Sunday, April 30, 2006

and, more insurance

The recent bit of insurance comedy: I showed up for my appointment yesterday to have my car looked at, and they said they didn't have a record of an appointment for me. Aaargh!
After a few minutes, he said he found it. It was apparently entered oddly in the computer, and didn't print out on their paperwork. But still, State Farm as a company has been amazingly incompetent. Nice people, with serious organizational issues. I'm happily taking recommendations for other insurance carriers.
Also, the adjuster for my homeowner's policy seems like a good guy. He called the day after I filed the claim to let me know he'd be looking into it, but that it might be a few weeks before he got to it. Why? Because State Farm didn't bring him in until two weeks after the storm. Again, nice guy. But bad corporation.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Drunken revelry

I don't drink, and I haven't for years. I never had a real drinking problem. Rather, I just got too drunk at an inopportune time and embarrassed myself, and decided I didn't ever want to do that again. After a year or two of never getting drunk, I stopped drinking altogether. It hasn't been a burden at all. Teetotaling has only two real disadvantages: it's much less fun being the only sober guy at a party, and I'm always expected to be the designated driver. But it has lots of advantages: non-alcoholic beverages are cheap; I'm always able to drive in an emergency; I never have to worry about whether or not I might be an alcoholic; I'll never strain a friendship by puking in a friend's car; and, I'll never embarrass myself in public. Or, if I do, it's at least not because I'm drunk.
I was thinking about the relative virtues of sobriety after a party Laura and I attended this afternoon. I was one of two sober adults, and some of the non-sober adults were pretty radically non-sober. One of the guests was so smashed, she couldn't even walk; she had to crawl across the floor to get to a chair. I was nervous watching her try to navigate the stairs. I think dignity is generally overrated, but few things look as undignified as a 50-year-old woman crawling up stairs and dragging herself into a seated position. A few of the other guests were nearly as wasted as she was. I'm not opposed to people drinking until they're happy; after all, that's what I do (it's just that my happy number of drinks is zero). But I've never understood people who hit the happy point, but keep drinking until they're not happy anymore. Amazingly Drunk Lady was pretty happy at the giggling, silly stage of drinking, and she really should've stopped there before she hit the unhappy argumentative, incoherent, falling-over phase of drinking. Maybe that's what addiction is all about: you can no longer see where that line lies.
I was also thinking about the language we use to describe serious drunkenness. Most of the slang describes unpleasant states of being. If you really look at the words, it'd have to occur to you that you'd never want to be "smashed" (violently broken), "hammered" (beaten), or "wasted"(needless, frail, or ravaged).
And, after the party, I had an English-Major Moment. I mentioned that Amazingly Drunk Lady seemed to get pretty darn drunk on relatively few martinis, and Laura said, "Well, she mixes." And I said, "Mixes. Transitive verb needs nouns." (FYI, the missing nouns were "booze" and "pills".)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

more insurance

So, I'm a little irritated with my insurance company. Monday I had an appointment for someone to come look at my car, but nobody ever showed up. I called, and they didn't even have a record of the appointment. I didn't just invent an appointment; apparently the person who made it never entered it into the computer. When I tried to schedule another, they said that no appointments were available for at least three more weeks. After much yelling, they gave me an apppointment to drive my undriveable car to 96th and I-69 (about 12 miles) to have it looked at Saturday morning. So that'll be more than two weeks since the hail hit, and they're not even driving out to see it. And, I found out that my agent never filed the homeowner's claim. I had to redo that from the beginning. Grr. I'm about to start calling other insurance agents and shopping around.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Movies

I spent the first few months of the year not really seeing any good movies. I watched Underworld: Evolution, which didn't disappoint but wasn't actually good, either; it was a passable bad vampire movie with Kate Beckinsale that more-or-less lived up to its trailer. And I saw Ultraviolet, which was downright awful. I went in with really low expectations, and I was still disappointed. It was the first time I've ever been tempted to write an angry letter over how bad a movie was. I went in expecting not much: Milla Jovovich kicking ass, with clothing optional. But the movie was so bad on so many levels, it almost hurt to watch. Even the ass-kicking was dull, repetitive, and formulaic. And, the first time I can recall making this particular complaint about a movie: the nudity was contrived. Hey, Hollywood: we're guys. You don't need to come up with complex plot explanations for Milla naked. Just have her step out of the shower or something. Building implausible set pieces around getting Milla naked doesn't help.
From that nadir, though, my taste in 2006 movies has gotten better. I saw V for Vendetta, which defied my expectations in good ways. I expected an action movie with a little subtext, which is what the trailer leads you to expect. What I got was a good, well-written (albeit strange) movie with thoughtful dialogue, interesting imagery, and almost no action. It had been a while since I'd seen a movie that was better than its trailer; V was a welcome reprieve. And, it happens, the start of a trend. My next film was Lucky Number Slevin, which has been sold as a noir-ish crime story. It's actually more of a con movie, and a pretty good one at that. It's not exactly a con movie, but to tell you what it's all about would spoil it for you, so I won't. Suffice to say it's clever, very violent, and very well acted. Even some of the cartoonish minor characters were amusing creations. My next movie was an actual date with Laura. We went to see Thank You For Smoking at the new Keystone Arts Cinema. If you saw the trailer, it's a better movie than the trailer suggests. The main character's attempt to be a good father is a lot more prominent than the main character's eventual appearance before the U.S. Congress. It's a thoughtful kind of funny, and the script is great. The scene wherein the main character tells his son about winning arguments is worth the price of admission.
I had never been to Keystone Arts; it just opened around Christmas. The popcorn was pretty good, and the seats were comfortable, but neither was quite as good as the Kerasotes theaters in town. Keystone makes noise about using real butter, but that's only a perk if they use it in decent quantity. And the butter dispenser's behind the counter, where customers can't use it without leaping the Sno-Caps cabinet and using licorice whips to fend off the concession staff while you butter your own popcorn. Real butter's just not worth the potential for arrest, not to mention appearing on government terrorist watch lists.
Anyway. My other movie for the year was Silent Hill. I think the best way to describe the movie would be, "intensely atmospheric". The dialogue wasn't great, the characterization was thin, and the story was a little confusing -- not the confusing of too much happening, rather the confusing of too much left unexplained. It might have been better if I were familiar with the video games. And, speaking of, it had quite a few moments that looked like they were lifted directly from a game, including jumping puzzles, maps to memorize, and some very video-game creatures. In fact, it's so much like a game in places that when I said something about the movie's set design, the words "level design" slipped out instead.
So, in short, we're not talking Oscar here. But the movie was a special kind of creepy. A lot of modern "horror" is little more than a rehash of 1980s slasher flicks, with a liberal sprinkling of torture and cruelty thrown in to appeal to modern sensibilities (or the lack thereof). It's rare to find a movie as genuinely creepy as this. And it's creepy in unusual ways; one of the most twitch-inducing things in Silent Hill is the air-raid siren. The whole tone and style of the movie is chill-inducing. And the effects add a lot: the omnipresent falling ash, the town's darktime transformation, the make-up effects. Even the unnaturally long elevator ride adds to the creep factor. The human effects were impressively inhuman, from the children of ash, to the hot-tar-spewing creature on the road, to the faceless, deformed nurses in the hospital (an aside: if you have any Naughty Nurse fantasies, this might spoil them for you). And with all this, the creepiest thing in the movie wasn't supernatural. Even after witnessing the pantheon of hell's demons, nothing in the movie is more unnerving than Alice Krige's all-too-human Scary Church Lady. Maybe because we've all had more experience with righteous zealots than with undead horrors.
On a completely different note, it occurred to me as I was writing this that I've never really had Naughty Nurse fantasies. Maybe I've known too many actual nurses. I think it's for similar reasons that I've never had Naughty Nun fantasies either; when I think nun, it's more along the lines of my grade school principal, Sister Marie, than some hot babe in a short satin habit. But I'm still cool with the archetypes of French Maid and Japanese Schoolgirl. :-)

Early

I stayed up a little late last night. Which is only a problem since I had to be at work at 6am. So I groggily dragged myself in here and started setting up while I waited for the caterers to arrive. It turns out they're not showing up until tomorrow, when everyone else for the event will be showing up. So since I'm here early anyway, I decided to use the extra time to acquaint myself with the finer points of a chunk of modern technology. I tend to be pretty tech-savvy, but I just figured I really should spend a few minutes boning up on my calendar usage, figuring out which row of little boxes is Wednesday, and which row is Tuesday. I think I've got it down now; I'm even giving myself little pop quizzes, and I'd definitely be on the pass side of the pass/fail exam....

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

jazz and poetry

For those of you who didn't already know (this would be more or less everyone, I expect), April is not only National Jazz Appreciation Month, it's also National Poetry Appreciation Month. At the Artsgarden, we celebrate by having a host of the city's best jazz performers jamming on our stage all month. It's a lot of fun working with so many of the world-class jazz musicians in town: Frank Smith, Jack Gilfoy, Paul Holdman, Gregg Bacon, Marvin Chandler, George Middleton, Steve Dokken, and Mary Moss are all gracing our stage with some amazingly good music. The calendar is at www.indyarts.org; if you get a chance, come see a show. It's all good.
The poetry, though. I spent too much time as an English major to really appreciate poetry anymore. The emcee for our poetry readings is Indiana's current poet laureate. I'm assuming it's a title awarded to the most politically savvy person in poetry circles; I haven't seen any evidence that it's based on talent, and it's certainly not based on personality. I have a repuatation for being pretty easygoing, so it's impressive that she managed to irritate me in under a minute. I mentioned this to Chris, who did her first show; he said in his case it only took ten seconds. She's also set up residence under the skins of Michele, Ashley, and our catering cotract. The only person she hasn't irritated has been Mike, my boss. That leads me to believe it's on purpose; if she's managed to annoy everyone but the person who does the hiring, it's probably not coincidence.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

forgot -- prior insurance claim

I just remembered, I have had an actual insurance claim. This would be around twelve years ago; someone broke into my car and stole my brand-new pile of college textbooks. Because of the vagaries of insurance policies, they ended up not paying anything. It's been a while, so I'm fuzzy on the details, but apparently the $220 to replace the window didn't meet my $250 deductible for my auto insurance, and the $240 in stolen textbooks didn't meet my $250 deductible for personal property. So I was out $460 without touching my $250 deductibles. This was when I first realized that my insurance agent was just a cog and couldn't actually bend any rules to make my life easier. But at least she told me right away that State Farm wouldn't pay for anything, and she expressed some high-quality sympathy.
Now that I think of it, maybe that's what agents are for -- to certify to the company that there's an actual human on the other end of the policy, and to give the huge, faceless, soulless corporation a friendly face. And I actually do like Jane Green. When my brother and I announced we were going to Europe after we graduated from college, we received a number of gifts from friends and family. Mostly we got cash for the trip. Jane was the only person who gave us actual gifts. But they were the most practical gifts possible: she gave us each an inflatable neck pillow and a travel wallet designed to hold a passport, plane ticket, and Eurail pass. The pillows were great; we didn't realize what a great gift they were until the first time we tried to sleep on a train. The wallets were the kind that hang around your neck and tuck into your shirt. After our fellow travellers spent some quality time telling good stories about robberies and pickpockets, we were happy to have the peace of mind that comes from having your three least replacable things in a secure location.
So that's a big part of the reason why I've kept the same insurance agent for 18 years. I like her. And it's important to support people you like, even when it's of no financial benefit. Especially when it's of no financial benefit. It's what makes us morally superior to the faceless, soulless corporations. :-)

insurance

I called my insurance agent last Friday about half an hour after the hail stopped falling, and I had a claim number shortly thereafter. Today, after several more phone calls, I found out that I can't actually have any work done on our cars until an adjuster gets out to certify that it's actual storm damage that's covered by my insurance. And the earliest they said they could get an adjuster out was April 30. What?!? That's more than two weeks after the storm. And the whole reason the adjuster needs to visit in the first place is, essentially, to guarantee that I (after 18 years as a State Farm customer, with no prior claims) am not just faking car damage to rip them off.
I've had the same insurance agent since I got my first car; she's an old friend of the family, and I've never been inclined to go elsewhere. But now I'm starting to question if having an agent you like has any practical advantages at all. It's not that I feel like a cog in a machine. The actual problem is that she's just a cog in the machine. When she figures my rates, it's exactly the same rates I'd get from any other State Farm agent; it's all determined by a computer. When I have a claim, I have to call a 1-800 number, just like everyone else. A set of rules determines what I'm covered for, and the fact that she likes me makes no difference to my bottom line. From a strict financial viewpoint, I've got absolutely no reason not to call Progressive and find the cheapest possible insurance policy that matches my current coverage. My agent is strictly a human interface between me and The Company, and while I'm sure that makes things easier for the company, I as a customer don't like it. Because the personal relationship no longer makes a financial or practical difference (evidenced here by the two-week wait for a claims adjuster), personal loyalty is the only reason to stick with my current agent. And inertia, of course.
Oh, I almost forgot the biggest comedy of this whole insurance mess. As I was getting off the phone with the claims person who told me I had to wait over two weeks before they could get an adjuster out to see me, she actually had the nerve to ask me if I wanted to get life or health insurance through State Farm. Hah!

Monday, April 17, 2006

hail stormed

We had a major hailstorm Friday evening. I had heard people talk about golf-ball-sized hail, but I had always assumed it was natural human exaggeration; the biggest hail I had ever seen was about the size of a dime. But the storm on Friday dropped hail for about five minutes (a long time for a hailstorm), and the average size was actually bigger than a golf ball. My neighbor found one in his yard that was bigger than a baseball, and a fair amount of the hail was racquetball-sized. Ahh, sports metaphors. Anyway, I lost the front windshield on my Saturn, and my hood looks like someone took a ball-peen hammer to it. Oddly, even the plastic top of my car shows some pretty good dents; I thought one of the advantages of a plastic car would be dent resistance. Apparently not. I also have holes blasted in my gutters and some of my siding. I'll have to check the shingles on the roof, too. It's relatively new, so I don't want to have to replace it already. I'd like to do the repairs myself, but I'm not sure how the insurance company looks at that. On a surprising note, the soft top on Laura's Jeep survived just fine (though the hood's pretty dented).
This'll be my first actual claim in almost 18 years of insurance coverage, so I don't really know what to do. My previous experience has been with medical insurance, where they refuse to pay if you don't get pre-certified or go to the wrong doctor. I don't want any insurance trauma, so I'm not dealing with it until I can actually talk to my agent in person. And, she had more than 300 claims from the storm, so she's a little busy. And there have been articles in the paper about glass places not having enough car windows in stock to deal with the sudden high demand. So for now I'm driving around with a badly-starred front windshield. It's fine as long as I don't drive into direct sunlight....
And, because nature likes compounding calamities, an hour after the hail we had a huge thunderstorm. So everyone with broken windows got pretty wet. And, with my broken gutters, I got some water in the basement. Bleah.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Daylight saved

Indiana became the first state in the computer era to change its time zone. This is turning up a whole new pile of Microsoft Windows flaws that have heretofore gone unnoticed, because nobody has ever changed time zones before. For instance, when you change your time zone from GMT -5 (Indiana) to GMT -5 all of your Outlook appointments change back by an hour. Your 9am meeting turns into a 10am meeting. Dumb, but true. And, of course, there's no fix for this.
I wasn't too happy about changing our clocks, but I'm a new convert. I've (ahem) seen the light. In complete disregard of astrophysics, changing my clock has actually created a whole extra hour of daylight! It's amazing! I think this is soooo cool, I'm going to be ahead of the pack and set my personal clocks ahead an extra hour, so I've got even more daylight! I'll have an hour more daylight than anyone else. I might even start a time bank -- you know, to save time. I'm worried that I might turn into a daylight miser, though, so I'll make a practice of always sharing daylight when people need it. Whenever a panhandler asks me for change, instead I'll give him some of my extra daylight. I'll be like a little ray of sunshine in his day.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

accounting semi-math

I was once a math major, so I'm familiar with the more conventional number-crunching; not only can I add and subtract, I also do linear algebra and multivariate calculus. But I keep seeing people doing unnatural things with numbers and making it look like math. For lack of a better term, I'll call this semi-math. It's part numbers, part religion. I've had a few stunning examples of this recently. The first came with the justification for my benefits cut at work. They gave me a sheet of paper listing a theoretical employee's "total compensation". A lot of it made sense; they had line items for parking, salary, payroll taxes, health insurance. But they also had a listing for holidays, vacation days, and sick days. With a dollar amount. Wha? They have never hired temp workers to fill sick days, the work that goes undone has to be caught up by the employee when he gets back, and they don't pay you for unused sick time at the end of the year. Their actual cost for this is zero. Or, look at it another way: if nobody took any sick days all year, does their bottom line change at all? No. So their actual cost is zero.
One other bit of semi-math accompanied the benefit-reduction justification paperwork. They list the average employer costs for different expense categories from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, for one (yes, one) other company in our industry, and for the Arts Council. They list the average 401k contribution as 3 - 5.99%. It's an average, it has to be a real number. It can't have a range.
The other examples of semi-math came in the field of marketing and PR. A public relations guy was telling me about scoring a bunch of news hits on television. The story sounded something like this:
A 30-second television spot costs $1100. And we got almost 11 minutes of news coverage in the last four months, so that's the equivalent of 22 30-second spots, lets see, that's $24,200 in revenue from those TV spots!
Again, wha?!? I could see saying that the free exposure saved you $24,200 in marketing costs. But calling it revenue seems a bit Enron. I think the theory is that he got the equivalent value of $24,200 in free marketing, therefore it's income. But you never got the money; you can't spend that $24k. It's just free exposure, not revenue.
And, I just read an article about advertising in sports. They were talking about the dollar value of the exposure Nike got at the Masters golf tournament, and it had a really specific figure attached to it: something like $11,451,330. How the heck do they figure that? My guess: a certain amount for every second the swoosh appears on the TV screen, a different amount when the word NIKE appears with it, with some kind of multiplier based on how much of the screen the logo fills. Still, it's a little less math, a little more religion. Especially if you count it as earned income.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Benefits cut. Whine.

I'm assuming that nobody at work ever reads this. That's a good thing, because I'm going to spend some time complaining about where I work. As far as the actual work goes, it's fun and interesting and varied, I learn a lot, and I get to work with a lot of the talented musicians and performers in Indianapolis. What it doesn't do is pay well. My hourly rate is just slightly above the low-end starting rate for box pushers with the stagehand's union. People believe that satisfying work doesn't need to pay well, that you'll do the work just because it's good work. We particularly hear this about work in the arts: actors, musicians, painters, and even techies are all told that they should practically do their work for free, because they so enjoy the work -- or, worse yet, that there are so many people who would love to be professional artists, they should be grateful for any money they get at all. You'd think the Arts Council would try to work against this sort of perception, but it actually works in their favor. See, they're not only arts advocates, they're also an arts employer. And it's conventional wisdom that they don't pay as well as "the private sector"; the intangibles are the reason why people are willing to work for, presumably, less than they could get elsewhere for the same work.
I'm mostly whining about this because it was recently announced that they're cutting our benefits "to be more competitive with other companies in our industry". The benefit cut irritates me, but the "competitive" nonsense irritates me too. First, nobody ever raises benefits in the name of competition. In most fields, the job market isn't friendly enough for employees to jump ship because someone else offers better benefits. So, picture a hundred imaginary companies. The ten companies that pay the best benefits look at their industry average and decide they'd be more competitive if they cut their benefits to be closer to average. So now the average drops, the midpoint shifts, and everyone else who's above the new, lower average now has added incentive to cut their own benefits packages. Which lowers the average even more. And has the added benefit (for the employers, at least) of reducing the likelihood of someone leaving their job when their benefits get cut -- there's nowhere else to go, since other employers are doing the same thing. See where this leads? It leads to right where I am now, with my benefits being cut.
I know businesses are doing a lot of cutting these days. This is a pretty common story. It's happened to me before; when I worked for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, I started with a great benefits package. But after a few years, they decided that they needed to rework the structure of the benefits package to be more "family-friendly". They weren't cutting the total amount they spent on employee benefits, they were reapportioning the costs so large families paid less and single people (like me) paid a lot more. I quit right around the time my out-of-pocket costs were set to double.
And, as a side note, someone just told me that the comp time scheme here is technically illegal. Not that it's a big deal, but I'd really rather have overtime pay than time off. I actually lose out on this too; instead of money worth time-and-a-half, I get straight time as comp time.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

warped maps

I was fascinated by this, thought I'd share. It's a series of maps, but only the first represents the world's countries by land area. The rest morph the relative size of the countries by factors like tourist visits, population, and vegetable imports. Neat idea. Link: http://www.sasi.group.shef.ac.uk/worldmapper/

People eat these!

An old hiking buddy of mine told me that Crisco is the only thing people eat that nothing in nature will touch. He said you can sit an open can of Crisco in the middle of the woods in early Spring, and come back in late Fall to find it untouched. Animals and insects don't find it appealing. It won't even rot or mold, just dry out a bit. Even with that in mind, I still use a lot of Crisco when I bake. I mention this as a preface, so you know I'm okay with highly unnatural foodstuffs. But I've been following something similar that's actually made me swear off one of my favorite guilty pleasure foods. A while ago someone left a half-eaten Hostess Fruit Pie in the stairwell of my parking garage downtown. It's propped up on an I-beam where you wouldn't really notice it if you don't pay attention; it might have even been there a while before I spotted it. For the first few days I was watching to see if anyone at the garage would notice it and throw it away. After a week or two, though, I was noticing that even though it was pretty warm in the stairwell, the pie didn't seem to be getting moldy or decomposing at all. After a month, I was actually looking close to see if I could see any signs of decay. It's been maybe two months, and it still looks exactly like it did on the first day. It's mostly made of things that naturally rot or mold, like pastry, fruit, and donut sugar; how many scary preservatives have to be in there for it to stay intact? Creepy. I think ants would eat a Hostess Fruit Pie, but I'm suspecting I've had my last one. Plus, they're pretty bad for you anyway.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

April Fools

Today's the day, the big geek holiday: April Fool's Day! Or maybe April Fools' Day. I was never sure how many fools were involved. There was a time when this was one of my favorite holidays: not as cool as Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Halloween, but way more fun than Easter, July 4, or Memorial Day. Arbor Day and Flag Day don't even register on the scale. But April F'ools was a lot of fun. I was heavily into pranks: exploding toilet seats, changing people's car radio presets, things like that. I spent way more time planning for April Fo'ols Day than I did, say, buying Christmas presents. I'm not sure when practical jokes became unfunny for me. Or, more correctly, when they stopped being funny enough to justify the effort. But, when I was a teenager, nothing was funnier than an exploding toilet seat. My sense of humor has, of course, matured since then. Now, nothing's funnier than the audio clip from Dodgeball that plays when we shut down our computer at home: "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball." --"What?" zzwwwipBONK "Owwwww!" I'll see if I can get a probably copyright-infringing link up soon!

ESPN guys

We're nearing a whole week of the ESPN occupation of the Artsgarden, and I just wanted to note that everyone on ESPN's crew has been an absolute joy to work with. They're all professional, friendly, and really nice. This is somewhat of a rarity on a big show.
I figured out years ago that I'd rather work with someone who's pleasant to work with, rather than someone who's better at their job. It's almost an absolute -- you'd have to be actively bad at your job to balance out the fact that you're a great guy, and there's no level of competence that would make me happy to work with a jerk.
This isn't hypothetical; I speak from experience. A few years ago, I was venue for Chris Isaak. Chris himself (what little I saw of him) seemed pretty cool. But his crew were awful. Very good at their jobs, and really difficult to work with. I truly would've preferred nice high-school kids over his gang of expert jerks. True story: we were watching Chris's monitor guy patching in. We asked him about something he was doing, and he gave us a very professional technical explanation of why he was doing things the way he was. Then he said, "Of course none of you redneck hilljack dipshits in Indiana know anything about that kind of thing." Really. And he said this to my assistant, who's the best sound guy his age I've ever known. (That is, everyone I know who might be better are all old guys who toured for a few decades and now run their own companies.) That kind of abrasiveness isn't even practical; if the guy had forgotten batteries for the wireless, I would've sent him a few miles down the road to a drug store before I would've opened my desk drawer and shared my battery stash. I don't think I'd ever stoop to being a jerk with guys like that, but I would definitely be not-nice.
But, yeah, the ESPN guys are the best of both worlds: professional, competent, and really nice. Which means someone else higher up at ESPN really knows how to put a crew together. ESPN -- you rock!