Archives » May, 2003

May 31, 2003

Piper’s Opera House

I had never been inside Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City before tonight. Mr. Piper built two theaters before this one; both of them burned to the ground. The third time turned out to be the charm, since this one has now been standing for over a hundred years. Piper’s was the social hub of Virginia City in its day, seeing all the best actors of the age trod across its stage. Like so many historic buildings, it was neglected for years, and now it’s being fixed up through donations. It looks rather barn-like on the outside, but like most things it’s the inside that counts.

We went there for a rehearsal for Keirra’s ballet class. Saturday night is the big show, again at the Opera House. The building certainly is ratty, and when I ventured up to the balcony and the upper boxes I completely expected to fall right through the floor. I survived, though, and I came away full of wonder with what this theater must have been like during its day. Even now the splendor is still there, if perhaps hidden under a coat of tarnish. It will take more than a few decades of decay to bring this building down. It still puts on its best face for the public, and everywhere there are signs of renovation work being done. It will rise again.

I took the above picture from the balcony. I had to do some work to brighten the image, and it lost a little something along the way. Maybe if I was better with my photo tools I could bring out more of the charm of the theater. I surprised myself, though, by hitting some obscure filter and reworking the picture into this:

Now that’s more like it. You could imagine that being an oil painting or etched in leather, unearthed during an excavation of the basement where it had sat for a hundred years. The true atmosphere of Piper’s will always be the smell of cigars and brandy as the people who got rich off the mines would file in for a night of fine entertainment. That atmosphere is suffused into the woodwork. Now the stage is full of preteen girls hopping around in pink bunny outfits as their uncles take digital pictures of the place. The world may swirl and change around it, but the Opera House remains the same.

And as the visage of Shakespeare peers down from the ceiling, and Mom and kids pile into the minivan and drive down the mountain, I know that lurking, deep within the shadows, are the dim spirits of a past age, waiting patiently for the lights to go down so they can trod across the stage once more. They say that late at night, when you’re wandering the cold streets all alone, you can hear a hollow voice floating on the air, reciting Hamlet’s third soliloquy. Three guesses where it’s coming from.

May 30, 2003

Spring passed us by

Once again, Spring just decided to pass us right by here in Nevada. A couple of weeks ago it was in the low sixties, still coming out of the last clutches of winter. This week summer is in full force, with temperatures in the 90’s. When you get right down to it, we only have two seasons: cold and hot. Sure there are transitional periods between the two, but they’re not really what you could call “spring” and “fall”. They’re just times where it’s a little too hot during the day and a little too cold and night, and then all of a sudden the temperature shoots up 20 degrees and you put your jackets in the closet. And then, at the end of summer, you have a few chilly nights, and then all of a sudden it’s ice cold and back come the jackets.

This is just the way of the desert, I suppose. There is nothing green here that wasn’t brought in from the outside. If you neglect your yard (like we have ours), it just stays this bleak shade of brown all year round. If you water, things grow, but they never really come alive and turn green. Everything’s always a sort of dull, sad green around here, the kind put out by plants that have seen too much sun and not enough rain. The sagebrush is the only native plant to sport any green, and even that has a dull grey tint to it. You can tell the plants are tired of living here, underneath this relentless sun.

Now Washington State—that’s a place that brings out the green. You can tell that the plants there are happy, that they have plenty of water, and plenty of shade. They feel like they belong there, like that’s the kind of place they’d choose to live even if they hadn’t been transplanted. In fact, a lot of them do choose to live there. Here in the desert, do you ever see a tree popping up out of the ground on its own? Nope, they have to be planted by hand or brought in from somewhere else. In Washington, they’re sprouting up all over. See, the trees know what’s good for them. People don’t, apparently, because there are so many of us living here, having the life drained out of us by that unblinking sun. I know I’m trapped here for financial reasons; I can’t imagine why everyone else is here.

What’s my point? I don’t have one really, except that it’s going to be another long summer. Especially if we’ve hit 97 degrees and it’s only May.


Twenty years ago today: Mudslide!!

May 29, 2003

Amazing Start

Okay, I’m letting my inner TV geek shine today. Tonight Series 4 of The Amazing Race starts. I wrote about it at length earlier, so I’ll spare you today. But this is one of the only shows that I actually get excited about, so I’ll just let it happen. And with a wave of truly crappy reality shows washing over us in the past couple of years, we need shows that stand out. The Amazing Race is one that does, that always stays a few levels above the rest, as this article points out.

Like so many of the other reality shows, “Race” shows people the way they behave and misbehave when pressured. But it trades in more than voyeurism and humiliation, also showing what the best of these teams can accomplish with daring, determination and guile.

Pairs aren’t knocked off by arbitrary decision or campfire vote in some trumped-up ritual. They get eliminated by arriving last at the pit stop at the end of each week’s show while they triumph by staying in the rally and actually outdoing their competitors.

Actual competition in a game show. Who would have figured? And if the rumors about its ratings are correct, the show needs all the support and attention it can get. So tune in, tell your friends, and let’s make sure that for once good TV triumphs over bad.

tv_geek_mode = off;

May 28, 2003

Shouting ‘Bout CSS

Simon Willison took the comments that some people had made doubting or dismissing the merits of using clean HTML and CSS for web design, and he did something constructive with it. He started a CSS tutorial series on his weblog, trying to focus on exactly the issues that the detractors had been pointing out. He named it “CSS ain’t Rocket Science”, and he’s been working on it for the last couple of weeks. It’s great to see someone working at something like this, although personally I think I would have taken it out of the blog and given it a separate section on my site. Not everything has to be a blog entry!

But still, he’s done a great job of it. Today he has “Fun with links”, showing how to turn links into buttons. In previous entries he’s explained the box model and redone Dave Winer’s site.

And to all the CSS detractors, there’s one thing I’ve been wanting to shout out from the rooftops for a long time:

CSS style and CSS layout are two different things! Completely, entirely separate! You can use one without the other! Tables and CSS can work together perfectly! Don’t dismiss CSS entirely just because there’s one or two things that are still flaky in one or two browsers!!

Thanks. Had to do it.

Wednesday Doughnut Blues

Every Wednesday the company buys doughnuts for everyone. It’s a great way to keep up morale and have people looking forward to the middle of the week, not just Friday. And the doughnuts always used to come from this little doughnut shop in town, some of the best I’ve tasted. But then, a few months ago, something changed. They started bringing in the Krispy Kremes instead.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Krispy Kremes hot off the line are one of the perfect foods. I still remember when the new store opened in Reno and we waited twenty minutes on line to get some, and then they started bringing around free samples! We went there every weekend for several months after that. But these doughnuts we have at work are a different beast all together. These are cold Krispy Kremes, bought from the supermarket. There is a point in the lifecycle of a Krispy Kreme when the icing starts to coagulate, and the dough stiffens a little bit, and it changes from nature’s miracle into this chewy mass that is barely edible. These are the Krispy Kremes that we get on Wednesday morning. People have said to microwave them, but that doesn’t work. They just get hot and soggy.

Krispy Kremes need to be eaten fresh. Bring back the real doughnuts!

May 26, 2003


Engine No. 8 at the Railroad Museum

The V&T may be running on diesel this weekend, but the State Railroad Museum had their steam engine out and hopping for Memorial Day. It’s not quite as thrilling; at the museum their track just runs around and around in a big circle. But, the kids don’t care. It’s a train. They don’t care where it goes. Keirra took a little convincing, though. The big train was “bugging” her. She wanted to see the little trains. I had to tell her: ain’t no little trains here, sister. They’re all big.

She warmed up to it, though. And having her friend Sara along for the ride made everything better. I still don’t see a career as an engineer in her future, though.

Scott, Viola, Keirra, and Sara.

May 22, 2003

Diesel Up

Golly, sez here in the news-paper that the Virginia & Truckee Rail-Road is gettin’ one a them new-fangled diesel locomotives. Shucks, I can remember when all we had was mules to haul our gold down the mountain, and we did just fine.

The V&T just got a new diesel engine to pull their trains. This choice seems a little puzzling to me, since it seems to take a lot of the romance out of the experience. And for the 99.5% of you that have no idea what the V&T is, lemme explain.

The V&T is Carson City’s historic railroad. It ran up to Virginia City and over to Reno, and was responsible for hauling millions of tons of silver ore out of the Comstock Lode. As the mines ran out, so did the need for the train, and the Virginia City line was shut down in 1938. The whole operation stopped in 1950.

In the late ’70s, millionaire train buff Bob Gray got the idea to reopen the V&T as a tourist railroad. So he bought a couple of steam engines and some rolling stock (not original V&T equipment — most of that belongs to the state museum) and built a few miles of track in Virginia City to run it on. The new route doesn’t even come close to going all the way to Carson City. In fact, it only goes to the next town over, Gold Hill, about three miles away. But it’s a real live, operating steam train, running on the historic right-of-way from a hundred years ago. In a town that would be nothing without the tourist trade, it’s a great way for a family to kill a few hours and take a trip back in time. In fact, there’s a grassroots effort to rebuild the line all the way down to Carson City, and turn the V&T into a huge tourist attraction along the lines of the Skunk Train or the Durango and Silverton, with day trips from Carson up to VC. Bob Gray, if he’s still alive then, I’m sure will be a part of that.

But years of use and slim budgets have taken their toll on the steam engines. I think it was just four or five years ago that they were both completely stripped down and rebuilt, and now they’ve gotten so bad that it has to be done again. But the catch this time is that they’re both being worked on simultaneously. With both engines out of operation, and the summer about to start, Bob Gray was stuck with tourists coming to ride his train, and no train for them to ride on. So he bought (or bartered for) a diesel engine.

Right there, I’ll bet the thrill of the trip is cut in half. I’ve ridden the V&T dozens of times. I had friends who worked on it, so I got free rides. I used to take the trip three or four times a day and hang out with the crew, so I’m probably more familiar with it than most people. The whole romance of riding that train is that it’s being pulled by an actual steam engine. It’s chugging its way up the hill, it’s shooting sparks out of the boiler, it’s filling the tunnel with black smoke, these experiences are the V&T. To take all that away and replace it with a diesel engine is to cut the heart out of the train.

Now, I can see why the choice had to be made. In this day and age, how easy is it to get your hands on a third steam locomotive to add to your collection? This diesel was surplus from the Portola Railroad Museum, and it sounds like both sides got something they wanted out of the deal, so it seems like everyone’s happy. It’s almost petty for me to belittle the decision based on one newspaper article.

But there’s a little part of me that can’t help but wonder how they got into this situation in the first place. How did they let both their steam engines go down at the same time? Usually, when one was down for repair, the other was in full working order. And I think back to what I knew about the railroad in those days I was associated with it. I sat around talking a lot to the engineers and the mechanics who ran it and kept it running. The V&T may have been a lot of things, but well-funded was not one of them. And the one thing I kept hearing over and over about Bob Gray, the owner, was that he was a notorious cheapskate.

There were rumors that in the winter he would strap his skis to his back and hike up the Tahoe ski slopes, just so he didn’t have to shell out the $40 for a lift ticket. He had a little room in the maintenance shop where he would sleep when he was in town, and the workers swore he never washed his sheets. They would write the date, in pencil, on a corner of the sheet, and months later it would still be there. And then there were the cans. Bob Gray loved his aluminum cans, because he could recycle them for money. Behind his back the employees called him the “Can Man”. This guy, supposedly worth millions of dollars, once thanked me three times for dropping off a trash bag full of aluminum cans. A couple of weeks later I went up there again, and he saw me and leaned out of his window and said, “I just wanted to thank you again for those cans.” Here I was, riding on what amounted to a permanent free pass, and he’s eternally grateful for a few pounds of aluminum. The employees used to joke that the money from the cans was the only thing keeping the railroad running. They had one of those wall-mounted can crushers, and someone had written “Restoration Fund” on it with a magic marker.

So, was it the lack of money that lead to both steam engines falling apart at the same time? I don’t know. I haven’t been around the railroad for a few years, so I don’t know what’s going on up there. But I do know that hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists are going to have to ride the historic V&T while being pulled by a diesel locomotive, and I can’t imagine that being too enjoyable.

The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch

Jared Spool: The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch. The days of the big huge site redesign are behind us. More and more site managers are now making incremental adjustments to their sites, changing one section, or one page, at a time. Sometimes these changes are so gradual that the viewers don’t even notice them, and the site can completely change over the course of a few months without anyone really being consciously aware of it. On Monday I said, “This site is slowly trying to morph into a better version of itself.” I guess, when I think about it, that’s what every site on the Web is now doing, in some form. The major redesign will never fully go away, I don’t think (my company’s site just went through one last year), but more often it will be replaced by a series of gradual improvements.

May 21, 2003

Blog Dynamics

Elwyn Jenkins at Microdoc News: Dynamics of a Blogosphere Story. This is a detailed look into the machinery of how stories unfold in BlogLand, the four types of posts, and the different waves the story goes through, with some people writing opinions and other people reacting and others summarizing, and others reacting to the summaries of the opinions. There’s a certain underlying absurdity to it all that gives it a hint of satire even though it’s an honest evaluation of what’s going on. Just read this passage:

Blogosphere stories most often start with an opinion type blog, usually reacting to something in mainstream media. Then, almost within hours several voters point to those original opinions giving either a negative or positive vote. Other opinion writers then add more to the story with reaction posts giving more than just a vote. Reaction posts react to an opinion posts, or to the voters. After sometime, a blogger will summarize what the story is about and draw together some of the opinions, reactions and note the voters. Voters then react to the summary and create another round of voting, reaction and opinion. A story usually ends with an online personality providing a summary of the story, reasonably even-handedly.

That’s so convoluted that you’d think Rube Goldberg had a hand in inventing blogging. And there’s a diagram in the article showing all the interactions that looks like someone put a flowchart in a blender. I have to chuckle because it’s all so funny, and then I realize I have to chuckle at myself because just this morning I was thinking of putting together some kind of summary of the whole Googlewash/Printwash story that Doc’s been talking about this week. So, yes, I’m equally guilty of absurdity. Just pin a giant yellow diamond to my chest and get it over with.