Puzzle 5 Pride at the Crossword Tournament

I recently attended the American Crossword Puzzle tournament in Stamford, CT. It was my third adventure in surrounding myself with all the wonderful crossword madness and once again, it was great! I continue to meet the big names in the crossword world which makes me feel all the more invested and inspired. This time I talked my dad into having a go at the tourney as well. It was fun to see this glimpse into the subculture of crosswording through his eyes.

The tournament consists of 7 puzzles* varying in size and difficulty. The puzzle that stands out every year is the dreaded Puzzle 5, a puzzle so notorious it generates tributes and parodies that dominate the talent show and can change the standings drastically. In years past, I've fallen victim, ending with a grid that is more empty than filled and walking away questioning my crossword chops. This year, however, I'm so proud to report, that I nailed it: a completely full grid and not a single error!

It's hard to understate this personal achievement. The gal sitting in front of me, someone who has attended the tournament for more than 10 years, said completing puzzle 5, much less doing so perfectly, was a life goal of hers (which she also attained this year). The puzzle had a very tricky theme than involved words making multiple 90° turns and using parts of words backwards—it was a really well crafty, witty puzzle.

The improved performance on Puzzle 5, combined with the fact I had only 3 squares wrong in the whole tournament, boosted me in the standings, helping me finish almost 100 places higher this year than last, at 287/576, putting me squarely in the middle of the pack (50th percentile (vs. 61st from 2015 and 64th in 2014)). Not that my primary goal at the tourney is high achievement (I really go with business in mind to expand my crossword constructing empire (kind of)), but doing well always feels good.

So now, to my crossword resume, amongst the various published puzzles I've had, I can add a completed puzzle 5. I'll take it.
Tuesday April 5 2016File under: games, crosswords

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Pi Day 2016

We all can agree that Pi Day is the best holiday ever. It combines nerdiery and dessert and can be celebrated in the simplest possible way. I've documented 7 previous instances on this here blog (see archive) of me celebrating in one way or another (creating a crossword, getting a [different (and much better)] crossword published, testing my pi memory, and, of course, baking pies). The only 2 Pi Days I've missed posting on since the blog began were when I was travelling (Japan and Belize/Guatemala). So I can hardly let this Pi Day pass by.

This year, we didn't do anything too special, just baked a couple of pies: quiche for breakfast and an apple/rhubarb pie for dessert. The carved apple "π DAY" was a nice touch. But just because we didn't go all out celebrating doesn't mean we didn't appreciate the holiday in all its glory. 3.14 cheers for Pi Day!
Monday March 14 2016File under: holidays, food

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2015 Year End Letter

A couple years ago, I did an end of the year letter that I sent out to folks I don't cross paths with digitally very often (or ever). It was a "this is what's up in my life" letter, akin to Christmas letters that people often do. (You can read it here.) Well, it was fun then so I thought I'd try it again, this time with me and Della's year in review. It turned out pretty fun (in no small part because we have pretty fun lives, IMHO) so I wanted to share. I'm guessing that none of this will be news to you, as you probably read about it all on the blog (which is probably why I didn't send you a paper copy), but hopefully you'll enjoy it nonetheless.


Monday February 22 2016File under: misc

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Minor Media Mentions - Bellingham Herald and Bellingham Alive



One of the great purposes of this blog has been to serve as a digital scrapbook for my future self. I know that 90-year old me will love sitting in my hover bean bag chair looking through the fun exploits of his former self. It is with that thought that I started my Minor Media Mentions series, snippets of when I've made newspapers, etc. Two such snippets recently showed up. The first is from the Sunday Bellingham Herald dated 1/31/16 about the Talent Show at Mount Baker Theater we were in (blurb and video here). The other is from the super fancy Bellingham Alive magazine from December 2015. The article has nothing to do with us, but it's a pretty fun picture of the street show we did at the Bellingham Night Market.
Tuesday February 2 2016File under: juggling, circus

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Juggling at the Mount Baker Theater

Della and I recently had the privilege of performing on stage at the Mount Baker Theater in Bellinghm as part of the Be In The Show community Talent Show. It was a neat event put on by the Dance Studio and served as a fund raiser for Blue Skies for Children, a great charity. Super big props to the folks that put it together. It was well attended, super tight (27 acts in less than 2 hours), and better organized than any event I've ever seen.

For those who don't know the Mount Baker Theater, it is the venue in Bellingham, hosting the biggest names that come through town. To have my 5 minutes in the spotlight on stage there might easily be the highlight of my performing career. Seeing backstage, the green room setups, and looking out at the beautiful hall was quite a treat. And the way it was so well organized made me feel like this is how it must be for a real rockstar. They even put us as the closing act, which only added to the rockstar feel. We had a few drops, but overall, not a bad showing.

Della convinced her intern to get some video for us. Enjoy!


Saturday January 30 2016File under: juggling, circus

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Serendipity in Budapest

After spending 3 weeks across 5 countries in the Middle East, Della and I find ourselves in the decidely non-Middle Eastern city of Budapest...AND IT'S AWESOME! (This is not to say that the time in the Middle East wasn't great, because it was, but there's just something about a good old European city.)

The city itself is a treasure enough. Like any guide book will tell you, there are beautiful buildings, the Danube River (and its spectacular bridges), statues, and of course the city's thermal springs fed baths. After a visit to these baths*, we could see why they are so popular, esp. after Della and I nearly froze our buns off sightseeing our way around town.

But what made our visit to Budapest so much better was having wonderful hosts, Horge and Isabel. They housed us, fed us*, showed us the city and taught us everything we could possibly want to know with one exception...

Me: Hey, do you know if there is a circus in town?

Isabel: Uh, I think there was an Italian circus that came through a while ago, but probably not currently.

---Flash forward no more than 3 minutes of walking through the park---

Budapest International Circus Festival Poster: On now...and tomorrow's the last day!

Click, beep, boop, bop, click

Me: Arlight, Della, we've got tickets to a 3.5 hour awesome circus show tomorrow

Della: *shiver*

So, on our last day of our whirlwind 10+ country semi-unsuccessful-but-still-totally-awesome-winter-dodging adventure, we unexpectedly found ourselves enjoying a world class circus show with full bellies and full hearts. (It served as a nice bookend together with the world class Big Apple Circus we saw on our very first day of this adventure.)

Our brief stop in Budapest was just what good travel should be: new sights and experiences, good good people, and a little bit of magic*. Super thanks to Horge and Isabel for making our time great (and for being the reason to stop through). And thanks to Lady Luck for providing excitement along the way!
Thursday January 21 2016File under: travel, Europe

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Wadi Rum - The Desert Oasis

Wadi Rum in southern Jordan isn't an oasis by the "look at these date palms and bountiful spring in the middle of the desert" sense. It's dry like you would expect a desert to be dry. But after the less than stellar experiences in our short visit to Jordan, the serenity and comfort of Wadi Rum felt like an oasis to us.

For our visit, we booked a night at a Bedouin camp along with a 4x4 tour of the area, with all meals and transportation included*. Our goal for the trip was to just spend the night in the desert, so we were a hard sell on the 4x4 tour, but it turned out to be awesome. We rode around in the back of a pick-up from site to site. We stopped at sand dunes, Lawrence of Arabia's "house", great rock formations, and, in general, just enjoyed the beauty of it all.

Since we were there off season*, our camp was practically deserted*, just us and 1 other traveler. Our tents were super comfy and we spent the evening around a fire inside a communal tent listening to the desert silence. The evening treated us to a gorgeous sunset. We went to bed very happy.

They say the desert has healing properties and I can see why. The calmness and beauty helped us wash away (or at least get the larger chunks off) our other Jordan experiences. If time and budget permitted, I would have stayed another week, spending the days meandering around the rock outcroppings and sitting and listening to the natural world. But, alas, we had a plane to catch, so back to the real world it was (with a stop along the way to look at camels). But the short time out in the desert at Wadi Rum refilled my precipitously low traveler's tank with wonder and excitement readying me for the final leg of this epic adventure. Thank you Wadi Rum!
Friday January 15 2016File under: travel, Jordan

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Questioning the Value of a Visit to Petra

There's no doubt about it: Petra, that lost city in Jordan of buildings carved into stone amongst narrow picture-esque canyons, is amazing. It's beautiful, magical, breath taking, and one of a kind. You can't go and not come away with some amazing pictures (see below). And you'll probably remember your visit for the rest of your life. But despite all that, I can't say for certain that I'm glad I went. There were just too many downsides to the experience. In short, it was a bad value.

Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for good reason. But it the most expensive UNESCO World Heritage by a long shot—more than the pyramids, Angkor Wat, and the Taj Mahal COMBINED! Sure it's just money, and if it were money that felt like it went to something good, it would be different. But the way it seems to me, Jordan just uses Petra as a built in ATM machine, gouging cash from tourists to be spent on anything but maintaining, preserving, and policing the site.

After our visit, Della and I made a list of grievances we plan to pass along to the park. It includes such things as poor treatment of animals, heavy [and rude] harassment by the vendors, extra charges for supposedly included features (bathrooms for example), lack of any sort of authoritative presence (to report abuses to), local hucksters running amok (playing their boom-boxes while donkey racing through the streets, climbing atop the priceless monuments), and, of course, the exorbitant fee.

What does all this mean? I can't, in good conscience, recommend that you go out of your way to see Petra. If you do, you'll see some spectacular buildings carved into stone, bedrock of amazing colors, narrow canyons that were traversed for millennia, and bits of history that are better preserved than maybe anywhere else on earth. But you also might go away feeling like you've just supported something that you don't feel good about, and that's not fun.



Wednesday January 13 2016File under: travel, Jordan

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Un-Welcome to Jordan

Any traveler worth his salt knows that international borders can be trouble spots. Being a bit of a salty traveler myself, I know this. That is why I do my research: online forums, official websites, travel guidebooks, and more. But, as it turns out, no matter how prepared you think you are, you can still get screwed.

See me in this picture? I'm smiling, ready for the next country on this grand adventure. An hour previous, we had just smoothly sailed through the Egypt/Israel border at Taba which was rumored to be a grueling one. All my research suggested that the Israel/Jordan border at Eilat was to be even easier. Aqaba is part of a free economic trade zone so visitors can enter without a visa provided they yada yada. We were fully yada yada compliant so I was looking forward to smiling "Welcome to Jordan" and being sent on our way. Alas, it was not to be.

Three days previous to our crossing, new border rules went into effect. No word was put out ahead of time of the upcoming rule changes. No contingency plans were put in place to help those travelers put in a pickle by the new rules. In what we sadly came to know as a typically Jordan way of doing things, it was just done willy nilly without much consideration towards the visitor.

As you might imagine, we weren't the only ones arriving at the border being told "Due to the new rules changes you couldn't have known about, you have to go back to Israel and apply for a visa that might get granted as early as tomorrow if you're lucky." If this had been said with an apologetic tone and a sincere attempt at trying everything they could, I might have considered complying. Instead, I suggested that I stay put, sleeping on the couch of the border office if necessary, until they could sort it out themselves. They didn't like this.

And so it escalated: trickery, lies, stern works, and even threats of imprisonment, first from the lowlies and then from the higher ups. And as this is all escalating, more would-be tourists are joining the fray, each attempting their own devices to secure entry: pleading, reasoning, appealing to compassion. Nothing seemed to be working. Until, in chatting with the border guy about how stupid this was, I learned that just yesterday, they let a couple in through a process of buying a Jordan Pass online, What's App-ing some files around, then paying a runner to get said files printed and delivered back to the border. "Hmmm....that would have been helpful to know...3 hours ago." Now we had a unified purpose.

So ensued a scramble to find a smart phone with local service to buy said Jordan Passes, credit cards that could be used for the extortive amount, coordination of passport numbers, currency exchanges, a runner to print stuff, etc. Being cell-phoneless and of the mind that too many cooks in the kitchen...I left Della with the passports and money and went off to breathe. Or, to be more specific, to juggle.

It turns out, the government populace of the Jordanian border crossing at Aqaba are really interested in juggling. It started with the lowlies coyly watching while smoking their 23rd cigarette of our saga. Then they gestured for tricks to be repeated, called their friends over, and tricks repeated again. Soon, the previously "I'll drag you off to jail" guy takes me and hauls me into the Major's office to show off my stuff. He is entertained and invites me to share tea. A conversation ensues (through interpretation of the once-gruff underling) where-in I explain the research I did, the trouble their rule change has caused, and some simple suggestions on how to fix it ("perhaps a sign on the Israel border to alert travelers to the new rules would save people having to pay $30 to exit Israel only to be returned 20 minutes later, not to mention the loss of a day or more").

At this point, Della comes looking for me partly for the need of more money and partly to make sure I wasn't being severely beaten. I used this as a graceful exit point from the Major's office (as the conversation had devolved into admiring the automatic dolma rolling machine that was being advertised on the TV in the corner). She informed me that project "Extortion via Jordan Pass" was proceeding well and we should be Jordan bound within 3 hours. To pass the time, I roped her into doing our juggling routine first for the guards and then for our fellow stranded travelers. It went over swimmingly.

After a time, the printed passes arrived and were slowly processed. The eight of us that stuck to our guns to find a way through finally filtered off into Jordan via over-priced taxis into the night. Della and I were forced to spend 2 days' budget (on top of all the border monies) to catch back up to our plan of making it to Wadi Musa to prepare for seeing Petra the following morning. But as the adrenaline subsided, the stewing anger grew. Never did anyone say "Sorry about this" or even "Welcome to Jordan". It was almost as if it were more of a "Well boys, let's fuck over some people again tomorrow".

I'd like to say that some time in Jordan made up for the bad border experience. And maybe it will. But, as the saying goes, you never get a second change to make a first impression. And my first impression of Jordan couldn't be worse.
Friday January 8 2016File under: travel, jordan

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Egypt Needs Your Tourist Dollar

I'll be blunt: Egypt needs your tourist dollar. They've had a thriving tourist industry (for good reason!), one on which many people relied, for many many years*. Then, Arab Spring, the downing of that Russian passenger plane, and some pretty rough media coverage of isolated occurrences of violence and tourism all but dried up. That has left the country really hurting and many of the sites that tourist dollars go to help maintain, protect, and further uncover unfunded. In talking with folks here, they ask us, the few Americans they see, to tell people Egypt is worthwhile and good. And that's what I want to do.

Egypt is pretty awesome. Obviously the history can't be overlooked—pyramids, tombs, temples, hieroglyphs, artifacts, that crazy ancient Egyptian art where perspective is a little crazy but so recognizable. It's something we've all seen parodied or copied our whole lives, but this is the real stuff...and it's really really cool. But the history stuff is probably the first thing that people think of when they think of travel in Egypt*. But there's so much more.

There's diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea. There's gorgeous vistas over the River Nile(!). There's culture and food and desert and pleasant weather! And the people are so nice! On the street, it never fails if we have a map out or look confused, someone stops to ask us if we need help. Granted, occasionally it comes with a pitch to use their travel agency, have a look in their shop, or otherwise get an "appreciation". But often not. And even if, when you politely decline, they wish you a happy new year and you're on your way. Really, there's kind of a lot going for this place.

And guess what... it's cheap! Della and I will end up averaging about $30/day each (including meals, hotels, in-country travel, admission fees, etc.). And that's living pretty high. Our current hotel has a pool (Yasmina in Dahab, I highly recommend it!). We eat well. We see all the things we're supposed to see (and even more*). We even take the occasional taxi! All for about what life costs back home.

It feels good knowing that my tourist dollars are going to people that need them. In planning to come here, people warned us off and generally were aghast at the idea. I'm so glad we didn't listen* and came anyway. We've had a wonderful time. Egypt was happy to have us. It's win win! So please consider putting Egypt back on your travel horizon. They will thank you.
Sunday January 3 2016File under: travel, Egypt

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