Monday, February 28, 2011

Day 28: Thank you everyone!

Cost: $30, plus postage
Difficulty: 7
Time: 15 hours

For the final day of February, I decided to unplug the cable modem, turn off my phone, and spend the day writing thank you letters to some of the people who made my month fun, different, and invigorating.

I have not written a personal letter in years, not since social networks and email became ubiquitous. But I have a shoebox full of letters from my college years. These represent tangible memories in a way an email cannot.

My handwriting skills were never good to begin with and have since atrophied to the point that even a single, legible page of writing leaves a painful welt on my middle finger. Writing letters to everyone I wanted to would be impossible.

I settled on the next best thing: personal letters lovingly hammered out on my mother's old Smith-Corona Skywriter. It's old enough to have personality. The Caps drop slightly below the baseline. The "z" and the "w" have become good friends, almost inseparable. There's no exclamation point, but there's a "cents" key.

I had already purchased 50 half-sheets of paper with a color and texture I liked from Bob Slate's in Harvard Square. When I had written something unsalvageable, crumpling them up felt good. I subsequently learned that the makers of the paper, Crane & Co. of Dalton, MA., have a particular claim to fame: they make (most of) the paper that US currency is printed on.

I spent over 15 hours from 8:30 to nearly midnight typing, with a few breaks for meals and to rest my wrists. The style of the letters changed throughout the day; more stoic and formal early, then personal and open in the afternoon as I loosened up, and finally punchy and misspelled in the evening after a few glasses of wine and fatigue had set in.

In total, I wrote 30 letters, 35 pages total, to 33 different people. I threw out 15 sheets. I estimate that I typed between 3-4,000 words (including re-writes).

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Day 27: Bowling & Mount Auburn

My friend Keith graciously allowed me to win the first game.
Cost: $10
Difficulty: 4
Time: 90 minutes

As a native New Englander, my experience with bowling was limited to what is called "candlepin." Probably most people are more familiar with what I call "Big Ball Bowling," or more commonly "Ten Pin" or just plain "bowling."

Ten pin, despite its large, unwieldy balls is actually easier than candlepin. My very first game of ten pin beat my best candlepin score by almost 30 points. While a perfect game (score of 300) is an incredible feat in ten pen and earns you serious bragging rights, there is no known occurrence of it in candlepin.

While ten pin bowling was definitely "different" for me, I decided to do a double-header this day and go to Mount Auburn cemetery.

Cost: Free
Difficulty: 1
Time: 45 minutes

Throughout the month I've had a "safety": a thing I planned to do if I failed to do anything else different for some reason. With the month almost complete and no missed days, I decided to tack it onto Day 27.

I'd been to Mount Auburn cemetery in every season but Winter. Now I can say that it's a stunningly beautiful place year round. Vibrant and colorful in Spring. Tranquilly verdant in Summer. Gorgeous in Autumn. Quiet and solemn in Winter, particularly after a fresh snow.

I liked that this solemn statue seemed to enjoying some soft-serve ice cream.
I came across a red-tailed hawk feasting on a fresh kill before a gravestone in this symbolism-laden scene.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Day 26: Learning basic American Sign Language with Haben

Haben reading my sign for "S". 
Cost: Lunch
Difficulty: 3
Time: 90 minutes

This was a really cool day in a couple ways. I met Haben, at Raquel's dinner party, who I met at Constantine's fancy dress party. It was an improbable chain of chance that wouldn't have happened if a lot of different things hadn't come together just so. We grabbed lunch at an Eritrean restaurant (also different) in Central Square with her boyfriend Gordon and her seeing-eye dog, Maxine.

Haben is partially blind and deaf-- she can hear if there's low background noise and she can see rough shapes with high contrast. At Raquel's party she couldn't hear me (she can hear voices in the higher register better than lower voices) but luckily at the restaurant she could hear me okay, which made the ASL lesson smoother.

She taught me "letter-signing" which is not full ASL, but the spelling out of English words using the ASL alphabet, reading my signs by touch. It's a real cool way to communicate and I'd like to learn more "full" ASL. I have a fantasy where my friends and I can all sign and we can talk across noisy bars and clubs. That would be SO COOL!

Besides signing and Haben's studies at Harvard Law, we talked about her seeing-eye dog, Maxine. I've always wondered if they knew that they were "special" with respect to other dogs. Yes, I learned from Haben, Maxine does know she's more important than other dogs and may have a bit of an ego. She's quite friendly and doesn't mind being pet, but as a general rule you should always ask the owner before petting a service dog. Some owners prefer their dogs not be pet when their "working."

Maxine, the gorgeous seeing-eye dog.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Day 25: Glass firing class at Diablo

Cost: $75
Difficulty: 4
Time: 3 hours

During the month, someone suggested "glass blowing." Google found a glass blowing school in Boston, Diablo, which had introductory classes / wine-tasting on Friday nights.

In this class we learned the basics of glass making and each made a glass paperweight, which was accomplished by:

  1. Gathering a small blob of molten glass around the end of a long metal pipe, about twice the size of a fist.
  2. Pressing the glass into heaps of small colored glass pebbles which partially melted on contact with the blob.
  3. While turning the rod to keep the glass together, teasing the glass with a pair of tongs to create interesting patterns. 
  4. Once the pattern was created, pinching the glass to create a neckline, then breaking the glass from the rod at the neckline.
  5. Remelting the break point and flattening it to create the bottom of the paperweight. 
  6. Leaving the paperweight in an oven to cool.
Step 6 seems strange. To demonstrate its purpose, our instructor left a glass blob to cool on the floor in one corner of the room. A few minutes later it exploded as the uneven cooling created stress fractures throughout the glass. Slowly cooling in an over allowed the stress to be released gradually.

To keep the glass hot while working on it, we would periodically reheat it in a crucible they called a "glory hole." Please trust me that's what it's called and do not Google that term.

Working with molten glass is slightly unnerving. Your hands are less than a foot from molten glass that's somewhere north of 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. That glass isn't orange, it's glowing.

This is what it looked like after cooling. It's a slightly asymmetric teardrop and I love it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Day 24: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Poker

Cost: $5
Difficulty: 3
Time: 2 hours

Day 24 was the least planned of my 28 days. I woke up with the vague idea that I'd go indoor rock climbing, something I hadn't done since college. I called a rock climbing place in Dedham, they said just come by and they'd show me how to self-belay and climb.

After hanging-up, I immediately thought, "That's not it. Find something else." So I went to and saw that there was a Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament with a $5 entry free at PA's Lounge in Somerville. Obviously this was Fate speaking to me: I was to go to this and win.

I arrived a half-hour early to register under my deceptive nom de guerre, "Always Plays Scissors." In the pre-game socializing I met "Flaming Bag Head" who had previously achieved mild celebrity status by playing while wearing a paper bag that appeared to be on fire. The costume was impressively realistic: in low lighting, it actually appeared to be on fire.

You know the basic rules: rock crushes scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock. From an abstract game-theory perspective, it should be a game of chance. In real face-to-face play there's the opportunity to introduce elements of human psychology into the mix.

My goal of winning the tournament hit a snag when I was eliminated in the first round by the guy who later went on to win the tournament. I was like that first guy Daniel Larusso beat in the tournament in the Karate Kid.

Flaming Bag Head did much better than I. Here he is eliminating his wife from the competition:

Flaming Bag Head (actual name Owen) invited me to join him after in a home poker tournament in East Boston. I, mostly through dumb luck, managed to win the tournament and $220. So Fate had come through, making this the only day of the month in which I gained money.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Day 23: Science! with Richie Kohman

Richie's lab actually looks very science-y with microscopes and everything.
Cost: Free
Difficulty: 4 (due to some squeamish mouse brain surgery)
Time: 3 hours

If you've read more than a few days of my posts, you'll have noticed Richie appears in a lot of them. Day 23 was his idea: have me come in and watch him work.

Richie is an organic chemist doing some very interesting research in neuroscience. Brains are massive networks of neurons communicating with electro-chemical impulses. Scientists have known for over two hundred years that electricity could be used to stimulate regions of the brain and produce a response. More recently, techniques have been developed that allow the recording of electrical brain activity.

There's a difficulty in combining these techniques: the electrical signal used to stimulate the brain will also be picked up by sensors trying to record the brains activity.

Researchers have recently begun experimenting with using light to stimulate the brain. Normally, brain cells do not respond to light. But by introducing a virus that activates certain genes, specific cells can be told to respond to the presence of light. They can even be programmed to only respond to particular colors of light.

The theoretical advantage of this is two-fold: one, light doesn't interfere with attempts to record electrical impulses and two, having cells differentiate between colors of light allows researchers to simulate them separately. Shining a green light to increase arousal or a blue light to induce sleepiness, for example.

The practical goal of this is to improve our understanding of how the brain works and develop treatments for neurological disorders such as Parkinsons, other degenerative conditions, and possibly other ailments such as paralysis or blindness. Treatments using light techniques are still a long way off-- work in Richie's lab has so far been limited to experiments on mice.

Me, playing with the laser fiber optics that are used to stimulate the mice's brains.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Day 22: Poetry Slam with James Caroline

Cost: Free
Difficulty: 1
Time: 90 minutes

I've had a love-hate relationship with poetry for a long time. In high school I was the president of our creative writing club and encountered some severely bad poetry that other kids wrote. My major in college was literature and I studied poetry. I took creative writing and poetry composition classes in which I wrote severely bad poetry.

After college I decided poetry wasn't for me. I still have a fondness for Coleridge and Yeats, but in general remained indifferent to poetry as an art form.

My friend Jamie was the featured poet at a poetry reading/slam at the Berklee College of music so I decided to tag along.

I was very impressed; many of the students wrote poetry that felt was good to excellent and presented it with focused delivery. But Jamie really blew me away. His delivery was so passionate and intense that he could have been reading a bar menu and it would have been captivating.

Have you ever been at a concert and watched some musician create some incredible music on the piano or guitar and thought, "I wish I could do that"? Jamie inspired that jealous fantasy for me.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Day 21: Walk the Freedom Trail

Cost: Free
Difficulty: 2
Time: 2 hours

Leo suggested this one. It's the sort of thing you do if friends come in from out of town and want to take in Boston's historical sights, but I've never done it before. You start downtown in Boston Common and follow a red line to various famous historical landmarks such as the State House, the Granary Burial Ground, site of the Boston Massacre, etc.

Most of these were closed on the day of our visit because it was Presidents' Day, which was fine because we were walking Jess & Leo's dog, Shauners who wouldn't have been allowed in.

The trail eventually makes its way across the river into Charlestown, somewhat more gentrified and somewhat less of an impenetrable criminal fortress than The Town might lead you to believe.

Shauners and Leo from a top Breed's Hill, which is where you'll find the Bunker Hill Monument. Behind them is a statue of William Prescott who allegedly uttered the famous, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!" quote.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Day 20: Rollerskating

Some of my awesome friends who came out to roller skate with me.
Cost: $10 ($7 admission + $3 skate rental)
Difficulty: 3 if you haven't skated in a while.
Time: 3 hours

Rollerskating was a collaborative suggestion: I think Blythe first suggested the idea, Amy seconded the motion and Jussi locked down the time & place: Rollerkingdom in Tyngsboro has adult skate on Sunday nights so we wouldn't have to worry about crushing kids with our ineptitude.

They played a mix of modern pop hits and some appropriately old-school disco hits. Besides roller skating, there's arcade games, terrible pizza and ice hockey.

And furries.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Day 19: Trapeze Lessons

Me, doing a backwards somersault dismount.

Cost: $55
Time: 2 hours
Difficulty: 5

Jessica Sun Lee was one of the first people to suggest a definitive idea for the 28 days. She had always wanted to take trapeze lessons and that was definitely different.

The Trapeze School of New York has a Boston chapter (confusingly located in Reading) that operates within a Jordans Furniture store. If you're not familiar with Jordans it's a furniture store with a carnival like atmosphere: some have IMAX theaters in them, some have rides, etc. The reading one has a trapeze school next to a jellybean store.

We took a two hour lesson and it was incredible. You get to swing from the high trapeze within fifteen minutes of the class starting and on your first swing you will probably do an upside-down knee hang. By your second you can do backwards somersaults (you're partially supported by a safety harness which makes this maneuver easier). At the end of the class you get two tries to "catch" with an instructor.

Video of Jessica performing the knee hang and somersault dismount.

Jessica being caught by an instructor.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Day 18: Dinner Party with Strangers

Dinner party friends, assemble!

Cost: Bottle of wine
Time: 3 hours
Difficulty: 2

Day 18 began with an encounter on Day 4 at the fancy pants dress party where Richie and I met Raquel and La Keisha who invited us to a dinner party where I met a number of new and interesting friends.

I've attended dinner parties before, but not often and never where I had only just met the hostesses once before. Also not one where there was a concomitant photoshoot-- Raquel is an amateur photographer getting some tips from her friend Odi Jin who took the above picture.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Day 17: Tarot Card Reading

My psychic, while a very nice person, was almost uncannily inaccurate.
Cost: $20
Time: 20 minutes
Difficulty: 1

As a fan of science, I am highly skeptical of psychics, ESP, tarot cards, bigfoot, etc. But today, I was going to try to believe. I really wanted my psychic to have eerily accurate insight into my life and specific predictions that I could work into my "28 Days" project.

Alas, the stars or whatever directs Tarot cards were not aligned for that.

She put a lot of stuff out there, some of which was vague enough that it would be impossible for none of it to apply to me. But for the most part her readings of my personality, life and current situation were inaccurate, even more so than I would have expected from chance. Her most accurate reading began promisingly and then veered way off course:

"Have you lost someone recently, perhaps an older male in your life?"

"Yes, my father died last year."

"And was it a long illness?"

"Yes, he was sick for several years."


"No, it was a degenerative neuro-disorder."

"Strange, I'm seeing a blood disease. Maybe leukemia. Or something with the prostate."


"Was he in the military?"

"Sort of. He was a translator for the army. He came over from China during the war."

"Was he multi-lingual?"

"Yes, he spoke English and Chinese."

"Anything else?"

"Not that I'm aware of."

"But he wasn't Chinese himself."

"No, actually he was."

"I'm not seeing that he was Chinese, certainly not 100% Chinese. You may want to look into that."

"I'm pretty sure he was Chinese."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Day 16: Attend a Meeting of the Tea Party

Cost: Free
Difficulty: 8
Time: 90 minutes

I'm liberal. I'm not the most liberal person I know, but I'm definitely left of center: I think society has a responsibility to ensure a basic quality of life for its members. I support gay rights including marriage. I voted for Obama and plan to again. I think taxes are too low. I support gun control.

But if you do not understand the opposing point of view, you can't claim to know it's wrong.

So today I attended a monthly meeting of the Merrimack Valley Tea Party. I knew this was going to be an uncomfortable challenge for me-- I dislike social awkwardness as much as I dislike right-wing politics. But I went in with three objectives:

  1. Speak with actual Tea Partiers.
  2. Be honest about my political beliefs.
  3. Be at least as polite to others as they were to me.
When I arrived, I sat down at a half-filled table near the front and introduced myself to the others.

Everyone at my table was extremely polite and friendly and encouraging of my presence. The first gentleman I spoke to was fiscally conservative but socially more progressive than the rest. We talked for a few minutes about the recession and found some points of agreement and disagreement. Next I engaged a woman in her sixties or seventies on gay rights. She was fine with giving gay people the same rights as heterosexual couples, but drew the line at the "sacred institution of marriage."

I suggested to her an idea I'd come up with, but never used on an actual conservative:

"So you would be okay with giving them the same tax status, partnership benefits, survivorship rights, and so forth?"

"Yes, that's fine. But marriage is the pillar on which our civilization is built. It needs to be revered."

"But you'd be okay if we called it something else?"


"What if we called it merry-age? Spelled with an 'e' and a 'y'."

"No that's too close."

Jim (the first person I spoke to) realized that I was baiting her and interjected to guide the conversation back to economics. But even after that exchange, she called me a "true patriot for listening to the ideas of others."

Before the official start of the meeting a man introducing himself as Larry Bruce came to our table and told us he was running for Selectman. He'd driven up from Boston that evening and I asked him if he ran into much traffic.

"No, I just shot straight up 93."

"Oh, so you were close to the highway?"

"I was the World Trade Center. You know, I was at the World Trade Center on days four, five and six. I remember how silent everything was. I get chills even today thinking about it."

Smooth. He'd segued a question about his commute into 9/11. I think even Giuliani would have winced in embarrassment.
Larry Bruce will never forget 9/11. Or talk about anything else.
There were maybe 80 people in attendance when the meeting started. Besides myself, there was one non-white, an older black man:

It turned out he was a Democrat, Joey Smith, also running for Selectman in a very optimistic appeal for votes.
During the actual meeting a series of speakers came up, including Jim from my table, the various candidates for Selectman, and a man bearing a "Show ID to Vote" button to discuss the constitution:

Warmed-up the crowd with an Obama's birth certificate joke. The signs in the background read "Obama: From Messiah to Parriah in One Year!" and "Welcome to Obama's Food Stamp Nation."
My knowledge of Revolutionary American history is dim at best, so I have no idea how accurate his presentation was. It was peppered with ideas that would be useful in supporting Tea Party ideology and devoid of those contrary to it. For example, "happiness" in life, liberty and pursuit of happiness meant "happenstance," which meant not having to pay taxes. There were various opportunities for crowd members shout out ideologically appropriate phrases ("no to socialism!"), although my table was silent either by coincidence or deference to me.

At the end I thanked my tablemates for allowing me to sit with them and they were nearly obsequious in return, encouraging me to come again. I was too mentally fatigued to engage anyone further; my adrenaline response had been running for almost two hours. In hindsight, I wished I'd talked to some of the people who were shouting out things about anchorbabies, but I couldn't manage it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Day 15: Life Stories with Leaura

"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer."
- Howards End, E.M. Forster
Cost: ~$30 in food and drink
Time: 2.5 hours
Difficulty: 4

I'm naturally a private person, to my own detriment. I keep most of my emotions to myself and few of my friends see more than one or two facets of my life. I don't know why I'm this way.

When Leaura suggested that we share life stories, this obviously needed to be one of my different things. Even if I remain a private person, I'd be better off if I could at least occasionally share.

We took turns narrating our biographies as we felt appropriate. I divided my life into chunks of time: my awkward, geeky youth, my angst and drama infested college years, my complacent early twenties and my notably less complacent late twenties. Leaura's narrative followed threads of theme: her family, her relationships, her career.

Predictably, an evening is not enough time to share your entire life. Even very broad strokes with a few salient details filled must leave huge and important sections empty. I hadn't even reached my thirties and Leaura had just met her now-fiancĂ©e Rich when our waiter was peaking over for the third time to see if the check had been picked-up yet.

This type of interaction was unusual and cathartic for me. And entertaining enough for our neighbors at the next table to, when I was up from the table, comment that we were having one bizarre first date.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Day 14: Personal Thing

Day 14 was a personal thing which won't have a blog entry. I originally thought I'd use this day to write a "half-way through 28 days" entry, but I've having a difficult time handling my real-life responsibilities, doing different things and documenting them. Maybe after the month is done I'll revisit the whole thing and clean it up.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Day 13: Pilates with Naomi

Cost: Free
Difficulty: 3
Time: 1 hour

My friend Naomi Brown is training to be a pilates instructor and offered to give me a lesson. I've never done yoga or pilates, so naturally I said yes.

I met her and her husband Chris for brunch, then returned to their place. After a half-hour period of digestion while watching MTV's The State, we got started.

Pilates is not a high-activity form of exercise; it focuses on stretching and exercising your core muscles with minimal movements. Some of the exercises were easy, others required moving fatigued muscles while balancing and were much harder.

It looks like I'm just lying down, but I'm actually doing something moderately difficult. I think this was called "banana lifts."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Day 12: Vegan Lunch & Gorey Exhibit at Athenaeum

Cost: $5 suggested donation
Difficulty: 1
Time: 1 hour for lunch, 1 hour for Gorey Exhibit

I never learned to love my veggies. So a vegetarian or vegan meal is something different. Jessica and Leo suggested lunch at Red Lentil in Watertown. I had the vegan pancakes, which maybe was kind of cheating since it didn't have a lot of veggies, but was topped with a nice helping of fruit. It was yummy and some of the other more vegetable dishes (but not necessarily vegan) looked good too so I may have to go back here for another meal.

Next, we joined Abigail Taylor and friends at the Boston Athenaeum (pronunciation) to see their Edward Gorey exhibit, a small collection of his prints, drawings and letters (including the envelopes he sent his mother, decorated in his unique style).

Photography was prohibited inside the Athenaeum, so here's a picture of the outside.
But Abi plays by her own rules, so here's a picture she took of the inside.
Afterwards, we went around the corner for drinks at the Beantown Pub.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Day 11: Give Blood

"The need is constant. The gratification instant."
Cost: Free
Difficulty: 2
Time: 1 hour

I haven't given blood since college. It's pretty easy to do and it makes you feel good. Here's what goes down the first time you give (I wasn't in their system, so they treated me like a new donor):

  • You make an appointment or just go to a local blood drive (I think they accept walk-ins most of the time).
  • They ask you some general information, then you fill out a confidential questionnaire that screens out people who would be disqualified, e.g., having or being high risk for HIV, having or being high risk for Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (Mad Cow), etc.
  • They test that you're healthy enough to give.
  • You lie down on a bed and a needle is inserted into your arm. It takes about 10 minutes for them to draw a pint.
  • The nurse gives you a quick back rub (I guess for circulation?) and they give you some juice and snacks and you're done.
If you're afraid of needles or faint at the sight of blood this would be a challenging process, but otherwise is an easy way to feel good about yourself.

I asked the nurses what percentage of blood got used; they didn't know (or claimed not to know). My guess is "not much," but that doesn't mean it's not important. It can't be stockpiled for long, and in the event of a disaster it may not be feasible to quickly collect large amounts. So maintaining a steady supply of donations is key for ensuring they have enough for an emergency.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Day 10: Prayer Service and Introduction to Islam

Reading materials. I didn't take any pictures inside the mosque because it felt disrespectful.
Cost: Free
Difficulty: 2
Time: 2.5 hours

The Islamic Society of Boston offers an introduction to Islam called Islam 101 at their Cambridge mosque on Thursday evenings. It's actually a six-week repeating cycle, which isn't really explained on their website. I arrived on the final night of the cycle and none of the other half-dozen visitors had attended the previous meetings.On the inside, the mosque reminded me of a modern Protestant church. The prayer service reminded me of a weekday mass-- adherents reaffirming the core anchor of their lives in rote ritual.

The meeting (or class) is supposed to be 90 minutes interrupted by the normal evening prayer. Because we asked so many questions, it actually went to almost two and half hours. Most of the questions came from a young Caucasian man studying Arabic, myself, and a Jewish woman who had married a Muslim and was considering converting.

The class was taught by a teacher-in-training whose name sounded like "Barek" or "Brek" and his mentor, Achmed. It reminded me a little of CCD (I was raised Catholic); while it was aimed at non-Muslims the teachers were devout and spoke with a kind of matter-of-fact conviction.

Some of the main points that the teachers emphasized:

  • There is just one Islam. The conflicts that arise throughout the world are politically based and not from differences in belief. This was the result of one of my questions and I didn't press the obvious differences from moderate to fundamentalist beliefs; it seemed a sensitive topic.
  • A key theme was emphasizing avoidance of temptation before avoidance of sin.
  • Like its Abrahamic counterparts, Islam is monotheistic faith with a jealous God whose commands are not for mortal questioning (my wording).
The last question I asked, after the official class was over, was to Achmed and was whether he felt that Muslims in America are persecuted to the degree that viewers of the media might believe. His answer had some subtleties to it, but the short was, no, the media exaggerates both sides of the coin: most Muslims are not terrorists, and most Muslims do not encounter open hostility in the US, but there is some feeling of persecution.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Day 9: MIT Lecture on the Kepler Mission

Cost: Free
Difficulty: 3 (due to vicarious embarrassment from weird question guy)
Time: 1 hour

Kepler is NASA's space-based telescope specially built to search for potential Earth-like planets in a region of the sky. Specifically, to look for planets that are within a factor of two of Earth's size and at a distance from their star where water might occur in liquid form.

MIT's Astrophysics department opened one of their lectures to public being given by Sara Seager.

Sara Seager, Exoplanet Researcher
Basically, Kepler looks at stars and attempts to determine whether they are likely to have planets orbiting them by measuring dips in the stars apparent brightness as the planet transits the star, that is, passes between  it and us. Since the planets (especially the planets we care about) are very small compared to the star, the change in brightness is very small. So a planet's existence can only be inferred from multiple orbits around the star.

Kepler has found over 1200 planet candidates (stars that exhibit a periodic brightness dip consistent with a planet), 15 confirmed planets, and approximately 65 Earth-like candidates.

The normal registered students for the course were outnumbered about 2:1 by the public. I love that MIT opens some of these lectures to the public (except for that one guy who sat at the back and asked really weird and inappropriate questions about UFOs and government conspiracies).

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Day 8: Shoot Guns

Alice modelling an AR15.

Cost: ~$100 (Beginner into package $40 + additional guns and ammo)
Difficulty: 2
Time: 1.5 hours, plus travel time

Day 8 was Alice's idea: shoot some guns. She'd never fired a gun before and I've only ever shot a .22 rifle in the Boy Scouts when I was about 12.

I found a place on Yelp that had good reviews: American Firearms School in North Attleboro, MA, about 50 minutes south of Boston. It looked like what I expected, only more so. When we came in the TV was tuned to Glenn Beck's show and seemed to be that way on purpose.

My expectation was that we would come in, probably have a half-hour of classroom safety-instruction, maybe a written test, watch an instructor shoot and only then be handed a gun under close supervision. I'm not saying that was what I wanted, just what I expected.

When we arrived, there were two pistols on the counter. They looked fake and I thought these were our "training pistols."

Nope, these were real guns. They handed us a couple boxes of ammo, ear protection and goggles and sent us to the range, stopping me to point out that I wasn't carrying it correctly.

Sadly, they had a very strict no photography policy on the range which was a huge disappointment. We really wanted pictures of us shooting our guns. I forgot to ask why they had this policy. My theory is that it has something to do with the TV being tuned to Glenn Beck.

It surprised me how quickly they let us, two people who had given them no cause to believe we knew what the hell we were doing, start shooting guns. From the time we'd signed the paperwork saying we were not a) convicted fellons, b) on drugs at the moment, or c) pregnant, it was about 5 minutes till we were shooting.

After we'd mastered the pistols, I asked if we could shoot something else. And like that we were shooting an AK-47. Then an AR-15. They just handed me an AK-47, a box of bullets and sent us off to the range.

I'm not saying they were unhelpful-- an instructor was always nearby and ready to show us how to clear a jam, load the clip or whatever. And at least half of the two instructors was friendly and happy to correct whatever mistake we were currently making. It just seemed weird how confident they were that we wouldn't deliberately or accidentally do something dangerously stupid.

Still, it was a lot of fun, definitely different and I kind of want to shoot guns again. Is there a gun range in the Boston area where the TV is tuned to The Daily Show?

My target. Less impressive when you know this is basically how far away I was shooting from.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Day 7: Lunch With Frank

Blurred because he asked that I not publish his picture in a newspaper, and I assume that applies for a public blog.
Cost: $140
Difficulty: 7
Time: 90 minutes

This is Frank. I started this project because I'd had a pretty bad last year. I often forget that I'm luckier than 99% of the people on the planet, including Frank. I met him today on the median at the intersection of Alewife Brook Parkway and Route 2 where he was holding a cardboard sign that said, "Unemployed, two kids, any little bit helps." I paid him $100 to go to lunch with me and tell me how he got there.

First of all, this was the most challenging day so far. It was out of my comfort zone. I was going up to a stranger, and effectively saying, "Well your life is clearly worse than mine. Tell me about that."

I wasn't even sure how to make the encounter happen. I first saw him walking between cars stopped at a light. I thought about rolling down my window and saying, "Hey, hop in! I'll give you a hundred dollars!" But I couldn't figure out a wording that was quick enough so I wouldn't be holding up traffic and yet explain that I wasn't trying to pay him for sex.

I end up parking at Alewife and walking over. And even that was hard. I couldn't figure out how he got where he was standing. There weren't sidewalks or crosswalks leading to where he was. Eventually I got to a point where I could wave and get his attention. He came over and explained my offer. He asked, "Really? Are you serious?"

I explained I was, and he quickly agreed. After gathering up his gear, we made our way to the Alewife Bertucci's where the picture above was taken. He asked that I not publish his picture in a newspaper, so I've blurred him out in the public version of this blog.

Frank is not homeless. As it happens, he lives a few blocks from my new apartment in a room he rents from a guy who moved to Mexico for a few hundred a month. And 20 years ago he lived a few houses down from where I was spent much of my time, at the intersection of Loring and Cross in Winchester.

He's married and has two kids who live with their aunt. He used to hang shades and blinds until he got laid off a couple years ago. A friend of his had been panhandling at the same spot, so when his unemployment ran out and he needed money for rent, he started going with his buddy.

He's was once jailed for seven months for violating an altercation and restraining order violation against his brother. A few weeks ago a cop took his license and threatened to punch him out if he saw him on DOC land again. Sometimes cops hastle him for panhandling, but sometimes they give him money.

He can't tell what kinds of people will be generous, but generally people who drive high end cars ("Land Rovers and Mercedes") aren't.

On a typical day he makes $100+. Saturdays are usually the best.

He knows most of the other people who work the area ("a few Haitians, some heavy girls, and a tall kid who thinks he runs the place"). It used to be that the first person there got the spot, but now everyone wants the same spots, so if there's too many guys (or girls) they take turns.

His wife has had cancer and has recovered, but isn't well enough to work. They both are thankful to live in Massachusetts for their health care.

I have no way of knowing how honest Frank was with me, but nothing he said seemed implausible or exaggerated for sympathy. His life had taken a hard turn, but he knew there were people worse off than him. I thanked him for his time and his story, gave him the promised $100 and a $20 tip. He was grateful and said if I ever wanted to talk again he'd be happy to grab a soda with me.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Day 6: Superbowl Party

Cost: Six-pack of beer
Difficulty: 0
Time: 3 hours, plus 3 hours of driving

Day 6 was an easy one: watch the Superbowl with some old friends. I'm not a football fan, so this is out of the ordinary for me. I made a good effort to follow the action. I was rooting for the Packers because they had a player who appeared to be sponsored by Zombocom.

Like most of America, you probably saw this game so I don't need to tell you about it. Go packers.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Day 5: Volunteer at Greater Boston Food Bank

Difficulty: 3
Cost: Free
Time: 2.5 hours, plus travel time

I'm embarrassed to say, I haven't done any volunteering since college. A friend mentioned that the Greater Boston Food Bank always needs people, so I signed-up online for their Saturday morning shift.

I expected to be working in a dirty warehouse alongside people there for court ordered community service. Maybe I'm a selfish person because it didn't occur to me that people might choose to get up early on a Saturday to, you know, do something good.

Actually, I was working in their brand-new, very modern and clean facilities alongside lots of friendly, happy people. There was a high school group, a couple of BU students, one guy who might have been there for community service and a cute young woman who I wanted to ask for her number but chickened-out without getting her name.

The recent snow storms had messed with their distribution system, so we spent the first half of our shift doing something unusual for them, sorting through pallets of "fresh" meat and produce to find what was still good. Sadly, over 75% of the food was no longer fresh.

The second half of our shift was what a typical volunteer would expect, sorting boxes of canned and pre-packaged foods into categories. I and three of the high school boys were in the conveyor loading spot which we made a game out of by playing the alphabet game.

It's really unfortunate that so much of the fresh food was bad, because the prepackaged stuff would form a very unbalanced food pyramid.

The assembly-line like distribution area. In total we sorted almost 5000 pounds of food products.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Day 4: Learn to Tie a Bow-Tie, Wear Bow-Tie to Party

Difficulty: 3
Cost: $20
Time: 1 hour to find a place that sold real bow ties (Gingiss Formal Ware), 1 hour to learn, 4 hours for travel time and party

"Bow-ties are cool."

They are also easy to tie, if you already know how. That is, it's simpler than a half-Windsor, but like most knots difficult to learn from a diagram. I'm not going to try to explain how to tie one here, but I found this video helpful. Step 4 is the tricky part because the main action is occurring behind the bow, which you can't see if you're using a mirror (and you can't see any of the steps if you're not).

It took me about 20-30 tries to get it right.

The reason I'd learned to tie a bow-tie was to attend a Colonial-era themed fancy pants party in an 18th century tavern my friend Constantine had been restoring. In what was becoming a trend, Richie was my date.

Sara and our host, Constantine

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Day 3: Concert and Afterparty

Cost: Free
Difficulty: 1 (3 if you have a head cold)
Time: 4 hours

Day 3 was an "opportunity knocks" thing. My friend Craig MacNeil was DJing the afterparty at House of Blues for the Chromeo show and offered free tickets on Facebook to the first few friends who sent him an email. I happened to see his post within a few minutes and got tickets for Richie and myself.

When we arrived, we received wrist bands that allowed us to come and go from the "Foundation Room," a stylish  Hindu-themed area on the mezzanine level. Its quiet, dimly-lit chambers with pillowed couches and hyper-attentive staff gave a nice retreat from the main venue which usually suffers from overcrowding.

I'd come down with a mild head cold the day before so wasn't feeling super fantastic, which is too bad because it was a great show and a much better experience than my last concert at HOB.

Chromeo. Unlike my last show at HOB, I could actually see the band.

Colin Smith, lounging in the Foundation Room.

Me, Jeff Sullivan and Richie Kohman

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Day 2: Bake an Apple Pie (from scratch)

Cost: $30 (less if you already own a pie plate, rolling pin, vegetable peeler and common ingredients)
Difficulty: 4
Time: 3-4 hours including obtaining ingredients, preparation and clean-up.

I'd originally scheduled to donate blood for the second day, but a double winter storm shut down the city and cancelled the blood drive. My first alternate plan involved driving, which almost turned disastrous when I nearly drowned my car in a small lake at the end of my street. My second alternate plan was to visit Mount Auburn in Winter. Unfortunately, even the cemetery was closed. I considered returning at night and scaling the walls, but decided instead to bake an apple pie from scratch an idea inspired by a suggestion from Emily Taylor.

Apple pie is a comfort food for me: it's what my mom always baked for my birthday instead of a cake. The pie part of it is simple, but "from scratch" really requires making the crust. And that's the hard part.

I followed a recipe I found on and tried to adhere to the advice given to me from every source: keep everything cold.

Having just moved, I started with almost none of the required materials. 

I used a mini Cuisine Art to mix the ingredients as suggested by an online video.

The final product.
The pie came out well, but the crust was a bit heavy and not the ideal flakiness. My best guess is that I overworked the dough because I couldn't tell how thick it should be. But it was a good first pie and a delicious dinner.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Day 1: Free Boxing Lesson

Cost: Free
Difficulty: 6
Time: 1.25 hours, plus travel

My friend Richie suggested a boxing lesson for the first day's activity. There's a place next door to The Paradise in Allston called "The Ring" offering free non-contact lessons.

I arrived 20 minutes early and I was put on a stationary bike to warm-up until the start.

The first part of the class showed us five basic punches practiced in front of a mirror: left and right jabs, hook, left and right upper cuts.

The second part drilled these punches alternately with a bag and the instructor using target pads.

We finished with a core workout doing crunches while throwing medicine balls to a partner.

This is an exhausting workout; I was in significant pain in my deltoids, trapezius and upper abdominals for several days after and I'm not in bad shape to begin with. Richie for some reason experienced much less muscle soreness which maybe means I'm getting old.

Right jab into a bag.
Left hook into Richie, responding with a left upper cut.

Monday, January 31, 2011

28 Things: The Idea

I started 2011 in a funk. Feeling down, I decided to jump start the year with an ambitious plan of doing something "different" every day for the month of February.

I committed myself to the idea by telling my friends and soliciting their suggestions. I deliberately left the definition of "different" vague: something sufficiently outside my normal routine. Eating at a vegetarian restaurant would qualify (I'm a pretty dedicated carnivore), ordering pizza from a new place would not.

After soliciting some more ideas from Reddit and Ask Metafilter  I had two dozen good ideas and a couple solid plans.

Apologies for the unpolished writing. It's difficult to come up with, plan and execute something new every day and write about it. Also, posts may lag events by a few days.