the Testosterone Police showed up and attempted to confiscate my Man Card.

They read me my list of offenses (this included "getting your hair done" but I would argue it was a "hair cut" which is not the same thing at all) and then allowed me to present my defense. Now, as some of you might have guessed, this has happened to me before. I was lucky the first time, this time I was ready. I showed them what I was reading.
"Fah!" said the first cop, "Batman!" He shook his head in disgust and turned to his partner. "I really thought we had him this time."
"Not only that," I said, "but one of my other errands was to buy a video game accessory."
"Sir?" said the younger cop, "He just said 'errand' and 'accessory.' Surely we can take him in for that, Batman or no Batman."
The older cop shook his head again. "No good. Whatever he called it, it's still for video games. And that comic book, we can't touch a man reading a comic book, not Batman. That's ironclad, right there."
"Oh, and I bought a Daredevil comic book, too."
The older cop just glared at me. I thought the younger cop was going to ask if he could borrow it, but he changed his mind when the older cop glared at him. They didn't say much after that, just gave me the standard warning and promised to be watching me. They were gone before my girlfriend and her friends showed up, ready to move on to the next location. (Just in case, though, I made a point of eating an entire Chipotle burrito for lunch).

I've still got my Man Card. For now, at least.