Monday, September 25, 2006

36 hours in College Station

Whatever could have prompted the New York Times to run a travel article about 36 hours in College Station, Texas?

The Times sent travel writer Finn Olaf-Jones and freelance photographer Frank Curry to whoop it up in College Station for a day and a half. What could've been their motive? Perhaps it was a dare: R.W. Apple was hazing the new kids. Mr. Jones has a hard-won reputation as a cheeky Sherpa-following adventure-seeker; he's even written about treks to Everest, travel writing that alienated the touchier of his companions. In fact, one of the leaders of his Everest party, the fellow who attacked him and forced him to abandon the adventure, had a history as a self-styled chemist. So you know this is one rough-and-ready reporter on the travel beat. Not since Hunter S. Thompson hit Vegas has a travelogue gone so far awry.

But, nonetheless, I can almost hear the grumblings in the editorial meeting on 43rd Street:

"You New Media geeks think you're so goddamned rugged: well, then, let's see if you're still singing that tough-guy tune after a day and night in Aggieland."

Base camp? Oxygen? That's no challenge compared to the stark East-Central Texas landscape, a horizon interrupted only by the blocky Texas A&M Oceanography Building and by Lady Bird's highway wildflower plantings. Swimming with the stingrays? That's nothing -- nothing! -- compared to the perils of College Station flora and fauna. You just bite into those "soon-to-be-famous" fried chicken fingers from Layne's: you'll know true peril.

Or maybe Mr. Jones is just an expert on squeezing a peak experience from a brief visit to a small town; after all, he's written another New York Times piece on Solvang, California. If you have the intestinal fortitude to eat pickled herring at the Little Mermaid en route on what is no doubt a much longer journey up Highway 101, then you'll probably survive the trip to College Station.

Did Mr. Jones enjoy his trip? He did offer up gems like, "Don’t miss halftime [of a major sporting event]; you’d have to go to North Korea to match the choreographed pageantry of A&M’s band and corps of cadets." So he had some inkling that those much fetishized Senior Boots are a force to be reckoned with and fresher leather than the annual Folsom Street Fair.

Oddly enough, he sought the high-end bistros -- he dined on chili-crusted crayfish salad -- rather than enjoying the more adventurous (and advisable) local cuisine: Gas station BBQ at Junek's Chevron or the 3 meat plate at C&J. Urp. Doesn't he know the NO PRAWNS rule?

Pity the fool!

Or, as R.W. Apple himself would say, "No matter where the New York Times has sent me -- from Africa to Vietnam to China to Utah to wherever -- there's something to eat."

But in the end, I'm afraid Mr. Jones's College Station was almost unrecognizable to me. No stories about hoofing it over to the graves of Reveilles 1-N by Kyle Field. Reveille is the school's mascot, a Border Collie; past doggies who have served in this role are buried facing the Kyle Field scoreboard. An eternal flame burns graveside in their collective memory.

The current Reveille -- the living one, natch -- accompanies a lucky Corps of Cadets member everywhere he or she goes, including classes. The dog barks, the class walks. And by "walk", I mean the students get up and leave the class, en masse. The dog talks, the Ags and Aglets listen. Faculty should be so lucky.

"Will this be on the test?" the students ask.
"Woof" is all they need to know.


Mr. Jones apparently visited the Dixie Chicken without commenting (either ironically or otherwise) on the fact that those numerous pitchers contain Miller Light. The bar's distinctive odor also escaped his critical notice (perhaps he has no nose?). Nor did he consume a Death Burger as an amuse bouche (which in this case means "digestive padding") for his Miller Light-intensive entertainment. And he did not rub noses with the on-site rattlesnake (one of the few poisonous creatures in the area that seems to be well-contained). In fact, I have the feeling that our Mr. Jones holed up in his comfy lodgings, put some coins in the Magic Fingers, and used the free hi-speed wireless Internet connection to peruse the Chicken's website and phone it in.

I feel sad that he missed so many of the high points of College Station. Loupot's, the bookstore with no books. Instead you can browse the many Aggie gift items and athletic clothing options: maroon mugs, maroon shot glasses, maroon sweatshirts, maroon sweatpants, maroon running shorts with "Aggies" emblazoned across the ass, and maroon Sarge t-shirts. Even golf towels and tees (the towel's a real bargain at only $1.00!). Maroon, maroon, white, and more maroon.

You might also remember Loupot's as the bookstore famous for boarding up the wrong side of the windows when Hurricane Rita was coming to town.

Maroon and white: it's a theme and it's everywhere. Even at the stylish Vineyard Court, particularly apt lodgings that escaped Mr. Jones's notice. Vineyard Court! Where each room has a different Texas A&M related theme with suitable plaque on the door. The Reveille Suite. The Presidential Suite. The George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Suite. The 12th Man Suite.

I've stayed in several different themed rooms at the VC, and I must say, the little touches are killer. In the Reveille Suite, there's a ceramic Reveille on top of the fridge, whose sweet pointy snout is echoed in the line drawing of Reveille on the wall. Doggies everywhere in the Reveille room. The housekeeping staff makes sure the place smells like wet doggie when they freshen up your room.

You can make your Dualie (one of those dual rear wheeled pickups that everyone drives) smell like wet dog too. It's a detailing option at Wolf Pen Creek Carwash.

Tell them, "Make mine smell like eau de Border Collie" when you drop off your Chevy. My colleague John Leggett used to avail himself of that option; I think it made him feel like Laredo, his beloved pup, was perpetually riding shotgun.

Perhaps what we're seeing here is the difference between a travel writer visiting College Station and pretending it's somewhere else (a place with bistros and local wineries, where the locals spend the evenings doin' the Texas Two-Step and the weekends skeet shooting) and a misguided researcher living in College Station and pretending she was only visiting. After all, Lonely Planet Guides don't tell you to investigate the range of Duane Reades while you're in Manhattan. Even at their hippest and most alternative, they want you to go check out the Chelsea Hotel or get your hair braided in Harlem.

And therein lies the fundamental mystery of travel: do you want to see the tarted-up version of the place (all dressed up and nowhere to go) or do you want to lift the bandaid and see the festering boil? Do you want to give your intestinal flora a workout at the Longhorn Tavern (with its plate-covering chicken-fried steak and big ol' wedge of iceberg lettuce doused with bottled dressing) or do you want to eat at one of the nicer (but more transient) eateries where you can close your eyes and imagine you're somewhere else, somewhere that "slow food" evokes something other than your great aunt Bernice who chews every bite exactly 39 times with her new chompers?

At the Longhorn Tavern, I watched a rangy cowboy pour a perfect 3 inch high cone of sugar to cap his iced tea. You won't see that at Square One Bistro.

Don't you want to watch the fellas play dominos at Martin's? They'll look at you like you ain't from around here. Don't you want to debate the wisdom of cancelling Bonfire, now that the fallen have been respectfully memorialized [sic]? Are you afraid they've perished in vain? Don't you want to know about that bakery in Snook that sells fresh homemade kolaches? Or the gas station in Hempstead that sells the homemade sausages?

Shoot. You could even buy some Orthene at the local HEB, find a fire ant mound, pour it on, and watch the li'l devils boil out.

But ultimately we have to ask our friends at the Times:

"Who the heck goes to College Station on their vacation anyway?"

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

it's academic

I was so excited on that April night in 2004, I could scarcely sleep. I put my cell phone under my pillow and an Ativan under my tongue, but I was still ready to leap into action.

Of course, if you sleep with your cell phone under your pillow, you will be disturbed. You'll be calling everyone in your address book as you toss and turn. Pillow dialing is the technical term, the counterpart to pocket dialing. Your friends shout groggily into their cell phones:

"What's wrong, Cathy? What's wrong? Why're you calling me at 3am? Again!"

But there would've been good reason to call them if I had received the call I was expecting. Good reason indeed. You see, I had a pretty good idea that I was on the short list for Pope. I don't know where I first got the idea I was on the short list, but in my mind's myopic eye, I could see myself all in white, waving to an ecstatic crowd, wearing that cool tall mitre and that cool big ol' ring, leaning out over a balcony so the masses could take me in. I'd be speaking Italian. It didn't really bother me that I'd never spoken Italian before: I can rise to an occasion.

Why did I think I was a contender? It just seemed so truthy. I could feel it in my gut. It's time -- high time -- the world had a small nearsighted female Jewish Pope who looks like Truman Capote when she wears a hat (that's the minor downside of the mitre, I'm afraid).

It was like the WMDs: Oh, there was no evidence, but sometimes you just know something. The visualization was simply too vivid to ignore.

So I was waiting for the call. My cell phone was under my pillow, set to both vibrate and the loudest ring (my ring tone? Ave Maria, of course).

Sara'll tell you. She shared my excitement with me on those tense few nights when the old Pope was poping out, when his fuse was growing shorter and shorter. When USA Today was agog with speculation. When the online bookies were running the numbers on it.

My name never hit the media. Of course not. These things are secret. Just like I keep my piety secret. Just like Mr. Bush and Mr. Chaney kept those weapons of mass destruction secret. Sometimes keeping a secret is very important.

When the big press conference convened and the new Pope was announced, I was -- in a word -- crestfallen. Crestfallen is a great word, but I never wanted it to apply to me. Dismayed. Disappointed. Defenestrated.

No, not defenestrated. That means "thrown out of a window." No. Around that time, I was fenestrated, which means "thrown into Windows." That was the alternative to my coronation as Pope, and I was pretty darned sure I was the next Pope, not the next Vista scapegoat.

Italian would come to me quickly. No problem. Bueno. Bueno. It'd spring wholly formed from that strong base of junior high school Spanish. A class I was kicked out of, no doubt because my Spanish sounded too much like Italian. I was ready, ready, ready. Good to go. Ready to wave to the adoring masses from my bulletproof Pope-mobile. Ready to bless. Ready to consider matters both weighty and small.

Important policies would get set in motion. Cardinals heads would be spinning. Birth control? Si, Si!

Now I bet those darned Cardinals are sorry. Not the baseball team -- I'd harbored that confusion myself for many years. No, I mean the College of Cardinals: that august body of men who name the next Pope. I think of them like the Miss America judges, except that they don't pick a runner-up (Miss Georgia in 2006, Monica Pang, whose talent is tap dancing). Tap dancing is an important skill which current and previous Pontiffs sadly lack. Nor do they select a Miss Congeniality (this year, it was Miss Hawaii, Malika Dudley). They just pick the Pope.

Yep. I bet those Cardinals are sorry now that they didn't pick a Miss Congeniality. Nor name me the next Pope.

I can tell you one thing: I wouldn't have become ensnared in an academic argument like Pope Benedict has. I avoid academic arguments. I do. I don't dwell on ancient sources or complicated reasoning. I go with my gut.

And -- unlike Miss America contestants -- one needn't be particularly photogenic. I would've been perfect (except for the hat thing).

The minute you go in for a scholarly argument, you're in for a world of pain.

Look too, at Abdur Chowdhury, who released a small segment of AOL's search logs. 20 million web queries from 650,000 AOL users. Fabulous data.

Now for academic information retrieval researchers, those search logs are just the thing. You can't get data like that unless you work for Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, or ... AOL. They are utterly tempting. The TREC queries are, by contrast, boring and not nearly so realistic. The AOL logs are the real deal.

If you've never worked on this problem, you might wonder why they didn't just take any identifying information off the individual queries. But if you're familiar with information retrieval, you know that reformulation is where the action is. That it's important to know whether the curious mind was satisfied or whether the searcher continued to go through the list, or whether that same searcher gave up and started again, with an additional term. That it's interesting to know whether peoples' queries for medical information are similar to their queries about cars and flat-screen televisions. Whether all these AOL searchers get better at finding things over time. Whether they look for the same thing again and again -- and find it again and again or not.

All interesting academic problems.

But, much like the Pope's recent remarks about the 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, the audience for the AOL data is not academic. (I'm mystified that these reports are so dry, actually, given the potential of the data. I realize that most people don't want to compromise anyone's privacy, yet they're ignoring the vast anonymous entertainment potential of this data. And I'm not suggesting anyone delve into the gnarly netherworlds of porn, but rather just the amazing things people want to know.)

Oh, oh, oh! I just can't resist -- can't stop myself now, can't stop myself ever. Let's see what else AOL subscribers who looked for the Pope were interested in. After all, Pope John Paul died during that data collection period. As you'd suspect, there were 1116 queries about popes. I'm surprised. That's less than .006%. Are AOL subscribers so incurious about religious matters?

Let's see. How about Miss America: are more AOL subscribers interested in Miss America than they are the Pope? Nope. Only 72 of them even thought to seek Miss America.

I'm afraid for Miss America's relevance, given this datum. Of course, the person who looked for "Miss America 1955" also looked for "big brazilian ass", "space shuttles that have blown up", "Red Lobster", "alligator life expectancy", and "Hillary Clinton" while one person who looked for the Pope also looked for "cheerleading skort," "clam shell planter," and "rollerskating rink New Jersey." I wouldn't say our AOL population is incurious; rather I'd say, they are well grounded in popular culture, reptiles, crustaceans, and bivalve reuse. That they exercise regularly and take care of their skin.

This, then, is just the data we need to solve that question that's been kicking around since 1966: Are the Beatles really more popular than Jesus Christ? Well now, let's keep score for a change:

Beatles, 1292 queries
Jesus Christ, 726 queries

So there you have it: this data answers the question. John Lennon was right. Beatles win. (John Lennon himself only rated 193 queries; he had sufficient insight not to push the popularity matter too far. Then too, as you'd expect, porn well outweighs either the Beatles or Jesus in popularity.)

Furthermore, Beatles searchers are interested in high-minded matters like "major Italian fashion designers," while Jesus Christ searchers lean more toward "preteen nude pics", "1962 Fairlane project cars", and "home remedies for lice."

An irresistable gold mine. I'm telling you: I could spend hours using this AOL data to resolve all of the questions that've buzzed around my fevered brain all these years. All the questions that evoke the response:

"It's academic. You'll never be able to find the answer to that corker!"

So Pope Benedict got slammed by Muslims around the world for being academic in front of an academic audience. Abdur Chowdhury got fired by his corporate masters for being academic in front of an academic audience (he'd released the AOL data right before SIGIR, I believe with the laudable -- if somewhat naive -- motive of pushing academic information retrieval research forward).

Me? I'm just being defenestrated for my academic tendencies.

But then again, people who look for Microsoft Windows also look for gorilla masks and sexy grandmas.

The connection between all these things?

It's academic.

Friday, September 15, 2006

cold comfort

Like many other things, having a cold isn't the straightforward business it used to be.

It used to be, the day that your sore throat became an unambiguous harbinger of the snot fest to come, you'd hunker down on the couch, pull a blanket up to your chin, watch the whole day's line-up of game shows and sit-coms (or soap operas, if you expected a lengthy recovery or required more glamour than Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert could deliver), and generally feel sorry for yourself.

It's no accident that Jeopardy contestants were on for at most 5 consecutive days before they became eligible for a return visit in the Tournament of Champions: 5 days was about the longest you could malinger without significant challenge from institutions like schools and employers. 5 days on the couch, drinking Lipton's with plenty of sugar and lemon. Watching the $10,000 Pyramid. F Troop re-runs. Petticoat Junction re-runs. Hogan's Heroes re-runs. Arnold Ziffle and Richard Dawson could bully your immune system into ejecting any run-of-the-mill viruses. Forget about zinc. Forget about vitamin C. Daytime TV is the cure for the common cold.

"Please excuse Catherine's absence. She was ill."

I spent so much time on the couch in junior high school that there was some question as to whether I could take the giant step forward from the miseries of the 7th grade to the even more profound miseries of the 8th grade. But I was, in fact, ill. Quite often. Afflicted with every malady of adolescence. Indolence. Insolence. Zits. Lassitude. Ennui. Fear. Fatness. Frizzies.

Please excuse Catherine's absence. She was ill.

The vagueness of the explanation in my note from home pleased me. Plus my mother wrote it in a script that I can only characterize as Authoritative Adult; it in no way prefigured the friendly zaniness of Comic Sans. The letters were narrow, confident, and at an even slant.

Please excuse Catherine's illness. She was absent.

I had a cold last week. It was no different from not having a cold, except that I felt horrible doing what I normally do. I sat in front of my laptop, periodically touching my forehead with the back of my hand to monitor incipient feverishness. As usual, in spite of the fiery feeling that I perceived quite clearly with the back of my hand, I registered no extra degrees on that most traitorous of measuring devices, the thermometer. It informed me I wasn't nearly as sick as I felt.

No. Really. I felt like shit. But I work at home, which makes home-based malingering almost impossible, because home is where the work is. There's no percentage in having a cold at all.

I knew I was doomed to get this thing too. I was walking at a good clip west on 42nd Street in Manhattan, wondering if fanny packs and t-shirts with faux gemstones would ever go out of style in the Midwest, when I heard a loud AH-CHOO right behind me. The sneezer was close enough that the woman in front of me turned around, looked right at me, and said, "Bless you." I said, "Thanks, but I'm not the one who sneezed."

Right then, I knew I'd catch the anonymous sneezer's cold. I felt like rushing into that horrible Duane Reade on the corner of 42nd and 8th (as if there weren't one on 7th or 41rst) and futilely scanning the shelves for a cold prevention elixir. Anything to stave off the inevitability of this virus.

My initial impulse when I feel a cold coming on is to revert to my strong base of experience from childhood. I could -- in a lightning fit of inspiration -- fill in the sick code on the HRWEB time sheet web page, set my laptop up to look for extraterrestrial life, and curl up on the couch with the cat and the Radio Shack universal TV remote.

The remote, I realized after that initial glow of inspiration subsided, hasn't worked in almost a year. You have to walk up to the TV to change the channel and you have to do it using the channel up and channel down buttons.

Bassmasters > 700 club > This Old House > Anna Nicole Smith > MTV10 > The Cheesy Jewelry Network > Emeril Live > The Biggest Storms of the Last 10 Years > Animal Planet > Senseless Litigation Channel > The Tractor Show > The Model Railroad Network ...

See what I mean?

Worse yet that old staple, game shows, are relegated to the Game Show Network. They don't have the same feeling of cultural centrality that game shows did pre-cable. They have a weird niche-y feeling to them, as if you belong to a small unimportant demographic, one that doesn't even rate support from Girls Gone Wild, one that says the Jeopardy questions out loud. How many Metamucil ads can you watch before you just feel old? What's worse than feeling old, unimportant, and horribly ill?

Naturally my impulse is to medicate this condition: it should be possible to go down to Walgreen's and buy a single product that makes you feel young, important, and healthy.

Haven't I needed to medicate myself for this condition before? I should think so. I should check the medicine cabinet first.

When I climb on the tub's edge -- careful not to fall on top of the African Mask plants and orchids that live in the bathtub -- and peer into the depths of my bathroom cabinet, I am reminded of past medication failures. Alka Seltzer Plus Nighttime (which causes me to awaken at 2am with my heart racing and my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth); Alka Seltzer Plus Daytime (which makes my scalp prickle and my skin crawl); Sudafed (which makes the Walgreen's clerk think I'm running a meth lab at home); Waltussin (which causes ketamine-like auditory hallucinations if you treat the whole bottle like a robo-tini, but does diddly for your cold symptoms); Wal-itin (which seems to be a straightforward placebo that you dissolve under your tongue so that the placebo effect is achieved fast, fast, fast); and Pepto Bismol (just in case you choose your medicine strictly on the basis of color).

Ick. Probably a swig of Neutrogena shampoo (which causes a severe and ostracizing case of dandruff) would have a more constructive effect. At least the hair that has sprouted on my tongue would be shiny and manageable.

No game shows worth watching. No medication worth swilling. I can only sit and work like I usually do.

But wait! The cat will cheer me up. Aren't companion animals supposed to cure what ails you? Lower your blood pressure. Clear up that case of psoriasis. Make wounds heal more quickly. Sharpen your mental acuity. Yep. Nothing like a companion animal when you're sick.

Lumpy decided to cheer me up by accelerating his catch-and-release program. His catch-and-release program ensures that our house is stocked with half-dead, grimly wounded wildlife. That way, if he's bored -- or you're bored, or the weather's not so nice, or it's late at night -- he can hunt down prey in the comfort of the bedroom, kitchen, or living room. Once I looked up to see a little mousie treed in Harvey the ficus's upper branches. Another time, a rodent expired behind the refrigerator, causing an increasingly suspicious odor of decay. We ignored it until it became undeniable (and the mouse had liquefied).

This time, since I felt so lousy, The Lump felt he should pull out all the stops.

What creature is so identified with urban settings that it makes you feel like it represents all the city has to give? What creature is so beloved that patents have been issued for special devices to keep it away from your house? What creature unites the mentally ill, the marginal, the homeless, the frothing angry, and the little old lady with her bag of two-week-old bread crumbs? What creature can rain from the sky at opportune moments? The humble pigeon: that's what! Who doesn't love to kick a pigeon?

Lumpy brought the live bird over to my chair and dropped it at my feet (presumably so I could kick it), leaving a small trail of blood droplets all the way from his cat door, up the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the dining room, where I was sitting at my laptop, much as I am right now. Much as I always am, in fact.

"Here," he said, dumping the struggling bird at my feet. "This'll cheer you up."

The bird caromed wildly off the ceilings, floors, walls, chairs, tables, couches -- bouncing everywhere except through the screenless windows I'd opened in a hurry once I stopped screaming at the cat. Every horizontal surface, every vertical surface, formed a backboard for the startled bird. It left behind a small smudge of blood every time it hit something. A flurry of feathers wafted in the air behind it.

My throat hurt. A frightened pigeon is very possibly less helpful for a full and speedy recovery than even, say, Waltussin, Wal-o-fed, or bright pink Pepto-Bismol.

If an animal is going to be a successful participant in Lumpy's catch-and-release program, it has to be lively, capable of scuffling in the middle of the night.

This pigeon was plenty darned lively. I grabbed the cat around his substantial midsection, shuttled him downstairs, and closed us both in the garage.

"You and I are going to wait here," I told him darkly, "until your little feathered friend can find his way out into the wild blue yonder. Okay?"

He yowled at the door in fervent disagreement.

I felt my forehead again. Surely now I was feverish, what with all gusts of cold air and pigeon feathers I'd been exposed to. Heckuva way to have a cold. The pigs and I should be watching Match Game '77. The cat should be settled in my lap on top of the fleecy blanket and I should have a steaming mug of ginger tea to drink. The windows should be shut against drafts and stray yellowjackets.

There should be an upside to having a goddamned cold. You can't expect sympathy (and, actually you don't deserve sympathy) when you have a cold. But you might as well be comfortable and pleasantly buffered by TV, a nice warm cat, and some consciousness-numbing cold medicine.

Instead Lumpy and I hung around in the garage, both wondering -- for our own various reasons -- what had happened to the dumb bird.

As it turned out, the pigeon was playing dead under the TV, as I myself often do. So using nothing but a bath towel and a pair of rubber gloves -- and how many stunts can be performed with nothing but a bath towel and a pair of rubber gloves? -- Mark dispatched the pigeon into the evening. It seemed prone to bump into things (since pigeons are not night birds), but I like to think it escaped with much of its blood and feathers, although I doubt it was smart enough to have a story to tell down at The Peaks, the Noe Valley dive bar that seemed to be its logical terminus.

And if it didn't make it far, at least it was a meal for the yellowjackets, who are, after all, meat bees. It'll stave off their hunger so they don't come looking for us.

I've since recovered from my cold, having decided that having a cold isn't what it used to be. And Lumpy -- he's discovered he has a taste for mouse brains; don't ask me what it feels like to be awakened from a dead sleep by the sound of a cat chomping on a mouse skull. I might tell you.

And next time someone sneezes on me on 42nd Street, I'm going to spray myself tip to toe with Lysol. Remind me not to stay in Midtown again.