Thursday, August 31, 2006

Freedom!

Several months ago, we got an inflatable beach ball in the mail from our mortgage broker along with her newsletter. On a whim, I inflated it and left it out on the deck. Since then I have amused myself by watching its random progress around the deck.

Initially I was sure that it would blow around for a day or two and then eventually get stuck somewhere and just stay there. However, even after three months it continued to make its way from one side of the deck, around the corner of the house to the other side of the L-shaped deck. Every time I was sure it was stuck under a chair, or in back of a planter, a day or two later I would see it blowing past the sliding glass door.

Tonight, while I was out moving the sprinkler in the backyard I noticed that the ball had managed to escape from the deck, roll down the hill and into our neighbors yard.



It turns out that someone left the gate to the deck open and the ball took its chance for freedom and escaped.



Unfortunately, after I retrieved it and threw the ball back on the deck, Pippen decided to punish it for its indiscretions.







And killed it.



That'll teach it, I guess.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

New Job

Today, after a three-month long process, a major change became official: I'm switching to a new job at a new company.

I've been looking off and on for a new job for longer then three months, but I only got somewhat more serious about the search at the beginning of summer. And even then, I was just applying for the occasional job that caught my eye as opposed to an all-out 'get me out of here' search.

Still, after a number of less-then-impressive offers for various jobs, I finally found one that looks like a good fit for me. It is still working as an Oracle DBA, but I'll be supporting an engineering group developing an application on the databases. So hopefully the environment will be a little more manageable then the people-destroying stress-factory I currently work in.

I've been working on getting everything locked down for weeks, but it was only today that everything was finally lined up for me to submit my resignation notice to the current job. My last day there will be on the 22nd of September, and then on the 25th I'll start at the new job.

My biggest concern with the new job is with the commute, which requires me to travel to downtown every day, a daily 40-minute bus ride one-way. That will raise some serious challenges. I'm also a little concerned at what the on-call will be like at the new job, but I am pretty sure whatever it is it can't be any worse then the 'like you are in jail at home' on-call I currently have once every 6-7 weeks. I'm also sad to leave all my friends that I've worked with for the past 6.5 years. I'll especially miss going for a walk with the guys during lunch in the summers.

But on the other hand I am definitely looking forward to the change. I'm certainly not sad to leave the messy politically driven re-org that my division is going through right now. I'm excited to work with a new group of people who seemed enthusiastic and really nice throughout the interview process. I'm also looking forward to working in a new environment, with different challenges and more growth opportunities.

I think the change will be good for me, so the 25th can't come soon enough.

[ As a side note: As has been the case since day 1 on this blog, the company I work for (and the one I am going to work for) will not be named here or in the comments. If you want to know specifics just e-mail me and I will tell you whatever details you'd like to know. ]

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Camera Repair

I completely forgot to mention, but after all was said and done, we did end up getting our camera back and repaired. At least as far as I can tell.

After my last post on the issue, about how Sony and/or Precision Camera Repair managed to screw up their half of the repair payment, I got another call from the repair shop claiming I was going to owe them more money. After explaining three times that this had all been cleared all this up the previous day, the lady eventually agreed and said the camera would start the repair process soon.

That turned out to be true, and a day or two later the website status was updated and the camera moved into 'in repair' status. A day or two after that, it was shipped out and began making the (apparently) long trek back to us. We eventually got it back on the 19th, so the whole process took about a month from start to finish.

Unfortunately, since we've gotten the camera back we haven't had many of the really brilliantly blue skies that seemed to reproduce the problem regularly. So I can't be 100% positive that the problem is resolved. But so far I haven't noticed the smudges on any of the pictures that I've taken.

It ended up costing $104 to get the camera fixed, including the shipping cost. That's expensive, but certainly less then we could have gotten a new comparable camera for. So hopefully the problem is fixed and will stay fixed. I'll be very disappointed if after all the effort the problem reoccurs in a couple months. But for now, I am happy with it.

Before:


After:



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Monday, August 28, 2006

TV: Entourage

Yesterday, I was feeling under the weather and since Linzy was in Duluth for her high school reunion, that afforded me quite a bit of time to become one with the couch. Actually, I did clean the whole house and do a bunch of laundry, but for me it was a pretty lazy day. Anyway, I found the time to finish watching all the Entourage episodes available.

I started watching Entourage a few weeks ago, when I discovered the entire third season was available on-demand. After racing through all of those, I got the first and seconds seasons through Netflix. Since it is an HBO series, the 'seasons' are pretty short, with only 8 half-hour episodes in the first season and 14 in the second.

I really like the show; I find it really funny. Jeremey Piven completely makes the show, dominating every scene he is in. Of the four friends, I think Johnny Drama is my favorite character, he gets into all kinds of bizarre situations that end up being hilarious. I also like Lloyd, Ari's assistant, their interactions are fantastic.

I thought the show really took off in Season 2. The episodes were all tied together nicely and were pretty consistently funny. Season 1 was good as well, of course, but I think they were still working on figuring out what they had. Season 3 has been a bit more uneven then Season 2, some of the episodes are fantastic and others were sort of throwaway.

Regardless, the biggest problem now is that after watching discs 2 and 3 of season 2 yesterday, and then watching the season 3 'mid-season finale' (or season finale depending on who you ask) last night, I don't have any more episodes to watch until at least March. And the March date assumes the remaining episodes in season 3 are going to be shown the same time as The Sopranos, and lord knows when they will get around to actually working on that show again.

Unfortunately even if it does go back on the air in March, that will necessitate some tough decisions since our 6-month cable deal will have expired by then. At this point it is looking like it will be pretty hard to wait all the way until season 3 comes out on DVD.

If you haven't seen the show, I highly recommend it.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

401k Matching

Lately, for a variety of reasons, I've been spending a bit of time analyzing some of our finances. Yesterday while I was transferring some money between accounts, I happened to end up looking at my 401k account information. That jogged my memory on something that I had intended to write about several weeks ago.

I had been reading an article that discussed the new 'Pension Protection Act' bill that was signed several weeks ago. Now, whether the bill actually protects defined-benefit pensions as the name implies or hastens their inevitable demise is unimportant for this post. The part that I found interesting was new rules related to forcing employees to hold company stock.

Company stock

The new law places limits on just how long an employer may insist you keep your money in company stock.

If it makes its matching contribution in stock, you must be allowed to sell it no later than after three years of service.

If you've acquired company stock before the law goes into effect and you've been at a company for three years, you will be allowed to sell a third of it in the first year the law takes effect, another third in the second and the final third in the year after that. But any new stock you receive after the law goes into effect you may sell at any time.

My employer happens to take the cheap way out of their matching contributions, making their 2% match only in company stock (actually a fund that approximates the stock, but it is effectively the same). They do not allow you to choose to invest the match anywhere else, nor allow you to sell any of that stock until you are 50 or older.

It's only 2%, they argue. What difference does that small amount make? The thing is, it is 2% of your salary and over the years if the company stock performs poorly it can make a big difference. Take my company for example.

Those matching funds are in an investment that has a total return over the past 6+ years of -45.9%. In other words, if I was to sell all that stock today, I would only have half the amount that they 'matched', effectively reducing their match from 2% down to a measly 1%.

Even worse is the lost appreciation. If, instead of investing in my companies common stock fund, that match had been invested the same way as the rest of my funds the total value of my 401k would increase by over 14%. That's a significant amount.

Now, perhaps the numbers are skewed a bit because the company has performed so poorly over the past few years, but the math stands.

As it happens, my company is freezing their pension plan at the end of this year and any further matching can be invested however we choose, regardless of age. But the funds already in company stock have to remain there, and regardless I'll probably never regain the lost company 'match', let alone any of the lost appreciation.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Random Junk

Last weekend I got frustrated with the amount of crap in our office closet, and so spent several hours taking everything out, looking through all the boxes, sorting junk into 'save' and 'throw out' piles, and then putting everything back into the closet.

Most of the junk was my fault as it was computer stuff that I was hoarding for unknown reasons, but there was a fair amount of other stuff too. Most of things, I had no idea we had kept. A sampling of some of the stranger stuff:

  • An entire plastic tub filled to the brim with empty jewel cases (including frustratingly, some with Microsoft OEM numbers that I was looking for back when I submitted for rebates).

  • The 6 and a half year old new-hire kit from my current job.

  • A force-feedback steering wheel and pedals for the computer, that I haven't used more then half a dozen times because it used to lock up my old computer and didn't really work very well with Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed, which was the only reason I bought it.

  • A huge plastic tub filled with books I thought we had sold long ago.

  • 15 old movie posters that used to decorate my dorm, apartment, and/or bedroom in my college days.

  • Three different DSL modems, despite the fact I haven't had DSL service since 2000.

  • 23 more-or-less empty product boxes from networking equipment, gameboy games, the scanner, etc. (and that doesn't count the unopened and still shrink-wrapped gameboy game boxes)

  • A gift set of fragrant soap, which since it had been inside a closed tub for many years was really fragrant.

  • The laundry bag I used in college (yuck).

  • A set of headphones so old the foam on the ear pieces disintegrated when touched.

I was a little sad to see the steering wheel go, as it was expensive back in the day, and I always had a secret hope that I would find a driving game some day that really took advantage of it. Oh well, at least the closet looks a lot nicer now.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Movies: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Last night Linzy and I randomly ended up watching the re-make of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after what I was going to watch was pre-empted by storm coverage. I loved the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was a kid, and probably have read it multiple times. I've also seen the original movie a few times and thought it was OK when I was a kid.

The re-make is pretty crazy, it is definitely a Tim Burton movie. But at the same time the book was pretty weird too so to some extent that is expected. I enjoyed Johnny Depp's crazy/creepy take on Willy Wonka. He did a fairly perfect job of treading the line between enjoying having the kids around and showing off his magic factory, and not really wanting them there. There was definitely a Michael Jackson vibe in there too.

The visual look of the film is pretty incredible, definitely very distinctive. Particularly once they get into the factory, the colors seem to explode off the screen.

My complaints are mainly around how they changed the story, and the fact that as much as I liked Johnny Depp's performance, I still don't think he measured up to Gene Wilder. But the movie did entertain me, and was worth seeing.


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Thursday, August 24, 2006

House Loans

I've been amazed for the last few years at all the expensive houses they have been building near my home and wondering who can possibly afford them. Since I know I wouldn't be able to.

A popular topic in the business section lately has been how most new loans are ARM loans and interest-only loans have also been increasing. So I found a post "Is a Housing Crisis Approaching" on The Big Picture today pretty interesting as it laid out all kinds of the numbers related to loan originations, home equity, and negative amortization.

I think I'd be a little concerned if I was a bank.


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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Movies: Pirates of the Caribbean 2

Tonight I was looking back over some of my posts and realized that a movie I saw a while back had slipped through the cracks and was never reviewed. And we can't have that.

About a month ago, Linzy, Brenden, Allison and I were four of the millions (and millions) of people who went to go see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. I wasn't really all that impressed.

As it happened, the ending had been ruined for me by Gerard and Wes when we were picking up the TV but I don't think that really had much to do with my ambivalence towards the movie. Instead I just didn't find the movie particularly compelling.

I was disappointed (but not surprised) to find that most of the humor from the first movie, which felt fresh and spontaneous then, felt forced and 'written in' this time around. I also didn't think they did much to try and build the characters beyond what had already been done. Finally, I thought the movie seemed to drag on a bit. There was plenty of action but it didn't really feel like a lot of it was central to the story.

On the other hand, the special effects were pretty cool (particularly, of course, Davey Jones). And there was definitely a lot of action, with the sword fight on the waterwheel probably being one of the highlights.

I didn't really hate the movie, I just didn't like it all that well. Certainly not as much as I enjoyed the first one. I guess that is pretty common with a sequel, and probably explains why I never felt compelled to write anything up about the movie.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Garden of Weden

Earlier this summer, I got some new neighbors on one side of my house. They seem nice enough, although I haven't had much interaction with them. Shortly after they moved in, their bulldog made a prison break out of their fenced backyard by pushing his way under the fence in a spot where the chainlink portion was a bit off the ground (and thus flexible).

Just a few days after that, my new neighbors spent a weekend staking down the fence and filling in the gaps between the ground and the fence with black dirt, and then re-seeding the new dirt. I assumed that re-seeding was with grass.

Ha.


It was actually wildflowers. The picture doesn't really do justice to the size and thickness of the plants.

Now, I like wildflowers as much as the next guy when they aren't threatening to invade my lawn. But when they are spreading through the fence and get in the way when I mow, then I get a little annoyed. Not annoyed enough to actually complain anywhere other then here, but it does seem sort of tacky not to at least put a border or something around the wildflower patch to keep it from spreading.

Oh well.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Biking Update

On Sunday morning I went out for a longer ride on my bike in preparation for the upcoming St. Paul Bike Classic. The ride caught my attention when I was entering it into my log because it was one year to the day after my first attempt at a 25 mile ride (not counting the one where my wheel broke). Apparently the 20th of August is my internal threshold for "the bike classic is coming up pretty soon, I need to get this training regiment in gear".

Unfortunately I was only .4 miles per hour faster on this year's ride then last year's (that translates to a mere three minutes faster overall). I was looking better at the first split, but then fell off a bit on the second loop.

My not-so-impressive improvement is probably directly related to the fact that I just haven't been riding as much as I did last summer. I've been really busy and so have lots of weeks where I only get 1 or 2 rides in all week. My weekly mileage this year is about 25-50% less as compared to last year, which certainly can't help matters.

On the other hand, I am faster then last year, and there is something to be said for that. I've also noticed a significant improvement when riding the hills during the various routes I ride south of my house.

So on the positive side, I am still improving, even if it is not quite as much as I might like. And I am definitely having fun, which is really the point. Getting into better shape is just a bonus side-effect as far as I am concerned.


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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Frozen Pizza

Tonight I ended up eating some of a frozen pizza at home for the first time in probably three years. Frozen Pizza was a staple of my diet in college, and the first few years afterwards, but after that it was pretty completely replaced with getting pizza out and/or Linzy's homemade pizza (which is terrific.

Tonight the planets aligned like thus:

Linzy wasn't feeling well, so she decided she wanted chicken soup for dinner instead of the planned meal. At the last minute, I realized that while we had chicken soup for Linzy, we didn't have any of the types of soup I like. So I went to the grocery store to pick some up.

After getting the soup, I was walking past the pizza aisle and for some reason recalled that on our last trip to Davanni's they had signs at the table advertising their new frozen pizzas. Since they had were supposedly available at Cub, I decided to wander down the aisle to check out whether they actually carried them. At this point I didn't have any intention to actually getting a pizza, I just was curious to see how much they were charging for the Davanni's brand pizza.

Unfortunately, they didn't have the pizza, so my question wasn't answered. But in the course of looking through the entire selection of pizza's, I started thinking that perhaps a frozen pizza wouldn't be so bad for dinner. After seeing a particularly good looking Chicago-style sausage one, I caved and bought myself a pizza for dinner.

Unfortunately, going off the board for a random variety pizza was a bad choice, as I didn't really even like the pizza. I should have stuck with Tombstone.

And yes...I was hungry when I went to Cub. Always a dangerous situation.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Blogger Beta

So I switched over to the new beta Blogger system this afternoon. Unfortunately, the two new features that I thought sounded good don't really work yet.

First, I wanted to be able to label my posts, so that I could group all the movie/book/video game/etc posts together. But right now that only works if you switch from using a template to using their layout editor. Which I'm frightened of trying to use on my customized CSS template.

Then I wanted to be able to provide feeds of the comments on the blog. But no matter what I do to try and enable that in the settings, I can't get it to give me the URL of the feed in the sidebar. I tried guessing the URL, but got some crazy "Attempted access to row that is not the transaction row curTxnRow" error. So as far as I can tell the feed is out there somewhere, but I can't tell you where it is.

Oh, and the spelling check is totally broken. Unless the checker comes up with the correct suggestion, there doesn't appear to be any way to fix a spelling mistake without exiting the spelling check and finding the error, and re-typing it. There's also no indication that there are no errors (if that is the case), you have to manually scroll through the post looking for red-highlighted words. The fact that the spelling check is busted is amazing, since it claims to be the same thing as what gmail uses, which has always worked well for me.

And on top of that, it turns out Blogger users not in the beta test can't use their accounts to post comments here anymore. Sorry about that.

Sigh. I guess that is why it is 'Beta'. At least the Edit Posts page finally maintains its formatting even if posts have divs with float alignments.


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Stocking Up

After work yesterday I stopped at Sam's Club to pick up a case of Heineken as some friends were coming over for a Game Night.

While I was standing in line, three guys who were all together got in line behind me. Each had his own cart filled to the brim with cases of beer. Unable to help myself, I had to count. Between the three of them, they had 22 cases. Now that's some serious stockpiling of beer.

I'm not quite sure why they couldn't have just settled for a few kegs. Sure there might have been a bit less variety, but it would certainly have been cheaper. And probably easier to get home and keep cool then 22 individual cases of bottles.

Incidentally, I had plenty of time to count their cases of beer because they lady in front of me spent 10 minutes trying to get the 80-year-old cashier to answer whether "Wine X or Wine Y was a better 'summer' wine".

Lady, it's Sam's Club. You can buy meat trays to feed 20 people through the other door, and the liquor store's specialty appears to be cheap prices on party jugs of liquor. Not knowing anything about wines.


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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Pippen the Explorer

The other day Linzy took Pippen with her to get the mail from the mailbox across the street. Our neighbor across the street happened to be out and so they spent a little while talking. During the course of the conversation, our neighbor told us about something we didn't know happened.

Apparently earlier this summer we left Pippen out to roam the house while we were running an errand. Leaving her loose is fairly common if we are not going to be gone all that long. On this particular day it was very windy and at some point the front door blew open (we must have forgotten to throw the deadbolt). Pippen, being unsupervised, took advantage of the opportunity to explore the neighborhood. She checked out our yard, and then started ranging further afield.

I can just imagine her little brain churning as she imagined the possibilities of wandering the block without being on the end of a leash. All the smells to sniff for as long as she liked, things to roll in, stuff to try and eat, etc.

Luckily when Pippen crossed the road, she wasn't killed and our neighbor was able to snatch Pippen up and return her to the house.

Thus ended the short-but-sweet career of Pippen the explorer, as now we are extra careful to make sure the deadbolt is thrown if she is going to be loose in the house and/or we are going to be gone. I'm sure it was fun while it lasted.


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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Parking Prices

On Monday night when Linzy and I went to the Vikings game, we didn't ride the light rail like we have in the past. Instead we decided to try our luck at finding reasonable parking near the Metrodome.

We got lucky and after just a little bit of driving around, we found an open parking meter just a block behind the dome. The street was not very crowded, I think because it was basically a one-way shot that dropped you on 94 without much opportunity to get off once you got past the stadium.

We sat at the meter for a bit, waiting until closer to game time, so that we would be able to put enough time on the clock. While sitting there, we noticed something pretty amusing.

On the right side of the street, just opposite from where we parked was a small out-of-the-way parking lot charging $15 for event parking. On the left was a large parking ramp that you entered on the next street over, but that dropped people out onto our street as they were walking to the stadium.

As people came out of the parking ramp, they basically end up standing next to our car staring at the lot across the street. As more and more people came out, it became obvious that the ramp was charging quite a bit more then $15 to park there. In fact, they were charging $25 for parking effectively at the same location as the parking lot.

The responses from people ranged from the bemused:

$15, damn. We should have parked there.

To the frustrated:

Shoot. Why didn't I come down here first!

To the hilariously angry:

Ten Mother-F**king-Dollars!

The last one had me and Linzy rolling in laughter, especially when combined with his angry pointing arm motions and expression.


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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Vikings Game

Last night, Linzy and I made our traditional trip to a Vikings preseason game. The game was a lot of fun, despite the fact that it was the first game of the preseason (for the Vikings at least) rather then the third game that we usually attend.

This year I splurged (relatively speaking) and got my company's lower level seats, which are in the first row. The seats are basically as close as you can get, because they are in one of the end zones so there aren't even players on the bench in between you and the action. They are so close you could give high fives to the cheerleaders as they run past, if you were so inclined (which the season ticket holders nearby were).

I've never sat that close to the field before, and it was really cool. You could really appreciate just how huge and fast the players are, when you were that close. Similarly you could see what a beast Sebastian Janikowski is, that man looks more like a linebacker then a kicker.

Unfortunately the Vikings didn't play all that well, and lost to the Raiders 16-13. They could likely have tied things up in the closing seconds of regulation, but instead let JT O'Sullivan try three passes for the end zone. Incidentally, JT sucks and should be cut as soon as humanly possible.

One bad thing about the seats was that even though they were close to the field, since they were in the middle of one end zone once the plays were moving away from us and past about the 30 yard line, it was pretty hard to have any sense of distance. You could tell if someone got sacked, but you couldn't tell if a run picked up 3 yards or 7. That combined with the 4th string players meant that by the 4th quarter I was having a hard time caring about what was going on the opposite end of the field unless we had the ball.

Still the game was a ton of fun, and I was really glad that we got the lower level seats. It was a great experience.

The Raiders running onto the field.


Just before the Vikings players run onto the field.


The Vikings driving down the field for their first touchdown.


Ragnar (Vikings mascot) celebrating a first down.


Ryan Longwell getting ready to kick a field goal.


The cheerleaders celebrating a field goal.


And doing a dance between quarters.


The Raiders attempting to score (our defense stiffened and held them to a field goal).


Kevin Kasper returning a kickoff.



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Monday, August 14, 2006

Bike Washing

On Sunday Shawn and I planned out a trip into Minneapolis to do a bit of bike riding with a change of scenery.

The plan was to drive up to Minnehaha Park, ride over to Lake Harriet and around that lake, Lake Calhoun, and Lake of the Isles, and then back. A nice, flat, 20 mile ride where we could rack up some gaudy average mile-per-hour numbers.

That was looking good up until about 6 miles into the ride (right as we started going around Lake Harriet) when it started to rain.

Initially we were hoping it would just be a light sprinkle and pass through, as the clouds didn't look particularly imposing. Another mile into the ride it started really coming down. A mile after that, we decided it could officially be termed a 'downpour'.

Soaking wet, with my shoes squishing water out with each down-stroke, we decided to cut the ride short and head back to Minnehaha Park. Unfortunately, in our haste to get around the rest of the lake, and with the pouring rain, we managed to miss our turn off to Minnehaha Parkway. We didn't realize it until we started approaching the bandshell for the second time, and so ended up riding around the lake twice in sheeting rain.

The rain let up slightly about halfway back to the car, but by that time it was way too late. We arrived at the parking lot just as the skies opened up for round two of heavy rains, and so we threw the bikes on the rack and got the heck out of there.

The ride ended up being 17.4 miles, but those were some pretty unpleasant miles.


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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Jim's Birthday

Last night, Linzy and I joined a whole crew of people out at Shenanigan's Pub for my friend Jim's birthday. Since the camera is vacationing on the east coast, there are no pictures to check out. However, if there had been pictures taken, they would have looked a lot like these of Gerard's Birthday where we ended up at the same bar.

We spent the evening hanging out, playing pool and darts and generally having a good time. Gerard and I teamed up for some pool against Jim and Tony and lost pretty badly. Gerard put in quite a few balls in a losing effort in the first game, and I had a couple of good runs to win the second of three games, but in the third game we got beat pretty handily. Darts were a bit more competitive, eventually coming down to me and Dan with everything closed but Gerard leading in points. Dan put together some nice throws and ended up winning.

The rest of the night we all just hung out and caught up on recent events for everyone. It was a good time.


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Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Healer

Last night I spent the evening reliving my childhood years by playing Dungeons & Dragons with some friends I've known since Junior High.

It has been a really, really long time since I played D&D, long enough that I was two full revisions of the rules behind the times (having last played AD&D 2nd edition). The changes are substantial, but actually make things play a bit more like other pen & paper RPGs that we tended to prefer back in the day.

I had a good time, despite the fact that my cleric was decidedly not as maxed out as some of the other characters. The group of players was a lot of fun and not quite as intimidating as I was expecting. And I did even manage to get the killing blow in on the big, bad, end boss and barely survive the surprise revenge attack by bbeb's wizard crony. I'm looking forward to hopefully being able to join the group again.

Although, it is not like I was in need of another way to spend my free time.


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Friday, August 11, 2006

Books: Mistress of Dragons & Wayfarer Redemption

I've finished two books since I read Splinter Cell a couple weeks back, one good and one not so good. The first book I read was Mistress of Dragons a book written by Margaret Weis, and the second was The Wayfarer Redemption written by Sara Douglass.

If you are at all familiar with the quality of Weis' non-Dragonlance and non-co-written-with-Tracy-Hickman books you should be able to guess which of these books was good and which was not so good.

Mistress of Dragons was a short book set in a brand-new world called Dragonvarld where Humans and Dragons co-exist somewhat peacefully. The book revolves around a few characters, a priestess and her lover, a king, a dragon in human form, and an evil dragon manipulating events. The book's plot featured a few mysteries, but for the most part they were pretty shallow. The majority of the plot twists could be seen coming from a mile away.

The book just didn't grab me all that much. I did like a few of the characters and am somewhat curious to see what happens in the next two books in the trilogy so I imagine I will read them at some point. But they certainly won't be bounced up to the top of the list.

The next book I read was The Wayfarer Redemption, another book Linzy randomly picked up for less then a dollar somewhere along the line. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the book. The world the book is set in is fairly unique and interesting. I liked most of the characters (excepting the character(s) obviously setup to become 'evil' over the course of the next books), and thought most were very believable. The plot was interesting enough to keep things moving, and the interesting world provided some cool settings for events to take place.

I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series (which is the only other one that I own), but first I am going to read Phantom, which Linzy found for pretty cheap.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Check is in the Mail

Today was the 9th business day after our camera arrived in Connecticut for repairs. Sony claimed that the repair would take no more then 10 business days to complete, so I have been concerned for the past few days that the website still listed our camera as merely 'received' versus 'in-repair'/'repair finished'/'in transit back'.

Linzy was nice enough to call the repair shop to find out what was going on. I must say I was shocked, shocked I say, to learn that the camera was not being repaired because somehow the portion of the repair that Sony was supposed to be paying for had gotten lost. So shocked that my first guess when Linzy asked me what was going on was: "Oh, I would bet that Sony never sent the other half of the repair payment"

I was suspicious in the first place when the customer service lady assured me that they would send the check ahead of time and it would be there by the time my camera arrived. That seemed feasible, but unlikely, given the speed your average global corporation moves at.

But I gave them the benefit of the doubt on sending the check and never followed up to ensure that it had been received (assuming that the repair shop would handle the complaining). I also gave the repair shop the benefit of the doubt about their status page, assuming that it was possible the camera would stay in 'received' status until the last second when they shoved a replacement refurbished camera in the box and kicked it out the door.

All that credit I was giving towards those two companies actually solving problems without needing my intervention was apparently misplaced. All that got me was wasting two weeks with the camera just sitting in the arrival dock.

After 45 minutes on hold with various people, I am assured the matter has been taken care of and the repair will be in process shortly. We'll see. If it isn't ready in time for our mid-September trip to a cabin in Brainerd I will be extremely upset.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Driveways

One of the better things that I decided to spend time doing last night, rather then blogging was researching driveway repair.

Since we've moved into the house, there has been a gap between the driveway and the floor of the garage. I assume at one time the two met but over time the driveway has shrunk/slid down the hill enough to make a gap. Shortly after I moved in, my Dad and I repaired the gap by filling it with cold asphalt filler. That worked pretty good, especially when I had the driveway sealed the next summer and they covered the asphalt patch with some sort of rubberized crack filler.

Unfortunately the asphalt filler didn't really address an underlying problem, which was that the garage slab is apparently a little too short and so part of the driveway gap sits over foundation blocks. I tried to work around this by putting a 1x2 under the asphalt filler to provide some support.

That actually held up surprisingly well for the past few years. But on one part of the gap, the part over the foundation block was slightly wider then the 1x2 could cover. During the hot spell a few weeks ago a chunk of real driveway broke off and fell down into the foundation block leaving an ugly hole in our driveway.

What I've been researching is ways to fix this. At the most expensive end of the spectrum I could hire someone to come out, rip out the old driveway, fix the problem near the garage (somehow), and put in an entirely new driveway. Slightly less expensive (probably) would be to have just a concrete apron put in.

I have a feeling those are both pretty spendy options, and so I've been considering trying to fix it myself. The current front-runner in theories (suggested by friends at work) is that I would buy some no-mix concrete and use that to fill in some or all of the foundation blocks under the worst sections of the gap. Once that hardened I would put down some sand and/or class 5 gravel over the concrete and then use the asphalt filler to fill in the hole in the driveway and the gap between the driveway and the house again. Then I would have someone seal it (that is my addition, to get more of that rubberized crack filler over everything).

It seems like this would probably fix the problem, if I can get a reasonable amount of concrete to form up and provide support for the new patch. A slightly easier variation would be to fill the foundation with sand, but I am worried that might eventually 'hourglass' away on me if I wasn't really careful to ensure I had filled all the way to the bottom of the blocks. On the other hand, I obviously don't need a whole lot of support to keep the gap filled as a 1x2 has held up just fine.

I'll probably call around and get some estimates for a complete driveway replacement just to validate how much that would be (especially since there are some other parts of the driveway that have settled over time so would be 'fixed' at the same time). Our driveway isn't very long (perhaps 350 sq feet), so it is possible that a new driveway wouldn't too outrageous.

But then again, asphalt pretty much follows the price of oil, so I won't be holding my breath.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Guest Blogger: Identity Unknown


Someone decided he had better things to do this evening than blog.
So the guest blogger has to do all the work around this house!
Plus, I had to pump out 2 posts today myself.
Check them out here.

(Shameless I know!)



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Monday, August 07, 2006

Movies: Bubba Ho-Tep

This weekend Linzy and I watched Bubba Ho-Tep.

I enjoy Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead and Army of Darkness, and I had heard good things about Bubba Ho-Tep, so I was expecting to like the movie. And I did think it was OK, but just not as good as I was hoping it would be.

The plot is ridiculous, as you would expect from a movie featuring Elvis, JFK, and a mummy as the lead characters. But the movie did have some pretty funny moments however, and that more-or-less made up for the low-budget and cheesy mummy and skeletal plot.

I thought Bruce Campbell was terrific as an old, bedridden Elvis. The flashback scenes were good as well, but I thought he was best as the self-absorbed, depressed Elvis basically trapped through old age and circumstances at the nursing home.

I think the root of my disappointment with the movie had to do with expectations (just like always). I was expecting a funnier movie, along say Army of Darkness lines and although the movie was funny, it was also a little darker and pensive.

Regardless, I liked the movie, just not as much as I was hoping I would.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Enunciation

Today in the middle of my On-Demand Entourage binge (which I should mention is a great show) I left the show paused for a bit while I went to talk to Linzy about something. It turns out that Charter only lets you keep on-demand shows paused for a short amount of time before kicking you back to the menu system.

So when I went back into the family room, instead of my paused show the TV was showing Nascar. I happened to walk in just as the announcer was talking about a caution flag that had just come out. He made some comment about one of the drivers and then proceeded to say:

He's really strategy-izing out there today.

Unfortunately I didn't see exactly what was going, so I won't be able to know Nascar strategy-izing the next time I see it. It's entire possible I might get it confused with strategery, and wouldn't that be embarrassing?


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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Creature of Habit

A few weeks ago I finally broke down and edited the start page I use for Firefox at home. The page I use was one part of my very first homepage way back in college, that had links to various things.

Having a page of 'your favorite places' was common-place back then, but I actually did it for practical reasons. I worked in the computer labs at UMD and so was frequently sitting in front of a computer other then my own personal computer with nothing to do but surf the web. So having a page with links to where I wanted to go was handy.

Anyway, after I finished college, the link page survived on my hard drive and is still in use as the start page. Except that I stopped updating it. I suppose with the rise of decent Internet search, and actually being in front of a computer that will save bookmarks made the page sort of unnecessary. But I still used like two or three of the dozen links on the page.

The other day I decided that while it was nostalgic to have a link to (say) 3dfx.com, it probably wasn't serving much purpose anymore. So I went through and edited the page for the first time since 2/99 and removed/replaced almost all of the links with links to places I actually visit.

That is great, except that for the past 7 years I've been used to only using a couple of the links in certain places in the list. And so I still find myself frequently clicking on links that I didn't mean to, because some other site used to be link #2 in the list and now link #2 points somewhere totally different.

So far I have resisted juggling the list so that the former site is back in the number two spot, because that seems silly. But it also seems silly every time I end up at AVSForum when I meant to go to Shacknews.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Movies: Underworld: Evolution & Syriana

As things worked out, the first new DVD Linzy and I ended up watching on the new TV several weekends ago was Underworld: Evolution. While the movie wasn't particularly good, I did think it was a pretty decent test for the TV. The movie is dark, so provided a nice opportunity to check out the black levels on the TV.

As far as the movie itself, it was very similar to Underworld, which shouldn't be too surprising. I didn't think it was noticably better or worse then the original, it featured a couple new locales and a few new tricks for the various characters but for the most part was more of the same. I was fairly indifferent to Underworld, and so have pretty much the same feelings for Underworld: Evolution.

More recently, I sat down to watch Syriana. I enjoyed it a lot more then Underworld: Evolution, and thought it was interesting and well acted. I didn't find it confusing at all (the most common complaint I've heard about it). I thought the story was engaging, well-paced, and put together in a way that you were just waiting to see how everything tied together. I'm something of a fan of spy movies, so perhaps that makes my opinion biased, but I thought Syriana was a good film.


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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Too Slow, Too Thick

Tonight was the first day in probably a week or more where our thermometer hasn't been reading 'extreme caution' or 'danger' regarding the heat index (it was only 'caution'), and it hasn't been raining. I was looking forward to finally getting in a nice bike ride where I don't spend most of the ride wilting in the heat.

I was literally half-changed into my biking gear when my pager went off with a call from work. Clearly I need to invest in quicker-to-change-into biking apparel.

Speaking of apparel, At work we have a fairly strict dress code. It is claimed to be 'business casual', but leans more towards 'business dress' minus a suit/tie requirement. A few days ago I was talking with one of my former teammates who has since moved to another part of the company.

He was telling me about how though that day he would have met our groups dress code, the previous day he wouldn't have. Apparently he gets wear spots on his khakis on the back pocket where he keeps his wallet, and unbeknownst to him one of the pairs had actually worn through leaving a nickel sized hole in the pants. Which would clearly be a violation of the dress code.

I commented that it was a good thing the VP (who dictates things like dress code to us) didn't see him, because then he would have had two problems:

1) He wasn't meeting dress code.
2) The VP would have thought that clearly he was paying my friend too much, since he carried around a billfold thick enough to wear through his pants pocket.

And actually, I'm not sure which of those would have been worse.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Death by Falling Rocks

Last night I had enough free time to play a bit of the next video game I am trying after finishing Kingdom Hearts. I am playing Return of the King on XBox. The game is kind of fun although frustratingly difficult for the most part.

I've managed to make it through a level where you play as Aragorn, Gimli or Legolas through the Paths of the Dead to recruit the army of ghosts needed for the battle later in the movie. After that, you have a boss fight against the dead king's ghost (which doesn't seem to be in any of the versions of the movie I own).

Once you defeat him, the cavern starts to collapse and you have to backtrack through the level to escape fighting through a few of the massed ghosts trying to stop you from escaping. The presentation is cool, with the whole cavern rumbling and shaking, and rocks falling from the ceiling to smash around you.

Sound fun, right?

I thought so too, until the first time one of those falling rocks hit my character in the head and I died instantly.

The first time it happened, I thought it was a fluke. But then it happened again on my many retries of the level. And then as the final insult, after fighting my way through the last of three areas with swarms of enemies, right as I was about to step out the exit to the cave, Aragorn got hit in the head by a rock and died.

That's not fun. Realistic? Yes. Fun? No.

And I happen to discount the importance of realism in a game that whose main characters are hobbits, wizards, elves and dwarves. Especially in a level that is all about fighting ghosts.

Falling rocks crashing all around are cool, but allowing them to hit and kill the character, when you can't even see the rocks coming due to the lame fixed angle camera, is just stupid.

No Twinkie for You, Bret Robbins

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