Monthly Archives: August 2011

Advice for parents of college freshmen

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A lot of us are sending our kids off to college for the
first time. It’s stressful and exciting all at once, and I think if we just
remember some of what we learned when we went off to school, it can really make
things easier. So here are a few tips:

  • Make sure your student knows how to dial long-distance. If
    they haven’t done it often, it can be confusing. Since direct-dialing means
    sitting in the phone booth with a pile of dimes, it’s best to just show him or
    her how to make an operator-assisted collect call. Yes, collect calls cost more,
    especially if they’re person-to-person, so tell her to make it a
    station-to-station call.
  • When calling your student, understand that he won’t always
    remember to be by the hall phone at the appointed time, or there may be another
    student using the phone. If another student answers, make sure you have your
    student’s room number so the hallmate can easily check if they’re in. If not,
    just ask them to leave a short message on the dry erase board.
  • Mail time is the biggest moment of every student’s day. Even
    a short letter from friends and family is a great way to stay in touch. Every
    now and then, send a sheet of stamps so your student doesn’t run out. If your
    student is particularly homesick, consider a mail subscription to the local
    newspaper – it’ll bring a touch of home into her mailbox every day!
  • Money is always in short supply for students. If your
    student is close by, she may be able to keep a bank account with her home bank,
    but if she’s going across state or out of state, she’ll need a new bank. If
    you’re sending checks, remember they can take a week to 10 days to clear.
  • Care packages are great, but don’t limit yourself to cookies
    and Rice Krispie squares. Kids also need fresh typewriter ribbons and
    Ko-Rec-Type. I know that as a student, I never had enough Ko-Rec-Type, and it’s

Swooning over science

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Charles Proteus Steinmetz, theoretician of alt...

Image via Wikipedia

My old hometown is chasing its tail like a puppy because it has been blessed by a Hollywood visitation. A soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture is being shot in Scotia and Schenectady, and people are understandably excited. (I tend to be more miffed than excited by these things, as the regular residents and commuters of a city are massively inconvenienced for weeks at a time so that Angelina Jolie’s stunt double can hang from one of our collapsing bridges, but I’m well on my way to codgerdom.) However, knowing that the movie will run for about two weeks, and a couple of years after that there’s a good chance no one will even remember who these actors are, I think it’s worth pointing out that for decades, Schenectady attracted real stars, the true geniuses who made our world what it is today, people who are actually deserving of recognition.

We could start with Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the genius who made alternating current what it is today. The one who developed General Electric’s research and development center. The one who suffered from dwarfism, hunchback, and more ailments, escaped from German persecution for his socialist ideals, and became president of the Schenectady school board and city council. It was because of Steinmetz that dozens of other giants of physics and electricity came to visit him right in Schenectady. And they’re all recorded in the sign-in book from the research lab — originally located in Steinmetz’s barn.

Thomas Edison was one, of course. He didn’t visit Schenectady frequently and had opposed research outside of his Menlo Park labs (and his control), but by then the fate of General Electric was well out of the Wizard’s hands. So was Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winner, creator of the most widely used model of the atom, and a pioneer in quantum mechanics. J.J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron and isotopes, and inventor of the mass spectrometer. Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio telegraph. Kunihiko Iwadare, founder of Nippon Electric Co., now known as NEC. Ivan Pavlov, best known for his dogs. Clifford C. Paterson, GE’s research director in the UK.  Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize-winning chemist who also came from Steinmetz’s hometown of Breslau.

Now those are some names to swoon over.

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Wet madness

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In order to commute by bike, I think you need to be at least a little bit mad. With all that previous investment — new shoes, new cleats, new respectable-looking commuting shorts, new rack, new panniers — with all that, I still didn’t have quite enough in the game to really force the issue, to push myself over the economic brink at which I would have to say that I had spent too much NOT to ride to work every time I could. It would take a spectacular gesture, a single stupidly expensive piece of equipment to send me over the edge. And it would have to be something that would answer my final objections, which were that the laptop was slopping around in the panniers I had and was likely to get wet, or banged up, or both.

Enter Arkel’s laptop briefcase pannier. Insanely expensive. Why? Because it’s worth it. I knew I didn’t want to stand around in the rain working the bungees and buckles of the other pannier; Arkel has a single bungee, and a single levered locking system. My old bag would slop about and wouldn’t let me stand up on the pedals without risking catching the bag in the pedals; the Arkel simply doesn’t move. Worried about the laptop bouncing around? It goes in a sleeve and hangs from the top of the bag, instead of resting on the bottom. Worried about rain? I can’t imagine how this fabric would soak through (they give you a sample with your bag and dare you to rip it), but for a reasonable-ish additional fee, they give you a fantastic, bright yellow reflectorized rain cover that wraps nearly around the entire bag. It’s stiff, sturdy, as big as you need it to be, it straps down tight and when it’s off the bike, it looks like a briefcase. And at the price of  $235 with the rain cover, pricey enough that now I have to ride, in order to justify the 78 days of riding the bus that it cost. (Oops.)

So when the forecast this morning said it would be raining in the morning and raining perhaps a little harder on the ride home, I dug out rainpants I haven’t used in years, the wrong raincoat (meant for sport riding, not commuting, and not at all waterproof in a drenching rain), popped on my new little Cat Eye loop lights, and set off. Luckily I know just about every crack in the road, because there was a LOT of rain and the potholes were inundated. Got there, locked up under the portico of the Capitol and walked up to my office. Happily, I had a change of shirt there, because the one I wore was soaked. Coming home, I got even wetter. Seriously wet. Wetter than I’ve ever been, and that includes being submerged. But at least I’d ridden a few pathetic miles more than I would have otherwise.

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Things we learned in Old Forge this year

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Old Forge Hardware Store

  1. There is a gang of mallards that is out to steal from us, and perhaps kill us. They are The Jets, and they are everywhere. We have been stalked, shadowed, harassed and jimmy-jacked (pathwise) by this murderous flock of fowl.
  2. Deer count: way down. Only in the 30s instead of the hundreds, though one of them was so bold that keeping it out of our shelter was almost impossible. (Then it treated us to a display of its ability to keep its own behind clean. Impressive!)
  3. When people are awakened by a bear in their tent, they scream really loud. It sounds nothing like “whoa, bear.”
  4. Mountainman has some paddles that are outrageously sexy, including a canoe paddle that weighs about as much as a marshmallow. We settled for a kayak paddle that weighs about as much as a peanut butter sandwich. And two PFDs. And some water shoes. And a new Camelbak. And some other stuff. . . .
  5. We invented three brilliant new foods: Coffee-flavored Nilla Wafers; coffee-flavored cranberries; coffee-flavored banana chips. Just store ground coffee in a ziploc bag next to a ziploc bag of the other ingredient, and voila!
  6. There is absolutely nothing funny about the name of local electrical contractor BJ Queen. Not even when it’s plastered on any number of passing panel trucks. No even when you’re traveling with teenagers.
  7. We’re going to start a real estate company. We will sell inexpensive vacation homes in the Adirondacks that will happen, for reasons of expense, to be built in drainage ditches. We will call it Last Ditch Real Estate.


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I used to bike commute to a great workplace that had secure bike lockup, a locker room and showers, and a place to store my spare clothes (on hangers!) I may have been a little spoiled. But when I went back to work downtown I committed that once I was settled in and had the right to be a little eccentric, I’d get back to bike commuting. But this time it ain’t so easy, and not just because they’ve made a long detour off the bridge that adds a mile or so, which is no big deal and actually welcome.

No, it’s a pain because:

  • I don’t have a secure, under-cover lockup. There’s a cheesy plastic lumber bike rack (held to the building with a rusty chain). There are similar racks that ARE under roofs at the Capitol, so if I know it’s going to rain I can park my bike there in the dry. And while I have access to the Plaza bike lockup, it’s not only a bit of a walk from my building, there’s no way you can legally ride your bike to the bike lockup. It’s insane, but you have to get onto the Plaza, ride down a garage ramp, then WALK your bike through the concourse to the lockup. 
  • I have to carry my laptop. Partly because I need to take it with me when I’m traveling, and partly because there’s no place to lock it in my office. And bike commuting with a laptop is a pain. It’s too hot to carry something that heavy on my back, and my pannier isn’t really good enough to keep a laptop safe, so I just plunked down an insane amount for a laptop-specific pannier that should be able to handle anything, and has a rain cover to boot.
  • I can’t stand to ride without clipless pedals. (You know, the kind that your shoes clip into. They’re called clipless. Just accept it.) So I had to find some mountain bike shoes that would work with my pedals and yet let me walk through my building like a normal person. Found some great Pearl Izumis that really fit the bill, too.
  • It’s SLOW. Going from my Roubaix back to my upright Bianchi Strada is like going from a sportscar to a tractor trailer. So I have to accept slowness.

However, with all this investment, I get an hour a day in that I wasn’t getting in otherwise. All worth it.

By the way, I ran the numbers, and while riding my bike, even with all this new gear, is cheaper than driving (if I even could — I don’t have parking), the bus is still cheaper than the bike. And it lets me carry my coffee in.