Thursday, December 29, 2005

Home Ownership Anecdotes

I recently mounted a nice metal candle-holding thingy on our kitchen wall over the table, as well as a giant curtain rod to put a valance up above our bay window in the living room. Both projects sound simple (and were), but involved a little bit of time and elbow grease to do properly. They both involved measurements, use of a (laser) level, drilling pilot holes, putting in fastener supports, and then screwing the items into the wall. So far, so good.

I also bought a replacement wall plate for the cable jack in the study, and put that in. No problems there, except that the hole in the wall jack was too narrow and the cable didn't fit right, and actually bent. I had to straighten it with a pair of pliers, and widen the hole with a nail, but no lasting damage done.

Along the same lines, I replaced the wall jack for the phone in that room, but that didn't actually fix anything. I'm very disappointed, and feel like I'm back to square one there. I need to extend my diagnostic options -- a voltmeter will tell me what's going on with the wires (as they aren't totally dead), and more investigation in the attic might yield more results about how that room even got a phone jack (as only 4 wires come down from the attic and there are five rooms wired with jacks). Besides, every self-respecting geek homeowner needs a voltmeter, right?

And, the tale I saved for last involves exciting use of new power tools. Jess bought some new handles for the cabinet doors under the sink in the bathroom, as the old handles were very cheap looking and didn't match the rest of the room. First step was to take the old handles off, which was trivial on one door but problematic on the second. The handles are not as simple as you'd think -- they are wood, and set into the wood is some sort of metal "sleeve" which is threaded inside and out. The screw actually fits into this sleeve, and not directly into the wood. I have no idea why.

For the first handle, loosening the screws resulted in the screws coming back out of the sleeve, as desired. For the second handle, the sleeve was ... reluctant to release the screw. Instead, the wood flew apart due to the internal twisting of the screw/sleeve assembly (cheap wood!) and broke into pieces, with the sleeve still firmly attached to the screw. I did all that I could to hold the sleeve in place with some pliers, turning the screw to try and loosen it. No dice -- I was wrecking the screw head trying to do this, and gaining no ground.

Wait, I have a dremel! With cutting discs! That I've never used!

I assemble the unit, quickly read the manual (er, well, quickly glance at the manual), put the cutting disc on, put on my safety goggles (seriously, I did), and start trying to cut the head off the screw.


So, evidently I don't know shit about how to do this. The alternatives are that the screw was very mighty, or that the cutting discs were very weak. I'm putting money on the first, though. The cutting disc broke in half after a couple seconds of impressive spark-flying.

I mount a second disc on, and try again.

This time, when the disc broke, a sizable piece flew directly at my face at high speed, and bounced off my safety goggles.

That kind of freaked me out a little. It wasn't so much a "life flash before my eyes" moment as a "vision flashed before my eyes" moment. I put the fucking death-dremel away, to Jess's vast relief.

I then just did it the old fashioned way. I grabbed the pliers, and started trying to bend the screw back and forth to weaken the metal until it broke. And ... that worked. So, yeah, go elbow grease!

Next step? A true geek labor of love -- my basement boiler room has a wall with two giant pieces of pegboard. I have a couple boxes of assorted tools, nails, screws, and other "shop" like stuff. I also (now) have a box of pegboard hooks and organizing accessories.

Oh, yeah. It's gonna be organized, like the mafia, baby.

That and I gotta put up another big curtain rod over the slider to the deck, put up some more pictures, and then start on the real next step -- making a list of all our "want to" and "need to" home projects and deciding what to start on next. Our basement slider needs immediate attention, as do our carpets. Our chimney must be inspected and cleaned out, and the sooner the better, as we take a tiny chance of catastrophic failure every time we light a fire :). The walls need painting, our deck needs redoing ... oh, boy, I could go on and on :).

Meanwhile, I sweat the small stuff. Poking around in my basement, I see a large number of dead ladybugs above the ceiling tiles. Are we going to have ladybug problems come spring?

And Jess wants to host Christmas for her family next year. Better get cracking.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Nintendo DS First Impressions

Saturday morning, I opened up my first portable game system, the Nintendo DS. I have put several hours into it by now, and figured I'd post my first impressions.

First things first -- it's bigger than your cell phone. It isn't tiny. But it will fit in your (loose) jean pockets, and the clamshell design means the LCD screens will be protected.

Overall, the unit feels extremely polished. Nintendo does not mess around when it comes to usability. Initial setup was a breeze, and connecting it to my home wireless LAN was painless. I'll get to that. The one issue with the look&feel is the form factor. It's comfortable, but I think it was designed for just slightly smaller hands than mine. My hands do get a little sore after a while, and the "square" edges of the unit dig into you a bit (we're so spoiled with our roundy console controllers these days). That said, the classic nintendo D-Pad and (4, not 2) buttons are well-placed and bring you back to the days of NES right away. The shoulder buttons are a little less intuitive, but I have that problem with all shoulder buttons, not just these.

The one ergonomic hiccup is the bottom screen, which is touch-sensitive. For precision and to avoid scratches, you're supposed to use the included stylus (like a PDA). The problem is that if you're playing a game, you aren't holding the stylus unless the touchscreen is your only input option (some games can do this). Nintendo includes a wrist-strap that doubles as a thumb-tip stylus substitute (hard to explain), but I have yet to really feel comfortable using it. I end up using the back of my fingernail to gently touch the screen when I need to, and I'm sure that's not the best long-term plan.

So, what about the games? The games are awesome. Someone online said, "I'm not sure I would use a portable game system." The answer? Don't think of this as a portable system -- think of it as a $130 console that's wifi enabled and not tethered to your TV. As Penny Arcade said, the games aren't butchered portable versions of your franchises, they are full-fledged sequels optimized for the portable platform. With the processing power these machines have, you're looking at near N64-quality graphics on a tiny LCD -- the 3D racing in Mario Kart looks -fine- to my eyes. It makes me wish I had a Beetle Adventure Racing port :). Castlevania DS is not just a port of a 2D side-scroller, it's a 2D side scroller with next-generation gameplay. You harvest souls from your enemy, you can equip several souls on you, and you can fuse souls to items. It's just deep enough. The library is growing steadily and also includes all the GBA titles.

I keep hinting at WiFi, so I'll go there next even though I have very little experience with it. You can play wirelessly with others in the same room (or further; 60' is the limit they suggest), and can even play multiple people on a single cartridge with some games (it transmits the needed software to the other handhelds!). Or, you can connect to an existing wireless network, even authenticating over WEP, very smoothly. You can then play online with any Wi-Fi enabled game (Mario Kart DS is the only one I have, and I didn't try it out).

(Note, you can't play multiplayer GBA titles -- the wireless link does not emulate the GBA multiplayer cable.)

I mean, really, that's SOLID for a $130 piece of hardware.

The LCD screens are good -- I have one "stuck" pixel, but it's only visible when the top screen is mostly black. I don't mind it. I hear Nintendo will replace it if you send it to them, even with just one stuck pixel, but I'm not sure I'm going to bother. We'll see.

As far as lighting/brightness, this is my first portable, so I don't have anything to compare it to. I have yet to complain about the appearance of the screen, let's put it that way. The one time I noticed glare was with a bright office light directly overhead.

I haven't talked about the "dual screen" aspect of the DS yet, of course. The big question is, why have two screens? In Mario Kart DS, the top screen is the 3D view, while the bottom screen is a top-down sprite-y representation of the action, letting you see more of the map. In Castlevania DS, the bottom screen is the main action window, while the top screen shows you the map of the world you've explored OR your character sheet. Not amazing, but still stuff that you'd normally have to hit a button to get to. Is it the next big thing? I don't know. I do know that the touch-keyboard that pops up when you need to enter text is NICE, and made setting up wireless connectivity much easier than it would have been otherwise. Silly things like having 3 saved games, each with a hand-written name associated with them instead of 3-initials is kind of cool too :).

The rest of the system specs are just as solid and polished. The battery lasts a long time, the stylus locks into the unit well, the game carts are invisible and protected when inserted, it goes automatically into standby mode when you close the unit, etc. It's an awesome new toy and I'm thrilled to have a chance to fall in love with another Nintendo console :).

Friday, December 23, 2005

Holiday Reflections

It's ten o'clock on the night before Christmas celebrations begin in our family (Jess's family does Christmas Eve as the big family gathering).

We sat by a fire, watched a classic Christmas movie, and wrapped the remainder of our presents. We smiled with satisfaction at a job well done, and tried not to make too many guesses at what might be hiding under the tree for us both.

I know that tomorrow I will witness all that is wonderful about Christmas, as well as some of the unpleasantness it can foster. I will see a family full of love and insanity, understanding and pettiness. It's a crazy set of contradictions which boggles the rational mind but reminds me each year of how fortunate I am to have married into such a wonderfully large and loving family.

And I will hug each of my nephews and nieces all the tighter tomorrow, as I read today of an online acquaintance whose child died today, on her third birthday, from a disease called Transverse Myelitis. And I will treasure the time I spend with each member of our extended family, thinking of a man I play computer games with regularly who travels across the country this week to celebrate the holidays with a terminally ill relative who will not see next Christmas.

The world turns, the seasons change, and our lives fill with inexplicable joy and sorrow. Devour the days you have.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Merry Christmas!

There's nothing wrong with wishing someone a Happy Holidays, or Season's Greetings. I'll often do this, and will do it especially with people who I know either don't celebrate Christmas or are in mixed-faith families.

That said, I hate the idea that someone would be offended by hearing the phrase "Merry Christmas" directed at them.

Every day, around the world, people have statements directed at them which don't necessarily apply. People are offered gifts which they choose not to receive. Food and drink are offered to individuals who don't partake in them. The usual response? "No, thank you." Not, "How dare you?"

And yet the "How dare you?" attitude is the one I hear from numerous people who don't celebrate Christmas, and it's the attitude that is leading the confrontation-weary majority to cater to the easily-offended minority by wishing people blandly pleasant seasonal greetings.

Which of these does not belong?

"Would you like a cup of coffee?"
"No, thank you, I don't drink caffeine," says the Mormon.

"God bless you!"
"Thanks," says the atheist.

"Want a beer while I'm up?"
"No, thanks, I don't drink," says the Moslem.

"Want me to grab you a burger from the grill?"
"No, thanks, I don't eat meat," says the vegan.

"Oh, it's your birthday? Happy Birthday!"
"Thanks," says the Jehovah's Witness, "but I don't celebrate birthdays."

"Merry Christmas!"
"I'm Jewish, you insensitive clod. Wish me a Happy Holidays!"

This is not a strawman I'm putting up here to get cheap indignation. This is an actual reponse which I've received from co-workers and retail employees (wording might be slightly modified for amusement factor).

What I want to tell these people is that I really don't care if you celebrate Christmas or not. Part of how I celebrate is to wish you a Merry Christmas. And it does you absolutely zero harm to accept that wish in the spirit with which it was offered. I'm not saying "Accept Christ you heathen," I'm saying, "I hope on December 25 and the surrounding days, you find some merriment and joy in life."

Let's take it a step further. If my sole reason for not wishing you a Merry Christmas is fear that you don't celebrate the same holiday I do, why should I wish you any holiday greeting? Plenty of people choose to celebrate no holidays during the winter solstice period. If "Merry Christmas" offends a Jewish or Islamic person, then "Happy Holidays" will offend a Jehovah's Witness ... or a grinch, I guess. So let's not wish anybody a Happy Holiday.

I guess we could go with the overly-bland "Season's Greetings," which has no real meaning at all. Kind of hard to get offended when what I've basically said is, "Hello, and did you notice it's winter?"

That noise you can't hear is me rolling my eyes.

Part of being in a "melting pot" culture is accepting the fact that you're going to get some other people's cultures melted onto you at times. Freedom to believe should also include the responsibility to respect other people's beliefs and their desire to observe those beliefs.

If we take the approach of dialing back any cultural tradition which could possibly offend anyone, we'll eventually have a completely bland culture. Instead of melting together the greatest aspects of everyone, we'll try and find a lowest common denominator. The result won't make anybody happy, but at least it won't offend anyone, right? Is that what anyone really wants? I don't. I want a world where I am constantly in awe of the diversity we all supposedly pay lip service to.

Come on. If you can't handle being told "Merry Christmas," I honestly don't know how you function in today's society without being in a constant state of alarm, grief, and indignation. I mean, really, don't we have bigger issues to worry about?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Dear religious right: Christmas isn't yours

I'm a little frustrated by the religious right's siezing one of my little causes as their own. See, I'm a little tired of the de-Christmasification of the holiday season. I have my own reasons for this, which are quite separate from the right's, and it's awfully annoying to try and talk about it these days, without getting all the baggage of the right along with it. And the left, by demonizing the Christ in Christmas, is just making itself look more foolish. Once again, I find myself in the middle of two unreasonable groups yelling at each other, and I want to smack them both.

So, what else is a blog for, but to set up a soap box in an empty auditorium and complain?

Let me get a few things out of the way. First, I was raised in a household where for religious reasons, we did not celebrate Christmas. I am well aware of how it feels to be surrounded by symbols of a holiday you do not celebrate, to be "oppressed" by a majority, and to have thousands of people assume you take part in rituals you actually don't.

Second, I am not only an atheist, but you could say I'm anti-religion. I understand the need that people have for faith, spirituality, and ritual in their lives, but I personally think that organized religion has done more harm while satisfying those needs than good, over the years.

Third? I love Christmas. I love it like a fat kid loves candy.

Why do I love Christmas? Because, to me, it represents something worthy of inspiring awe. At the darkest time of the year, people string up lights to spread joy. Faced with months of cold and hardship, did people lock up their food stores and close their doors? No. They feasted! They shared their meager possessions with their neighbors and families. The weather is awful, the roads might be bad, and you're facing a heating bill that would scare Donald Trump, but you're still going to find time to visit your family, share gifts with friends, and give to the poor. How can you find fault with that?

At its core, I do not believe Christmas is fundamentally different from any of the other celebrations that occur near it. Take a look at the wikipedia entry for the winter solstice for an impressive list of holidays celebrated by different cultures. Read them all, and look at the themes of rebirth, feasting, giving, and light. People through the ages have always felt the need to fight off the advance of darkness and cold with their own celebrations. Obviously these celebrations took on the rich religious symbolism of the faiths which dominated each culture, but to say that the rituals and celebrations are rooted in those faiths is short-sighted.

What about the Christ in Christmas? Really, Christmas is unabashedly pagan in its origins. Serious scholars do not feel Jesus was born anywhere near the Winter Solstice, and early Christians didn't even celebrate the holiday. Neither did the Puritans, nor the modern Jehovah's Witnesses, since the holiday isn't Biblical in its origin. Yule logs, Christmas trees, stockings, the giving of gifts, the lighting of lights -- none of these are Christian. There's almost nothing Christian about Christmas; it's a clumsy grafting of the god-child birth story onto a set of rituals stolen from around the world.

And that's what makes it awesome. Nobody believes that wearing scary costumes during Halloween scares away evil spirits, and don't take my singing of "Oh Holy Night" as a sign that I believe there was a miraculous birth in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. You can honor and celebrate the traditions associated with Christmas without Christ. I do it, and so do many people, whether intentionally or not.

So take your Festivus and your HumanLight and forget about them. You're swimming against an impossible (yule)tide, and you just look like an idiot.

I'll hit on my next pet-peeve of the holiday season later this week: people who get offended when you wish them a Merry Christmas....

Monday, December 12, 2005

Welcome Home

It's been a week, and it's starting to feel more like home. I don't worry that I'm going to trip over something unseen in the hallway, and I know where (most of) my light switches are. It's going to take a while, but we're making progress.

What I'm eager to see is how I feel about Brookfield being my home town. I'm finding myself very quickly feeling comfortable there. The pace and layout of things work for me, so far.

I spent some time Saturday dealing with the folks who make this area home. I had to get a dump sticker for my car, we went grocery shopping, booze shopping, and even got some Christmas stuff from a nearby department store. And in every instance, though I felt a little out of place, I felt comfortable. People were friendly, pleasant, and made polite conversation. It was surprisingly relaxing.

Now, I grew up among plenty of hilltown residents, people in pickups, dirty jeans, and work boots. I've seen all aspects of the stereotypes, the heavy drinkers, the guys who drive around shooting signs with .22s, the kids who use racial slurs you thought died out in the 60s. I've seen it up close, so don't think I've got my rose-colored glasses on here.

But those people are everywhere. And honestly, there are all flavor of assholes in the world. The soccer mom who runs a red light talking on her cell phone is just as annoying as the guy in a trucker cap who passes you in a school zone in his pickup with the giant Chevy sticker on the back. The spoiled suburban teenager in the tricked out Lexus his parents paid for is no worse than the kid in the beat-up Corsica with 12 NASCAR stickers on it. No matter who they are, you have to deal with them the same way: ignore them and try to move on with your life.

At this point, I feel like I'm going to enjoy getting to know the towns near my new home. I think I like the idea of spending a few years here, and adjusting to a slightly different style of living.

On the other hand, there are no movie theaters within a half-hour drive. My heart aches....

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The mice have struck

No, this isn't about my new house. This is about work.

I started working for this company in January of '96. For most of those Christmases, I've decorated my cubicle. It started back in another location, with another team, an entirely different culture. We stood on cubicle walls to connect garland strands to the ceiling, and people could see our little "Christmas Village" from far off corners of the cubicle farm. We played Christmas music, bought each other cards and gifts, etc. We were a cozy little team.

Not so much, now. I could insert my rant about how "tolerance" often means the opposite -- becoming so bland out of fear of offending people that there's nothing left to tolerate -- but I won't.

Anyway, now I settle for being the only guy around who decorates. I put up one or two strands of lights and edge my cubicle wall with garland. I listen to Christmas music on my headphones. It's nothing grand, but it injects just a little holiday joy into my daily work and reminds me of the festivities coming up in a couple weeks.

Yesterday, around mid-morning, I decided it was time to crack open the hallowed drawer and start decorating. This is not a drawer I open often; it's in its own file cabinet, which contains some old sentimental notebooks (with pre-dot-com-crash dates on them), old calendars, and decorations. I got out the key and cracked it open for the first time since last January.

(Warning: If you're expecting pics, I apologize. I did not have a camera on me.)

Hmm. What's that on top of my light strand? It almost looks like furniture stuffing.

And shredded paper.

And mouse turds.

Oh, shit. I've just been sifting through this stuff with my bare hands to figure it out. My body employs a "protective step back and shiver around central spine axis" maneuver, and then I lean back in. Yup. Somebody's been sleeping in my drawer, and it ain't Goldilocks.

I take everything out of the drawer and deposit in trash. Eight years of wall calendars, notebooks from 1996 onward, HR stuff from when our company changed ownership, and all my Christmas stuff. All in the trash. Half of it was chewed to shit anyway by the mice in an effort to create a more hospitable bedding ground.

I then went into clean mode -- scrubbed out the inside of the drawer, scrubbed my own hands, and used sanitizer everywhere.

So, here it is, the next day. My office still has no Christmas joy, and now I have a completely empty, sparkling-clean filing cabinet ... that I'll probably never use again *shiver*.

Merry Christmas, rodents.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A moment's rest

I type this to you from my brand spanking new study. Well, it still looks a lot like a little kid's room, but it's my study, damn it. Pay no attention to the glow-in-the-dark stars which are attached to the wall and ceiling. These too will pass.

The move was a success, in that we are no longer where we were, and are now where we are. I am still recovering from the entire ordeal, and expect to be in this state until at least the New Year, so get used to me bitching.

Friday we went and got the truck, and I really wish there was a bigger word for the vehicle we rented. It was Penske's largest truck, and I felt like some kind of criminal driving it without any special training. It's a goddamn miracle nobody died due to my skill with that thing, that's all I'm saying.

Loading it was an ordeal and a story in of itself, but it ended happily enough, with me slamming the door shut to the thing around 9 PM and booking the in-laws in a nearby motel so they wouldn't have to drive home before moving us again in the morning. I was, at that point, about as exhausted physically as I've ever been -- right up there with how I felt after the 10K race. I didn't want a beer, I didn't want to talk, I wanted to curl into the fetal position and sleep for days.

But, no, at 7 PM we were back at work. We gathered the rest of the "loose ends," packed our bed, and I drove the much-heavier truck to Brookfield. Allow me to again state how much I hated driving that monster, especially down the back-country-ish roads near our new place. I nearly wrecked some kind of Saturn or something when I thought I had the right of way and didn't, and had some trouble convincing the truck-full-of-apartment to stop.

The unloading went MUCH quicker than the loading, with the only complication being the previous owners' stuff. As in ... the house was still full of it. As they emptied rooms, we filled them. They had a smaller truck and took three loads, which made for a long day.

But eventually everyone left, and we collapsed into our bed for a twelve hour sleep. Even after that, I wasn't really "right," but we got immediately to work anyway. We spent most of Sunday unpacking and organizing, and made our first run to the store for things we needed. Today was similar, in an unexciting and not-worth-writing-about kind of way.

Complications? Problems? Galore. Oil tank is almost empty; they are coming out tomorrow. They tried to shut off my cable after they turned it on. Johnie and Lee were still moving stuff out today. There's a statue of Mary in my front yard which has been there since they moved in, and isn't exactly easy to get out. Our rugs and flooring need replacement (which we knew), and the place has a weird half-painted look in a few places. Our firewood seems to be fire-resistant.

I could go on.

But overall? It feels awesome. These are our halls, our rooms, our quirks, our house. Our big yard. Our empty shed. Our woods filling up with snow.

Pretty kickass.