Friday, August 31, 2007

Customer Service -- in English!

I just spent a few minutes on the phone with our bank. I have to say, it's so nice talking to a customer service rep who speaks fluent English! I've spent too much time trying to communicate with computer-oriented tech support in Kyrgyzstan or Bangalore; it's actually refreshing to carry on a conversation with a customer service rep who understands every word I say.

It's so nice, that I suspect I'd change banks if Chase ever offshores their customer service to Somalia or Korea. And I can't be alone in feeling this way; I wonder if, say, Dell Computers realizes how much they've irritated their customers by adding a language barrier to all of their tech-support calls....

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Bachelor Life

Tonight is my last bachelor night. I'm celebrating by going to bed early and reading until I fall asleep (party animal!). Since Laura's been on tour, I've been noticing the differences between my life when she's here and my life when I'm on my own. For one thing, I don't sleep when she's not here. When she's here, I go to bed with Laura; if she's not in bed waiting for me, I'm much more likely to stay up all night. I've been reading, writing, playing games, baking, performing cat maintenance -- anything but sleeping. This isn't necessarily a good thing; I'm not getting enough sleep. I'm feeling tired a lot, and I'm definitely not functioning at my best. But I have more awake time. I need to decide if more usable hours are worth the overall drop in quality.

I'm also noticing that I don't eat as much when Laura's not home. Laura cooks when she's here, and she cooks good, healthy food. But I usually snack when I get home from work, and then eat dinner an hour or two later. Without Laura's cooking, I still do the snacking, but I don't have a meal afterwards. And my snacks tend to be less healthy without Laura around. If she's here, I don't want to be a bad influence by bringing extremely unhealthy snacks into the house; if she's not around, I'm more comfortable eating extremely addictive hint o' crack tortilla chips and salsa for a snack.

I have also been exercising more since Laura's been on tour this time. This doesn't have much to do with Laura, but I took the occasion of her absence to organize some exercise into my daily routine. For one thing, I'm doing a set of pull-ups every time I go down into the basement. This is a minimum of twice a day, to let Chaka out of the laundry room every morning and to lock her away every night (lest she pee all over the kitchen floor). On laundry days, I do a lot of pull-ups. I'm also getting in the habit of doing regular exercises at particular times and places; I do Hindu squats while I'm brushing my teeth, I do a set of push-ups before I get the paper every morning, things like that. I know this kind of intermittent exercise isn't as useful as a planned series of dedicated exercises that you do together, but it's at least a start.

I'm also writing a lot more. This is partially because I decided to write more, and partially because writing in necessarily-small quanta of time is difficult. I'm not a good writer, and/so it takes me some time and energy to get into a good mental space for writing. My hitting-my-stride time seems to be about an hour. I'm just figuring out that trying to write in short, interruptible chunks of time is extremely frustrating. I'll just be getting into a space where words start flowing easier when I have to stop writing and do something else (like, say, eating or sleeping; see above). It's hard to even sit down and start writing (except blogging or journaling, which isn't really what I'm after) if I don't know I've got at least 90 minutes of contiguous, uninterrupted time; the interruptions are mentally hard to cope with. It's a bit like building a house of cards. The first huge chunk of the work is pretty dull, building foundations and raw structure. The interesting stuff comes once the foundation's done. And having it knocked over just as the good, creative part starts is a bunch of suck. I'm hoping that this becomes less of a problem the more I write, that my warm-up period will get shorter. But for now, big chunks of time have helped a lot, and I'm trying to think of a way to fit this into our life when Laura's back home.

I'm extremely happy that Laura's coming home tomorrow. I've missed her a lot, and I'm looking forward to picking her up at the airport. I've made a few nice discoveries about the way I work and made some positive changes in the past two weeks, and now I get to see if I can keep them going when I'm no longer leading the Wild Bachelor Life. Wish me luck!

Defunct webcomics. Pout.

A lot of my favorite funny sites on the web keep going away. Or, really, nothing on the web really goes away -- but they stop producing new content. Here's an incomplete sample of funny things I used to read that no longer update:
Angst Technology
Spaz Labs
Death March
Cheese N Rice
Brunching Shuttlecocks
Casey and Andy
Suburban Tribe

The archives are still there for all of these, but they're no longer doing anything new. Bummer.

The more I think about it, I don't know why I'm surprised about this. Humor online, and webcomics in particular, are a difficult medium in which to make a living -- or any money at all, for that matter. There's probably a peak limit beyond which an artist just can't justify the considerable effort to produce funny product several times a week. Still, I've always been sad to see them fade away. If I'm bored, at a computer, and in need of something funny, I've been known to surf their archives. And I'm glad the creators have at least kept the archives up. Thanks; your fans appreciate it!

Non-Laura Movies, pt. 2

I also rented some movies of the Trashy Horror subgenre. They're all pretty bad, but the best of the bad was probably Turistas, a cheap, quick Hostel knock-off in the torture-porn ouvre. It was a little painful to watch, and extremely formulaic. My only real surprise came during the obligatory scene wherein a character is tied to a table and has her major organs removed by a mad scientist. (The mad scientist had apparently done this so often that it was a routine; he never interrupted his Evil Doctor Monologue to pay attention to what he was doing.) The surprising thing: it's obvious that this scene was intended to be the centerpiece of the movie, the big shocker. And it was totally not scary, and really not shocking. I think it might be because the effects were so good. It was less like watching a slasher flick, and more like watching a hospital documentary on the Discovery Channel. It helps that we totally don't care about the characters, who by this point have made so many bad decisions that we're hoping they get eaten by jungle cats so we don't have to watch them be stupid anymore. Like a lot of movies I've seen recently, the extra features on the DVD were better than the actual film.

After sitting through Turistas, I only managed to make it half an hour into The Hills Have Eyes 2. I was already pushing the limits of my bad movie tolerance; THHE2 didn't start great and didn't look like it had any promise for getting better. I did make it through the worst possible horror movie ever made, though: Live Feed. I think this is only because it's the movie I started with; I wouldn't have made it five minutes in if I had seen Turistas and THHE2 first. The daytime staff member at our local video store is a hardcore horror/slasher movie fan. I asked her for a recommendation: something obscure, but surprisingly good. And she pointed me to Live Feed, apparently to show that she's got a sense of humor. This movie had nothing going for it. The worst possible cast, plot, writing, effects, and direction, all combined to make a strange, gory, stupid, raunchy, pointless film. I think the only thing that could've made the movie any worse would've been the appearance of aliens in tinfoil suits.

Laura gets home tomorrow, so I go back to watching movies that don't suck. It's yet another reason I'm happy she'll be back.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Odd search results

I enjoy checking my logs for this blog. One of the cool features of Google Analytics is that it lets you see which search terms directed people to your site. I've had some odd ones, and it's surprising to see how high this blog is on the search rankings. For instance, I'm Google's second hit for "crowbar satellite", the third on the list for "organic baking soda", and the third hit for "calvin peeing" on the cowboys helmet. I think this might be an advantage to having my blog hosted by a search-engine company....

Good friends and extremely average chili

I visited some friends in Lafayette on Saturday and had a lot of fun. I almost never get to see Rich and Tina since they moved out of Indy, so it was great to travel a bit and visit them. I hadn't seen their house before, and I also hadn't met Tina's rabbits (who were extremely cute, even the Attack Bunny). I stayed late and we had lots of time to talk and hang out together. Thanks for having me up, guys.

I understand you're supposed to bring some sort of gift when you visit someone, so I brought chili. Every time I make chili it turns out a little different. This chili was decent, but not great. Not enough beans or tomatoes, I think. Here's the recipe I used:
1 1/2 pounds turkey sausage
1 1/2 pounds ground sirloin
2 medium onions
1 large green pepper
1 tbsp crushed garlic
1 large can of whole tomatoes
2 cans red kidney beans
1 tbsp wine vinegar
1 tbsp molasses
5 tbsp chili powder

Chop the onions and green pepper; saute with garlic in a little oil over medium heat. Add and brown the meat. Cut up the tomatoes a bit, and add them and the beans (drained) to the meat and veggies. Add vinegar, molasses, and chili powder, stir, and simmer for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In retrospect, I should've added another can of tomatoes and another can of beans, and not drained the beans. More to try next time. Eventually, I'll have it perfected. You'll know because I'll turn into a real chili snob. :-)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Totally surprising electronics discovery

Note to self -- Chi Chi's Mild Chunky Salsa is apparently bad for computer RAM.

Yeah, don't ask.

And, speaking of shakes...

We had lunch today at Steak n' Shake downtown. We've got a running joke about the place; we've never eaten there and had everyone's orders come out correct. We generally order simple food, so I'm surprised that they can so consistently get things wrong. Today we were okay except for the milkshakes. But it was enough to keep their screwing-up-orders streak alive. I'm curious to see what they get wrong the next time we're back (in three or four months; we're not regulars).

Someone from the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association told me that there are 250 restaurants within an eight-block walk of us. This might be true, but when we feel the need to go out and eat, we generally choose from the same six or eight places. It's generally a choice between Subway, Einstein's Bagels, South Bend Chocolate Company, Au Bon Pain, Paradise Cafe, and (the recently opened) Taco Bell, with an occasional Rock Bottom or PF Chang's thrown in on special occasions. Laura and I do this too; when we go out to eat it's at a relatively narrow list of restaurants, maybe six places that account for 95% of our restaurant dining. For a while, I felt a bit boring about this. But, really, I don't feel the need to try every storefront Chinese restaurant or pizza place in town. We've got a few places we really like, and I'm okay to stick with them.

The Smoothie Update

I've been a little lax about my smoothie consumption; I skipped breakfast Saturday, and I had breakfast with my dad two more days. But other than that, I've been pretty good about it. One of my favorites so far was Sunday's concoction: a cup of canned mixed fruit, sans juice; half a cup of orange juice; half a banana; a quarter of a package of tofu; and some ice. Yummy and healthy. And the tofu makes it more filling than the fruit-only smoothie. I also experimented with adding vegetables. To my OJ/banana/tofu/canned peaches smoothie last week, I added some fresh spinach. This wasn't great, but wasn't awful either; I really didn't mind the spinach, except for the occasional stringy bits. Still, I think I'd prefer a smoothie with a side salad to a smoothie with the salad mixed in.

Today I felt like something less healthy, so I made some substitutions. Orange juice lacks protein, so I used milk. And, I thought the ice might be watering it down too much, so I used whatever I had handy in the freezer (cookies and cream ice cream). I added some chocolate syrup for flavor. To keep at least a little fruit in the recipe, I put a cherry on top before I ate it. This might have been my favorite smoothie yet, but I think it contained 50% of my fat intake for the day.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Define "international"

At the Artsgarden tonight we're hosting an event with an international theme. They're decorating with a wide variety of national flags; they asked the local Kiwanis club for an assortment, and they got the box labeled "A thru K". Which, if you think about it, is a pretty good way to get a geographically diverse collection of flags. Someone asked me if I was hanging an American flag, and I said I wasn't. They said this didn't seem right, that the U.S. wasn't represented in the decor. I pointed out that if someone wanted "international music", I probably couldn't get away with playing Bob Seger and claiming it's international because he's from America and it's a country too. So no U.S. flag. Which is fine; from where I'm sitting right now I can see four American flags. I think we're represented well enough.

Question: if someone wants "international music", can I get away with playing Native American music? I am, because our musical selection consists of the "world music" playlist on my iPod. I'm not worried; what people expect to hear has less to do with country of origin as with the fact that it sounds ethnic....

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Thinkin' about drinkin'

On the drive back from work today, I was briefly contemplating taking up alcohol again when I got home. For some reason, it just sounded nice to sit down to a relaxing glass of orange juice and vodka, or something like that. There's no real reason I shouldn't; I stopped drinking not because I had some kind of problem, but because I was an extremely boring drunk. A little alcohol makes me sleepy, and much more than that makes me muzzy-headed and incoherent for a few minutes before I either get sick or pass out. But I was extremely tired after work, and I thought a little ethanol would help me crash. On the other hand, being someone who never drinks is much more fun and interesting than being someone who only drinks occasionally. And never drinking is a great way to get out of drinking. People who drink a lot are prone to wanting everyone around them to drink too. If you Don't Drink, they're generally fine with that; if you Only Drink On Rare Occasions, they want one of the occasions to be right now. And, I haven't had anything with alcohol in it for almost six years now, and I'd hate to break that winning streak.

It turned out, alcohol wasn't necessary; I got home from work, did a few minutes of cat-oriented housework, and minutes later was snoozing on the couch with a forgotten book in my hand. So my six-year streak is intact.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Rrrazor sharp

One of the obscure entries in my skill set: sharpening knives. It's a narrow but very practical talent. I've spent a fair amount of time sharpening knives for friends and family, and almost everyone I've sharpened cutlery for has cut themselves shortly afterwards. This isn't really a testament to how sharp I can make a knife, it's more a statement about the fact that a lot of people aren't used to using genuinely sharp knives.

Tonight, though, I had a sign of precisely how sharp I can get a knife. I had just finished chopping green peppers for chili, and I used the knife to scoop up the peppers and dump them in the pot. I had the knife angled fractionally too steep to the cutting board, and without meaning to I shaved a paper-thin slice off the top of the surface of the board. It was effortless; it just sliced right off. I wouldn't have thought that this knife trick was even possible. Extreme sharpness. I'm proud of myself.

And, no -- I didn't drop the shaved wood in the chili. If I have time, I'll post my chili recipe tomorrow; it's not a guarded secret, like some people's chili recipes....

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Non-Laura Movies, pt. 1

When Laura's out of town, I usually amuse myself by renting some decidedly non-Laura movies. The only real winner so far has been Shooter. It's a surprisingly good action flick, and Mark Wahlberg is great in the role. If you're up for a sniper movie, it's worth your time. I also caught the previously-mentioned werewolf flick Blood and Chocolate. Even for a werewolf movie, it was pretty bad. I should've just watched Underworld again. I also picked up the Buffy Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle The Return, which was extremely meh. I thought it was a horror movie. I don't know how I got that impression. It was more of a mystery, the kind that keeps the suspense going by not telling the audience important things and having characters act stupidly. And, pet peeve: several of the cool things in the trailer (like the mirror) never actually happened in the movie, not even in the deleted scenes.

I also picked up disc one of The Dresden Files. I like the series so far; it's not much like the books, but it's entertaining and appropriately supernatural. I like the characters, the casting is okay, and it's well-produced. I might have to pick up the rest of the series at the library, as soon as they get a copy, if they get a copy. They just announced that because of the fiasco their corrupt board and crooked contractors created with their recent Central Library construction project, they're cutting their materials budget and staff budget. And yet they aren't booting anyone on the board, and the contractors are still getting their money. I think the system could benefit from a smaller number of lawyers and a slightly increased number of hit men. People in power aren't afraid of lawsuits anymore; they know that by the time their corruption makes it through the court system they'll be on to other projects and different companies, and they're unlikely to ever pay for their crimes and malfeasance. But if there were a chance that they might get gunned down for corruption, they might behave differently....

But I digress. In short: Dresden Files = good; Shooter=good; The Return=below average; Blood and Chocolate=bad. Library board = extremely naughty.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

GenCon Thoughts

I spent a long time at GenCon on Saturday. I felt compelled to spend a while; I'd feel bad paying $45 for a ticket and only staying for three hours. I think I was there for around seven hours before I absorbed my maximum geekness. I had a great time, and I suspect I'll go again next year. A few random thoughts and observations about the convention floor:
  • People-watching is a hobby of mine. And GenCon is a great place to do it.
  • Gamers wear the best t-shirts. I got one for Laura that says, "Legolas is my House Elf", and I suspect she'll love it.
  • I saw a sign at a booth selling T-shirts that read, "We sell gamer sizes: 3X-5X". I love the fact that they refer to clothing for enormous people as "gamer-sized".
  • GenCon's floor is a sociological study in marketing. You can blatantly tell the games created by hardcore gamers, and you can tell the games backed by a bunch of guys in suits looking to maximize their return on investment. Oddly, the cashing-in games tend to be insanely popular, even among gamers (who tend to be a bit anti-establishment); the suits are good at their jobs.
  • It's hard to start being a gamer. Most gameplay in newer games is predicated on a fundamental knowledge of older games; there are very few "starter games".
  • GenCon people get a lot of flak for being geeky, but I really can't find a significant difference between someone who'll dress up like a knight to play a role-playing game, and someone who dons a Colts jersey every Sunday and has two fantasy football teams. It's entirely a function of how mainstream your geek focus is.
  • I haven't really gamed for over ten years. It shows; a lot of the gameplay was utterly unfamiliar to me. I've never played a collectible card game, and my last run at Dungeons and Dragons didn't even use miniatures.
  • I was hoping that I would feel a sense of community at GenCon, but I really didn't. It was like pretty much every other convention floor I've wandered across; fun stuff to look at, interesting people to talk to, but I felt disconnected from the event as a whole, like I somehow didn't belong. It was odd, and a little disappointing. I had fun, for sure. But I never got that sense of home while I was there.

The hiring process

My coworker Michele is moving to Chicago in a few weeks. She's been great to work with -- she has a great attitude, she's funny, she takes pride in her work, and she's a lot of fun to share an office with. We wish her all the best in Chicago, and we hope she keeps in touch.

Now we need to hire a replacement. Hiring is a strange thing in general, particularly for a position like this. It requires knowledge of very specific computer skills and programs which we're unlikely to find in the applicant pool, and ours is an unusual venue in which to schedule performances and run events. So we're assuming that most of these skills will be learned on the job. What we really need to find is someone with the right personality: someone who cares about what they do; easygoing enough to not stress over every little detail; energetic and physical enough to do the moderate amount of heavy lifting the job requires; detail-oriented enough to understand, on a fundamental level, how scheduling works; friendly and personable and professional enough to be the face of the Artsgarden and the Arts Council for the 80 or so private events we do every year; and, most esoteric, someone who will fit in well with our small staff of three and a half people.

Finding someone with the correct skill set for a given job is relatively simple. A single-page resume is actually a fairly accurate guideline for assessing an applicant's skill set. It's a lot harder to divine a person's personality. We've been lucky so far; the three people who have held the job have all been good to work with. I'm hoping our luck holds out with Artsgarden Coordinator Number Four. We've got a stack of resumes. I don't envy my boss's job, trying to find the right match for us and the job....

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Lost book

I think I might have lost a library book; ironically, the lost book is the first Lost Fleet story from Jack Campbell. The fleet, and now the book. I've done a fair amount of digging through everything in the entire house to find it, and I've had no luck. I hope it didn't get recycled with old papers, or accidentally thrown away or something. There's a chance I returned it, and that it wasn't processed correctly at the library; I'm going to check on that tomorrow. I've had it checked out for almost four months now (one of the perks of online renewal!), and I started reading it after a week or two. Then I put it down on the kitchen countertop and started a new book, intending to come back to it after a while. A week later, I couldn't find it, but assumed it would eventually turn up. Another month or two went by before I started passively looking for it (keeping my eyes open in case I ran across it), and I've been actively searching in fits and starts for two weeks or so. It'll only cost $10 or so to replace it and pay the fine, and I don't think that this particular piece of military sci-fi space opera has been in high demand, but I still feel bad I can't find it.

More smoothie experiments

Yesterday's smoothie: just like Sunday's, minus the tofu. I wanted to see if it made a difference. It does. Without the tofu, I was hungry again 90 minutes after I finished the smoothie. It tasted fine, but not really better than the tofu smoothie did. So, for future reference: tofu=good.

Today's experiment: 3/4 cup of cottage cheese, a quarter of a pack of firm tofu, and 3/4 cup of nonfat plain yogurt, with three tablespoons of apricot preserves. I had to blend it for over a minute to get a smooth consistency. It was average; better than Saturday's concoction with the chocolate protein powder, but not by much. It was a bit bland, with a strange flavor. Not actually bad, just strange. But it's extremely healthy and almost fat free.

I might have to google some smoothie recipes. The problem is that I have no actual taste. I can't tell in advance what will taste good together, so when I experiment, some of the results are unpleasant. I don't have this problem with baking. Baking is more about chemistry and science, and less about taste. And a cookie recipe can (almost) never go wrong with a line of reasoning that sounds like, "let's add more chocolate chips! And some vanilla!"

Monday, August 20, 2007

Paul Graham on Stuff

I'm recommending that everyone in America read Paul Graham's latest essay, which is about having too much stuff. It's insightful and a little inspirational. In part, it says:
...the people whose job is to sell you stuff are really, really good at it. The average 25 year old is no match for companies that have spent years figuring out how to get you to spend money on stuff. They make the experience of buying stuff so pleasant that "shopping" becomes a leisure activity.
This attitude is so ingrained that we don't even question it when our president, in response to major tragedy, tells us that the best response is to get out and go shopping and buy stuff. This was a truly terrifying statement for our leaders to make, if anyone had stopped to think about it. Laura and I have been in the process, for a few months, of throwing away crap. We've got too much, and a lot of it we'll never or rarely use, but we still instinctively hold onto it. I hadn't ever thought much about why until I read Paul Graham's essay, and it makes sense. Give it a read.

Biking in the Rain

I biked home today in the rain.

Okay, that's not technically correct; I biked home today in the torrential downpour. I waited at work until it looked like the rain had stopped for a while, and I made it almost five blocks before the sky split and dumped buckets of water on me. I zipped into the grocery store and bought a Pizzeria Uno frozen pizza (figuring I'd need a treat when I got home), and used plastic grocery sacks to bag up everything in my backpack to keep my stuff from getting drenched too. More waiting, but the rain showed no sign of stopping, so I just biked home in it. I was so wet when I got home that I stepped in the shower with all of my clothes still on, shoes and all, to wash the road grit off. I really didn't get any wetter in the shower than I already was.

The highlight of the ride? I had to stop on Vermont Street for the train crossing. And as soon as I stopped, the moderate rain turned into the previously-mentioned torrential downpour. I waited for about five minutes while the train passed; it was a long five minutes. When I started biking again, I was as wet as I could be, and it didn't really get worse on the rest of the ride.

And, in spite of all this, I still had a great time riding. Some people are exercise-prone, and others are exercise-averse. I'm the former; I can spot the latter by their astonishment that I would choose to bike to work, even though I've got access to a working vehicle this week....

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Smoothie of the day

I picked up some canned fruit at the grocery yesterday so I could do more smoothie experiments. Today's breakfast beverage consisted of a third of a package of tofu, a cup of orange juice, half a can of pears, a third of a can of crushed pineapple, and some ice. And it was yummy. The tofu is nearly invisible in the finished smoothie; I wouldn't have known it was there if I weren't looking for it.

We've got an old Oster blender, and it's probably not ideal for making smoothies compared to other products on the market. Still, I blended it for about 30 seconds and everything was well-blended, even the ice. I won't try to feed it a garden rake, but it seems fine for smoothies.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Smoothie of the day

I should preface this by saying that I have done no smoothie-oriented research. I just decided to start my days with a smoothie while Laura's gone because it sounded like an interesting thing to do. I know you can definitely take the food-in-a-blender thing too far, but it seems like a convenient way to grab a quick, extremely healthy breakfast.

So, for my first effort at random breakfasty food in a blender, I thought I'd start simple: a cup and a half of nonfat yogurt, two tablespoons of strawberry preserves, and a big scoop of chocolate-flavored protein powder. It wasn't great, but it was at least tolerable. I blame the protein powder; you can't go wrong with yogurt and strawberries. And this protein powder is pretty bad. This smoothie might be the most palatable means for consuming Biochem protein powder.

For tomorrow morning, I might look up some genuine smoothie recipies online. Or, do you have any to share?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Imminent Departure

Laura's heading out of town for two weeks, starting tomorrow morning. As I always do, I've got some serious pining lined up for while she's gone. I've also got some bachelor times lined up. I might head up to Lafayette and visit my friends Rich and Tina for a day; I've also got some high-quality non-Laura films lined up (so far I've got two recent werewolf pix, Skinwalkers and Blood and Chocolate, and I found Timecop and Robocop I & II at the library). And I'm heading to GenCon for the day on Saturday, which is definitely not a Laura activity.

I'm also going to experiment with my diet. I'm planning on having a smoothie for breakfast every day (watch for recipes posted here) and some high-protein, low-fat dinners. I've been exercising regularly for a while, and I'm going to see if changing my diet helps the workout or gives better results. Who knows -- by the time she comes back, maybe I'll have bulging thews. I don't know where my thews are, but I remember reading L. Sprague DeCamp's Conan books when I was in grade/high school, and Conan the Barbarian had massive ones. Maybe I'll follow in his anatomical footsteps, with just the addition of a little protein in my diet.

It's generally true that I enjoy myself when I've got some time alone in the house. It's also true that I really miss Laura when she's not here. I'm very aware of the empty space on the other side of the bed, and I know that when I get home from work she won't be in the house. We talk a lot and send cute text messages on a regular basis while she's away, and I'm glad for that. But it's not the same as being with her. So I'll be extremely happy when I get to pick her up at the airport in two weeks.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Vista Grouchiness

Laura's new laptop arrived today! It's extremely nice, and it has a gorgeous display. It's unfortunately also got Vista installed. I thought I'd make a categorical list of my gripes with the OS, as I try to set up the computer for her. So far:
  • I'm copying new fonts over to the laptop by dumping the entire contents of the Fonts directory on the old computer to a flash drive, then copying them into the Fonts directory of the new computer. I knew there'd be some duplicates, but I wanted to leave the original fonts on the new computer where possible. I was hoping that the standard "This file already exists. Would you like to overwrite it? [yes] [no] [yes to all] [cancel]" dialogue would be supplemented by a button that says something like [do not overwrite files; continue copying]. No such luck. Not only didn't they add this useful feature, they also removed the [yes to all] button. And the dialogue box appears in a slightly different place on the screen every time, so instead of just clicking the touchpad button whenever it beeps, I have to check every time to make sure my mouse pointer is over the [no] button before I click it, and I occasionally have to move the mouse around to hit the button.
  • I thought they were just kidding about the security warnings. These are going to get old fast.
  • Given that one of Vista's supposed selling points is the ease with which you can connect with the rest of the world, it was inordinately difficult to get it to connect to a wireless network. I had to enable lots of surreal settings hidden in completely inobvious places.
  • More comedy: Every time I install something, Vista security asks me for confirmation. Except for the iTunes installer. While this was installing, Vista asked me for permission five times, and the permission requests were all in the background. That is, it didn't pop up with a dialogue box like the rest of the security warnings; the install freezes, and you have to notice the little blinking icon on your taskbar and click on it before the install will continue. I guess M$oft still has problems with Apple....
  • The InstallerVISE install system apparently uses fewer colors than the stock Vista display settings. So every time you install a program that uses VISE, you get an error message and your display reverts to 256 colors. Mildly irritating, but not awful.
  • I killed all the processes that didn't seem important, and the computer still idled at over 900 megs of RAM in use. This was with just the background virus checker and the OS running. I thought it was awfully nice of Dell to offer a free upgrade to 2 gigs of RAM with their new notebooks; I'm now suspecting it's just good marketing. People won't be happy with their new computer if it runs slow when it's brand new, and the default Dell install of Vista sucks over 1 gig of RAM. It's also not surprising it takes so long to boot up after a restart; it's got to load all that crap into memory.
  • I'm extremely irritated that on our factory-new PC, a lot of features (including the "Aero Desktop", whatever that is) are disabled by default until you validate your copy of Vista. Hey, I was just thinking that Microsoft hasn't made me jump through enough hoops recently before I can use products I have legitimately purchased. Thanks, Microsoft!
  • Vista makes you step through a non-intuitive process to change the default program which opens a particular file type. And, not surprisingly, the defaults that are so difficult to change are mostly Microsoft software.
That's it for now. I may whine more later. In short, so far, the Dell laptop is extremely nice, and the Vista OS has some sucking issues.
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UPDATE: I also noticed that the new laptop takes a long time to boot up. Like, three or four minutes. This might be because I'm installing new stuff, but I suspect it's a slow process anyway. This might be the other down side to taking up a gig of RAM: you have to load all that stuff into memory. And this might also be the reason why the "sleep" function is so easily-accessible (the sleep button is on the start menu, but the shut-down button is buried in a menu). It wakes from sleep mode in moments.

Birthday wishes

I was wondering if you can game the birthday-wishes system. We all know that you're supposed to make a secret wish before you blow out your candles. If you blow the candles out in one breath, your wish is supposed to come true. But if you tell anyone your wish, it won't come true. My question is, does telling someone the wish guarantee that it won't come true, or does it just nullify the wish? And, is the motive force of blowing out your candles greater than the negative power of telling someone the wish? That is, if you want to get married, are you better off wishing to get married and blowing out all of your candles, or are your odds better if you wish to stay single and blow out all your candles, but then tell someone your wish?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A New Toy!

I'm officially 36 today. I've crossed the line where I'm definitely no longer young by any standard, but I don't think I'm actually old yet. Then again, old is relative. I'd be near dead if this were the middle ages.

But, if this were the middle ages, I wouldn't have gotten an 8-gig black iPod Nano for my birthday! My wife -- she rocks. I've been without an mp3 player since before last Christmas, and I've missed it. I might even start multitasking and listening to podcasts and books on tape while I bike; I'll see how that works out. I've meant to listen to the audiobook of Scalzi's The Sagan Diaries for a while, but I haven't found a contiguous chunk of time to do it. Now that I've got portable audio capability again, I'll have a chance to listen to it when I'm doing other things away from my computer. And, I've got music I can take anywhere! Cool!

Now I need to figure out which of my music I want to have portable....

Water usage

Indianapolis is under a water advisory. The Indianapolis Water Company is pumping at their maximum filter capacity, and is asking people to not water their lawns quite so often. They're pumping close to 210 gallons per resident. I can't figure out how people are using so much water. The thing is, it's pretty easy to figure out how much water you use in a day because our fixtures all have limiters built in. Every time you flush your new toilet: 1.6 gallons. Every minute you run your shower: 3.5 gallons max. Every time you run the dishwasher: 8 gallons. Clothes washer: 40 gallons per load. I just googled and found this online water consumption calculator*. Laura and I came out to 56 gallons per day per person for our interior water usage, which still seems like a lot.

I spent a few years being hyper-aware of my personal water consumption, and it's still lurking in the back of my mind. I blame Frank Herbert. After I read Dune, I spent a long time noticing how much water I was using for everything. I spent years taking fast showers and washing dishes in a trickle from the sink, and I'm still pretty parsimonious about my water usage. This might be the chief reason I still consider Dune to be one of the best books I ever read -- its lasting effects on me were impressive, because he so carefully constructed a desert world in which water was in such short supply that people wore special high-tech clothing to recycle their sweat, and in which rich jerks would throw their damp hand towels to the poor as a (demeaning) gift of water. I can't remember any other time a work of fiction had such an influence on my daily life.

* If you want to use the calculator, be aware that you need to adjust the defaults. The calculator defaults to 5 gallons per flush for a toilet. This is complete fiction; even older and commercial toilets only use a maximum of 3.5 gallons per flush. Any toilet made in the last 10 years is required by law to use 1.6 gallons or less.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Orson Scott Card -- good essay

I'm recommending you jump over to hatrack.com and read Orson Scott Card's latest essay. I generally enjoy his "Uncle Orson Reviews Everything" column, but this one particularly hit home. He talks about organized sports and their place in childhood and society, and his experience was a lot like mine. He's more articulate about the problem than I could ever be, and it was good reading. He also reviews and recommends a sci-fi book I had never heard of. He made it sound so good that I just put it on hold at the library. I'm curious to read it; I might even bump it up on my list when it comes in, even though I'm generally trying to read books in the order I get them, and only one book at a time.

In addition to the essay on sports and society and the excellent book review, he also slams Windows Vista and pledges to go linux. This column was a total home run for OSC. :-)

I spent a lot of time not reading OSC's work. I really like his writing, but I made the mistake of picking the wrong time to read some of his political essays. I agree with a lot of what he says; he's intelligent and thoughtful, and regardless of their positions on the political spectrum, any two honest, intelligent, thoughtful people will agree far more than they disagree. Unfortunately, the first OSC political essay I read was the one in which he claims that George W. is a misunderstood genius and maybe the greatest president in memory. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and it took me two years to be able to read anything else he wrote, fiction or not. But now I'm once again a regular reader of his essays and commentaries. And, for Harry Potter fans, he wrote a fun review of Deathly Hollows and an entertaining point-counterpoint discussion of the Potter novels at beliefnet.com. If you read this last one, be aware that it's in blog format (the most recent entries are on top), so you have to start reading at the bottom of the page.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Clever outdoor insects

The outdoor cats occasionally use a particular section of the garden as a litter box. We've accepted that our yard, which hosts as many as a dozen cats, will occasionally house some kitty poo as well. Laura's not particularly happy that it's next to the house, though. We're also not happy that the various kitty excreta also attract flies, who occasionally make their way into the house (where the flies quickly become cat toys, but not before buzzing around the kitchen for a while).We were quite happy to see the return of some of last year's enormous garden spiders. They're pretty savvy spiders, and this year they've made their webs right above where the kitties do their business.

It's entertaining to watch (can you tell we don't have cable?), even for those of us with short attention spans; you can't watch the spiders for five minutes without seeing one of them catch a fly. And the spiders are on the side of the web facing the house, so you can get close to the action without worrying about the spiders leaping out and attacking you. The bottom view also gives a more detailed look at what's happening; the spider's body isn't in the way. I was surprised at how quickly the spider wraps up the fly, and also at how long the fly is caught in the web before the spider moseys over to check him out. I should also mention that the spider in this picture, at two inches long, is smaller than average; the biggest we had last year was over twice this size. Really.

We've also seen a praying mantis or two around the garden. The mantids (by the way, did you know this is the correct plural for "mantis"? You do now!) hide well, so we rarely see them. But occasionally one will wander within touching distance. I put this one down near the outdoor litter box and watched him for a few minutes to see if he could catch a fly. Silly question. Of course they can! It's unnerving how quickly they strike. And, unlike the spiders, the mantids don't play around. They're eating the instant they catch the fly.

For a fun read about spiders and mantids, amongst other predators, check out Gordon Grice's book of essays: The Red Hourglass. A fun and occasionally creepy read!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Muffins. Yum.

I'm making muffins after work tomorrow. They're extremely yummy, and it's the best muffin recipe I've ever found. I recently rediscovered it, and I'm looking forward to trying it again. They're just the right blend of solid and fluffy, and it's a quick, easy recipe to make. And, I now have a muffin-top pan that I'm dying to try. I might divide the batter evenly between the muffin-top pan and my mini-muffin pan to capture the full muffin spectrum. Here's the recipe. Give it a try if you get the chance.

Chocolate Chip Muffins
10 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1 cup minus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups plain lowfat or nonfat yogurt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup chocolate chips


Preheat oven to 375°. Blend flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

Beat butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, mixing between. Beat in half of dry ingredients. Beat in 1/2 cup of yogurt, then beat in half of remaining flour, then another 1/2 cup of yogurt, then the rest of the dry ingredients, then the rest of the yogurt. Fold in 1 cup of chocolate chips.

Grease a 12-cup muffin pan, then divide batter evenly between muffin cups. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until tops begin to brown around the edges and a toothpick comes out clean.

A few variations:

  • For Chocolate Chocolate Chip Muffins, substitute 1/3 cup of Dutch-process cocoa for 1/3 cup of the flour.
  • For Cinnamon Chip Muffins, substitute cinnamon chips for chocolate chips, and add 1 tsp ground cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg to the flour mixture.
  • For Lemon Blueberry Muffins, add 1 tsp grated lemon zest to butter/sugar mixture (before adding eggs), omit chocolate chips, and add 1 1/2 cups blueberries to finished batter. It helps to toss the blueberries with 1 tbsp flour before adding them to the batter. Also, frozen blueberries bake fine and are easier to work with.
  • For Banana Walnut Muffins, omit chocolate chips, add 1/2 tsp nutmeg to the flour mixture, substitute 1 cup packed brown sugar for granulated sugar, and fold 1 1/2 cups finely diced bananas (or, about 3 small or 2 medium bananas) and 3/4 cups chopped walnuts into batter.

And, some notes:

  • My usual substitution of butter-flavored Crisco in baked goods didn't work out so well here. Actual butter, not light butter, seems to work best. And, I use cooking spray to grease the muffin pan; I am lazy, and it works fine.
  • Fight the urge to use paper muffin cups. Cleanup is easier, but the muffins turn out better and look much nicer. You'll be glad you took the extra time to clean.
  • That being said, why do so many muffin pans have a little ridge around the top of the muffin cup? It makes the muffins harder to get out, and it's difficult to clean.
  • I make this in our KitchenAid stand mixer. This recipe is much easier with a KitchenAid than with a hand-held electric mixer. And did I mention all of the lazy?
  • The complex step wherein you alternate adding dry ingredients and yogurt seems silly, but it's really not. You can experiment, but I already did and this works best. If you add the dry ingredients all at once, then the yogurt, you have to do too much mixing to work the flour in. This keeps the muffins from rising as much as they should. And if you add the yogurt all at once, then the flour, the dough comes out a bit stickier and the muffins turn out flatter and harder than normal. I think the yogurt dissolves the sugar.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Heat -- It Burns!

As of this afternoon, Indianapolis is expected to have record-high heat -- our longest stretch ever of days over 90 degrees. Of course, I'm still biking everywhere. And I'm honestly a little surprised that I'm not having any problems with the heat. I'm being smart and staying hydrated, and it probably helps that I generate my own breeze when I ride. Today the heat index hit 105, and I had absolutely no problems on the bike ride home. Or, only minor problems. Minor problem number one: I stopped at the grocery and bought deli cookies, and the chocolate chips were all melty by the time I got home, waah! The other minor problem is that I'm sweating buckets at the end of my rides, and it takes me a few minutes to cool down and dry off.

In related news, the city put into effect its extreme heat plan today. I didn't know we had such a thing here; this is the first I've ever heard of it. Essentially, they issue heat-related health warnings to the public and keep public pools and air-conditioned park buildings and community centers open later. I'm getting a kick out of some of the warnings; they include "wear light-colored clothing", "drink lots of fluids", "avoid drinks containing caffeine or large amounts of sugar", and my favorite: "NEVER [emphasis theirs] leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle". I'm disturbed that they think people need to be told this. And I'm more disturbed that they're right: people DO need to be told this. And these people can vote....

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Some Blood

I had a blood-oriented weekend. Friday I went to the blood center to donate platelets, and Saturday the Artsgarden hosted a blood drive. Friday at the blood center, a few people in line didn't look like regular donors; I asked the staff and found out that they're giving away Korn tickets. That explained the youth and tattooed/pierced nature of the people waiting to donate. And at the Artsgarden's blood drive we gave away 311 tickets, which helped draw a crowd. The Artsgarden blood drive was successful; they would've been happy with 32, and we had 45 donors. And the blood center staff is always good to work with, so we're happy to have them.

In case you didn't know this, the blood bank can't require that you donate to get the concert tickets. If you just show up and ask for the tickets, they'll give them to you even if you have no intention of donating. The Indiana Blood Center can't do anything that resembles paying for donations. Students can't even get extra credit for donating at school blood drives. They don't want to give potential donors any incentive to lie on the questionnaire, and they don't want anyone to donate if they know they shouldn't, just to get some free stuff.

It's federal law that no blood product from a paid donor is human-transfusable. The Plasma Alliance, where students and winos sell plasma for money, can't actually send any of that to hospitals. Sure, their ads make it sound like you're helping people when you sell your plasma. But it doesn't go to hospital patients; it goes to labs where they spin components out of the plasma which are sold to research labs or -- disturbingly -- cosmetics companies. Just think about the crackhead selling plasma the next time you smear on some eyeliner!

If I were ever in the hospital in need of blood products, the volunteer donor base would make me feel a lot better about what I was receiving. And I like supporting the system, so I donate whenever I get the chance. I don't donate whole blood; rather, I donate platelets. Whole blood donations take 15 or 20 minutes, but platelet donors are in the chair for as long as two hours. A machine pumps out my blood, spins out the platelets, and gives me back my red cells. You can only donate whole blood every eight weeks, but you can do platelets every two. I've got the free time, and I like having a chance to relax on a comfy couch for two hours, so I do platelets. Also, I'm a useful blood type (O-neg, universal donor), and I have rare immune factors that make my blood and platelets ideal for extremely immune-suppressed patients. Knowing that my platelets go mostly to chemo patients and premature babies gives me extra incentive to donate.

And you should think about it too. If you can, and if you haven't in a while, head over to your local blood center and part with some Precious Bodily Fluids. You'll be helping to keep complete strangers alive and healthy, which has to be good for one's karma....

Thursday, August 02, 2007

GenCon -- I can go!

In years past, GenCon (the world's biggest Geek Convention) has been the weekend of my birthday. I missed last year because I was busy hiking in King's Canyon. This year wasn't looking good, either -- it's a busy time at work, and we've got plans for that Saturday and Sunday. I'd feel like a heel skipping a wedding and my nephew's birthday party just so I could go to GenCon. But I just checked the calendar and found that GenCon isn't until the following weekend. Hoo Rah! I'm psyched about the chance to spend a day being Nerdy and communing with my fellow gaming/fantasy/sci-fi enthusiasts. Depending on my work schedule, I might even see if I can take Friday off and make it a two-day event. Two days of Geeky Gaming Goodness -- I'm thrilled!

I might even fully embrace my inner geek and dress up for the occasion. Any ideas for a costume? I'm thinking not Elf or Jedi, but other than that I'm open for suggestions....

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Laptop, on the way

Laura ordered her new laptop from Dell today. And, it's red! With luck, it'll arrive before she leaves on tour!

I did some digging and found that her important programs will run fine on Vista, according to the manufacturer, and that the drivers for her portable printer come preinstalled. So I suspect we'll stick with Vista, at least for a while. I'm curious to play with it a bit, and to see if I can get it more efficient. Two gigs of ram, though -- that should help.

I talked to the guy who created Laura's lighting-design paperwork program, and he said it works fine with Vista. He said he personally can't stand it, though -- the constant barrage of security warnings is maddening. He still uses a Mac for most of his work. I gathered he's one of the many who switch back and forth between Mac and PC in the course of their days; I do, and I know others who do as well. I'm surprised at how easy it is to code-switch when I change OS's. Then again, there's a lot of fundamental similarity between MacOS and XP/Vista....