Friday, May 05, 2006

I am what I am

Whoops! Remind me not to post anonymously on the Web. Actually, I have always posted on computer networks using my full, real name. That was true long before I was a professional journalist with something resembling a reputation to think of. In fact, that was true before there was even a World Wide Web as such.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Funny men

Reports to the contrary notwithstanding, Stephen Colbert's address to the White House correspondents' dinner last Saturday was indeed funny.

But amid the hoopla over the speech, one criticism has emerged that I happen to agree with: Colbert's studio audiences are insufferable. His amusing show on Comedy Central, "The Colbert Report," is marred by the ecstatic whoops of an audience that sounds a lot like the whooping studio audiences at tapings of "The Daily Show." The effect is like that of a grating sitcom laugh track; off-camera, do the spectators make the hand gesture from the old Arsenio Hall show? Those audiences are the main reason I don't routinely tune in to either show.

But I religiously watch MSNBC's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann," which features satire as scathing as Colbert's or Stewart's. (When discussing his feuding partner Bill O'Reilly, Olbermann sometimes shows an image of steaming falafel behind him, with no explanation.) But "Countdown" is also a real live news show, and Olbermann has the resources of a network news division at his disposal.

And there is no studio audience. When Olbermann cracks jokes, the only response you hear is the quiet giggling of his staff. Which somehow makes the jokes funnier, to these ears.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Good word

"Her hands are calloused, but her heart is tender."

-- The Bellamy Brothers, "Redneck Girl"

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Sunday at St. Andrew's Episcopal church on Regent Street, the Rt. Rev. Steven Miller, bishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee, put his hands on my head and, uttering the magic words, made me an Episcopalian. A moment later he did the same over my loving boyfriend Ereck.

And that, after a year or so of testing the waters, was that!

Our parish actually is Grace Episcopal on the Capitol Square, but apparently the bishop is consolidating his visits these days.

Monday, May 01, 2006

From the front

Go here to read the reports of Isthmus staffers, including moi, who read at the literacy event last week.
Junior scientist

Over on the Daily Page forum they are talking about favorite childhood toys. There was a brief interlude about those electronic hobby kits RadioShack sells, which let budding electrical engineers hook up springs with wires and thereby make lights flash on and off.

I had one of these when I was a kid, but I confess I really didn't understand it. That also was true of the chemistry set, and the BASIC interpreter built into my Commodore 64.

I wanted to understand all these things -- electronics, science, software programming -- and hands-on experience surely would have helped. But those kits can lead kids astray. Take my old chemistry set: Yes, I used it to mix powders and make fluids change color. But I didn't learn much about chemistry. Later, I took advanced placement chemistry in high school partly because of my memories of that set, which raised false expectations with the photographs on its very box. These showed bright-eyed youths looking awed as they made fluids change color. Imagine my surprise when I learned that chemistry is less about mixing potions and more about doing math. Lots and lots of math. And math, unfortunately, was never my strong suit. So much for chemistry.

Likewise software programming. As a child I was deeply moved by science-fiction films like Tron, WarGames and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, wherein computers are used to perform dazzling, magical feats. But then I tried programming on my own, on a succession of 1980s home computers, and I found it, well, tedious. And I never much saw the point.

Seeds were planted, though: My first job out of college was in computer programming, and I did that for a number of years. I found the work appealing -- if, yes, tedious. (Debugging code, oy.) But it's worth noting that when I programmed professionally, nothing particularly dazzling or magical occured; I did not get zapped into the Tron world. Instead I built database applications for various clients.

All of which is to say: It is good for children to be inspired to go into scientific or technical work, and if kits get kids started down a productive path, then wonderful. But this work, like so much work, requires concentration and discipline, and learning how to do it may even be boring. That doesn't come across in the photographs on the boxes.

Which brings me back to the electronics kits at RadioShack. Inspired by that discussion on the forum, and racked by nostalgic thoughts of the kit I had 25 years ago and didn't understand, I went to RadioShack and picked up this: the Electronics Learning Lab, as designed by one Forrest M. Mims III.

Some Web research reveals that Mims is a creationist and a conspiracy theorist; that also is not on the box! His manuals for the Electronics Learning Lab have a kind of beauty, though. They are hand-lettered and dense, and come to think of it, they're really not for kids. So I shouldn't feel bad that 11-year-old me somehow failed to grok.

Regardless, I spent the bulk of Sunday afternoon hooking up springs with wires and making lights flash on and off. And I studied, really studied, those circuit diagrams, and began to get glimpses of what this is all about.

And I felt happy. Weirdly satisfied and happy. How nice to revisit an old source of bafflement and find it, well, manageable.