Weekend Update: Guerilla Drive-In Beta 3; Kieran Downes visits

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My good friend and ex-colleague Kieran Downes drove all the way down from Boston to visit us last weekend, which delighted all members of the family. Kieran had just completed motorcycle safety school, and so we got a chance to go for a couple of motorcycle rides [save file and open in GEarth]. Kieran rode Kate’s Honda CB360T, which is a great bike but kind of cantankerous. Like a skittish pony, it has to be driven firmly and at high RPMs, which is not the “ol’ paint” experience a beginner wants. But Kieran did great, and (despite the lessons taught to us by years of television) did not go zooming off on his very first ride, up off a tilted flatbed ramp and into a truck full of chickens. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Kieran also distinguished himself by bringing homemade chocolate chip cookie dough, which he baked during the Guerilla Drive-In showing of “The Great Escape” on Saturday night, and passed out precisely at the time when Steve McQueen, James Garner, and the other guy give out the moonshine on the fourth of July. Which was pretty damn awesome, with no risk of gin blindness.

The AM Transmitter worked better than I had hoped: we managed to broadcast reasonably clear — and loud — audio through seven or eight radios scattered around the yard, and the surround sound really upped the ante. All we need now is some kind of gas-powered popcorn machine and a way to mount the whole shebang in the sidecar, and we’ll be 100% in business.

Kate has been enjoying the sidecar, and this weekend we’re gonna go buy a new helmet for her. Motorcycle helmets sitting in the garage either develop a kind of pervasive mustiness, or (as is the case with my old Shoei), a sort of Pungent Fratboy Baseball Hat, about which the less said the better. So: new stylish helmets all around!

Weekend Update: Guerilla Drive-In Beta 3; Kieran Downes visits

Google Earth

Holy GOD Google Earth is awesome. It’s like what I imagined The Mysterious Future would be like as a kid. It’s built on top of Keyhole. The nice thing about it is that you can share links to places. So, for example, if you have Google Earth installed, you can just click on the links to see:

If you have nothing to do for the rest of the day — or even if you do — go check it out. Seriously.

PS. You might have to save the .kmz files to your desktop, then double-click and open with Google Earth — it’s not quite as point-and-click as it could (and hopefully will) be soon.

Google Earth

Shotgun update: Weekend of Serious Awesomeness

I’m in the (happy) predicament of having waaay too much going on to be able to come up with anything but a train-wreck of a blog post. Also, I’m going to brag a lot, I should warn you in advance. Okay, here goes:

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My brother Sam and his friend Luke arrived at my dad’s house across the street last week. They drove a white Ford F350 diesel truck with a black “RIP Democracy” ribbon on the back, and unloaded a couple of sport bikes with all the engine badging masked (this kind of “stealth bike” treatment is a dangerous sign that the rider does not ride to be seen, but Means Business. If the monks of the Shaolin temple rode motorcycles, they would likely ride stealthed Ducatis, or Yamahas with panniers made from ammo cans.)

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I mentioned that I was having some trouble mounting my sidecar, and how I was contemplating the construction of a rig to align the toe-in, lean-out, and axle lead. I said this as bait, I admit it. Sam works as a fabricator and a welder; Luke operates a CNC plasma cutter operator, which basically means he uses computers to cut metal with lasers. For fun, they fabricate mountain bikes from scratch. They got in my garage, and my sidecar raised the white flag immediately. Faced with this intimidating array of expertise, recalcitrant clevis bolts meekly submitted to their fate, and castle nuts that I’d forced on in a failed first attempt with blood-slicked fingers and copious profanity spun on as if they’d been freshly cast in a clean room. I wish they’d made it look a little harder, but I’m not going to complain, as I’m suddenly the proud owner of a 1977 BMW R100/7 with a 2000 Velorex 562E sidecar outfit.

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There’s plenty to say about driving a sidecar, which turns out to be a deeply… different experience, but I will skip to the important thing: I am married to a woman who can — gracefully — enter and exit a sidecar while wearing a dress and high heels. I have total confidence that if I were ever fighting with some kind of mustachioed barbarian warlord, and the warlord started to get the better of me, Kate would pop up behind him and bong him on his fur-trimmed cap with a heavy Ming vase. So all in all, I’m continually amazed at how lucky I am(!)

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We drove the outfit to a high-school friend’s wedding, which was beautiful — solemn and joyful in all the right proportions. The bride arrived sitting side-saddle on a chestnut horse with roses braided into its mane, and you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that she totally got away with it. And the finger-food was really good, and we met local friends at the reception, and then we got back to pick up our girly, who had been having a great time at her grandparents’ playing in the sprinkler — Kate beat me to posting the best pictures, so here they are.

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On Sunday, Bob rode his Triumph and I drove my sidecar outfit to the Father’s Day Fest at the American Helicopter Museum just a few miles away from us. The father fest is a ridiculously awesome conglomeration of all kinds of macho hardware: check out, for instance this 1927 Bugatti (driven daily!) parked next to a Boeing Bell Osprey. The last time I went in 2003, I was surprised to be waved onto the runway past the big Navy workhorse helicopters to exhibit my bike, but this time I felt like I belonged in the exhibitor line: I crossed out the “don’t” in the “don’t touch” sign they gave me, and a stream of kids climbed in and out of the hack all afternoon. “Look, a sidecar! (Climb.)” Kate and Lydia met us there, and we had a great time wandering around looking at all the helicopters. (“Look, a helicopter! Climb.)

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Lydia took to the sidecar like a fish to water, though it’ll be years before I feel ready to actually drive safely with her in it (and before there’s a helmet made to fit her,) so for right now it’s just an interestingly-shaped playpen.

Whoo, damn! Blog backlog pressure back down below 100psi again, now.

Update: I did not brag about the cat, who pooped on the carpet this morning. The cat does not get filed under “seriously awesome” this week. I suspect that this is because my litter-cleaning skills are not “seriously awesome” either, so I am on my way home right now to get some fresh litter and awesome up the cat.

Update 2: Also, the compost workshop we went to on Saturday morning was not “seriously awesome” either. Though we do have a black compost container out back, now, subsidized by the State of Pennsylvania, and I’m looking forward to going out there and putting the first bucket of Seriously Awesome lettuce or whatever in it.

Shotgun update: Weekend of Serious Awesomeness

I’m slightly nerd famous this week

The Ultimate Water Gun got listed on über-blog Boing Boing on Thursday night, and is now making the rounds of the other gadget blogs. Gizmodo said that the gun makes you the wearer look like a moron, that I have too much time on my hands, and that the gun is harder to make than it looks. Hey, Gizmodo, I take exception to that — the gun is not harder to make than it looks!

So there’s a small amount of blog activity commenting on the Ultimate Water Gun, which means a brief flurry of photo inquiries from tech magazines. (I’m having my photo taken at Sync Magazine this morning, which will be the very first time that my face will appear in a lad magazine. I’m kind of nervous about it, for a variety of reasons; my previous attempt to get in front of the camera for a technology piece had embarassing results involving ringer calf socks and a Doctor Who hat, which is why I now prefer to use awesome punky models.

Update: I got back from Sync, which is in the Ziff-Davis building around the corner from my office. We walked past the PC Magazine testing lab, which is surrounded by glass and full of server racks and serious-looking men with keys on their belts. The Sync editor and his photographer were very nice. I didn’t even have to wear a tank top or lick an iPod or anything!

I’m slightly nerd famous this week

Cry Havoc! And let slip the, er… finger on the “max bid” button, or something.

I should point out that the whole reason I’ve got this ballistic Fisher-Price jones going on is because of the Fisher-Price garage playset that Kate’s Mom brought up from the basement, freshly scrubbed with environmentally-friendly detergent. (I am not rolling my eyes, here: when I clean something from the basement, it always ends up reeking of ammonia. I’ve been using Windex the way Chris Rock’s dad used Robitussin. So that was good to learn.)

I’m not sure who enjoys the F-P garage more; me or Lydia. Well, actually, I do know; I enjoy it more. Sitting in Kate’s parents’ living room, I’ll crank the elevator to the bottom, Lydia will insert the car, I’ll turn the car right side up, and crank the elevator to the top, at which point the elevator MAGICALLY DECANTS THE CAR and it rolls around the ramp and across the floor, bumping into Lydia’s leg. She smiles politely, and I crank the elevator to the bottom again. No doubt, she thinks she’s working hard to entertain me. But I’m having a great time, and I’m eternally indebted to the Smith Family Time Capsule and Environmentally Friendly Refurbishing Service.

The Fisher-Price Magnificent Half-Tudor Playhouse With Stylish Dinette Set is also in residence next door, and Lydia loves opening the door, putting people in, then closing the door. This is a favorite theme; she also loves to put the animals back in their cages on the circus-animal calliope keyboard thing. I twist the key, and up pops the elephant; Lydia smiles and demurely, politely, but firmly, hinges the elephant back into its white plastic capsule.

There is no reason why I need these.  But DON'T BID AGAINST ME, okay?
So it’s ON, baby. I’m in fully crazed, meme-acquisition mode. I’ve been searching eBay for the Lift ‘N Load playsets, the Adventure People Daredevil Sports plane, the happy houseboat (but only with dinghy!), the insanely cool popup trailer set, you name it.

In a euphoric battle-hazed mist, I bid on – and won – the Stylish Houseboat With Spring Flag, which still has the dinghy. And the captain, to keep us safe from future choking incidents. And I’m bidding on a set of 24 Little People, and my Christmas Present for somebody is already taken care of this year. I admit it, I may be going a little overboard. Sheesh, how can I stay in the black during this oncoming craze? Can we convert old Fisher-Price toys into cellphone caddies?

Cry Havoc! And let slip the, er… finger on the “max bid” button, or something.

It appears I have a weakness

“Master your desires”, counseled the ancient stoic philosophers, “and you won’t be ruled by them.” It’s a seductive philosohpy (and a hypocrical one, usually — most of the stoics were colossal yuppies by today’s standards.) One of the worst side-effects of this point of view is the loathsome feeling of superiority you get when someone gets effusive about a passion you don’t share. My mom likes to tell the story of a tour guide in Leningrad; we were on a Franklin Mint Collector’s Society tour — my dad, as the editor of the Franklin Mint Almanac at the time, was the titular head of the Collector’s Society, and we went on what were really quite fantastic, if rushed, two-week cruises every year — and one septuagenarian collector was going on and on about the Russian desserts to our tour guide, a willowy Natasha type standing balanced in the front of the tour bus. “Oh, I simply can’t resist them! They’re wonderful!”

To which the guide cocked one plucked eyebrow and replied “…it appears you have a weak-ness.”

That phrase, along with its arch, very slightly reproachful delivery, became a family byword. Get too enthusiastic about something stupid, and you were likely to hear from the Russian Tour Guide about it. This is not to say I grew up in an atmosphere of stymied enthusiasm. It’s true that the Baldwin family reveres the iron discipline of my grandmother, who one morning announced to a cigar-smoking salesman in the living room “Oh! I’m glad I’m rid of that filthy habit!” (she had quit just an hour before, and — this is the important bit — never smoked again.) But the Baldwin family also reveres enthusiasm (my uncle Bob can do one hell of a Prospector Pete I-struck-gold dance, when requested), so the Russian Tour Guide quote is meant mostly to poke fun at the speaker’s feeling of knee-jerk superiority, rather than the guide-ee’s effusiveness.

Which is all a torturous way of saying I no longer have one up on those with a Fiestaware jones, any more, as I’ve gone berserk for seventies Fisher-Price toys. I mean, seriously bug-nuts over the stuff.

Why seventies Fisher-Price, particularly? I’m not sure, but I have a couple of bullet points around which to organize my effusiveness.

  • It doesn’t have the cutesy, foreshortened, hydrocephalic styling of the modern stuff. The little seventies figures, plain and unstyled as they are, seem to be representative of actual humans, not the bizarre little homunculi in the modern sets.
  • The seventies styling of the sets. Let me rephrase that: the utterly
    kick-ass seventies
    of the sets.

  • The fact that there are no batteries or buttons. Nothing wrong with buttons, but I think those toys teach causation; they’re not just a blank canvas. Hmm, by that same token a play airport isn’t a blank canvas, you’d need plain wooden blocks for that. Okay, so probably a huge part of the reason is just
  • Nostalgia. Okay, I said it, alright? It appears I have a weakness! My eBay trigger finger is itching! Must! Buy! Houseboat! With spring flag and dinghy!
Reproduced without permission from www.thisoldtoy.com
The snowmobile has a trailer for the dog. Oh lord that’s hip. See all the playsets here.

PS. It turns out that I was only looking at the “Little People” playsets, and that there’s all sorts of other daredevil seventies stuff: “The Adventure People and their Wilderness Patrol“!? Come on, people, I’m not made out of stone!

It appears I have a weakness

The Mexican Forklift Story, Part Two

(This continues a story I started telling in April, 2003, about how I spent a college summer in Reynosa, Mexico helping a well-organized church program build houses. And about our contact there, Rommel Kott. And, eventually, how I got a big dent in my left leg.)

Rommel Kott was, single-handedly, the person who transformed the World Servants experience for me from a staid church-camp summer into a cross between Fear and Loathing and Heart of Darkness. With some Eurythmics Missionary Man thrown in. Though he was born and raised in Reynosa, Rommel was ash-blond, with blue eyes. He was also dating the mayor’s daughter. In the States, that might get you occasional seats at a Kiwanis banquet. In Mexico, that’s more like having control of your own sector of postwar Vienna.

Rommel used his connections to kit us out with portable CB radios that were connected with a central repeater and a cellphone patch. This was 1991, and cellphones still had shoulder straps. Our tiny Yaesu radios had an effective range of five miles, and let us place TELEHPONE CALLS. When we went to the mall in Brownsville, Texas, the security guards came up to me and asked, very respectfully, if I was there in “an official capacity.” Apparently, these radios were Strong Juju, a powerful totem in the land of the paramilitary.

World Servants was so loved down there that the rental agencies gave us maximum upgrades, too — so the head of the project down there paid for a Plymouth Horizon for the summer, but was issued a convertible Datsun 280Z instead. So there we were, wearing our green World Servants T-shirts, driving our hot-rod cars, and carrying some kind of License to Kill CB radios with tiny batteries. “It’s a new day in missions!”, we’d laugh before zooming off to go pick up more roofing nails to put in the trunk of the Z. We were probably insufferable, but it was a hell of a good time feeling like we were the Good Guys, with all the Bad Guy trappings. And good tans.

Now, as mentioned before, at the beginning of each week we’d be bringing tens of thousands of dollars of donated construction materials across the border to build houses. This means that you either have to wade through mountains of red tape and bureacracy, or you bring Rommel along to assure the federales at the border that Everything is Cool. So we’d load the pre-cut lumber into a red, rusty tractor-trailer driven by a laconic man in a cowboy hat named Elvis (pronounced “el-WEESE”), and then Rommel and I would follow it to the border. The federales would come out, resplendent in epaulets, bristly mustaches, braces of pearl-handled pistols (I’m not making this up), and Rommel would hop out and shake a few hands, and in we’d go.

Rommel was our liaison because he was involved with the family relief agency in Reynosa, named DIF. One of his many jobs for DIF (besides getting us waved across the border) was to collect the winnings from the palatial cockfight ring in Reynosa, and then escort them home to make sure they were deposited properly. When the cockfights were on the night before our border crossing, I’d stay at his family’s walled compound the night before, ostensibly to make sure that we got to the border at the same time as the lumber the next day.

The cockfight ring — the palenque — in Reynosa was indescribably awesome, assuming that you can get past the whole chicken deathmatch thing. For one thing, everyone was beautifully dressed. Imagine a huge concentric tier of scaffolding and sawdust, covered with a splintery wooden roof, inhabited by a luminous crowd of beatiful women in spotless clothes and their dates wearing natty, well-cut suits. I mean, you could have filmed a dozen Thin Man movies using extras straight out of that place. There’d be five or ten fights, then fresh sawdust would be spread on the blood-spattered ring, and more beautiful women would come out and dance and sing for intermission. Gorgeous costumes! Exposed midriffs! Tight choreography! The mixture of sex, death, and high production values was dizzying, especially when Rommel took me to a smoke-filled back room where a burly man in a black suit and a green eyeshade (again, I am not making this up) was counting tall stacks of paper money. He asked Rommel in Spanish if I was CIA, and Rommel told him no, that I was a priest. The man blinked, stood up, and shook my hand, then caused a beer to be handed to me.

Given that I was a nineteen-year-old with a long ponytail wearing a black frog-button kung-fu shirt, I think that probably seemed pretty improbable, but given the atmosphere (and six or seven Modelo beers in steel cans), it seemed perfectly natural that they would assume that I was some kind of kung fu assassin for the CIA. Or the Vatican. Hey, I had the radio for it, didn’t I?

(More to come)

The Mexican Forklift Story, Part Two