Soap Stack

If you want to enjoy the small pleasures inherent in using things up — or, alternatively phrased, if you are a cheap bastard who wants to avoid spending any unnecessary buck — it takes some work.

Consider the humble bar of soap.  You use it, and at some point it becomes a thin shard of its former self.  It could still serve its cleaning and lathering purpose, but the mechanics make it difficult.  You can’t really grip it in the normal way, because the pressure of your fingers would break it into even smaller pieces.  If you try to palm it instead, the slippery remnants slide from your hand.  And what to do about the odd-shaped hotel soaps — the ovals, and perfect squares, and little circles, all exotically scented — that you have collected during your travels?  This is why most soap ends its life cycle unhappily, tossed into the trash in frustration or melting into oblivion on the shower floor.

The solution is the soap stack.  Through careful engineering and soap size matching, the cheapskate constructs a multi-bar creation that maintains the bulk and heft necessary to proper soap usage.  It takes patience, and some dry aging, for the soap tails to become welded together into a functional unit, leaving you with a riotously multi-hued object.  But when it works, the result is an immensely satisfying accomplishment for the practitioner of household economy.

Of course, it drives Kish nuts when I do this.

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The Casino Deal

After a stalemate that lasted for months, Penn National Gaming, the City of Columbus, and Franklin County have tentatively agreed to a deal that will end their squabble and allow construction of a west side casino to proceed.

Under the deal, Columbus will kick in $15 million in environmental clean-up and road improvement costs and Penn National will agree to have the casino site annexed into Columbus, which will then benefit from tax revenues and “host city” revenues generated by the casino.  Both parties will pay $2.5 million toward development projects in the west side, and an as-yet-unidentified party is supposed to kick in $11 million to buy the Arena District site where Penn National originally was going to build the casino.  The deadline for getting all of the pieces of the deal inked is June 10, and if that deadline is met Penn National thinks the casino can be completed and open in 2012.

I voted against the constitutional amendment authorizing casinos in Columbus and elsewhere in Ohio because I don’t think Columbus needs a casino.  My side lost, and it became inevitable that a casino would be built.  Since the vote, and the later decision to move the casino to a location in the city’s depressed west side, workers in the construction industry and west side businesses and residents have been looking forward to the jobs that casino construction and operations will provide.  For their sake, I’m glad that a deal has been struck.

Outdoing Indiana Jones

Modern technology is allowing for amazing advances in, of all things, the discovery of sites and artifacts of ancient civilizations.  The most recent example is found in Egypt, where the new field of “space archaeology” — which seems oxymoronic — has produced the discovery of 17 lost pyramids and thousands of previously undiscovered tombs and settlements.

The space archaeologists use space telescopes, powerful cameras, and infra-red imaging to identify materials buried beneath the surface.  Ancient Egyptians built using mud brick, which has a different density than the surrounding soil and allows the outlines of buried structures to be detected.  One use of the technology was applied to make discoveries at the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis, which will forever be recalled by fans of Indiana Jones and Raiders Of The Lost Ark as the home of the Well of Souls and the Ark of the Covenant.

You don’t need a bullwhip, a well-worn hat, and the ability to take a punch to be an archaeologist — a satellite, a camera, and a creative approach to using new technology will do just fine.  And what is really exciting about this development is the potential uses of this technology in Babylon, and Persia, and other sites in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere.  Who knows what other evidence of ancient civilizations will be found buried beneath the sands?

Living On The Edge Of Tornado Alley

Anyone who lives in Tornado Alley cannot help but shudder at the awful death and devastation in Joplin, Missouri, where more than a hundred people are confirmed dead, many others are missing, and huge amounts of property damage has occurred because a king-hell storm took dead aim at the city.  We sympathize with the people of Joplin because we know that what happened there could just as easily happen here.

Columbus, Ohio is at the eastern edge of Tornado Alley, that wide swath of America stretching from Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska across the Midwest to the western edge of the Alleghenies.  In Tornado Alley, severe storms are an inevitable and scary part of the late spring and summer months. You notice the sky growing absurdly, impossibly black.  You watch for the severe storm warnings, with the lurid colors on the Doppler map showing areas where the killer storms are brewing, and you hope and pray that the storms bypass the residential areas and wreak their havoc in some woodlands or an unfortunate farmer’s field.  And typically, the storms do pass by.

So, you tend to become a bit cavalier about the possibility that the awesome power of the storm might find your home or your neighborhood, and you don’t go to the basement or take the other simple precautions that authorities strongly encourage.  I confess that I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t pay much attention to the tornado sirens or severe weather warnings.  But there is a reason why people use weather references as a metaphor for unpredictability.  You just never know what a storm is going to do.  I wonder how many people in Joplin thought this storm was going to be like all of the others they remember, until they realized that it wasn’t going to be like all the others — and by then it was too late?

Have Tooth, Will Travel

Dennis Kucinich, currently a Democratic Representative from Ohio, is getting ready for his next congressional race — which may be in Washington state.  In Ohio, as in other states, redistricting is occurring on the basis of the 2010 Census population figures.  Ohio is going to lose two seats, and apparently one of the seats on the chopping blocks is Kucinich’s district.  As a result, he’s looking for a new place to get elected, and liberal Washington, which is adding a seat, caught his eye.

Kucinich has always been unconventional, from his disastrous days as Cleveland’s “Boy Mayor” in the 1970s to his recent, ill-advised decision to sue the House cafeteria when he purportedly suffered dental damage biting into a veggie wrap at a House cafeteria and then to reach a hasty settlement when he was inundated by bad publicity.  I suppose looking to run in another state is unusual, but in my view if Kucinich runs in Washington it actually exposes him as just another politician.  He’s not really looking to fight for the people of Cleveland, which has been his pitch to date; instead, he just desperately wants to get elected again, even if it is in some faraway state to which he has no meaningful connection.  Like many politicians, he’s convinced that it is crucial that his views are heard on the big stage in Washington, D.C.

It’s pathetic to see former crusaders like Kucinich exposed as office-hungry political hacks, but it is a familiar story.  If Kucinich does seek election in Washington, it will be interesting to see how his tired act is received by voters in the Pacific Northwest.

An Enormous Variance In Gas Prices

This morning we left Vassar and got gas in Poughkeepsie, New York, filling our tank at a downtown station.  Then we drove back to Ohio and, at some exit just east of Akron, topped off the tank again.  The same grade gasoline in Ohio was about 50 cents cheaper than the gas in New York — 50 cents!

I recognize that there can be regional differences in prices for commodities.  In the case of gasoline, the price at the pump can depend on supply routes, competition, proximity to refineries, and a number of other factors.  But half a dollar a gallon seems like a pretty extreme variance to me.

Although I’m sure the difference in per-gallon cost is caused by the various economic factors that affect price, it still made me feel sorry for the people of Poughkeepsie.  They’re living in a struggling area anyway, and now they have to pay far more for fuel than those of us who are lucky enough to live in a state where gasoline is significantly cheaper.  How is Poughkeepsie supposed to get back on its feet if companies that might be considering relocating there have to face such dramatically higher gas costs?

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

The Gran Via avenue in Madrid.

I’ll always remember Madrid as the city where I lost my passport.

The internet cafe where I wrote my previous post was really hot inside, so I took off my money belt and placed it next to the computer monitor. While on my way back to the hostel a few hours later, the realization that my money belt wasn’t wrapped around my stomach struck me like a jolt of electricity. I sprinted back to the internet cafe, but it was already gone.

Inside the money belt was my passport, my Eurail pass (insured, thankfully), and a wad of cash I had withdrawn from an ATM that morning.

So, I saw Madrid from the unique perspective of a panicked, then bitter, tourist. I was only beginning to come to peace with the loss when I left the city three days later.

I spent my first night in Madrid at a police station making a report. I had no hopes that they would find anything, but the report was necessary for getting a new passport and Eurail pass. The next morning I headed to the American embassy to complete the surprisingly quick and inexpensive process of getting a temporary passport. I wasted that afternoon waiting in line at both of Madrid’s train stations in an effort to find someone who could explain the Eurail insurance claim to me.

I finally got back into my traveling groove that evening when I joined Roland at the Prado, where I tried to replace my thoughts of regret, guilt, self-pity, and anger with ones of appreciation for the beauty of art.

Madrid’s art museums, like those of Paris, complement each other by covering different eras of art. The Prado’s collection stops at the beginning of the Impressionist era. It’s most famous as the location of the “black paintings” of Francisco Goya, including The 3rd of May in Madrid and Saturn Devouring His Son. The paintings show Goya’s pessimistic view of human nature, which I was inclined to share after the event of the previous day.

The beautiful courtyard of the Reina Sofia, with a Lichtenstein work.

The next day, Roland and I went to the Reina Sofia, which has paintings from the post-Impressionist era. They have an excellent collection of Picasso’s paintings (probably better than that of the Picasso museum in Barcelona), including the magnificent Guernica, which Roland spent a lot of time sketching. I also saw more of Joan Miro’s works there, and some creepy paintings by Salvador Dali.

In my effort to forget the loss of my passport, I was helped by the classic remedy, beer. After leaving the Reina Sofia, Roland and I went to a restaurant recommended by people we met at the hostel, where they bring you a plate of free greasy Spanish food – chicken, cheese, bread, fried potatoes, etc. – with every 3.50-euro beer. We liked it so much that we went again the next night.

The precious free food that came with our beers.

There was a protest in the Puerta del Sol square near our hostel the entire three days Roland and I were in Madrid. Judging by the conversations we had with participants, and signs we half-understood, it was an expression of the Spanish youth’s dissatisfaction with the government of Spain and its execution of democracy. On our last night in town, we wedged our way into the center of the square, packed with thousands of people. They got everyone there to participate in a moment of silence that lasted a few beautiful minutes. I was impressed that, out of thousands of people, no jerk emerged to ruin it.

The Puerta del Sol protest.

Before leaving the next morning, I made a final effort to recover my money belt from the internet cafe where I lost it. The employee told me it hadn’t turned up. I’d already accepted that I wouldn’t see it again, so I wasn’t disappointed. I was more sad about parting ways with Roland, who took a flight to Amsterdam while I went to Lisbon.

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul