Are You Hanging Up A Stocking On Your Wall?

Being in a different country, I don’t reall get to hear my four favourite Christmas songs on the radio. So here they are; have a Merry Christmas and lots of fun. Apologies to Simon Sweeping The Nation, who should think about visiting here during the festive period to get a break from The Pogues…

He's Back, He's Back In Durham

Okay, so the title is a little out-of-date at this point, but come on, it’s just begging to be used (for those of you who aren’t fans of seminal British indie bands, just shake your head sadly and carry on reading. And for those of you that are, you can most likely do the same).

My first Thanksgiving in America was a bit of a disaster. I’d link back in the blog archive to the posts in 2002 that detail the misery at length, but it seems that I enacted a great deal of self-censorship at that point in time. To sum up, I got thrown out of Carmichael dorm, got assigned a room with six other people in Odum Village, and instead spent the entire weekend in the Computer Science department, sleeping in the Graduate Students’ common room and using their showers every morning. Not fun.

However! My second go-around at Thanksgiving was much better - dinner and a great day with Stacie’s family (plus Thea and Kyle), stopping off to visit some other friends on the way back home (damn, I now really want mac’n’cheese with truffle oil. Stacie, we must do this when I get home!). And all this plus Black Friday.

Black Friday is one of those things that gets America mocked around the world. We’ve all seen the footage; riots in department stores, people getting trampled in order to get to those bargains, having queued all night in freezing temperatures. And tonight, that was going to be us. I was, I think understandably, a little afraid. But it turned out not to be such a horrifying event. Okay, somebody did get pepper-sprayed in Los Angeles. But she was only helping that person have one of her five-a-day, wasn’t she? We, on the other hand, had a leisurely stroll through Wal-Mart, avoiding the insane queues for XBoxes and waltzing out with $5 pillows. We then headed to Target to track down a new phone to replace Stacie’s rapidly dying iPhone 3G. This time we had to queue, but the atmosphere was quite lovely. For once, Americans obeyed the British laws of queuing to the letter (look, I’m at bus stops a lot, and if I may be frank, it seems they just don’t teach that here. So it was quite a surprise!), while Target employees handed out energy bars to everybody in the line. The only odd thing we saw was a girl dressed in a very shiny gold short skirt that seemed to have wandered in from some other climate. Or maybe she was late for Hallowe’en on Franklin Street. We got in, found the phone, and then proceeded to do grocery shopping because that side of the shop was completely deserted. And we found it amusing to do so. Hey, we’d been up a long time at that point!

Anyway, survived Black Friday. Enjoyed being in Durham. Briefly. Back in Los Angeles. Missing the South. Listening to Christmas songs and The Long Blondes. How was your Saturday?

Goodbye Courage

Earlier in the week, sometime around 1am during a weekly workload that would make a junior doctor feel like she’d had a bad week, it hit me that all over the world, millions of people are running my code on their machines. Browsers are downloading JavaScript that I wrote, and it’s doing its job quite well. That’s…a little daunting, actually (especially in light of some of the services I’ve been hitting), but also pretty awesome.

Moving on to more important things: for the past week, I’ve had a copy of Hello Sadness, the new Los Campesinos! album. And it’s quite good. This comes as something of a crushing disappointment. I suppose my problem stems from what the band means to me; they’re likely to be that scary thing - the last new band that I get wrapped up in. The last band that I make sure to visit on every tour. The last band that I sign up for a membership club. The last band that really cuts deep into me. I can remember how Hold on Now, Youngster soundtracked my Quixotic attempt to design, edit, and write a 100-page book in about three days, singing along to Knee Deep at ATP at 3am in the morning (and yes, as it turned out, it was very appropriate). There was the thrill of being at the Electric Ballroom in 2008 where Gareth sang the start of Kenickie’s Millionaire Sweeper as an intro to You’ll Need Those Fingers For Crossing, and there was the time in 2009 where I listened to The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future over 150 times in a week (there was context to that, but yes, it was an odd time). I’m a subscriber to Heat Rash, and heck, I even sent them a box of hand-made chocolates before I left the UK. I am, a fanboy on the level that I haven’t been since I scrawled gushing praise about Johnny Boy, or when I wore glitter and went to Kenickie concerts.

(no pictures exist of the latter events, by the way. THIS IS A GOOD THING.)

My first thought about the new album was that this is Gareth’s record. My second thought was the niggling feeling that something was missing. Something didn’t feel quite right. Given the notoriety over my music collection, it took me three listens for it to whack me over the head - it’s missing Aleks. While Kim Campesinos makes an appearance in The Black Bird, The Dark Slope, most of the female vocals on the album are relegated to backing. This is Gareth’s record.

And so it doesn’t quite work for me - I loved the interplay between Gareth and Aleks on the previous records, bouncing each other, fighting over different sides of the channel, but all of that seems to be gone. To be fair, you can look at the last three albums (we’re dropping the pretense that We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed isn’t an album, right?) and see the progression to this point, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

And yet; perhaps the annoying thing is that I like the album, I really do. Songs About Your Girlfriend is typical Gareth in Straight In At 101 mode, funny whilst being romantically tragic, and yes, I’ve come to love the Hello Sadness chorus. But the back half of the album is only slowly growing on me, unlike the immediate rush of the previous albums.

(also, there’s no brilliant song titles this time around. You have to love a band that can pull of a title like _This Is How You Spell “HAHAHA, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics”) or A Heat Rash in the Shape of The Show Me State; or Letters from Me to Charlotte. The new album can only offer Every Defeat a Divorce (Three Lions) which promises more than it can sadly deliver)

Still, I’m rather upset that I’m not going to be able to see them in DC this week. But I will be seeing All Your Science in my front room, which is exciting all by itself. And I now even have flight details. I’m really leaving here on Friday, if only for a week…

The Orange Juice Diary

As I come to the end of week 3 on my LA Adventure, I have been keeping up my sterling record in blogging. You know, when I was at UNC, I’d feel bad if I missed a single day. Now, this did mean there were an awful lot of entries consisting of a single paragraph, or an assortment of links, but I feel as if I was giving you better value. Apologies.

Life as a consultant has a few quirks, one of which is the issue of expenses. This, at first, seems great. “You’re giving me $50 a day to spend on any food that I want? HELL YES!” After the second week, though, the thought begins to creep in: “I’m eating two large meals a day, and I spend eight hours of the rest of it sitting down typing at a computer. I foresee problems.” At long last, I think I understand why every hotel seems to make a big deal about its gym - it’s not for us tourists, but the scary people who live from hotel to hotel. Yeah, 32 and making that leap. I’m a fast learner.

(not that I’ve ventured into said gym, which is advertised by a large poster stand as soon as you enter my hotel. It’s far too scary.)

Okay, still not a huge amount to report, seeing as how I’ve been mostly at work, or working over the weekends so far. But! There is the tale of turtle racing that I need to relay to you, dear reader. Yes, turtles.

It started one Monday, when my boss and I related the discovery of a bar near to our hotel that made a big deal about how it had turtle races every Thursday. Needless to say, our interest was piqued. How do you race a turtle? How do you tell them apart? What on Earth did it have to do with an Irish pub? We mentioned it to our colleagues at work, and a plan was formed. On Thursday, we would see those turtles race for ourselves.

The night started well enough, listening to somebody at the bar who had heard my British accent and decided that he was going to spend the evening telling me how great Winston Churchill was. That’s not the best way to get on my good side, but I wasn’t particularly looking for an argument against the continued defication of the drunk old sod (there’s an extended disco remix of it in my diatribe against The King’s Speech. I perform it on request!).

At around 9’o’clock, we headed out to the back patio of the bar where the races happen. We started to see how the races would work; there was a set of two circles painted on the tarmac, one inside the other, about 10 feet total in diameter. So it looked like the turtles started in the middle and the winner would be the one who made it to the outer circle first. Simple!

It was supposed to start at 9, but time rattled on, and it wasn’t until almost a quarter-to-ten that the race leaders came out to announce that for the next fifteen minutes you could rent a turtle for $5. A queue of people, from a suprisingly large crowd started lining up to rent theirs. I was a bit perplexed at this; there didn’t seem to be any point, but the queue was quite impressive.

Eventually, the turtles were rented, and we were told the rules. No pointing at the turtles. And they’re serious, charging $10 for a first offense, $20 for a second, and $50 for a third (people got the message that they were serious during the first round, so pointing was at a minimum). Having done that, it was time for the first person to claim their turtle.

And, just like that, the idea of turtle racing was about to change. You see, what I didn’t register when people were queuing was that they were all girls. And as the first girl picked up her turtle, I wondered what was going on, as she exaggerated bending over to place the turtle inside the middle circle. And then she was red-flagged, so she had to do it all over again, conveniently enough moving around so another part of the audience could see her bend over.

Turns out that turtles are not really the draw at Brennan’s. Girls in tight jeans and short skirts, on the other hand, very much so. However, the highlight of the night was probably the people behind us. They had never been before, but within ten minutes had inwardly digested all the rules (girls were made to re-place the turtles if they bent over too fast, or bend their knees, for example) and began haranguing the referees. Two hours later, and yes, I think I ended up seeing a lot more of almost every girl in the audience, including the person who I ended up talking to for most of the evening. That was a little awkward.

Los Angeles is strange.

This Ain't No Country Club

Yes, I’m aware just how much the title dates me. I also worked out today that there’s more distance between Mansun’s Attack of The Grey Lantern and today than there was between it and Hounds of Love. I am old. I have also found myself saying “well, this is nice, but where’s the tune?” in relation to a song. In fairness, the point of a dubstep remix seems to be destroy the original as much as possible in a way that would make Throbbing Gristle proud - which I can respect, but that’s a fair way from it making my iTunes playlists. I shall wear my trousers rolled.

(to add to this digression, even though I haven’t got started yet, I have also got excited buying kitchen things. It’s almost enough to make me pack everything in and join a commune. Or buy a convertible, despite not being able to drive)

Anyway, Los Angeles. I have to say that I couldn’t beat the entrance. Arrived at LAX, and driven in a convertible down the Pacific Coast Highway for a Thai dinner near Venice Beach. Have to say that I felt like one of those rockstar programmers you used to see back in the 80s, before they tried to invent games that cost £50 and didn’t bother with pesky things like VAT returns. Or something out of the dot-com era, for those of you who didn’t grow up with a Sinclair Spectrum.

(I still can’t talk much about the work itself. Though I can probably say that it’s not exactly what I expected)

I’ve been here two weeks now - most of it locked away in offices coding, but I’ve been out and about a bit. The first weekend, I took off to the buses to explore Downtown LA, after explaining to my co-workers that saying “I’m going to use public transport tomorrow!” wasn’t me fishing for a lift, but actually me being excited about going on a bus. Did I mention I’m old? Does it help if I include a metro system in there as well? No? Bobbins.

It turned out that the bus to Downtown let me off right in the cavalcade of tents that is OccupyLA. Being a sympathetic sort (I have little truck with the anarcho-syndicalists and the crazies talking about how 911 was planned by the Government, but the main thrust of income inequality and how banks have been let off lightly after the Crash of 2008, I can definitely get behind), I wandered around the tents, taking a few pictures, and eventually found myself running slap-bang into their planned march. I did what any right-thinking European Socialist Loony Leftie would do, and joined them for a bit.

After leaving the protest behind, I headed to Union Station for the metro to Little Tokyo (amusingly, it took me right back to the road behind the tents. Oops). I have never seen so much pink in my life. Seriously, I think the Sanrio store may have etched pink Hello Kittys onto my retinas. And then there were the anime body pillows. Which will not speak of further, because I cannot and will not process the horror. Oh God, the horror.

Eventually, I found my way back to Marina Del Rey and decided to stay on the bus to visit Venice Beach. I’d been warned a few days before that the beach was something of a let-down, covered in kelp and full of rather nasty smells. Luckily, they must have something of a kelp clean-up, as it seemed pretty pleasant by the time I got there on an earlier Saturday evening, though it was had to push the image of an American Blackpool out of my mind whilst walking down all the tourist shops on the beach front. I did, however, find a street some way back from the beach that reminded me an awful lot of sweet, dear Durham. Or at least a Durham crossed with downtown Raleigh (I know, I know) - it even has its own Motorco equivalent with food trucks!

Sunday was spent visiting Santa Monica and stepping back from the Apple Store after seeing the place overflowing with people, and pop art pictures of Steve Jobs outside, covered in flowers. He truly was Tech’s Diana. Not sure if even I, noted Apple-fanboy, can really get behind the outpouring of grief (and I say this as somebody who shared in a toast to his life the night we heard the news). I’m not entirely sure it’s healthy.

That was the first week in LA. Already, it seems like an age ago…

Surprisingly, Leaving On A Jetplane

Yeah, I’ve been rather bad at this. In my defense, I have a half-written post about my encounter with a trainee barber shop that has been sitting in my dropbox account for almost two weeks. One of these days, I will relate the struggle to come to terms with feeling extremely white and extremely European whilst also getting a hair cut. Heck, it’s probably as worthy as a Guardian Weekend column.

However, I thought you might like a little update. Firstly, I’ve started work. Secondly, I’m sitting in an airport waiting for a flight to California, where I’m likely to be working for the next month. I actually can’t tell you much more than that, due to NDAs, but I can say that it’s a little exciting. And also quite terrifying.

It’s also a bit of an end of an era, as when I come back to Durham, after missing Hallowe’en, the State Fair, and the Stars concert I bought tickets for back in June, I won’t be coming back to Maplewood. By then, Stacie and Thea will have completed the move to our new house, @314trinity. It’s an amazing house - huge rooms, a wonderful kitchen, record players all over the place, plus a ‘back yard’ straight out of The Secret Garden. We look forward to having you all come over and visit. Oh, and the basement is the size of the ground floor of your average British house.

Anyway, time to board. See you in LA.

(though, I have to come back to complain about this radio documentary being shown on the TV screens. I’ve been resisting the urge to start shouting at it - Tony Blackburn had more influence and style than these people, let alone John Peel)

I won’t say that I left my tickets behind in a airport toilet, or that I almost lost my phone as I entered the gate at Charlotte, because that’d just show how nervous I am, right? Yeah, so those never happened. Luckily, in the alternate universe where those events could possibly happen, they were discovered and resolved quickly, with the minimal of oh-my-god-what-have-have-I-done chest pounding. Yes.

Also, I’ve discovered that the hotel I’m staying at looks out onti the Pacific Coast Highway. I’m going to be a PCHer! For a month, anyway. And it wasn’t until I got the confirmation email showing that the hotel is paid through November 11th that I really got hit with the concept that I’m going to be here for quite a while. Time to research those public transport links when I get in, I think.

Highlight of the weekend, though? Being introduced by Brian, the owner of OnlyBurger to the server in his restaurant, telling her about our wedding that her catered. Yeah, OnlyBurger knows us on site. And gives out hugs. Did I mention that we’re awesome? You should totally hang out with us and gain reflected cool.

Updates and Shorter Nights

All I’m saying is that a day after I saw Obama at NC State, I had a job. The man has game.

Yes, a month here in the country, and I’ve already gone to my first Presidential rally. I’m sure many of you expected that. The trip to NC was on short notice; Stacie got the message from NC State last Monday, we queued for a couple of hours to get tickets on Tuesday, and he was there on Wednesday. That’s Government efficiency at its best, I’d say. I’m a cynical, pragmatic political observer, for the most part, but down there at the front, standing about fifteen to twenty metres away from the President of the United States…that was quite something. Hopefully, when the 2012 election starts up in earnest, I’ll be out doing my bit to help him get another four years; everything except voting, as that would probably cause a few problems.

Did I mention that I now have my Green Card? It’s quite space-age; it comes complete with an RFID chip and my photo etched into the back via a laser. That’s where New Labour went wrong with their ID card plan - they should have had Blair hold up a mock-up with a holographic image embedded in it - “look how awesome this is! And shiny! DON’T YOU WANT ONE?”. NO2ID wouldn’t have been able to compete with that, I’m sure.

Oh, and we went to the beach for Brandi and Jonathan’s wedding. It was a bit overcast and colder than in previous days, but the rain held off for the event, and we met some wonderful new people. And slept in a closet.

However, I guess the big news for me is the new job. From next Wednesday, I’ll be working for Open Software Integrators, having passed the interview and coding challenge. And possibly letting them know about my chocolate-making side-project. I am not above confectionery bribery, I assure you. I’m still not entirely sure what the job is going to entail, but I imagine I’ll start finding out next week…

DMV Adventures!

It’s been a bit of a busy week here at Snappish Towers (tower is pushing a bit, but who knows - we’ve already built a new bedroom. Who’s to say that we won’t construct a modernist spire in the next week?). I’ve had job interviews, experience with the infamous DMV, and as I write this, I’m on my way back to Durham on a bus from Washington D.C.. And by the looks of the traffic up ahead, I may be so for the next ten hours.

Anyway, the DMV. Feared and hated by most Americans (one person I know told me that she was trying to gain telekinetic powers so she could alter the expiry date on her licence and not have to go through the torture again. Which seems a little much, but maybe standing out in a lightning storm hoping to gain magical powers will have other benefits), I had to go in order to get a Learner’s Permit. Because, yes, I’m going to try and learn to drive again. My rationale is three-fold:

  • It’s America.
  • Surely, an automatic car is going to be easier than having to use gears?
  • Seriously, it’s America. If you don’t live in New York, you can’t function without one.

So, we went. And we waited. And we waited. And waited some more whilst three different queuing systems slowly counted up, the queue I was in going quite fast until it got to the number right before mine, at which point it stopped moving for about twenty minutes. But eventually, I was called up, filled out and answered the questions (including: “Do you want to register to vote?” / “Er, I probably shouldn’t should I? It would create all kinds of trouble” / “Indeed it would”), and was then told: “Okay, so go over to the terminal and take the test.”

Test?

It turns out that to get a learning permit in North Carolina, you have to take a written test first. It would have been nice to know beforehand. You were allowed to get 5 out of 25 wrong, so I didn’t have to get everything right, but still, all I know about the rules of North Carolina driving is that you drive on the right and you can turn right on red in most cases. And I have not gone into a test without revising for over fifteen years.

As you can imagine, I was a bit nervous. Even more so when I got questions 2-5 wrong. Somehow, I managed to only pick up two more wrong answers on the way to 25, and was handed my temporary Learner’s Permit. Yay me! I have since been out in Stacie’s car, and we survived! That may be less of a feat when you learn that I only went in an empty car park, but hey, I was happy…

The search for a job continues. Last week, I was depressed that I had got rejected from a job where I didn’t even apply (the HR person picked me out of the blue…unbeknowst to the tech team, it sounds like), and there hasn’t been a lot of Sysadmin postings in the past few days. I have, however, had my first face-to-face interview, which seemed to go quite well, though I have the final hurdle of a 48-hour programming challenge to overcome before I go any further. Check back next week, viewers!

DC? It’s still DC.

Surviving an Earthquake and Hurricane (also, chicken & honey)

It sounds rather impressive to say that I’ve lived through both an earthquake and a hurricane this week. In years to come, I can tell people of the terror and the panic. In truth, though, Stacie and I were down at the Eno river during the earthquake, not feeling even a shudder, and the only trial of Irene was the power going out for most of today.

(although, that did mean that I’ve only just starting downloading Doctor Who. So perhaps the ‘terror and panic’ description is somewhat deserved)

Week 2 has been consolidation, learning that I should stay the hell away from eBay until I have a job, and getting downhearted after being rejected from a job. A job that I never even applied for, no less - the HR person contacted me for it, so I shouldn’t feel quite so bad about it, but they had a slide! A SLIDE! It sounded like an xkcd cartoon come to life. I have also started putting a plan together for Fallout Durham chocolates and confections, so expect more news on that front in the next week or two.

And then there’s the food. Firstly - Beasley’s Chicken & Honey, part of Ashley Christensen’s triptych of restaurants and bar in downtown Raleigh (Chuck’s will be a burger joint, and Fox’s being the bar aspect of the venture). Chicken! Honey! Waffles! A great chef! What could go wrong? Well…nothing as such, but it never caught fire, either. The chicken was good, the sides were rather small, but tasty (although I was very disappointed that the mac’n’cheese custard was actually mac’n’cheese, and not, you know, a custard). We left with the feeling that it was good, but there was better chicken at Dame’s Chicken & Waffles in Durham. Cheaper, too, once you add in the sides (quick tip for Dame’s: don’t plan on eating anything else for at least 24 hours. Oh God, the chicken. THE WAFFLES).

However, the real discovery of this week was Broad Street Café. When most of Durham’s eateries seemed to be without power, it was a shelter from the storm. They brought us wonderful wood-fired pizzas with pineapple, coriander and jalapeños, garlic, bacon, and sausage (not all on the one pizza, mind you). We hadn’t eaten in hours. We were debating who was going to be eaten first or have to play board games (strangely, all three of us seemed to prefer being dinner). We drove all over Durham, settling for the Café due to a Groupon deal and not being all that optimistic…how wrong we were. We’ll be going again!

No crazy parties this week, but BBQ tomorrow! And then another interview on Monday…

Kitchen Fear

“If there’s one thing I could never confess, it’s that I can’t dance a single step.”

Here’s the thing: I can’t really cook. Sure, give me a pot of sugar and I can create all sorts of different sweets, but I find proper cooking incredibly intimidating. Normally, this is hidden by virtue by me being alone in the kitchen and not really trying much out of my small comfort zone. But here, that’s not really an option, and I’ve shied away from the kitchen a bit as a result.

(helping Stacie the other day was a slight help, though faced with a peeler, I almost gave up right at the start. However, after ten minutes of flailing, I reversed the direction to compensate for my left hand - one beet at least was peeled without too much awkwardness)

I think what I like about confectionery and chocolatiering is that there’s so much that’s pretty exact. You can be off by a degree or so or a few grams here and there, but there’s temperature curves, times, and precise weights to go by. Heating a pan of sugar to 175˚C, pouring in cream held at a temperature of 60˚C, and bringing the mixture to 125˚C before slabbing describes things enough that I don’t have a problem with it, in total opposition to ‘fry until golden brown.’ Is it your golden brown, or mine? What if I’m not a great judge of colour?

Unfortunately, Shy Kitchen Syndrome cannot be allowed to continue, as although eating out is cheaper here in America, it’s not really affordable when you’re unemployed. And I do have some pasta ideas from Ideas In Food to try out. And I really, really, really want to make the McGee/Chang ramen as featured in the first issue of Lucky Peach. I should have bought the pasta maker instead of the gumball machine, obviously.