Friday, July 31, 2009

Book Club: The Shadow of the Wind

I haven't written in quite a while, mostly because it's been very busy! Last week we had our July book club meeting. The book was "The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. I really enjoyed the book, as did the other book club members. It's a global best-seller, and I've seen copies of it all over the place - my Isreali friend was reading a Hebrew copy in Barcelona, I saw it on my German friend's roommate's night stand, and it just keeps seeming to pop up, so I figured I'd better check it out.

Since the book is set in Barcelona, we decided to have our meeting at Jaleo, a Spanish restaurant in DC. That way we could enjoy sangria and tapas during the discussion. (And the food was great!)

The book is set in Barcelona just after the Spanish Civil War. The main character, a young boy, is brought to the cemetery of forgotten books, where he picks one to read and keep. He really enjoys the book and tries to track down further works by the author, only to find out that someone else has been searching for the books and burning every copy. The mystery plays out over many years and with a multitude of characters as the boy tries to figure out who's destroying the books and why.

The book was fun to read and kept you turning the pages. There were a number of themes I found very interesting.

I really liked the post-war aspect of the book. I think post-war literature and movies are really interesting and complicated of the pychological situation they put people in. After so much has happened, people need to come to grips with what people (and themselves) are capable of and figure out if and how they can return to normal life. (Sidenote: For a really interesting example of this, watch "The Murderers Are Among Us" - it was the first movie made in Germany after WWII.)

Of course, I loved the fact that it was set in Barcelona. After being there for the summer last year, lots of the street names and parts of town were familiar. The book even includes a map and a walking tour as an appendix!

I liked the theme of books being important. I think this is a fun thing I've seen once or twice before (like in "The Thirteenth Tale" by Dianne Setterfield) where a book glorifies how meaningful books can be. It's just gives it an interesting 'meta-story' feel.

The bildngsroman or coming-of-age aspect of the book was also interesting. When the book starts, the main character is about 10, and by the time it ends, he's 16 or 18 or so - basically grown up.

And the overall wealth of intriguing characters and unraveling mystery kept me turning pages.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Low Car Diet - Day 5

Time for another update on the Low Car Diet. Jeff and I used a Zipcar this weekend to head out to Baltimore County for his friends' wedding. Jeff was feeling very proud of his Zipcar-driver status and wore his new Zipcar shirt (or maybe he was just too lazy to do laundry...).

We picked up the car at home after work and kept it until Sunday when we got back to DC - and that was the tale of the weekend as far as transportation goes!

Jeff and Jen Shleigh!

Two of Jeff's best friends from High School just got married this weekend. The wedding was really nice - at Roop's Mill in semi-rural Maryland - about 30 min. from Baltimore, and the weather was perfect. Jeff was in the wedding - his first time being in a wedding - as a brides-man. Lots of dancing, lots of seeing old friends - it was a really fun wedding!

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Just saw Harry Potter and enjoyed the movie, as I knew I would. The juxtaposition of the life-and-death action with the tween-romance humor was a bit odd, but entertaining. The movie was dark, but that's true to the spirit of the book. Although it makes me think if you'd just seen the first movie and then skipped ahead to this one, it'd be almost unrecognizable as part of the same series. It's an interesting effect that mood of the series changes (grows up maybe?) over the course of the seven books. I thought the editing was well done and the movie was visually awesome, as usual. My cousin, Drew, says that the last book will be split into two movies - I think that's fine - more chance of getting in the details and extending the Harry Potter world for a bit longer.

Actually, thinking about how long the Harry Potter saga has been going on is pretty crazy - I distinctly remember a number of Harry-Potter-related milestones in my life.

I didn't immediately join the Harry Potter craze (the first book was released in 1997). I first read it on a plane ride when my Mom gave it to me, insisting I would like it. I think it was on a plane home from Germany after eleventh grade (July 2001). I know that I finished before getting off the plane, and was completely hooked from that point on. Lucky for me books 1-4 were already available, so I could read them all immediately. (The third was, and still is, my favorite.)

Since then, I've read the first book many times, including out-loud to Paul Colling while working at Marcus Cinemas - it was part of our research in creating promos for the release of the first movie. The movie actually came out during the Thanksgiving weekend of my senior year (Nov. 2001), and me, my mom, Paul, and his Mom, were all in London for the holiday. We saw it hours after arriving in London - at a theater in Piccadilly Circus.

The fifth book came out in June 2003 - I had just finished my freshman year at MIT and was living in Theta Xi for the summer.

The release of the sixth book posed a challenge for me, and I remember it well. It was released on July 16, 2005 - the summer I was living in a village in India. I was determined to get the book, though, so Pooja and I took a trip from the village into Pune, the nearest city. Though we had work to do the next day, I couldn't put it down, read all night, and was just finishing when Pooja woke up in the morning. Pooja, who had never read a Harry Potter book, was intrigued, bought the first book, and became an avid fan.

I also remember reading this particular book because it was just after I'd finished my year studying abroad in Cambridge. Though they hate to hear it (So many tourists, upon seeing the Colleges, exclaim "It's just like Harry Potter!"), all the gowns and old buildings, traditions and formal dinners, are very reminiscent of Cambridge. (Some scenes of the movie are filmed at Oxford University, actually.) I remember coming back from India and staying with Barney for a couple days in London. He gave me his theories on who R.A.B. might be (His theory was proven right when the sixth book came out), and we debated about whether or not Snape was really evil (I turned out to be right on that one). Thinking about Harry Potter is making me feel a bit of nostalgia for my year in England. (And is making me very jealous of Stephanie - who just visited Cambridge and went punting, and of Monica, who lives in England now!)

The seventh and final book came out on July 21, 2007. (Almost exactly two years ago!) It was during the summer when I was transitioning from full time work at Raytheon to begin the Masters program in Space Policy in DC. On Monday, July 23, I would be starting my two-week course on Space Weather at Boston University - a course intended to prepare me for my research job at George Washington University. On the morning of July 22, I flew into Boston and picked up the book in the airport. I remember being extremely paranoid about everyone around me. I was terrified someone would walk by and say, "Oh, I just finished that - can you believe XXX happened?!" or "How far are you - did you get to the part where XXX?" Or what if the people behind me on the plane had read it and they discussed it during take-off or landing, when I'd be imprisoned in my seat by that horrible seat-belt sign? So many disasterous possibilities.

Luckily crisis was averted on the plane, and no spoilers were revealed. Again, unable to put the book down for more than about 15 minutes at a time, I took a cab from the airport to the BU dorm where I'd be staying, and spent the next several hours reading. When I decided I needed sunlight, I went to a nearby Starbucks where I sat outside for another few hours until it started to get dark. Then it was back to the dorm for reading into the wee hours of the morning. Sure, I had red, baggy eyes for my first day of class - the proud and satisfied, red, baggy eyes of someone who'd finished the last Harry Potter book.

So I'm a fan of any effort to stretch out the Harry Potter experience a bit more - the last book is now two movies - great! I'm not asking for some sad, done-for-the-money book additions to the series (and besides, I have faith in J.K. that she'd never even consider it), but the movies have been well-done, and until they're all released, the Harry Potter saga continues. I can't wait!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Low Car Diet - Day 2

Day 2 of Jeff's and my Low Car Diet. I had a pretty normal day (transportation-wise) - walking to work, sharing a cab to the hill with some co-workers.

Jeff worked from home and avoided transportation all together until the evening. He had to get to Baltimore for a wedding rehearsal. This was his first time using zip car since we started. He picked it up around the corner from our house, and had it back just in time to meet his scheduled return time. Unfortunately, there were some people parked in the zipcar spot, but a quick call into the zipcar help line, and he was able to just leave it nearby instead.

So far, so good!


Jeff and I just finished watching season two of Dexter the other day. It's been nominated for an Emmy for Best Drama Series and Michael Hall (Dexter) has been nominated for Best Actor in a drama.

It's an interesting show- the premise is that Dexter, the main character, works as a blood spatter analyst with the Miami Police Department by day, and by night, he's a serial killer - focusing on ridding the city of bad guys that fell through the system. The vigilantism reminded me slightly of Boondock Saints, except that in Dexter, his reason for killing is not because he wants to clean-up the city, it's just because he likes to kill people. Despite that, he's kind of the hero of the show - the one you're cheering for.

Definitely a different premise than I'd seen in the past. It keeps the show interesting and unpredictable. It's a bit creepy - maybe not the best show to watch just before bed - but still fun and sometimes even funny. Overall, I'd recommend checking it out - I'm excited to get started on Season 3!

Apollo 11 Launch - 40th Anniversary!

Forty years ago, today, was the launch of the Apollo 11 Mission - the one that eventually landed the first men on the moon.

You can actually re-live (or for people under 40, like me, live for the first time) the Apollo 11 mission at - the website tracks the mission in real time, showing where it was and playing the radio messages that occurred between mission control and the Apollo 11 capsule. It also has lots of other multimedia - pictures, videos, etc. Definitely check it out.

There are other random things, like this Louis Vitton ad celebrating the lunar landing.

And this ad for Omega watches - "The First and Only Watch Worn on the Moon."

There are also a million (it seems like) articles about Apollo 11. I enjoyed this one by a reporter from the New York Times. He covered the original Apollo 11 mission and describes it all step by step.

I thought this one in BBC was very interesting. It's about how they made the flight computers for the lunar lander - they put in the code by actually weaving wire to create the 1's and 0's. It gives you a bit of the sense of all the people involved in the effort.

There are also many, many articles that go on to ask, "What's next?" Which is a good question. Our current plan is to build new "Constellation System - made up of two new rockets and a new crew vehicle - Ares I, Ares V, and Orion. It will look more like the Mercury or Apollo vehicles, and not like the shuttle. We'd use those to go back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars.

However, Obama created the Augustine Commission whose job is to spend the summer reviewing all of NASA Human Spaceflight, so those plans could change. Should we go back to the Moon, or straight to Mars, or maybe to an asteroid? How quickly can/should we get there?

They're also looking at what to do with the International Space Station (ISS). After 12 years of construction, the football field sized ISS will be completed in 2010. Then, in 2016, the plan is to de-orbit it! Hopefully, there will be support for continuing participation until 2020 or later, so we have more time to actually use this amazing resource we spent so long building.

People never seemed to be that excited about the ISS, but I think it's one of the coolest things NASA has done. There are people LIVING IN SPACE! For months at a time! That's amazing! It's not just a quick trip out and back. It seems like there's so much you could learn from having a permanent outpost in space - to really understand what it's like to stay there. I think it will be exciting when people move off the Earth in bigger groups and start really living in space or on other celestial bodies - to me that's an important part of exploration, and this is the start!

Anyway, you'll probably hear more from me on space things in the next few days - this coming Monday, July 20, is the 40th anniversary of men landing on the moon!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Zipcar - Low Car Diet

Today is Day 1 of the Low Car Diet for Jeff and me! We both applied, and were accepted to take part in this challenge, hosted by Zipcar. The idea is to give up your car for 30 days, and rely only on walking, public transport, and (only when necessary) drive with zipcar.

Before we heard about the Low Car Diet, Jeff and I were debating getting rid of the car altogether. As some people know, we keep our (Jeff's) car parked out at the University of Maryland, where parking costs are lower. That makes using the car a lot more of a hassle, since we have to get it (and/or ourselves) in and out of the city. Add the fact that we don't quite trust the car to make it long distances without breaking down and that it has no airconditioning. Keep in mind that we live and work in downtown DC, with plenty of subway stops, buses, and bikes to get around. So with that reasoning, we decided that it was technically possible to not own a car.

But, being MIT nerds (and in Jeff's case, an economist), Jeff and I wanted to see how it looked in numbers. Here were our basic calculations (all numbers are approximate):

Our Driving Habits:
Weekend Trips: 6 (1 every other month) - These are the driving trips to visit friends and family in New York, go camping, or other similar things
Weekday Trips (4 hours): 24 (2 per month) - Trips like visiting Jeff's friends and family in Baltimore, or heading to a friend's house that's not on the metro
Weekend Trips (4 hours): 24 (2 per month) - Similar to weekday trips - just getting out of the city for an afternoon
*To get to and from work and school we almost always walk, bike, or metro, and this wouldn't change once we have zip car, so those trips aren't included.

Annual Costs of Owning a Car in DC:
Insurance- $800 per person
Gas - $1000
Repairs - $0-$1000+ (You never know when it's going to break down...)
Parking - $200 @ UMD (In the city it's closer to $2400!)
DC Parking Meters/Tickets - $400 (Even when we've tried to follow the rules and move the car every two hours, we've still ended up with tickets... 7 since January!)
Total - $3700 per year

Annual Costs of Transporation if We Don't Own a Car:
Zipcar - $ 2500 - (We'd use this to substitute for most of the trips described above.)
Taxi - $100 (This would take the place of some of the trips to pick people up at the airport, etc.)
Metro - $50 (We already use this quite a bit, and might use it a bit more often if we didn't have a car - trips to Target, for example, where we could take the bikes or metro but in the past gave in and used the car)
Bikes - $0 (The DC Smartbikes are a $40 flat fee to join, and we're already members, so no added cost there!)
Total - $2650

So, by the numbers, it looks like it'd be great!

Throw in these additional benefits:
1. Less driving is better for the environment
2. Zipcars will be much more reliable/newer/nicer cars (and have air conditioning)
3. Walking and biking more will be healthier - daily exercise!
4. By walking and biking, we end up seeing more of the city

...and it seems to be a pretty good decision. The Low Car Diet is the perfect chance to give it a trial run and see how it works in practice. So, for the next 30 days, in addition to all the random things I usually blog about, I'll also be blogging about Jeff's and my public transport experiences from day to day!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MIT Pi Reunion

This past weekend was my MIT Pi Reunion - yep, it's been 3.14 years since I graduated! And, following tradition, the reunion was in Las Vegas.

I'd never been to Las Vegas, so I was pretty excited to see what it was like. Jeff and I stayed at Treasure Island (along with almost all of the other reunion guests), which is right on the strip. We got in Friday evening (after a bit of an ordeal with canceled flights). We met up with Craig and Patrick and had dinner at the buffet. The food was really good, and there were many dessert options, though four was my limit. :) We also saw Monica, Pooja, Janet, Sam, Jess, and lots of others. It was great to see friends that are now spread out all over.

That evening, most of the people at the reunion went to the club in Treasure Island, which was one of the first official events. It had a patio, which was nice, and we watched the "Sirens of TI" show from there. Saw lots of old friends and acquaintances!

On Saturday, we started out with brunch in one of the restaurants at TI and then spent the next few hours in the (super crowded) pool. Definitely the best place to be when it's so hot out.

When it got a little later we went on a walk to see some of the other hotels, but really only got to Mirage, Ceasar's Palace, Paris, and the Bellagio. The hotel tour did include a stop at the Ghiradelli ice cream shop, where a group of us devoured something called "The Volcano."

I also found a Star Trek slot machine! Amazing!

We did see the fountain show at the Bellagio, though, which was pretty cool.

For dinner, a group of us ate at Sensi in the Bellagio - the food was great!

Then it was back to Treasure Island, where we saw "Mystere," a Cirque du Soleil show. It was the first Cirque show I'd ever seen, and I loved it! We spent our last evening exploring more hotels and hanging out with friends.

On our last day, we did more wandering around the strip, seeing New York, New York, MGM, and other places. We stopped at TV City and previewed one of the worst TV shows I've ever seen - some spin-off of Criminal Minds made entirely with people who had never acted before in their lives (or that's what I assume based on the talent level...) Though it's possible I was just tired - the woman sitting next to Jeff said it was the best show she'd ever seen. (I think it's more likely she just doesn't own a television.)

Went out to the Stratosphere, but the ride we wanted to go on was closed. Instead, we spent some time playing $1 Blackjack at the Sahara, and after 1.5 hours, I'd actually made money! It was $3, but it's a start!

Then dinner on the strip, and the whole weekend was over! It went by quickly, but was a lot of fun!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fourth of July

For the Fourth of July weekend Jeff and I headed to Ocean City, MD. Our friends Jen and Jeff Schleigh are getting married next weekend, so they decided to have a combined bachelor/bachelorette party weekend with all their friends at the beach over the 4th.

Schleigh's family has a house on the beach in which we were able to fit all 30 people pretty comfortably. Either way it would have worked out since we spent the majority of our time laying out on the beach.

I love swimming, and we had a chance to enjoy the waves - I even got Jeff to come in the water a couple times. (I just had to explain that when you're playing in the water, you don't get "goosebumps," you get "fun bumps" - they just prove you're having a great time.)

There was lots of sun during the day and fireworks at night - basically, the perfect Fourth of July.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Books and Movies

With all this traveling, I've had a chance to do some reading and see a few movies, including...

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - This is the book we read for our June book club. It had been on the New York Times Bestseller list for a while, and I was curious. I'd read (and enjoyed) Pride and Prejudice before, and I'm always game for a zombie story. Sadly, I wasn't very impressed. It wasn't particularly funny, and the zombie parts were mostly added in places where it had no effect on the story at all (i.e. any time they rode in a carriage, they fought zombies along the way). So it didn't really add entertainment or much of a new twist to the story, except in really superficial ways. I'd say you can probably skip this one and go for the original instead.

The Alchemist - I'd always heard good things about this book before, so when I saw it in a book store in Narita airport, I thought I'd get it. It's a pretty short book - I was able to finish it in the first part of the flight home, but I really enjoyed it. It's about a boy who decides to follow his dream, and not give up just because it seems impossible. It's fun, interesting, and the philosophy is uplifting. I'd definitely recommend this one.

The Duchess - I had actually seen the first half of this movie on a plane a long time ago, and just finished it recently. The movie is supposed to be based on a true story (I think). It was interesting, entertaining, a little sad.

Race to Witch Mountain - I watched this on the plane, but I have to say, it was not the greatest movie I've ever seen. Slightly more interesting just staring at my own feet. Well, maybe not that bad, but it was corny and slow moving. Skip this one and watch the original instead.

He's Just Not That Into You - This was another 'on the plane' movie for me. It was pretty well and was entertaining. I had actually read the book in the past and found it funny and well written. The movie had a lot of the same ideas and themes as the book.

Rachel Getting Married - This movie was as depressing as it seems like it would be from the trailers. Emotionally troubled recovering drug addict comes back for her sister's wedding, selfishly making herself the center of attention at every opportunity and causing emotional difficulty for everyone involved. Anne Hathaway was good in the role, though, quite different than her Princess Diaries beginnings.

For Your Consideration - This is the most recent Christopher Guest movie. Hilarious, of course, though not as good as Best in Show or Mighty Wind. It seemed like there wasn't enough time for the characters to really develop, since there are just sooo many actors.