Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Mistletoe Returns!

It's once again time for the Artsgarden's annual holiday choir and band party, the Mistletoe Music Festival. This year we've only got 65 performances, which is fine with me. We've still got an office pool going for how many kids faint and get sick on stage, but we've replaced the category for how many times we hear Carol of the Bells with many times we hear Jingle Bells/Jingle Bell Rock and added a category for how many times we hear Let It Snow. We're done with day one. So far, only one Jingle Bells and three Let It Snows. I picked high in the pool; it's not looking good for me so far.

Loud, obnoxious kids are only an occasional problem with the Mistletoe performances. Usually other performing groups are respectful of the group on stage and tend to be fairly quiet. We just had maybe the worst group of kids I can remember, though. About 40 (sounded like 250) kids from St. Simon's tromped in and ate lunch here. They were loud and obnoxious. More surprising, or possibly not surprising at all, were the parents, teachers, and chaperones. They were much louder than the kids, and much more prone to giving us dirty looks when we shushed them. I won't overgeneralize about Catholic school kids, but I can pretty fairly generalize about their parents. Some of the kids are convinced that the rules don't apply to them, and it's easy to see where they get it. I've got a good story about evil parents from my days working at Holy Spirit, but I'll save that for another time....

On an unrelated note, one section (out of seven) of the Christmas/Holiday decor I hung two weeks ago is dark. Near the bottom of the troubleshooting tree I found the problem: every single light bulb had burned out. None of the other pieces have any dead bulbs at all. Some electrical work later, I figured out that one phase of power in the building is a high leg, at 140 volts instead of 110. You may have heard that if you run a bulb on a dimmer you radically increase your lamp life; the opposite is also true. Apparently running these at 140V reduced the lamp life to a week or so. I've fixed the wiring, now I just need to monkey around and change a pile of light bulbs. We've got a running joke here about re-using existing wiring -- the joke is that you can't. It's funny because it's true.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Back In Town

We're back! Here are some random thoughts from the trip.

The drive, as always, had moments of comedy. On our last two out-of-state trips we've seen a fair number of billboards advertising "Asian massage", generally 24 hours a day. We're seeing two options: either truckers have discovered the joys and practical benefits of massage, or it's a code for "hookers found here". We're being optimistic and assuming the former. The other funny driving moment came when we pulled up behind a truck with a sign on the back that said, "Drive Safe, We Can Wait." Laura thought that was an awfully nice sentiment for a trucking company: be safe, even if it slows us down; your life is more important than our time. Then we drove beside the truck and saw it was owned by the Clark Grave Vault Company. It completely changed the message.

The eleven-hour drive is ideally a 9- or 10-hour drive. We spent an extra hour waiting on the Beltway, and we had more delay in Maryland where I-70 and I-68 each went to a single lane, then merged into yet another single lane. For absolutely no reason. Four or five miles of this, with absolutely no heavy equipment or actual work happening. We think they blocked it off early, to inconvenience the maximum number of people on the country's busiest travel day.

Thanksgiving itself was a fun day. The early preparations and cooking involved me in no way whatsoever, except for some minor rearranging of furniture (I move heavy things, grunt). Laura's brothers all congregated at her mom's house for dinner. Wes and his girlfriend Rebecca came for a visit, as did Brian and Gary and his son Ashton. We enjoyed spending some time together, and Laura's family were good company.

I got to finish a book in Virginia, which I haven't done for two or three weeks; I've been busy. I read Christopher Paolini's Eragon. It was a nice fantasy story. It was also an education about the craft of writing. Over the course of the book, you could actually watch the writing style improve. The writing in the prologue would've been more at home in mediocre internet fanfic. But by the end of the novel it looked like professional prose.

In Fairfax I saw the back half of a bright red tanker truck. It had a picture of a coffee pot sitting on a pile of beans next to the words, "Our Coffee Is Always Hot." I had never seen a coffee tanker before. When the truck blocking my view moved, I saw it was a Sheetz tanker; we don't have Sheetz (a gas/convenience chain with built-in short-order restaurants) in Indy, so I didn't recognize it. I'm assuming it's a gas tanker with a coffee ad on its side. That, or their coffee is rated DOT Flammable class 3. I've never tried Sheetz coffee, so I can't say. If it were Zelma's Diner coffee, I'd believe it.

People are a bit less trusting on the east coast. I'm basing this sweeping generalization on the fact that the Einstein's Bagels in Fairfax doesn't have an honor box where you drop your dollar for a refill. You must instead wait in line and go to the register to refill your travel mug.

And, a little politics. We saw a sign when we hit the PA Turnpike that said, "Your Toll Dollars At Work: Construction Completed One Year Early!" I saw this sort of thing with Hyperfix, Indy's recent highway revamp. The construction company was on a very tight schedule, but they were paid a bonus if they finished early. The earlier the job is done, the bigger the bonus. Earlier than what, I wondered? Earlier than they said they'd finish, of course. I wonder how long it took the bidding guys at the construction company to do the math. They figure a job will take 30 days. And they know they get paid a million dollars extra per day early they finish. So, why not estimate the job at 35 or 40 days? Instant millions, like a guaranteed winning lottery ticket. I need that kind of job, wherein not only do I set my own schedule, I also determine after how many hours I'm on overtime.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Virginia. And, the Voov Ray.

Laura and I are about to take off for Virginia to spend Thanksgiving with her mom and brothers. It's ten hours in the Jeep each way; we've got the XM radio and a few books on tape to keep us occupied during the drive. We'll be back Sunday, if all goes according to plan. Wish us safe travels.

And, something funny. I was in the wine aisle at the grocery recently, and I heard someone asking where they could find the vouvray. I know it's a kind of wine, but when I heard them asking, the first thing that popped into my head was Ming the Merciless. I could just picture him shouting: "Flash Gordon thinks he has escaped my clutches, but he underestimates me. Commander, prepare to fire the Voov Ray!"

Speaking of wine, Laura's brother Gary is a pretty serious epicure, so we'll be having a wine tasting while we're in Virginia. Laura's bringing out two bottles of white, so Gary can go into details about how to tell the differences between them (or whatever it is oenophiles do when they're tasting wine). If it looks interesting enough I might actually try it myself, even though it'll involve actually drinking wine. It'll be the first alcoholic anything I've had for over five years, though, so I suspect I won't.

For the first time ever I just used oenophile in a sentence. Hoo-ah! I knew that English degree would come in handy for something.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


102 hours later, my work week is over. Yee-ha.

And, I actually got all of my work finished! In the past week I hung 500 feet of MC cable, 49 junction boxes, and 52 duplex outlets to power the new Christmas -- oops, make that holiday -- decor. I also hung the actual holiday decor. 70 abstract metal shapes, ten jagged sheet-aluminum snowflakes, a thousand feet of steel cable. And this week I also had six performances and three events. Busy.

We had a great party band for our event Friday. The band was called Mike and Joe, apparently for the two guitar players. I wonder if the bassist and the drummer feel left out. Anyway, they played some high quality cover songs. I heard that they had some good original songs, but you never hear them at parties; people don't want to hear new music at a party, they want to hear things they already know the words to. In addition to the high-quality cover music, they were also good to work with. They travel a fair amount so if you ever get a chance, catch their show and let me know if their originals are as good as their covers.

Now, home. Bed. Sleep. Ciao!

Friday, November 17, 2006

time dilation

I mentioned earlier that I hit the 40-hour mark this week on Tuesday at 5:30pm. I hit the 80-hour mark fifteen minutes ago, and by the end of the weekend I will have hit exactly 100 hours. If I followed union rules for overtime, I'd get paid 180 hours for this week. If there's some philosophical basis behind overtime pay, that means I've done an entire month's work this week. It's enough to make me wish I actually got paid overtime, instead of volunteering for that extra 60 hours. Heck, forget actual overtime pay -- this week, I'd be happy with an hourly rate for the post-salary hours.

I'm not only working a lot, I'm working hard. Moving heavy things, wiring, hanging artwork. I figure I've spent 30 hours this week in a lift, and another ten or fifteen climbing steel. I feel tired. And I feel silly saying this, but I think I might be getting too old for 100-hour weeks of hard labor.

I've noticed that I'm experiencing science-fiction time dilation. At this point, I have absolutely no sense of relative time. Tuesday I found myself telling a co-worker how much I enjoyed the Bill Lancton Quartet earlier in the week, and they reminded me that the show was only a few hours earlier the same day. That kind of thing has been happening all week. I was thinking just an hour ago about troubleshooting some wiring I had done earlier today, but when I actually thought back through the schedule I realized I did the wiring on Sunday. I keep trying to remember when things happened, and I have to do complicated scheduling math because my innate sense of timing is completely shot.

On the other hand, my brain isn't completely toasted; I've actually been pretty clever and creative when I'm exhausted this week. I've come up with a lot of highly original solutions to problems without any mental effort. With no research whatsoever, I'm going to guess that the part of your brain that gets tired isn't the part that does the creative thinking, but the part that watches and critiques the clever part. So being mentally wiped frees your mind for creative problem solving. I might have to remember this as a cure for writer's block someday.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Over Work

I haven't posted in a while. That's because I've been insanely busy; I haven't even turned a computer on since last Friday morning. Here's my schedule for the past week:

Friday/Saturday (my days "off"): drive to Detroit, help Kerry move, drive back to Indy
Sunday: work 10:30am - 9pm
Monday: work 7:30am - 1:30am
Tuesday: work 6am - 9:30pm
Wednesday: work 7am - 10:30pm

That's my whole schedule. I hit 40 hours for the week at 5:30pm on Tuesday. For the last three days I haven't done anything other than work, drive, eat, and sleep. I'm looking forward to this evening; I'm only working 9 1/2 hours today, so I should be able to actually talk to my wife and read a book tonight. Tomorrow's a 14-hour day, so no rest there. Another busy day Saturday, and a short workday on Sunday, then Laura and I take off to visit her family for the holidays. I'm eventually looking forward to a day off when I can actually stay home and relax and read a book and -- god forbid -- do some writing. The NaNoWriMo novel probably won't be finished by the 31st, grumble, whine.

Done whining now. Back to work.

And, what's been going on at work that's required me to work insane hours? That's a story for another time....

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Writing: hard!

I write a lot, and I'm constantly amazed at how hard it is to write. I was just thinking about something Steven Wright said: "I don't understand why anyone would take years to write a novel when you can buy one for just a few dollars." It's a lot of work. People who write know this, and I know it too. But I started writing with the expectation that it would get easier over time, and it really hasn't. I still struggle with mostly the same things I struggled with when I started. But I've got an advantage now, one I didn't have when I first started writing: my wife. It's nice to be able to ask someone for an honest opinion, and to know I'll get it. Sometimes it's favorable, sometimes it's not, but it's always honest and I appreciate that. If all she ever said was, "yes dear, it's fabulous and you're the next Hemingway," there would be no point in my even asking. So thanks, babycakes. I appreciate it.

The NaNoWriMo novel isn't going as well as I had hoped. It's a long story (both the novel and the reasons it's not going well). The short version is that November might be the worst month of the year for me to attempt this, especially this November. I've got almost no days off, and a lot of my days are long and not conducive to writing. I like the idea, though, so if I don't get to finish this month I might try again in December. A novel in a month: even if it's a bad novel (almost guaranteed!) it'll be good for me.

Now, back to the bad novel.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Not Posting Much.

Wanted to throw out an excuse for why I'm not posting much recently: I'm trying to write a 50,000-word novel this month, and I'm also excessively slammed at work. When I think of pithy things I'll be here; if I'm not blogging, assume I'm working on Teh Book.

real reality television

I have an idea for a quiz show. It combines the two things that apparently make a reality show popular: huge chunks of cash, and watching people make fools of themselves. I propose the title: In My Own Backyard. The premise: every week, you grab some unsuspecting sap off the street and ask him or her questions that you'd figure anyone should know, in exchange for the typical ladder prize scheme. You'd start with easy questions: "For a hundred dollars, when is your significant other's birthday?" and progress to trickier questions: "For a thousand dollars, does your neighborhood offer curbside recycling? Yes or no!" They'd work their way through questions about their own blood type, which amendment guarantees the right to a free press, and the correct tire pressure for their car, graduating to harder questions like, "Name your doctor's receptionist," and, "how many months do you have left on your mortgage?" When they hit the hundred thousand dollar range, the contestant would need to name their congressman.

For the really big money, they'd have to answer questions that presumably everyone knew the answer to at one time, but never really paid attention to. "How long do you boil spaghetti?" "The RCA plug for your stereo has two colors. Which color is the left speaker?" "How many stop lights do you pass on your way to work?" "How many light bulbs it would take to change all the bulbs in your house?" For a million dollars, they'd have to draw you an accurate diagram showing the relative positions of all the buttons and knobs on their microwave oven, or their car stereo.

I think this is a lot more interesting than quiz shows in which somebody gets rewarded for knowing the name of Alexander the Great's horse (Bucephalus, by the way) or the atomic number of gold (79). And it might make people start paying more attention to the world around them.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Scary plumber

While I was staring at plumbing fittings at the local Lowes today, a befuddled-looking man asked me if I knew anything about plumbing. I offered my assistance, and he handed me a shopping list of plumbing parts. Some of them were imaginary. I asked where he got the list, and he said a friend had offered to install a new tub faucet and shower head for him. His friend sent him with the list, which included things like "seven-inch plastic pipe connector" and "2 copper pipe joints". The list also included a wrench and a torch and solder. I wondered aloud what kind of plumber didn't own a torch or solder -- or a wrench, for that matter. He said his friend wasn't actually a licensed plumber, but he knew a lot about plumbing and was working for free. I picked out the pile of parts and tools you need to install a tub faucet, and also dropped a copy of The Black & Decker Illustrated Guide To Home Repair into his basket. I told him that, when in doubt, believe the book instead of his friend.

And, the seven-inch pipe. I told him that there really wasn't such a thing a thing as seven-inch pipe in residential plumbing. He said he knew there was -- he saw him measure it. So I had him point out similar pipe. He pointed to the 2" PVC pipe. I mentioned that pipe sizes were measured by diameter, whereas his friend had obviously measured the circumference around the pipe. That's okay, though -- it's an easy mistake to make for a guy who knows a lot about plumbing. Heh.

I was tempted to give him my business card (the one that says, "Things Fixed, Select Things Broken"), but this really sounds like a project I don't want to be involved with....

Stadium / Convention Center: more (bad) news

More on the new stadium and the convention center expansion. The ten Colts home games a year won't ever generate enough revenue to recoup the city's investment in the new stadium. So one of the ways in which this was sold to the city is that the plan also includes an expansion for the convention center downtown. It was just announced last week that, less than halfway through the construction of the stadium, the contingency fund is down from $90 million to $15.1 million. And if they spend the contingency fund down completely, their bigger "contingency fund" is the $275 million set aside for the convention center. The funding was approved for both projects from the same budget, so officials aren't ruling out raiding the convention center fund to finish building the stadium. Preliminary announcements are making it sound like the new convention center may be quite a bit smaller in scope than originally promised.

I also feel the need to mention that the $90 million contingency fund went immediately to $50 million, because the city used the fund to cover a $40 million debt to the Colts. Wha? I can't find any details about why we owe Jim Irsay $40 million at the beginning of this project. But I'm wildly curious.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Henle and the Loops

Under the heading of I'm So Damn Witty: the band for our Saturday Artsgarden event was a cover band called Henle and the Loops. I asked the drummer where the band name came from, and he mentioned that he and the singer were kidney doctors. I immediately got the reference (the loops of Henle being a tiny functional part of the kidney); I'm surprised I didn't make the connection before he said "kidney doctor". But I did manage a quick witty comment: "So, if you were a metal band you'd probably be called Nephron." He thought it was funny. Kidney humor!

They seemed like a decent band, but it was hard to tell; their lead singer/lead guitarist hurt his back earlier in the day and missed the show. I asked the rhythm guitarist how much trauma his absence would cause, and he said, "We've got a repertoire of about 42 songs, and he's crucial on, oh, 42 of them." I'd like to hear them when all six of them are there and see how they play at full strength. I understand they play the Music Mill occasionally; I'll have to see if I can catch them there.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Stadium; and, the Toll Road

The Indianapolis Star ran an article earlier this week about the current home of the Colts. While we're in the process of justifying financing the $950 million Lucas Oil Stadium and convention center expansion, it's good to look back at the last time our elected officials bought a stadium for the Colts. The Hoosier Dome (now the RCA Dome) was built in 1984 for about $77 million dollars (less than 10% of the cost of the new stadium; that's inflation!). Of that, two private charities contributed $30 million, and the city financed the remaining $47 million. So, after 22 years of paying down the $47 million dollar debt, how much do we still owe? $75 million dollars. I'm astonished. Our public officials have spent the last two decades refinancing the debt over and over again, and they're now expecting to pay off 1984's 30-year debt in 2021. Assuming they don't decide to refinance again. That means we'll be paying for the old dome for 13 years after it's torn down.

I'm also starting to call into question the new stadium's financing. How much can we trust these same organizations that say we'll have the new dome and convention center paid off on time, for only the $1.8 billion dollars they say it'll cost? Do we have any guarantees that they won't decide to refinance it again? A lot of people are pretty unhappy with the deal the city got on the new stadium. As I understand the deal, the stadium is essentially a gift to the Colts' owner, Jim Irsay. He pays none of the operating costs, and about 15% of the construction cost. He pays nothing for its use, he collects all revenue for other events that will rent the new Dome, and he owes the city none of the revenue produced by or in the stadium. Irsay isn't the owner of the new stadium; that would mean he's responsible for its problems. He just gets all the benefits, including the revenue, and the city gets all the bills. Our mayor has received a lot of grief over the details of the stadium deal, but he really didn't hold any of the cards; Jim Irsay set the deal, and the city could take it or leave it. And not giving the Irsay gang what they wanted meant losing the Colts. Cities gain coolness points for having pro sports franchises, and apparently nobody wanted to lose them.

Every single seat is more expensive in the new dome than in the old dome. I haven't heard what final single ticket prices and season ticket prices will be, but everyone seems to agree that the cost will go up. I suppose this is the Colts' gift to the fans for spending almost two billion dollars of public money to keep the team here: thanks, fans!

But, I have a solution for the stadium financing. The state just received a 3.85 billion dollar payment for the 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road in northern Indiana. I don't have a lot of faith they'll actually spend the money on infrastructure; why not use some of it to pay for the new stadium, and save over a billion dollars in finance charges?

The toll road is a touchy subject, too. The company that's managing the toll road figures on making almost $50 billion dollars on the contract, for which they paid $3.85 billion. Nice investment. I've never bought into the conventional wisdom that says private management is more efficient that public management. And even if it is a little more efficient, it can't possibly be $660 million dollars a year more efficient to have a private company manage a toll road....