Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving

If you know me, you know I'm not exactly a hardliner when it comes to resisting the appeal of the Christmas holiday season. But one thing I will stand up for, every year, is the ability to celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday in its own right.

Growing up, Thanksgiving was one of many holidays we didn't celebrate. My mother believed, as most in her faith do, that Thanksgiving is a corruption of an ancient pagan celebration and no good Christian should celebrate it. Not only that, Witnesses specifically avoid singling out any one day to do someting they should do every day (be thankful). Then there's the whole patriotic history, eating to excess, etc. Anyway, you'll find a good write-up on beliefnet.

Even given all of that, Thanksgiving was the one time where my whole messed up family got together. My aunts and uncles who had left the state would come back, cousins I never saw would appear at my grandparents' house, and so on. We never had a car, so visiting with certain family members was very rare. If we skipped holidays, we might never see them. So at several points in her life, my mother came to some kind of a compromise with her conscience and her family.

We attended a few Thanksgivings. It wasn't a regular thing, as my mother's strictness on certain issues varied year to year. But we went to a few. Enough for certain aspects of the holiday to imprint on me, and eough for me to feel sentimental about it in a way that I don't with other holidays.

As hosts of this year's Thanksgiving dinner, we have a chance to take the traditions I remember from my childhood and mix them with my wife's family traditions. It's a rare thing, for me. I have very little in the way of tradition when it comes to the holidays, so mostly I've just inherited hers. It's a special opportunity and I look forward to it.

So, for just a couple more days, try to ignore the Christmas music on the radio. Don't put out your lights quite yet. Take a moment to be thankful for your family, your traditions, your memories, and all that you've accomplished (through hard work or dumb luck) in the past year. And get psyched up for good comfort food -- the smell of a roasting bird, potatoes whipped so smooth they might as well be fake, hot gravy and warm pies. And get ready to remind a new generation of kids that Christmas is great, but Thanksgiving deserves a place in your heart too.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

How I Spent my Weekend

This past weekend, I participated in a traditional male bonding ritual -- I went fishing. On the ocean. In a boat. With "the guys." The guys, in this case, are from Jess's family, and people Jess's dad or brother go to church with. In other words, not people I necessarily have a lot in common with. Except, you know, total masculinity.

Now, my expectations were low to begin with. Consider the following facts:
  1. I get seasick easily.
  2. I am not a recreational fisherman.
  3. I am not a member of their faith.
But, the trip was in honor of Jess's dad's birthday, not mine. My goal was to be there and make sure he had fun.

It started out fine, overnighting at Jess's parents. I entertained folks by basically watching wacky movies on youtube and google video, and we all drank coffee and made smalltalk. By 11 or so, we were in bed, and having trouble sleeping in the noisy bright city environment. Country living has spoiled me, I tell you. Street lights and traffic? What's this?

We were up and about by 5 AM, and on the road shortly thereafter, six guys sitting in a Ford Excursion, not very awake. My brother-in-law asks, "Hey, does this ting have a radio?" The silence is replaced by whatever the radio had been on previosly -- a Christian station. As if the music wasn't bad enough, it changed into a scriptural reading. Picture a guy just droning on, no commentary, reading aloud from the book of Isaiah. Fortunately, we were able to change it after a few painful minutes, over to a "mix" station. Bland inoffensive music, but at least it wasn't biblical.

The second amusement of the trip was in how badly we got lost. The blind were leading the blind in the front seat. I had made the mistake of getting two sets of directions -- one (very detailed) from Google Maps, and one (short and sweet) from the Marina's website.

Unable to reconcile differences between the two directions, our front seat tandem drove us all over Connecticut. Miraculously, we had left early enough to overcome this obstacle, and arrived only a few minutes late after stopping for directions at two different gas stations.

What we saw first was one of the cooler things I was to see that day -- the boat warehouse (picture is not mine, comes from the Marina's site).

Imagine a giant parking garage for boats, where each boat fits into a cubbyhole and is retrieved from it by a huge forklift/crane thingy. Easily a hundred boats in this building. Very nifty.

This led to a surprise, however -- how small the boat was. I mean, it wasn't tiny, but it was smaller than I expected. Given my sensitivity to motion sickness (fascinating, by the way, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motion_sickness claims this is an evolved response to hallucinations caused by toxin ingestion), this was notgood news. I downed a couple of Dramamine and helped load things up.

The trip started out wonderfully. The weather was perfect and the seas calm. We left the shoreline and found an area where some birds were congregating, and tried our luck with some light tackle. This is "normal" fishing, basically. Rod, reel, lure, cast and reel in. Nothing fancy, very relaxing. But we caught zero fish and decided to move on.

Here's where my experience totally shifted from my expectations. I pictured us on a boat, with lots of water on all sides. This is true ... but what I hadn't planned for in my mental image was the number of other boats sharing the same spot. This wasn't a matter of "look way over there, someone else is fishing," it's more, "Well, there are 25 boats within sight, obviously this is a good place to fish."

The next type of fishing we did was much less fun, for me. The rods were replaced with much heavier ones, and each of us put a heavy weight at the end of our lines. You then stop the boat and set it adrift, and then hang your line off the edge of the boat. Release the line, wait for the weight to hit the bottom, and then reel it in a foot or two. Then, periodically bounce your rod up and down so the weight hovers above the ground. The result is that your lure is a couple feet off the ground, trailing behind your weight. What sucks about this?
  • The rod is heavy and tiring on the arm
  • The heavy weight dulls your ability to sense anything
  • As the ocean changes in depth, your weight will snag on the floor and fool you into thinking you've caught the world's largest fish
The fascinating thing about that last bit is that it reveals just how quickly your boat is drifting relative to the ocean floor. You go from leisurely holding your rod to feeling like a submarine has
snagged your line and is making for Mother Russia.

Anyway. This method of fishing (jigging) bored me to tears, and did very little to address my growing seasickness. I took more Dramamine, which made me more tired and less eager to fish. But I did my best.

After a while, we moved on to Round Three. Here, we trolled. You take two big rods, put them in holders at the back of the boat, and tow a couple hundred feet of line behind you with big lures at the end. When you land something, you strap yourself in and reel in the fish.

I must say, this was pretty cool.

You take turns letting the line out and catching whatever you hook. We caught enough fish doing this that everyone had a chance, or several chances really. My chance came fairly early on, and I dragged in the biggest catch of the day, a 36" Striped Bass (Striper). This fish was a good 6
inches longer than anything anybody else caught, and it went a long way towards keeping me credible even as I spent more and more time sitting on a cooler and wishing my seasickness would go away.

Reeling in the fish was more fun than you'd think. It's a continuous strain on your muscles, six guys are cheering you on, and it's hard. At the end, you pull your fish aboard, and everyone oohs and aahs over what you've done. And then they measure it and keep it if it's legal, and you're back at square one.

As a plus, the boat is moving the whole time, which really helps with my motion sickness. But eventually the seas got too rough and we went back to Jigging. I didn't even bother to fish this time, instead quietly cheering on everyone else who was reeling them in. After six hours at sea, we headed back in, exhausted, dirty, but satisfied. To be honest, I was ready to quit after 3 hours, but hey, we got our money's worth.

In the end, my brother-in-law caught the most fish (8) and I caught the biggest. Not bad. Our captain came ashore with us and fileted the fish in front of us so we could split up the meat easily. As someone who doesn't really enjoy eating fish, I donated my monster filets to Jess's dad and brother. I hope they enjoy them. Here's our cooler at the end (mine is the one on top).

The ride home was long and fraught with peril. We got stuck in a 45 minute traffic jam due to what had to be a fatal accident; that car was crushed. We also had a tire spring a leak, which the manly men of course had to repair immediately (surely a good idea, but at this point I was hungry and exhausted). We got back to Springfield around 6, were back on the road home by 7, and I was showered and back in bed before 9.

Was it worth it? Definitely. Jess's dad had a great time, and I even had some fun. Would I do it again?

Nah. Not really :).

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Two months?

So, obviously it's been a while since I posted. Funny that my last post was about TiVo, as it brings me back here 2 months later.

Series 3 is out, and it's not everything we wanted it to be. Don't get me wrong, the functionality I want is in there. But plenty of people are disappointed that the newer TiVo functions allowing multi-room viewing and sharing between TiVo and other devices are not available due to ongoing discussions with the cable companies.

That wouldn't stop me from buying it, except that it's 800 dollars.

TiVo is everything I want in my DVR. But I can't spend $800 to record my TV shows when my cableco DVR does an acceptable job of it. For $1600 I could ditch my 27" CRT HDTV and replace it with a 42" LCD HDTV that does 1080p. Which do you think would have a greater impact on my daily recreation?

The fact is, I'm not blowing a grand on either of these things. I have a house to pay for! Well, not just the house, but doors, carpets, floors, and chimney work. And who knows what else? At this point, a thousand dollar luxury purcase just isn't in the cards.

If it was $300 I would have argued with myself but eventually bought it. For $500 I'd be kicking myself, wishing I had it and watching for sales. At $800, I can just back away and let the early adopters enjoy their new toys. I'll check back in with TiVo sometime next year....

Thursday, July 20, 2006

TiVo: No, don't cancel!

Shortly after getting HDTV and a HD DVR from my cable company, I realized my TiVo had a short life span ahead of it. Dual tuner and high definition simply are killer features. Everything else, though, the TiVo does better.
Handling a show ending while you're recording it
Handling schedule changes
Season passes are "smarter"
PC integration
Overall interface

In other words, it breaks my heart every time I use the HD DVR instead of my TiVo.

So, after not using the thing for 6 months (hear that? That's 75 bucks down the drain), I called to cancel. I got a very friendly enthusiastic young man who couldn't wait to help me, and made me feel even worse about canceling.

I explained why I had to do it. I talked about HDTV. I mentioned I'd be looking at them again in a few months when Series 3 came out.

And he said, well, Series 3 will be out in a couple months. What if we didn't bill you for a few months, and once it comes out, you can decide whether you want to cancel or not.

Well, fine.

I'm a sentimental sucker. I love my TiVo. Let's hope I don't forget to cancel again in 3 months (or let's hope I get a Series 3 for Christmas...).

Thursday, July 06, 2006

New hobby in the making?

The area where I live now is known for being a haven for sportsmen. They are trying to attract hunters, fishermen, and just plain outdoorsy types. Boating, hiking, fishing, you name it.

Well, on the 4th I got a taste of what it has to offer for people, and I might just be hooked.

We had a medium-sized family BBQ on the 4th, and after a nice little thunderstorm blew through, all the guys in the group (myself, brother-in-law Steve, father-in-law Steve, and nephews Tommy and Joey) got into the kayaks Steve (BIL) had brought and started out from what's traditionally known as "North Pond." We paddled over to where a stream leads to the pond from another one, and headed up that way (going under the very low bridge to do so). Within mere minutes, the road was out of sight, and we were surrounded by reeds, wildlife, and quiet.

Now, I love water. It calms me, the sight of it, the sound of it, the idea of its vastness. But I am not a boat person -- I get seasick quickly. And I am not a fisherman -- haven't fished since I was a kid.

But this trip changed both those opinions of myself. The water was calm, and sitting in the boat was equally calming. And while I am not a legally licensed fisherman, I will admit to taking a couple casts and getting a feel for the rod and reel. Somehow, having something to occupy you in a simple repetitive way made the whole experience even more relaxing.

I returned home after several hours loose and relaxed, if a little sore from paddling. Sunburned, sure, but with a new experience under my belt.

Jess was just saying that it would be nice if we had a hobby we could enjoy together. We're going to give this one a shot -- a place nearby will rent you kayaks for the day for $40, or a bit more for a two-seater. We're gonna check it out, see if it's something we both enjoy.

Who knows, maybe I'll be posting about my exploits across the streams of Worcester County before long....

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Identity Theft FTL

Within the past year, I have received notification from three companies that personal identification about me may have been accidentally disclosed to unintended parties.

Wells Fargo had a server disappear in shipment, which may have had all kinds of juicy info on it including names, SSNs, and bank account information. Wells Fargo, of course, does my home mortgage.

A Medical Insurance company that I don't even do business with, but which provides services for my place of employment, recently contacted me to say a server was stolen out of a locked office at their facility, which had names and SSNs.

Finally, my newspaper informed me that they accidentally shipped a piece of paper including some billing information (we have our newspaper paid direct from our checking account, much as we do with our phone and electric bills) to their carriers.

Out of the three, only Wells Fargo offered to give us a year's free subscription to a credit monitoring service. I wasn't going to take them up on it, but after two additional breaches in the course of the following months, it's probably about time to do that.

And of course, because no tragedy in America happens without someone standing to make some cash, I recently saw a sign on an insurance company for "Identity Theft Insurance." What the hell is that? It's not like you can say, "My identity got stolen, I need a settlement to replace it."

Ah, the perils of the modern age.

Friday, June 09, 2006

What does your workspace say about you?

I've always wanted my workspace to reflect a little of who I am outside the office. This serves a lot of purposes. I get to have a little bit of my outside life around me while I work, and people who come into my workspace can see a little of the person who might not otherwise surface. It can also act as a conversation starter and a bit of a friend-finder.

The problem is that after ten years in the same company, it's stopped reflecting a little of who I am, and started reflecting a little of every little thing that has interested me in that ten years. It's less like a snapshot of my life and more like a dumping ground for it. And that's fine, in some ways. Some times it's cool to find an action figure I got when I was in my teens and remember how it ended up at work when I wanted something to decorate my cube in my first month on the job.

But overall, it's slowly been gnawing at me. I want a cleaner workspace, with less junk and more meaningful items. More things with stories attached, fewer random Burger King kids' meal toys.

And now, as a shift into a new managerial role (and office with a door) looms on the horizon, I have the perfect excuse to do something about it. What do I keep, what do I get rid of, and what do I add?

I mean, I can't even remember what prompted me to put a snowman-shaped pez dispenser on my bookshelf. I think I nabbed it from someone's cubicle after they left the company, to remind me of them ... but I can't remember who it was. There's an irony there which is not lost on me.

I have two Lord of the Rings movie posters on the wall that have been on display since well before the movies came out. When I put them up, it was a way of spreadng the news about the upcoming movies and starting conversations about them. Now people assume I'm some kind of LOTR fiend when the truth is I've seen Ocean's Eleven more times than I've seen Fellowship of the Ring (okay, maybe not, but it's close).

I've got snapshots of my nephews from before they were old enough to talk. Now they're in little league. I've got a complete LOTR chess set. Patriots players action figures for people who haven't been on the team in years. A giant R2-D2 cookie jar. The list goes on.

But I also have my collection of magnets I grabbed on my road trip, to remind me of where I've been. I've got a clay "death mask" I bought in Cancun. I've got a beautiful black and white picture of my nephews and niece taken last fall in a pile of leaves. And while you might not understand why a Diablo 2 action figure is important to me, in a weird way it's very important to me, and I don't want to let it go quite yet.

It's going to be interesting to see what I make of my new workspace, when I move into an office. How much of the old me will come along? What will my co-workers think of the change?

Right now my plan is to save one shelf in the office for "toys" and decorate the rest with more "grown up" trinkets. This will force me to pick and choose the toys which have the most meaning, and remind me of my roots, while allowing me to show more of who I am today to those who step into the office.

The real question is, what do I put on the walls? Right now I have four posters -- 1 Sandman, 1 Swingers, and 2 LOTR. I've been thinking of decorating with travel-themed posters, though ... change it up a little.

Watch here for updates :).

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Not a programmer?

In the early 1980s, our classroom received its first computer. It was a TI 99/4A which ran some educational software but more importantly had a BASIC interpreter.

I sat and watched as the teacher asked if anyone in the class knew how to use it. One kid did, a popular boy named Tim. It was ... maddening ... to my little nerd self. I was the smart kid. I knew math, spelling, science. Tim was supposed to be the popular kid, who could beat up anyone in a playground fight and always got picked first at kickball ... how dare he know something academic that I didn't?

That shit would not fly. That summer I took a "Advanced BASIC Programming" class (yes, I jumped right into advanced; the beginner class was full) and a typing class, and by the start of seventh grade I was well on my way to being the kid who knew the most about computers in the class.

Little did I know then how much of a big deal this would be. The rest of my education in some way or another was centered around computers. Computers would dominate my spare time and hobby cash spending for years to come, and would even lead me to my first girlfriend.

As a sophomore in college, some Math professors sat me down at a table and tried to talk me into changing my major from Computer Science to Math ... but I would have none of it. Writing software was what I did. I couldn't imagine leaving it behind.

And now, in a way, I am.

Starting in mid-July, my job title will no longer contain the word Engineer. I will be a Manager. UML diagrams will be replaced by Microsoft Project Charts. If I do my job right, not a single piece of new code with my name on it will make its way into the final product after that day.

This is big, really big. It's a huge departure from what I've been doing for longer than I've had to shave. And while it scares the living daylight out of me, I'm thrilled and energized by the challenge.

I'm sure I'll be writing more about this as I actually transition into the role. For now ... I just keep thinking of that kid who wanted to make computers "do cool stuff." I hope I can feel some of that enthusiasm again, in helping other people "do cool stuff" instead.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Step one is (not) optional

(Wise quote from Jess's uncle: "If you're going to be a home-owner, you better get comfortable with killing things.")

Based on personal experience, here is how best to remove an infestation of gypsy moth caterpillars. There are several things you must have at your disposal, first:
  • A large pruning instrument, for removing branches of trees where the caterpillars have made their tents.
  • Materials for building a small fire. Kindling-level is fine here.
  • A fire accelerant will be handy.
  • Something to start the fire.
  • Obviously you must locate your caterpillar tents.
Now, the actual methodology:
  1. (This step is optional [not really].) Build a small fire. Leave kindling to catch.
  2. Go forth and prune your trees, gathering the afflicted tree limbs.
  3. (This is step is optional) Spray nests with fire accelerant (WD-40 works).
  4. Place limbs over fire so that nests catch and burn caterpillars.
I can't say what comes after that, because we skipped step one. Our method was more like this:
  1. Go forth and prune your trees, gathering the afflicted tree limbs.
  2. Place cardboard under tree limbs.
  3. Light cardboard on fire.
  4. Add accelerant after realizing fire is taking forever to start.
  5. Caterpillars realize things are heating up, crawl out of nests by the hundreds, and take off running.
  6. You alternate crushing the fleeing caterpillars with your feet and spraying the whole scene with WD-40 to help the fire spread and do its work.
  7. Disgusted, nauseated, and perhaps a little scorched, you hose down the impacted area.
  8. You scuff the caterpillar guts off your shoes later.
So, the moral of the story? The fire better be hot enough to kill those bastards before they have a chance to notice it, or a simple sweep and clear becomes a total clusterfuck.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Happy Anniversary

So, tomorrow Jessica and I celebrate 12 years together.

Don't worry, I'm not going to jump off of a balcony.

In fact, we're playing it pretty low key this year. Yesterday we ran some errands, did some shopping, and had separate evenings (Jess had a mini class reunion from her collge friends; I ran Scarlet Strat in WoW). Today we went out for breakfast, and took a leisurely drive down route 9 to Easthampton (via Amherst, Hadley, Northampton). We drove down the streets we used to live on, cruised through our high school parking lot, and looked up at the mountain where I proposed to her.

Not bad, if I do say so myself.

Then we hit a graduation party for her cousin Sara, who just finished at Westfield State and is hoping to start teaching soon. It was nice, as always, to see family. It helped that the weather cooperated, as baking in the sun made even Bud Light taste refreshing (notice I didn't say good).

We're getting old, you know.

I've been a part of Jess's family for much longer than we've been married. I was a near-permanent fixture at their family events back when I was in high school, hanging around with Jess's brother Steve. So I've literally seen these kids go from toddlers to high school graduates and beyond.

And somewhere in New Hampshire, a young cousin of mine, related to me by blood, is graduating high school this year. We're invited to his party, though I haven't seen him since ... well, let's be generous and say 7 years. Could be ten.

And I probably won't go. Because while Jess's family may be kooky, they're a family. They fight, but they love.

My family is nothing like that. My aunts haven't spoken to my grandparents in years. Every single time they meet it's a major dramatic production. If we go to this party, we'll be spending time with all three of them (my mother and her two sisters) at the same time.

I don't know if I can handle that much of my family. The one I was born into.

It's really not a happy thing to think about.

So instead I'll focus on the positive. Twelve years of building my own family, with someone who no matter how different we are, is perfect for me. And through some magical coincidence, I'm perfect for her too.

Works for me. Happy Anniversary, Dave & Jess....

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

This place sure has gone downhill

I mean, come on, Dave.

Your profile picture is now a broken URL. You haven't posted in two months. You can practically see the dust bunnies. And six months ago you were seriously thinking of buying a domain name because you were blogging regularly enough that you felt comfortable having a more permanent home for the content.

So what gives?

I don't know. For a few weeks, I loaded up this page every day and stared at it trying to decide what to write about. And then I stopped altogether. I haven't even missed it.

But three things happened to change that.

First, an online friend of mine offered me some workplace advice, based on her own experiences in a situation similar to one I find myself in. On a whim, I went to read her blog and it was really a cool experience -- just reading stupid random stuff about playing hockey and dancing and the trials and tribulations of work and all that. I realized that I missed having an outlet for talking about that stuff.

The second thing is that my buddy Clint said, "Hey, it's been two months." So, yeah, fine.

The third is that I just got back from JavaOne, where everyone talks about how we're in the middle of this revolution from the Information Age into the Participation Age, and how everybody's a publisher of content now. And I'm thinking, yeah, I dig that idea. In fact, I publish content ... like every two months. Shit.

So, there you have it. A rebirth of blogging.

So what's going on in my life? What's the context for future postings which I'll try to make more regularly?
  • After treating my body like shit for almost a year, I'm finally realizing that I can't keep it up. I've started working out again, from square one, because I've come to peace with the fact that I've lost most of the fitness I gained in the last push. After only a couple weeks of it, I've started to realize how much I miss it, and I'm a little bit depressed at how far I let myself go.
  • My World of Warcraft guild is going through some very tough times, after withdrawing from a raiding alliance due to conflict of vision. Things are very bumpy and we're not sure what the future holds.
  • Our home continues to improve. Jessica has spent significant chunks of time working on the outdoors, setting up little flower gardens and whatnot and watering them faithfully. We've finally bought and used a lawnmower. We're looking at carpet and flooring options.
  • Things are changing at work. I'll write more once things have been announced to my team (on the off chance someone from work stumbles onto this), but I'm likely to be changing responsibilities fairly soon.
  • Our 12-year anniversary is coming up and for the first time we're not traveling anywhere to celebrate. Just day trips.
  • Wedding season is coming up -- got a bachelor party to go to soon, and another to plan before autumn.
  • My mother is alive and well and living in her own apartment, and coming to grips not just with her health issues but also financial ones.
I'm sure there's more, but that's a quick update. I promise to come back, if for nothing else than to gripe about how hard it is to start focusing on fitness again after months and months of ignoring it....

Friday, March 24, 2006

San Francisco, Part Three!

Looks like I'll be heading to San Francisco again this year. This will be my third trip for JavaOne, making something like fifteen nights I've spent in San Francisco. I don't even think I've slept that many nights in Boston or NYC. Well, that's what happens when the company pays.

To be determined is whether I travel alone, or with Jess. We hadn't planned on an expensive trip together this year, but basically having her along on a company trip (if we don't do anything expensive) is a severely bargained vacation for her. We pay for her flight and her food, and that's it. Still, it's a different trip with just work going on versus sharing the time with Jess. Not that I mind a lot, but when every moment you're busy at the conference is a moment you're not seeing San Francisco with your wife, you kind of find reasons to stay away from the conference.

We'll see.

What I also have to decide, and soon, is where I'm going to stay. The place we stayed last year, Pan Pacific, is no longer affiliated with the conference. I'm not sure why; it was a fine location.

So, there are a couple metrics I need to worry about. Price is the smallest issue. Ideally I should pick a spot with a reasonable rate, but it's not a huge factor.

The next issue is location. While all of the hotels are "walking distance" from the conference, they vary from "next door" to 8 blocks away. Last year's hotel was a bit of a walk, but I never really minded it. Still, closer might be cooler, if it can be arranged.

The final issue is character. The truth is, I like to travel. I like to be in new places. While there's nothing wrong with staying at yet another Marriott, you have to wonder how different the Marriott San Francisco Downtown is from Marriot Boston Copley Place, say.

This creates an interesting dynamic. Close to the conference center, you have bland expensive chains which are designed for convention-goers. You also have a few expensive luxury hotels, and these are the ones I might have trouble getting paid to stay at. Further away, you have some of the more interesting, cheaper places, with more personality. Of course, one person's personality is another person's "dirty, noisy, and cramped." Finding the compromise is the hard job. The bonus here is that price and character are often inversely related. The $230 room at the Marriott is probably much less interesting than the $120 room at the Mark Twain.

Anyway, right now I'm seriously considering Hotel Rex, a small hotel with a literary theme near Union Square. The problem? I remember where this place is, basically another block further from the conference than I was last year ... uphill. Deal breaker? Or deal sealer?

It remains to be seen.

Monday, March 13, 2006

"Welcome to Home Ownership"

"Welcome to home ownership."

I hear that ... a LOT. I tell people about some minor adventure, and that's their response. I'm starting to see a trend.

The battle to turn this house we bought into our home is being fought on many fronts. The first one worth talking about is the paint job. The entire house was relatively unpainted. The main living areas were white, with clear markings of aborted paint attempts of years gone by. The bedrooms were a mix of white and this really pale blue, which looked like it had been unintentionally left on the walls. The previous paint job had been a less-than-enthusiastic affair, evidently, as you could easily see where it hadn't been completed: a giant unpainted area that was likely hidden behind a headboard in the bedroom, for example.

We couldn't decide how to proceed, but we started looking at colors anyway. And then an answer fell in our laps. Jess's parents knew someone who could help us out, and we'd be helping someone out in the meantime. This guy was someone her Dad knew through his church work, a Vietnam vet on disability after a lifetime of tough times. He was getting his life back together, had been sober for a while, and was a painter in need of work. For a reasonable price, he would bring his expertise into our home.

It worked out great. We bought the paint and the supplies, he showed up and just worked his ass off all day. Over the next few weeks, our house was transformed one room at a time, with the living room left for last.

And then he stopped showing up. We called, left messages at his group home, but never heard from him. Jess's Dad called around, and nobody had seen the guy in days. Where was he?

We still don't know. The working theory is that he fell off the wagon when his motorcycling buddy returned to the area, but we don't know.

So, thanks to my wife's initiative, we did it ourselves. She went to the store, bought some brushes, picked up some tips on things to do, and Thursday after work we painted our living room. Friday she put the finishing touches on it, including a couple coats of paint on the trim. Saturday we put our furniture back and packed up all the painter's stuff into one corner of the basement.

We still owe him a few hundred dollars, whenever he returns. And we'll gladly pay it. He earned every dollar of it. And in a weird way, I'm glad we got to paint one room. It gives us a huge sense of pride to sit in our living room and know that we did it. We transformed it. We made it ours.

And then, this weekend, we started working outside. We've got a lot of fighting left to do....

Monday, March 06, 2006

Zombie Horror

You know you are being lazy about updating your blog when your non-tech-savvy wife says she checked it and was sorry to see it hadn't been updated since she last looked.

So now I feel all obligated and such. Heh.

So I'll talk about horror movies, a subject which will bore Jess to tears if she gets stuck reading it. Sorry.

Last year, I was one of many people excited to finally see House of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie's first venture into movie-making. It was a classic setup, which you've seen in a dozen movies if you've seen it in one: young couple/group gets stranded somewhere in rural America, gets abducted by group of inbred maniacs living off the grid, tortured and killed one by one, leading to a final escape of one of the characters who either A: gets away, or B: is killed suddenly before escaping. Usually the "victim" characters are flawed enough that you don't feel too bad for them, and usually the "villain" characters are somewhat sympathetic in a "oh, those poor monsters" kind of way.

I'll be honest here. I dig these movies in a weird kind of way. But 1000 Corpses didn't do it for me. I felt like he glossed it up too much, took away all the suspense and tried to win it back with gore. It was too flashy, too much like one long music video with horror overtones as opposed to a solid suspenseful terror movie.

And yet, I still rented his followup, The Devil's Rejects.

And I am so glad I did.

This is so much the better movie. It's a slight departure from formula, in a way that really works and gets you involved. The movie starts with the "house" being raided by a large group of cops. Some of the family get away, and you follow the extended chase. You see the cop in charge of the investigation unravel to the point where at the end you've got a role reversal between the "good guys" and "bad guys."

It's awesome. It drips with 70s mood, has an awesome soundtrack, is gory in all the right ways ... it rocks. It's not flawless, mind you -- some of the acting comes off as stiff and forced, but overall I spent more time happy than disappointed.

The deeper question I ask myself is ... why do I dig this particular genre of horror so much?

That's the much more interesting blog post waiting to be made. And one which I'm not going to do today :).

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Goodbye, G'Kar

I believe that when we leave a place a part of it goes with us and part of us remains. Go anywhere in these halls, when it is quiet and just listen. After a while you will hear the echoes of all of our conversations, every thought and word we've exchanged. Long after we are gone, our voices will linger in these walls for as long as this place remains. But I will admit that the part of me that going will very much miss the part of you that is staying.
We'll miss you too, G'Kar.

Character actor Andreas Katsulas, well-known to Star Trek fans as Tomalak and Babylon V fans as G'Kar, died after a long battle with lung cancer earlier this week. Everything I've read about him suggests he was much more than a great actor, he was a great person. He'll be missed not just by his fans, but by his friends, and that says something.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Incoming! DS Treats!

Looks like DS owners are in for more treats from Nintendo.

Not only are there some eagerly anticipated games (Tetris and Age of Empires DS) and a hardware redesign (DS Lite) on the horizon, but Nintendo of Japan announced they are developing catridges for the DS to support displaying television and surfing the web. No news yet on if/when these features will arrive in the US, but you can be sure Nintendo won't be leaving us entirely in the cold.


Monday, February 06, 2006

On happiness

Every now and then, I come across a quote that resonates so strongly that I feel the need to save it.

Today, this quote appeared in the RSS feed (aka web clips) above my inbox:

The art of being happy lies in the power of extracting happiness from common things.
Henry Ward Beecher
I am at my best in life when I feel that sentiment to its fullest and act accordingly.

Thank you and congrats, Steelers

Until I got to college, football was something other people watched (related: beer was something other people drank). The Superbowl was an excuse to get together and eat junk food and laugh at the new commercials.

That all changed in early 1996, with Superbowl XXX. The Steelers and Cowboys met in Tempe, Arizona. The Steelers were down by ten, and Cowher took a gamble. He called for a surprise onside kick, caught the Cowboys off-guard, and minutes later it was a three-point game. The commentators couldn't believe it, the crowd was going nuts, and the fans I was watching with were blown away.

And I was hooked.

The Steelers lost that game, but the NFL won a convert. I became a fan just in time to watch The Pats make a run at the title and lose to Green Bay, sealing my fate as a lifelong football and Patriots junkie.

Last night, we came full circle. In Detroit, Cowher's team again squared off against the best the NFC had to offer, and this time they didn't need the onside kick: they got the lead and held it.

It won't go down as the best Superbowl in history, or even in the past few years, but it was special to me. Thanks, Steelers, for showing a young geek what football was really about, and saving me from countless Sundays spent with nothing to watch on TV :).

Friday, February 03, 2006

Game on!

I haven't had the writing "bug" of late, and so I haven't really put anything down here in a little while. I apologize to my legions of fans.

It probably has something to do with work; my work of late has me doing a lot of painfully boring writing. I recently took a 71-page template and turned it into a 30-page spec, so I should probably get some kind of Editor of the Month award. No dice, I'm guessing.

So, not only has my blog been quiet, but I really haven't produced anything creative lately. I have several borrowed books with creative exercises to help get writing juices flowing, and they sit in a bookcase mocking me. I just haven't felt the itch, except in one area -- gaming. And for once, the gaming itch is being scratched.

That's right -- game ON. We're getting our pen-and-paper gaming group back together, dusting off our dice and pencils and making it happen.

It's as much fun as I remember :).

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Harassment gone wild

I tried to explain what usually goes into a blog to my wife the other day. I explained how many blogs are just link farms, where people post links to other blogs that interest them, with a brief comment. I said that others are very focused, talking about political topics or specific interests. Mine ... is more like a diary, unless I feel like using it as one of those other kinds :).

Today I'm going to talk about a news story, found here:

The story talks about a study sponsored by a foundation that gets paid to put Sexual Harassment Education programs in universities, claiming that 62% of all college students have been sexually harassed. Obvious conflict of interest aside, let's look at how they define harassment:
"Most students are experiencing non-contact forms of sexual harassment -- jokes, gestures, remarks, homophobic name-calling, flashing and mooning are examples of that," AAUW Director of Research Elena Silva said.
Now let's step back a little and think about this. What exactly is sexual harassment? From a legal standpoint, it's defined in the US as "any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job, having the effect of making the workplace intimidating or hostile" (thanks, Wikipedia). Are these college students working on campus and being harassed? With a number as high as 62%, I find that unlikely, but possible.

Now, obviously there are looser definitions of the term which allows people to substitute education for the workplace. So that would be, using the same definition, "any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct in school, having the effect of making the school intimidating or hostile." A study on the subject seems to agree with this interpretation.

And here's where I want to question the fine folks at the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (the link to the actual study is dead right now, so I can't determine this for myself). Are your students claiming harassment at school (as in: in class, or other school-sponsored activities), or are they reporting unwanted sexual conduct by fellow students outside of the school? If I go to a party with fellow students, and someone tells a dirty joke, is this actually sexual harassment? Is this a problem we need to hire a focus group to investigate?

Let's look at the ERIC Digest link I provided earlier. Here's their definition of sexual harassment:

"Generally, any behavior of a sexual nature that provokes undesirable, uncomfortable feelings in a target can be considered harassment."

This is a dangerous precedent. I don't know about you, but as a teenager, I spent a lot of my time stuck with undesirable, uncomfortable feelings. Your brain is like a chemical experiment gone wrong at that point in life. The whole "learning to date" thing is one big mess of undesirable uncomfortable feelings provoked by behavior of a sexual nature.

I'm not saying that kids harassing other kids is a good thing. But young adults, set loose in college, will stretch the bounds of their social conduct. We have a million "girls gone wild" and "jackass" clone videos to prove this. Some of that behavior will make other people uncomfortable, and unfortunately that's a fact of life. Forcing kids to attend sensitivity training in between their all-night beer pong parties is probably not going to change anything ... except tuition bills.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Gore blasts Bush, does anybody notice?

Just passing along a link to Al Gore's recent speech:

An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution - an all-powerful executive too reminiscent of the King from whom they had broken free. In the words of James Madison, "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."


The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk.

Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the Bill of Rights.

Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march-when our fathers fought and won two World Wars simultaneously?

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I can't stop

You know, I usually hate the concept of mutual intellectual masturbation: a bunch of like-minded individuals talking about how right they are and how wrong everyone else is.

But I can't stop reading every single Ars Technica news story that involves the clusterfuck that Intelligent Design has turned into. Today's link is on a supposed "Philosophy" class that was a clumsy front for teaching creationism in public school. It's been shut down before the lawsuit even had a chance to gain notoriety -- even the Discovery Institute guys distanced themselves from this one.

Links for the interested:
Ars Discussion
"The Intersection" blog post

My wife thinks I'm a little obsessed on this issue, and she's probably right. I don't know how, over all the other "culture war" issues going on out there, this particular one sets off my alarms so much, but it does.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

We have the technology...

Ok, Google, pay attention. This is my next awesome free business idea. People want to be notified of news that interests them, right? So imagine a system where people specify exactly what they want to know, and you tell them that information.

For free.

Along with, of course, very targeted advertising. Someone has to pay the bills.

"Tell me a week before the new Sopranos season starts."
"Let me know next time the Dell 2001 FP is on sale for less than $450."
"I want all news and gossip relating to the cast of the original Star Trek."

I'm not talking about "areas of interest," I'm talking about very specific requests. I don't want to register for "Entertainment News," or even a search string. I want to be able to fully describe all kinds of information and sleep easy knowing that powerful forces are working for me.

This is, of course, the original promise of the Intelligent Agent concept. An AI scours the network for you, and when you wake up it tells you all you need to know. We never got there. Now, with information powerhouses like Google holding all the data and trying to figure out what to do with it, maybe it's possible to approach this problem?

Granted, allowing free-text requests from the entire user base would be disastrous. But you can start with focused specific requests, and generic search strings, and work your way upwards? You begin with trying to model the questions people might ask, and figuring out ways to answer.

The three questions I've put up above are all very feasible with current technology. And once I've registered them, I get periodic ads or targeted email letting me know of things which might interest me. You can't go overboard here, but targeted ads here would probably have a high rate of return. "You asked to be notified when Rush tickets went on sale in your area. While we don't have any news on that, we do think you might want to know about their new DVD set, which you can buy for 40% off by following this link...."

Done poorly, you've just got people signing up for targeted ads.

Done well, you've got a rich subscription service for the entire web. I'd opt-in.

What's more fascinating is the other side of this coin ... the user-modeling approach where Google tracks your blog posts, your searches, your emails ... and takes the initiative. "Hey, Dave, interested in this special offer for this monitor?" "Wow, how'd you know?" "We know. We know everything." People would complain, but ... doesn't it almost appeal to you?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Feeling the pain all the way from Vegas

Sometimes it hurts to be a geek.

CES is one of those times. Over in Vegas, dozens of companies show off their newest toys, and the materialistic little kid in me cries at every gadget I won't own.

For example, I thank my newfound home-buying debt for stopping me from trying to buy Dell's new 3007FPW monitor (while not-so-patiently waiting for the dust to settle and the price cuts to come on the legacy models ... if they ever do).

The real heartbreak is in the TiVo Series 3 unit, however. Here are a couple blog posts for you on the subject.

If you haven't heard me rant about DVRs before, you're lucky. I love my TiVo more than is probably healthy for a piece of consumer electronics, but it just can't compete with the features handed down by the cable company DVR. I hate the cable company software, I hate their interface, and I hate their remote ... but HD-capability, direct connection (no IR blaster to digital cable box), and two tuners wins out over all the nice things TiVo does (season passes that actually work, intelligent prioritized conflict management, TiVo suggestions, better in-progress viewing of recordings, network streaming of media from PC or other TiVos, and much more).

All that should change with the Series 3 TiVo. It'll use CableCard 2.0, which allows your cable company to give you a PCMCIA card instead of a cable box to decode their digital signal. You slap that into your TiVo, and you get the best of all worlds -- no cable company box, awesome TiVo software, and all the dual HD tuner love you can handle. It's got a lot more going for it too -- networked out of the box and ready for additional storage, no hacks needed.

In other words, it's everything I want in a DVR. Prices and release dates haven't been announced, but the rumor mill is suggesting a $500 - $1000 price towards the end of '06.

Can I really justify buying something that costs as much as my TV to help me watch it, considering how little TV I actually watch?

Rumors are also flying that Comcast's partnership with TiVo might extend to this kind of hardware. That would certainly be interesting (especially if, say, Comcast were to buy Charter and get me as a customer).

Hey, a materialistic little boy can dream, can't he?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Album of the Year

So, the votes are in (note: there was only one vote) for album of the year, 2005.

Dean Gray: American Edit

I am a mash-up (aka Bastard Pop) novice, to say the least -- my previous exposure to this musical genre was the much-publicized "The Grey Album" which combined Jay-Z's Black Album and The Beatles' White Album. This album still gets more play on my winamp list than either of the two albums it combines, so I guess I should have expected to find further entertainment from this kind of music, but I was genuinely surprised with American Edit.

When I saw the link to American Edit on some blog or other, I was only interested because of the number of comments who were blown away by the album. So I checked it out. Within minutes, I was sending links to friends and posting it on other sites. This was something special.

From a political standpoint, it's American Idiot with giant fucking teeth bared directly at the administration. I mean, American Idiot wasn't exactly politically neutral, but the remixes just remove all doubt. It's somehow deeply satisfying to listen as George Bush's speech is compared to the dialog of a Dalek from Dr. Who.

From a technical standpoint, it blew me away. Songs which I wouldn't even think were similar are blended together seamlessly. For a geek like me, it's a taunt -- look how little you know about music, punk. Watch how we weave these wildly different songs together due to a common sequence of notes, or a similar beat, or whatever else they have in common. I shake my head in admiration and humility -- I have no rhythm in me, and moments like hearing American Edit for the first time make that painfully clear.

Nearly two months after its release, I'm still grinning ear-to-ear whenever I play this album.

I'm sure if you're interested, you can find this album somewhere under the dark corners of the Internet. It's worth it.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Post-Holiday Movie Commentary

Quick movie "reviews" from the holiday season:

King Kong
I was blown away by this one, in spite of its length and my skepticism (Jack Black?). As a stinking LOTR fanboy, I saw Peter Jackson's footprints all over this movie, but it didn't bother me overly. What really blew me away, though, was how real Kong felt, especially in his interactions with people. That took it from "great action flick" to something higher, which is more than I was expecting. I think the single best scene in the whole movie was when Kong finally finds Ann in NYC, and they go to Central Park. Seeing them together, knowing what was coming next ... it was movie magic. Sure, the fight between Kong and the T-Rexes was amazing, but the real winning moment came much later in the movie.

I'll take Mainstream PG-13 Romantic Comedies for $300, Alex. I have nothing against formula movies, but honestly this is a formula that just doesn't do it for me any more. Jess wanted to watch it, and I sat through it the best I could. Sure, it had some genuine laugh-out-loud moments but so does your average 30-minute sitcom, and I don't watch them either. Given the awkwardness with which the two storylines came together, and the inconsistencies in the title character, it's hard to give this movie any kind of respect. Move along, there's nothing to see here.

I Heart Huckabees
Now this is an unusual comedy. This movie, clearly, is not for everyone. As often as I was laughing, it was usually at the absurdity of the story and characters. Think of a movie as weird as Magnolia or Vanilla Sky, but much less "polish" and strict comedy instead of drama, and I think you've sort of described this one. In many ways it reminded me of a slightly-higher-brow Big Lebowski, and not just because of the Nihilists. I can't really explain why. I think maybe a third of the times I laughed watching this movie, it was because I knew how much fun I was having and how little Jess was enjoying it. It was like a little comedic revenge for making me watch Hitch, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Ancestor's Tale - comments

Today I finished the Richard Dawkins book The Ancestor's Tale. It was a long journey, taking several months of my time to read through billions of years of history.

It was well worth it.

Do not be fooled. This is not a book you'll rip through in a couple days. It's meaty, it's solid, and it's full of science. Some of it is nearly impossible to follow, and you'll forget half of what you read by the time you're done. But, if you're like me, you'll still be glad you read it. Dawkins brings together the latest thinking in evolutionary biology to create a compelling visualization of how life went from its earliest stages to where it is today.

He does this by starting off on a pilgrimage from humanity back to the common ancestor of all life. Along the way, he pauses to tell the stories of various others who join in. Primates. Mammals. Fish. It just keeps going, and along the way he tells the story of life's incredible ability to adapt and overcome. It's mind-boggling and eye-opening, and it's hard not to smile as you learn something new every page.

It's not all good, however. At times it's dry and inaccessible, but that's not the real flaw. The real flaw is that Dawkins is writing as a soldier in the culture wars, and it's hard not to see it. He takes jabs at organized religion, at creationism, and at superstition as often as he can. It's not that the jabs aren't deserved, and I'm sure he showed restraint in how he did it. But it's still distracting. Some call it preaching to the choir, but I'm more reminded of the phrase "mutual intellectual masturbation." I know he's right and he knows he's right, and frankly nobody who disagrees is wasting a couple months of their life reading his six-hundred-page textbook. So just relax and tell the story you're here to tell. I don't need the propaganda that comes with it.

Read the wikipedia article. Dawkins is a controversial figure, and he can't resist the controversy here. But the book is solid, and well-deserving of the praise it has gotten. On my binary scale, it gets a "yes," with the qualification that it might read differently to someone with no scientific background.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

In With The New

2006 is here, and it's natural to take a moment to reflect on what has happened in the past year and what awaits us in the next. I am not a big fan of "New Year's Resolutions" because I think it's an excuse to set goals which can be broken with little consequence. But, especially this year, with so many changes at the end of the year, I think it's fair to reflect on what is coming in the next twelve months.

My main concern, I think, will be balance. I have long known that the chief stressor in my life is feeling out of control, swept up in the tide of competing forces. There are two ways to solve that problem. I can either exercise more control, or I can make a decision to not worry myself over a lack of control. The truth is that the middle road (doing both to varying degrees) is the only plausible path. The extremes in either direction don't lead to a life I would enjoy. But refusing to move along that path, feeling overwhelmed and inadequate, is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Progress, awareness, and understanding are vital.

With that in mind, I started writing a long-winded list of my different roles, who I am and what that means, but ... well, if I couldn't stand to write it, I'm sure I wouldn't want to read it. So instead I'll just keep it simple. I know what I have ahead of me. I know who I am, and what that means. I know I'm going to hit some speedbumps this year, but I'm not going to let them derail me.

So, watch this space, to see what I become in 2006. Watch me write about my responsibilities as husband, friend, son, brother, homeowner, engineer, and citizen. Watch me walk, run, write, game, travel, work, and read.

And hopefully, watch me figure out how to balance it all and keep a smile on my face.