Saturday, September 20, 2008

Garage sale

There's a garage sale around the corner this afternoon. Some neighbors have gotten together with friends and relatives and put together quite a selection. There is quite a bit of smallish children's clothing, which doesn't especially interest me, but also quite a lot of adult clothing and an assortment of books and household items.

I purchased two pairs of jeans that fit me (I may need to shorten them a bit, but I have a garage sale sewing machine), a nice sweater, several warm pajama sets (the ones in my drawer have been very well loved) and a Tupperware pitcher for $6.25.

Now, compare this to a department store. I walked around the block, so I didn't have to find a parking place at the mall. I didn't have to hold my nose and dash past the perfume counters. I did what will probably be most of my fall shopping in about half an hour and in natural sunlight. I didn't have to listen to department store music or mysterious chimes.

I also got to meet my neighbors and their dog. There's a lot more variety in garage sales. It isn't all this year's stuff or the current season (rushed by three months or so). I can see how the clothes are going to wear because they have already started. If something is wrinkled in somebody's driveway, it's guaranteed to need ironing every time I wash it, too. If something shrank or ran or faded the first time it was washed, it's done it by now. I also get a tremendously good deal (95% off, anyone?) and do a bit of recycling in the process.

People wonder why I get grumpy when I end up in retail outlets and see some of the foolish stuff they're selling. Maybe it's because I know how much of it is going to end up in neighbors' driveways.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An engineer's basement and hammock

I didn't ask to take photos, since I'd never been there before and hadn't actually met the people before showing up. Suffice it to say that my friend's friend G (who is also a mechanical engineer) has a large, finished basement below his house, which I had the privilege of seeing after G and his wife (at my friend's urging) invited me, a complete stranger, to dinner at their home.

I helped G's wife prepare some homemade pizza, an effort which consisted largely of chopping and arranging an assortment of veggies. I figured it was the least I could do for someone who had volunteered to serve a friend-of-a-friend dinner and it gave me something to talk about, since I arrived at least an hour before my friend did. The evening that followed was well worth making a bit of awkward-at-first conversation and chopping some veggies, though.

G and his wife have a small but busy vegetable garden tucked in along the sides of their house and a hammock on a frame in the small area out back. G decided, once we'd all arrived, that the four of us should have a hammock swinging contest. My friend, G, and I are all mechanical engineers; G's wife has had a bit more practice being in hammocks than the rest of us.

The object of the hammock contest was to lay in the hammock with one knee elevated and to swing that knee back and forth in the right rhythm to get the hammock going in the least amount of time. "Going" had no terribly precise definition, so I can't say who exactly won, though G seemed to do pretty well. I made a decent showing (suggesting as a rogue entry the use of a windbreaker as a sail), as did G's wife. My friend flailed wildly and still didn't really manage to get swinging. Now, to a mechanical engineer, a hammock is a pendulum and a swinging hammock with a person in it is a simple harmonic oscillator. Most six-year-olds can swing a swing. A mechanical engineer will tell you that they're doing it by driving it 90 degrees out of phase. Yes, we also do other things for fun.

After dinner, we checked out the basement, with some unwarranted apologies about the mess (basements are supposed to be messy!). It does contain a piano and some trappings of a spare bedroom, but mostly it contains a machine shop and lab full of tools and parts to play with. G likes to build model planes of various types, but I'd argue that the most impressive are the small ones made from slender balsa wood rods, a homemade propeller, and thin iridescent sheets of capacitor dielectric, which is both lightweight and relatively strong. With a loose but well-wound rubber band over two opposing hooks and more space than even this basement permitted, they will stay aloft for a remarkably long time, perhaps several minites. Other model planes there were more sophisticated, but these were stunning in their simplicity.

G also likes to invent things. One simple doodad he demonstrated was for combing their long-haired, shedding cat. The cat doesn't like the vacuum cleaner noise, but will tolerate this device. It consisted of a bit of window screen over a box with a large (about 6" square) computer fan in it. The fan holds wads of hair combed off the cat neatly against the window screen for easy cleanup when the combing is done.

I'm glad I got to see the place and meet G, even under unusual circumstances. I may need to rethink the project and tinkering spaces in my own home.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Grouchy Chef

The Grouchy Chef is both the name of a restaurant in Mukilteo, Washington and a particularly apt description of what (or whom) you will find inside. We tried quite a few excellent restaurants on this trip, but the Grouchy Chef stands out, certainly in terms of experience. The food is pretty good, too, especially considering the moderate prices.

The chef tends to be fairly short with his customers, and he doesn't say a lot. Posted all over the walls of the place are lengthy, handwritten notifications, detailing the economics of serving drinks and paying rent, laying down the rules for ordering, seating, and the care and handling of the delicate temper who is preparing the meals. The restaurant is a one-man show, and that one man hasn't had a day off since he opened in 2002 or so, as the signs indignantly detail. One of the signs forbids photography inside the establishment, then proceeds into a diatribe about how this is disrespectful and invasive and he doesn't take photos in your home, so the photo above was shot surreptitiously, from outside.

The chef is Japanese (perhaps one reason he prefers to speak very little), and one sign reads, "If you make fun of my English, please show me your ability to mangle a foreign language." Having thoroughly mangled a foreign language for several years now, I must heartily agree with this sentiment, at least.

This lunch was also the one intersection of our Vancouver friend with our Seattle friend. The choice of establishment, and its just-as-grouchy-as-advertised proprietor, certainly gave us all something to talk about as we trod as lightly as we could and did our best to enjoy the meal without running afoul of the rules.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Refrigerator improv

The friend we stayed with in (or rather just outside) Seattle doesn't really cook. She lives alone and she's starting to cook a bit, but it's basically large-batch, utility cooking at this point.

She heard we were coming and took the opportunity to fill the fridge in her small apartment kitchen. I swear we told her well in advance that we were only staying Wednesday late through Sunday, but she stocked up.

Then she realized that there was a bit too much stuff for the three of us to eat in five days and invited two friends over for dinner. So I had a fridge full of assorted ingredients I didn't choose and two strangers arriving shortly.

Into the pan went some chicken breasts dunked in lime juice, salt, pepper, olive oil, and oregano. I'd have added garlic but there wasn't any that I could find. While that roasted, I cut up and sauteed some green beans and onions. When the chicken was mostly done, I arranged the sauteed veggies over it, covered the whole thing with grated cheese and tossed it back in the oven for long enough to finish and blend a bit.

Now, the Pacific Northwest has plenty of berries around this time of year, and there were some raspberries in the fridge, too. There were just enough ingredients to make shortcakes of them (flour, butter, sugar, baking powder, salt, milk). I've almost never baked without a recipe, but I'd done shortcakes in the past week, so I remembered the proportions as best I could and winged it. They came out fine, as, happily, did the chicken-and-vegetable stuff.

The company turned out to be interesting, too. One fellow coworker, originally from Argentina, and a woman whose relationship I didn't quite catch, other than that she was from someplace besides work. We attempted a little Spanish but felt a little silly speaking it when both of us are more comfortable in English and nobody else there spoke. A fun evening, all-in-all, almost completely unplanned.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Science Fiction Museum, EMP, and music in the park

I'm going to try blogging at least parts of the vacation I just got back from in episodes. It was a short vacation, only one week, but a fun one. As this blog is about ramblings (usually not the physical ones) I'll start squarely in the middle and proceed out of order from there.

We were both pleasantly surprised with the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. It's under the Space Needle, in part of the park that was originally built for the World's Fair.

Scott is a science fiction fan and I am one largely by association (I read the occasional novel and watch the occasional film). So when we heard about the museum, we were a bit afraid that it was going to be a bunch of classical sci-fi. We have nothing against classic sci-fi, but it's not what we mostly read. Scott likes David Weber, Anne McCaffrey, and quite a selection of stuff, mostly more recent than that.

Instead, what we found there was a well thought out and reasonably wide variety, ranging from Mary Shelley and Jules Verne through Star Trek and encompassing about everything in between. There are vintage comics, space suits, hats and helmets, toys, books, cover art, and plenty of images of visions of the future from throughout the history of the genre, all nicely mixed together with a generous but not overwhelming dose of audio and video.

They don't allow photography in the galleries, possibly because flashing in a dark space would disturb the atmosphere of the place, possibly because too many of the artifacts are copyright. In any case, we lingered happily reading signs and browsing for quite some time. This museum was one of at least three reasons my reading list grew on this trip.

The one thing I really wanted a photograph of is pictured online here, though in the museum it's surrounded by the ink bottles and cartridges and (if memory serves) the fountain pens used to produce it. It's an original, handwritten manuscript by Neal Stephenson for the Baroque Cycle, and it really is that tall. I suppose if you're a known author, you can pay somebody to do your typing. I think I write differently sometimes in ink than onscreen (there's no going back to fiddle with your work).

Adjoining the Sci-fi Museum is the Experience Music Project (EMP). We didn't stay quite as long there, but it was still fun to see. There's a giant musical instrument sculpture in the main hall made up of hundreds of guitars, banjos, an accordion, clarinet, french horn, keyboard, and so on. Some of the stringed instruments and drums have things attached that change the pitch and strum, and visitors can listen to this thing on headphones. I'd like to know if they ever tune the sculpture.

The displays downstairs mostly explore various genres of popular music. One room has an exhibit on the history of electric guitars, which is more interesting and varied than I would have supposed. The upstairs, I think, is more fun. There are exhibit rooms, all unfortunately a little too well occupied to be accessible, where visitors can go in and learn a bit about musical instruments (mainly vocals, drums, guitar, and keyboard). I skipped the piano lesson (I play a bit, but not often) and went ahead to the improvisation part. The keyboard lights up the keys of the blues scale and plays an appropriate accompaniment. I'm not much good at improvising music, but when there are a row of LEDs cluing me in to which notes are going to sound ok with the background, I too can jam.

Somewhere in between, we fetched some lunch and wandered out into the park around the museums and found the Quichua Mashis performing in the park. I seized on the opportunity to practice my Spanish and chatted with them a bit. Although they proudly proclaim that their music is from the Andes in general (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador) they are from Ecuador. I also ascertained that the woman in the teal dress who was dancing in front of their booth didn't really have anything to do with them. She was just a hanger-on who happened to like the music. The answer I got was a good deal more diplomatic than I'd have given in the same situation: "just a friend" (though "friend" has a somewhat more general connotation in Spanish than English). "Hippie" may be spelled differently by some, but it has lodged itself into the Spanish language, probably with good reason.

I was hoping to find a quena among the musical instruments they were offering, since one was playing a quena, but there were pan pipes and some other little flutes I didn't recognize, so I bought a CD. There were no quenas in the EMP, and the music follows a tradition much older than science fiction.