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The Hizzle of T-Fizzle <br /> <b>Deprecated</b>: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in <b>/home/jzero/public_html/troy/wpblog/wp-includes/formatting.php</b> on line <b>82</b><br /> » Mobile Post

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More Bread + TomTom Stuff + Weekend

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

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My latest batch of bread. I’m not sure if it was the way I had the towel draped over them during the second rising or what, but these loaves are wider and flatter than the others I’ve made. Since I have been able to make edible bread a few times, I felt ready to do a little experimenting. I had read in a few sources about using high heat and steam to help make a crust, so I did these at 475 for 15 min, spraying water into the oven at 5 min intervals. The result is indeed a dark brown crust. Perhaps a bit too dark? I also put sesame seeds on one loaf at X’s request. Unfortunately, the dough seemed to take a long time to rise so I didn’t pull the bread out of the oven until after 11PM. I was concerned that the brown crust would be rock hard, but as the article I read suggested, the crust indeed became soft just like “real” bread.

On the TomTom front, I had heard that the traffic service is actually currently free in the US because it isn’t really complete yet. I tried to feel TT out without trying to sound like a freeloader, and got a response that they were launching a new version of the traffic service in mid-april. I waited until then and tried to connect and still got an expiration notice.

Last week I saw someone with the same error code who said they simply had to contact TT and get their Plus account reset. They said they were told that traffic is free in the US until the end of June. So I sent TT a message and by the next day, I was getting traffic reports. The “new” service is much improved. It now reports the type of incident and the estimated delay It also shows a graphical representation on the traffic bar of how much of your remaining trip is subject to the delay. When you get to the actual traffic jam, the road itself is has a special pattern on it to illustrate the jam. The accuracy is probably about the same, that is, I found some spots where the traffic was at a dead stop and TT said nothing, while a reported 10min delay was clear in real life. That’s just a limitation of the system. They really should have some sort of user-reported traffic function. The TT can talk to the internet, so surely it can phone home and say “Hey I’m going 5 MPH on I95″ and if a statistically significant number of devices make similar reports, that information can then be relayed to other devices in the area.

For the time being, you have to think of paying for the traffic service as paying for the INTEGRATION with your device. You can get better info for free, but you currently can’t get that information shot directly to your HUD I’d have to call Traffic.com or switch to the radio. It can only be justified as a convenience cost, but it’s only about $6/month. Now that the information is useful, I probably will actually pay for it.

Of course after a couple of days, I am now getting a different message that TT Traffic is disabled, so I’m waiting on TT customer service for a fix. Speaking of their customer service, I have heard complaints that they are slow to respond and aren’t helpful. I have gotten responses to all of my questions within 24 hours. This morning I posted a follow up to my issue and got a response from the CSR within 15 minutes. They seem to be very responsive, so take heart.

Otherwise, a nice weekend. Saturday we watched Jer play rugby (pics later) and had dinner with X’s family before going to Brownies for her joint bday party with Kira. Sunday we spent the day at my parents’ new house. While their moving back west means no more beach house, it does mean that it’s faster and easier for all of us to get there. We were there pretty much all day, eating, playing games, etc. We haven’t been able to do that in awhile, and I think we’ll be able to do it more. Yay!

Boston New Year - Volume II

Monday, March 12th, 2007

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Last year, on a lark, we went to Boston for NYE. We could crash at Mike’s parents’ and enjoy the festivities. We had so much fun we decided to do it again.

This year we decided to get a hotel room to both to spare Mike’s parents the trouble of having us crash with them (although they are really laid back and seem to genuinely not mind extra guests laying around) and to spare ourselves the hassle of having to catch a train back to the suburbs after the fireworks. Also, we managed to plan far enough ahead this year.

We took off for Boston on Thursday morning (28th). TomTom wanted to take us over the GW Bridge which is a guarantee of heavy traffic. You want to take the Tappan Zee. This cemented a view that has been stewing in my head for awhile: if you have no idea where you are going, GPS is AWESOME. It will get you to your destination. But if you have some idea, it can be annoying because you may want to use it to help with areas you don’t remember well, or its nice to have something to remind you that your exit is 2 miles away after driving mindlessly for 2 hours up the Merritt Parkway. And theoretically for traffic information, even if it doesn’t work all that well.

We had a great deal of trouble going over the Tappan Zee bridge because we had no idea where it is. To search TomTom for an item, you have to first specify a city. This makes sense to an extent - when you’ve got a map of all of the US and Canada, searching for Main Street would probably crash the system. But there should be a way to do a cityless search for reasonably unique names. I’m sure there are very few Tappan Zee Bridges in North America. In case anyone cares, its between Nyack and Tarrytown, NY. Knowing the cities, I was later able to find it as a cross street to I287, but I could never find it by itself. When we got to the hotel, I went in and dropped a favorite on it.

The real lesson here is that you should still do advance route planning before you go. I sat in the car armed with the hotel address and said “Let’s go!” I should have sat down the night before and figured out how to program the route. There is even software that will let you plot a route in Google Earth and then convert it to an itinerary file.

Anyway, the drive was uneventful. We called MikeMike here and there when we weren’t sure we liked what TomTom was saying, and it was somewhat liberating to just drive wherever confident that I can always follow the little arrow to get where I’m going. We always pack a lunch and we stopped at a mall in CT to eat. Mike had the foresight to warn us to have the directions to the hotel ready because for obvious reasons, GPS doesn’t work well inside Big Dig tunnels.

We got to the lovely hotel and dropped off our gear and set out to decide where to get some food. We decided to go to the nearby Black Rose, an Irish-style pub that both Fitzes had been to and were impressed. It was a short walk from the hotel, good because we had an early morning the next day.

Upon arrival we were given a 15 minute wait time, but from start to finish of this very brief transaction, the wait time increased 4 times. By the time we walked away from the hostess, it was 30 minutes. Mike and I ordered some beers and the ladies left to go score some of the elusive Lactaid, almost impossible to find when you need it. Worst part is, I’m not convinced it does anything for X. As soon as they walked out the door (perhaps 2 minutes after being told 30 minutes; the bartender hadn’t even poured our beers yet) our table was ready. Whacky! Food was good…X had shepherd’s pie because Mary suggested a high-iron meal before donating platelets. Of course X mostly ate the mashed potato top and not much of the meat. I had a corned beef sandwich.

We went back to the hotel to get to sleep. I volunteered to shower at night so that there were less people vying for bathroom access. Because of Mike’s status with Hilton, he often gets upgraded rooms if they are available We got bumped to a handicap-accessible room. I have to wonder just what Mike’s “status” is. When they say he’s a special client, they may mean he is a SPECIAL client. Either way, we got the benefit of extra space, and a somewhat confusing dual-handled shower control with a built-in thermometer. A lower handle seemed to be used for turning on the water and setting the temperature, while a higher handle activated the faucet or shower depending on which way you turned it. The thermometer leads to the dangerous practice of seeing how high you can get it to read before you can’t stand it anymore. My volunteering to shower first had the unintended side effect of being able to figure out how to operate the thing without being under a time constraint.

Friday morning was off to the bloodletting platelet donation at Dana Farber. Mary has donated there a number of times and Mike has started as well, and X was also interested. I would be too, but I have this annoying quirk of passing out when someone punches one of my veins, and I felt that it wasn’t the best plan for me. No, its not the sight of blood, and no, its not the amount of blood. I’ve passed out giving a whole unit, I’ve passed out giving a few mL for blood tests. I brought a book to read, but ended up watching the magic machine with utter fascination. It sucks out a small amount of blood and sends it down to a centrifuge where the platelets are extracted and sent to a collection bag. The blood then gets sent back to the donor. You can donate platelets every 48 hours but they limit you to something like 24x per year. Platelets have a shorter lifespan than whole blood, and they can’t be frozen. They are also typeless, and of course they are immensely important to cancer patients who need clotting agents. You can also become registered as a bone marrow donor. So there’s a lot of good deeds coming out of this, and its only a couple hours and seems relatively painless. I can’t do it, so you should for me.

After that we had to go to Newbury Street to pick up a very important hat from Kate Spade. X had espied this hat at home, but fortunately was not willing to pay the absurd $75 price tag (come on, Kate Spade! A purse is one thing, but this is a wooly hat!). She got a gift card for Xmas and, learning that the hat was on clearance for $28, ran out to get it and found it sold out. She actually called the Boston store and reserved one!

So we went and got that. Newbury Street is an interesting neighborhood. Its got a whacky New Hope-ish mix of artsy/hippie types and upscale trendwhore types. I think a few years ago it was more artsy and full of cool boutiques and consignment/overpriced thrift shops. Now its becoming homogenized and a lot of the indie shops are being replaced with trendy mall shops. This may be really cool for some folks, but we live in the shadow of one of America’s largest shopping malls, so a Kate Spade or MAC store doesn’t really impress me much.

There are still a few cool shops, like one that sells old advertising posters. At really high prices. But its neat to look around.

We met a couple of Mike/Mary’s friends at The Other Side café, which is a cool trendy place. They have a nice beer list and a nice tea list. They are vegetarian-friendly, but I was surprised to see no falafel on the menu.

I think we went back to the hotel for a little nap and then went to explore and find some dinner. We went to Harvard Square (N.B. - events may have occurred in a different order - The memory is fuzzy). Don’t know if it was the cold or just that the students were home for winter break, but the whole area was pretty quiet. We walked around a bit before seeking out a place to eat. We found a nice looking restaurant, the name of which escapes me now, where we got some beers and food. I don’t even remember what I ate! Whatever it was, I remember liking it…

In any case, we ate and then went in search of dessert. We had read in a magazine about a café serving really good hot chocolate, so we found it. I actually got some kind of chai, but the hot chocolate was very good and kept us warm as we waited for the T back to town. We hit the sack after that.

Saturday was a big day. We started by going to the Sam Adams Brewery Tour. We didn’t know what to expect. We were told free beer and a free souvenir glass (they ask for a $2 donation which goes to Boston charities), but I’m picturing a 2oz plastic cup and a few sips of beer. We went to the earliest tour possible and did not have time to get breakfast.

We arrived at the brewery in a fairly rundown part of town about 30 min before the tour. A few people milled around the waiting area watching the intro video and looking at the displays. There were probably 30 people by the time the tour kicked off.

It was a decent tour. They gave some history of the brewery itself and the company behind Sam Adams, followed by a bit about the actual beer brewing process and a look at some of the brewing equipment. There was a Homestar sticker on a cabinet!

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One interesting tidbit is that this location is no longer used for mass production and is instead more of a “test kitchen” for experimental beers.

Everyone is there for free beer and they know it, so they don’t waste any more time than necessary and after about 30 minutes, we were handed our tasting glasses and seated in the tasting room. The glasses are quite nice - 5oz, real glass, with a Sam Adams logo on one side and one of their tasting steps on the other.

The tour guide handed out pitchers of beer including the standard Boston Lager, the current seasonal Winter Ale, and the Cherry Wheat. We are not ones to complain about free beer, but truth is we’ve all had plenty of these beers before. The tour guide talked about all the different beers they have, and then handed us three of the most common ones. We noticed that there were taps at the bar for Hardcore and “Experimental.” Hardcore is a hard cider made by the same brewery but is not Sam Adams-branded. Its not widely sold. The guide told us that the “Experimental” beer was a boysenberry lambic. This got our attention, and we teamed up with the group next to us to beg and cajole the poor girl for a taste of these beers we never had. She agreed and gave us some of each to share.

Hardcore is pretty good as far as ciders go. I’m not a huge cider fan. Most of them start to wear on my palate before I can finish them. The Hardcore seems less sweet, and less artificial. It tastes more like fermented apple juice and less like an apple-flavored malt beverage. I could probably get into it.

The boysenberry lambic was just awesome. Not too sweet, still tasted like beer, a perfect level of carbonation. We all loved it. The guide told us that it would probably never see the light of day outside the tasting room. Too bad! We tried to tip her for scoring us the extra beer, and she asked that we just put it in the donation bucket instead.

Then we hit the gift shop where you can get all sorts of Sam Adams swag. Its pretty cheap, too. You could get tasting glasses for $3 which I bought for the shotglass club in lieu of the traditional shotglass. They also have an amazingly soft sweatshirt.

Here’s the girls in the tasting room:

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By this point we were hungry and a little bit tipsy, so we headed off to the Sunset Grille (or something like that) where they often get voted as having the best Margarita in beantown. Mike and X are not too big on margaritas, so Mary and I split a very large one. We had some Mexican food. I got something with mole (of course).

Despite eating, the addition of margaritas and more beer had us a little tipsy still as we headed off to the nexus of Christian Science. Within the Mary Baker Eddy Library resides one of Boston’s best kept secrets - The Mapparium. Even native Bostonians that we asked had no idea what it was! Now, its only about an hour’s worth of entertainment, but it will only cost you $3.00 and its really cool.

The Mapparium is a giant stained glass globe. And by giant, I mean three stories from pole to pole. And you view it from the inside. There is a bridge running diametrically through about the equator where the viewers stand and peer at the world all around them. The globe is lit from the outside and the stained glass is brilliantly colored. Being a fairly perfect sphere, it has some wild acoustic properties. Think of the whispering chambers in domes and cupolas and magnify that many times.

It was built in the 1930s and the glass panels were designed to be removable so that the globe could be updated as the world changed. But before it was ever updated, it was decided that it had more value as a historic snapshot of the world as it was at that time. Its fascinating to see how much things have changed in just 70 years. They do about a 15-minute light show where they note various points of interest and light up the globe in different ways. It was very cool and definitely something to check out.

I believe at this time we went back to the hotel room for a rest before dinner. We tried very hard to find a place to go candlepin bowling but could only find one venue and it was not in a nice neighborhood. For dinner we decided to go to the heavily Italian North End where we ate at a bistro with some good wine and lots of olives. After dinner we went to Hong Kong to meet up with Mahoney. Mahoney is a friend of X from the college days. We try to meet up whenever we’re in the same geographic area.

Hong Kong is a whacky little Chinese restaurant/bar near Quincy Market. After dark its basically a typical bar except there is a guy that sells teriyaki chicken skewers for $1 and their signature drink is the Scorpion Bowl.

The Scorpion Bowl, which I may have previously mentioned in this blog, is a strong fruity concoction that is cleverly served in a giant noodle bowl. I feel bad for the waitresses that carry them through the crowded space - they are quite heavy. One amusing tidbit is that they won’t sell a Scorpion Bowl to a loner. You have to have a buddy. But over the course of the evening, they won’t limit the number of bowls they sell to your team.

Can you see the Scorpion Bowl in this picture? IMAGE_00026.jpg

By the time Mahoney arrived with his girlfriend (whose name I sheepishly admit that I can no longer recall) We were 2 deep in bowls and decided to get a third. This seemed like risky business, but we dove in. After finishing we went to find a quieter bar where we could talk more easily. We almost went to a bar that was sporting a $12 cover, but I balked at this - after 3 Scorpion Bowls, I was done drinking and I imagine everyone else would be slowing down. We went to some other bar in or near Faneuil Hall and had a beer or two and chatted for awhile before heading back to the hotel. We let Mahoney know of our party plans and he said he didn’t have any real plans and would meet up with us.

In keeping with tradition, we got some pizza. X actually stayed awake long enough to have some this time. At length we got it together and went to sleep.

Sunday. New Year’s Eve. We slept in since we finally had nowhere to go in the morning, and we had been up late. We must have gotten something to eat, but I don’t remember what or where. X had a hankering for JP Licks ice cream, so we went back to Newbury Street. After getting tasty ice cream, we walked around. In an Army/Navy store, I found a new man-bag. It was only $10. Black leather and it has more pockets than my Axible. It is also missing the omnipresent “rainflap” that so many bags have. I find the flap just makes it harder to get into the bag with one hand, as you have to hold the flap with one hand and dig in the bag with the other. The flap on the Axible also has no pockets of its own. At least flaps with pockets allow you to store a few things for quick access.

I also found a wool houndstooth fedora and a replacement for my bush hat. Many years ago I got an oilskin bush hat at Pocono Whitewater. I wore it for many years and loved how it was water resistant and kept the sun off of my face and neck. It had a chinstrap so I could tie it on in windy conditions, or hang it from my neck when indoors. Over the years, it has become very worn. There are holes in the crown. I have long sought a replacement, but could never find any made of oilskin…only cotton. Well, I didn’t find oilskin, but I may have found the next best thing - this one is made of ripstop nylon sailcloth. Its very nice. Can’t wait for the summer to start wearing it.

We wandered around the Public Gardens and looked at the various ice sculptures that were being finished up and the setups for the bands and other art installations. Then we went back to the hotel to get ready for the festivities.

Last year we were joined by Mary’s cousin Sarah (H or no H? I don’t know) and her husband Roy. They were joining us again and had in fact booked the hotel room adjacent to ours. We were also to be joined by another of Mary’s cousins, Chrissy (again I may have the spelling wrong) and her husband.

Our spacious wheelchair-friendly room was a perfect venue for a pregame party. We ordered some Upper Crust pizzas, had a few drinks, and caught up for a few hours before heading out to the streets. We started off with a stroll past Hong Kong for some Teriyaki Chicken (they will let you poke your head in and buy them without paying the cover) but learned that the cover hadn’t started yet, so we decided to step in and grab a few Scorpion Bowls. It was fairly early and the place was fairly quiet. Sarah seemed to have a knack for making the bowls empty fairly quickly.

There was an odd moment when a bartender was going around standing on a barstool tying up nets with balloons for the “balloon drop” they had advertised as part of their festivities. Its moronic to stand on a barstool to do this. Its absurd to do it in an operational bar. At some point he put his stool very close to where we were. Someone must have bumped his stool, but he basically got down and accused Roy of deliberately kicking the stool. Great way to treat your customers. Maybe Roy really did bump his stool accidentally. Ask him to be careful but really? You should be using a LADDER and you should have done this in the morning before the bar opened. Duh.

After a couple of Scorpion Bowls, it was off to the Red Hat. I think maybe we stopped at one other place briefly but maybe I’m thinking of last year. The Red Hat seems to be a little bit off the beaten path. Last year it was pretty much empty. They had decent drinks and snacks, no cover and we could just hang out as long as we wanted, so we decided to do it again.

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This year they tried to spruce it up a little, including a DJ and some party favors. It was still no cover and there were only a few people there who seemed to be friends of the DJ. The DJ was all over the place. When we got there he was playing a lot of fun 80s stuff at a reasonable volume. As the night wore on, he graduated to hip hop and was absolutely blasting it. He ignored repeated requests to turn the music down. Its a small bar and there’s only maybe 20 people there - how loud does the music need to be? Also he seemed oblivious to the fact that no one was dancing to hip hop and people were requesting more common dancey songs. Isn’t the DJ supposed to gauge the crowd?

We were joined eventually by Mahoney, his girlfriend and their friend Laura whose name I recall because I have her e-mail address. Laura is a teacher or a student or perhaps a student teacher? She is living/working/studying in England. X and I have a passing dream of doing the same, so we had a lot to talk about. In fact, I owe her an e-mail. We were also joined by the girl who met us at The Other Side the other day and her husband.

So we hung around, eating, drinking, having a good time. When it came near midnight I tried to round people up for the fireworks. I got a lot of pushback, but eventually got everyone moving on the grounds that we RAN towards the harbor last year and still missed them. I told everyone if they were lame we could skip them next year but we had to do it JUST ONCE! Mahoney and his girls stayed at the bar.

The fireworks were good enough. I wouldn’t feel bad about skipping them next year, but I am glad to have seen them. There were a lot of annoying drunkards in the area that we had to put up with. Shortly after the fireworks a few couples had to take off to catch trains. Those of us staying in the hotel went back to the Red Hat for another couple of drinks and some more dancing. We probably stuck around another hour and then went to the hotel and completely crashed.

The following morning we cleaned up and checked out. It was pouring rain and there was utter bedlam at the valet station. I don’t know if I called early enough to beat the rush, but I was told to wait 1/2 hour and when we got down there it was waiting, although I had to chase down a very harried valet to claim my key and tip him. He had so many people yelling about there car not being ready, he figured I was one of them. We loaded up the car, fired up TomTom, got our bearings, and bolted for Needham. Mike and Mary had parked at Mike’s parents’ house and took the train in, so we took them to get their car.

While there, I picked up sizable TV. Mike’s parents had gotten a big HDTV for Christmas and said we could have their old one. Mike even hauled it home for us. Thanks guys :-). Mike and Mary also had to pick up all their Christmas presents. Then we went for a hearty breakfast at a diner in a converted IHOP. It was funny how little conversion was done. They still had the frosted glass dividers with the flags on them and simply replaced the IHOP logo with their own!

The drive home was uneventful. TomTom got us there A-OK.

Interesting note - this year a Wagamama will be opening at Quincy Market. Wagamama is an English fast food chain where they serve noodles and other Asian stuff. Its ubiquitous in London. X and I ate at one while there and the food and atmosphere were really nice, especially for fast food. Should be interesting to see how it fares in the US. I hope they don’t charge British prices!

We had an awesome time. Now we’ve done Boston New Years twice, its officially a tradition!

And I don’t know what this is a picture of:IMAGE_00028.jpg

Now that I see it on the big screen I realize it’s X going down a slide made of ice :-)

This is not a bomb.

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

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You probably can’t make it out in the pic, but NBC actually blurred ignignok’s finger!

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Ingenuity

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

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About a year ago at Target, I found a light-up “BUSY” sign sort of like the “ON THE AIR” signs one might see in a radio studio. It was on clearance for $5! I thought it would be a fun novelty in the office and could perhaps help rescue me from people barging into my office not realizing that I’m actually in the middle of something.

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The letters were white, but I colored them in with a Sharpie because they were unreadable when it was turned on.
I wanted to have a convenient way to turn it on, but have it in a visible location, so I hung it on the front of my desk. It had a pushbutton power switch. I cut this out and rigged it up to some longer UTP scraps I found lying around and screwed it to my desk within arm’s reach.
One day I got up in a hurry, bumped the button and broke it. I got a soldering iron for Christmas, so I decided to make some improvements. I used better wiring and a sturdier flip switch. I mounted the switch in an old Adagio Tea sample box. Works like a charm.

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Holiday Wrapup

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

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It was a lovely, relaxing, and entirely too short Christmas break. One of the most relaxing ever.
The first real taste of the holiday was our “secret Santa” exchange at casa de Fitzgerald. We had a hearty pasta dinner and busted out those presents Roseanne got me the super giant wooden Apples To Apples box. She was surprised to get this as the vendor said it was out of them and I think she ordered the cardboard boxed equivalent. She also got me 2 Le Creuset stoneware ramekins and a small baker. And even in a color I don’t have anything in! Score! X got pajamas from Kate. The same exact pajamas that X gave to Kate the day before in the school secret Santa! Crazy!
We also celebrated Mike’s birthday a little bit late. Mary surprised him by making him a cake using a Williams-Sonoma pan that makes little train cars. It turned out really cool.

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On the 23, we had the Fisher clan over for faux Xmas. We had to push it up due to some travel restrictions. We did our usual long drawn out present opening process and had brunch and an early dinner. We played a game of Compatibility which was a Christmas present of mine for Lee and Riz, followed by a horse racing game. I forget the name of it…Home Stretch, perhaps? I thought it was pretty interesting.
Present highlights were TomTom (hah), BSG season 2.5, a soldering iron, and a probe thermometer to replace my one that stopped working. I notice that this one says not to use it in a grill. I wonder if that’s why my old one broke?? X also got me a GC to “Shaving Grace” which is a sort of MANLY hair salon where you can get a straight razor shave. Apparently she got Mike one in the previously-discussed secret Santa so that we can have a manly spa day. We’ll have to come up with an excuse to bring Ron. This explains why Mike was so sheepish and didn’t actually show anyone the gift card. Mary declared that it was a Home Depot GC and quickly steered progress forward so that I didn’t get clued in.
It was really nice because usually things are a little rushed on Xmas day, as we have to come back to meet X’s family and my aunt has dinner, so my parents and Lee and Riz have to be off for that. This time we got to take our time and really relax.
Christmas Eve was also very relaxing. We slept in and made breakfast, watched TV, ran to the grocery store for a few things, took a nap…then off to X’s parents for dinner. We did a Pollyanna this year to help ease the burden of everyone buying presents for each of the 6 siblings/spouses. Jer drew my name and got me a pooping reindeer and a box containing Robot Chicken Season 1 and a ViewMaster with a reel of frames from the show! Brilliant!
I had been told that Dave and Peg were giving me one huge gift and my ticket to Rent (we are going to take Gabs to see it). And it really was huge. I’m a bit embarrassed to say this, especially with the manly spa day so recently mentioned, but the giant box was the Disney Cinderella’s Castle Playset.
It’s not what you think! I always loved having a train going around the Christmas tree. My dad put one up some years and I just liked it. When X and I went to DisneyWorld a few years ago, I saw the toy monorails and decided to get one for my tree. They also sell models of park attractions to go along with it, and my parents-in-law often get pieces for me for birthdays and Christmas and the like. I currently have in addition to the castle, Astro Orbiter, Main Street Train Station and the Contemporary Resort.
They castle is pretty spectacular. It unfolds to reveal play areas inside and has light and sound effects. It also comes with a stack or accessories - figures of all the major princes/princesses an their associated icon (glass slipper for Cinderella, a rose for Belle, etc) and bits of furniture an scenery, some of which also lights up.
Christmas day we opened up our remaining presents and then went back to the in-laws’ house for “Pork Fest.” Gabs’ bday is Christmas Day so they make breakfast featuring many pork products. This year was bacon, pork roll, scrapple, and scrambled eggs with ham in them. We learned that burnt pork roll is actually really tasty.
Then back home to prep for the family gatherings and off to Gary’s where we had quite the feast and handing out of gifts. Also: the Eagles beat Dallas quite handily, which aside from upsetting Grandmom (who claims to have been a Dallas fan since she was very young) was pretty awesome. Scored $75 in cash plus a KOP mall GC. Get ready, W-S, here I come!
I called this holiday wrap-up, but I’m going to leave New Years activities for the next post. Gotta keep you drooling for more.

Oh snap, its New Years Eve!

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

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And X has got her new “drinkin’ hat” on!

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Happy New Year!

Bubb Rubb - Fire Marshall

Friday, December 29th, 2006

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The fire ‘larm go “WHOOP! WHOOP!”

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TomTom One First Impression

Thursday, December 7th, 2006

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In order to combat my extreme distaste for getting lost and driving in unfamiliar territory, X decided to get me a GPS after seeing Mike’s very cool Nuvi in action. After consulting with Mike and doing a good bit of research, we went with the TomTom One. We liked some features such as automatic display of POIs on the map, and advanced trip planning with multiple destinations and waypoints. About the only desirable feature it lacks is text-to-speech which allows it to call out street names (e.g. “Turn left onto Main Street” instead of just “Turn Left.” A unit with this feature was $100+ more.

Setting it up is fairly simple. Stick the suction cup arm on your windshield, put the unit on, plug it in, switch it on. You do have to do some sort of strange activation on the map. I did not turn it on until I got to my car and found that I have to go to some website and punch in a number from a credit-card like thing in the box and a number from the device itself and then enter a third number given by the website. Fortunately I have the internets in my phone, so I was able to set it up on the fly.

Next it had me choose a voice and punch in my home address and it was ready to go. I asked it to guide me home and off I went. Of course it chooses the most direct route, which is not the way I go, so I got to see how quickly it could recalculate the path. Eventually it got into sync with my actual route. I got home. It worked as expected. Not much of a test.

That night I went through all the options. There are tons - you can choose from a variety of POIs to display on the screen, choose colors, voices, what data is displayed, etc. Then I set up the Internet service. TomTom has an interesting feature where the GPS can use your phone’s GPRS/EDGE capabilities over Bluetooth to do a variety of interesting things, not the least of which is real-time traffic reports. Of course you have to have a Bluetooth phone and mobile Internet. Which, naturally, I do. Good thing I dumped the Sidekick! I was concerned it may not work on the MDA. A compatibility list on TomTom’s website does not list it, although it does list other HTC Wizard devices, and generally if it works on one, it works on others. Real-time traffic is nice but not a showstopper for me, so I would not be too disappointed if it wouldn’t work.

Well, it works. It was easy to set up, and seems to work fine with the MDA I chose “other” as my phone type. The only issue is that once the ONE connects to the MDA, the MDA will not reconnect to the Internet unless you recycle the radio by initiating a phone call.

The next day I put it to a real test. I told it to get me to work and drove off. It gave me a weird route to work, one that seems backwards at any rate, but is absurd at rush hour. I drove my normal way and let it figure it out, which it did fairly quickly. I found the traffic reporting to be OK but I’ll have to use it more before I decide. There was a cleared accident that was reported accurately, but shortly after, traffic was at a standstill. Since TomTom did not know I was in traffic (although it knows I’m on an Interstate…stopped…so you think it might at least guess and offer an alternative?), I wasn’t sure how to re-route myself. I could always exit and let it do it automatically, but given the odd path it chose originally, I was concerned that it would try to route me to that path. ONE also comes with very scant documentation. The paper manuals basically explain how to set it up and there are “guided tours” in the UI but they don’t cover everything in depth. Eventually I found a button to avoid a roadblock, but the unit assumes a single-point, not a line of traffic. When I did this, it directed me to exit at a cross street, cross that street, and get right back on the interstate. Since I knew the way in from the cross street I figured I’d go that way and see where it told me to go.

And it did just fine. At that point, it did not try to guide me back to the strange path it originally chose, but simply found a direct way to get me to the destination. The directions are fairly easy to follow, although there is a cartographic fudge factor that can cause issues with some of the less obvious directions.

You see, the device knows your latitude/longitude coordinates and uses this to place you exactly on the map. But it also knows that it is primarily a car navigation system, so it fudges a little bit to keep you on the road in case the margin of error makes it think you might not be. As a result, if I am at work on a road that is not yet in the map, it places me on the next road a block up.

Where this gets sketchy is in a situation where you bear off, if you are unsure of the true path (”Continue Straight On…” when either way could really be straight), you may choose one and then glance at the map to see if it was right. Your icon will continue to show you on the correct path for a couple of seconds because it tries to make an error correction until you are far enough from where it thinks you should be. So you bear right, your icon stays on target, you think all is well, then suddenly a few seconds later the icon jumps a bit and it recalculates your path.

Otherwise, it got me to work quite well. Over the past week I’ve used it to rove around traffic a number of times. I needed to get gas one morning and used it of find a nearby station. I’m not sure if its any faster to try to dodge the traffic, but its fun to drive around new places. I’ve since realized that the traffic function is hamstrung by a current inability in this area to get delay information (TomTom knows there is a traffic incident, but not how far the backup is) which makes the “re-route around traffic” function quite useless. I probably won’t subscribe to the traffic service until that gets resolved.

Now - Lee, Mike, Larry and the rest of you - when do we start geocaching?

Various and Sundry Updates

Sunday, November 19th, 2006

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I got a little short on time to write game-by-game updates, and without a play-by-play, they probably all run together. Currently I am 1-8 curling. We won our second match in the Beginners league. I subbed for Mary 2 weekends ago in Mixed. We lost, although our real Mixed team actually won that week. Go figure.

Monday night was my final game with my first Men’s team. The club is entering a sort of Fall Break. The Harvest Bonspiel takes place this coming weekend, so league play is suspended while the party/tourney takes place, and next week is Thanksgiving week, where it has traditionally been hard to organize games with so many people travelling or entertaining guests. In the Men’s league, it seems they try to take advantage of this lull in the action by posting a 4-week preseason of sorts. I don’t know if that means they have a longer season keeping the new teams for the remainder of the season, or if there is another short round in December or perhaps the spring. It seems the other leagues simply reshuffle around January and those teams are fixed until April.

I have definitely made improvements in the past few weeks, to the point where last night I think I only threw one stone out of play, and many of my stones were fairly accurate, especially in the first half while I was still fresh. An experienced club member made multiple comments about how well he thought I was throwing, which really made me happy. In the second end, I threw two very solid draw shots that got buried behind some guards. We picked up 4 points that end, 2 of them being my stones. One of the frustrations of throwing lead is how the role is sometimes exploratory or defensive, so your stones don’t stay on the ice long even when they land in play. Its nice to feel like you actually scored some points, even though in reality good plays by the front end put your opponent on the defensive and can help you score. We took a 2 point lead after that 4-ender, but the rest of the match involved a combination of bad luck, errors in judgement when sweeping, and a relentless onslaught from our opponents as they nickled and dimed us to the end.

In other news, the Montgomery County Cultural Center (home of the Centre Theater) threw an art auction fund raiser that we went to. $18 for the two of us, including wine/beer and hors d’euvres seemed like a good deal, especially considering the Cultural Center’s mission.

The auction was conducted by Ross Galleries, an organization that specializes in fundraising art auctions. X and I had not been to an art auction since our honeymoon nearly 2 years ago. That was run by Park West, a company met with mixed reviews, although I’ve no beef with them. Of course I spent $100 on a Littorio Del Signore print…if you told me today it was not worth the paper it’s printed on, it’s no big deal. I suppose the guy who spent $10000+ on that Dali or Rembrandt is going to be more upset. Don’t you wonder why something that probably belongs in a museum is being sold on a mid-market cruise ship???

I did not expect the auction to be comparable to the cruise ship events. The auctioneer was decent, but there were a lot of items and not a lot of time. As a result, where the auctioneer on the cruise ship could offer lots of cool information, the Ross auctioneer could not do as much. There were too many items and he had to keep them going. There were also far less signed/numbered prints than I recall on the cruise. Most of the items were just posters. Not that adding a signature to a print magically makes it valuable, but I like to believe that signed print is better than a poster since the artist presumably actually had a hand in it.

They even had one “forgery.” They didn’t lie about it, they said flat-out that “A Sunday On La Grande Jatte” was a handpainted repro by someone else. But as much as I love that painting, it seems silly to spend $500 on a fake. In a way, I think the fake is worse than a poster. At least with a poster, no one will think it might be original. No one bought it, btw.

There were some good things, too. Not the least of which was that the art is sold framed, so when they have an unsigned poster with a starting bid of $70 you can at least tell yourself that you’re really buying the frame and getting the picture for free. The crowd wasn’t huge, so there weren’t bidding wars. Most items sold for close to the starting bid. Presumably there is a base profit for both the auctioneer and the charity built into the starting bid, so that the Cultural Center did not get screwed by low bids. Finally, Ross has a “lifetime guarantee” that if you ever decide you don’t like the product, they’ll let you trade it for something of equal purchase price. Compare to Park West whom I believe espouses an “all sales final” type policy.

We bought 4 things, all quite cheap. 2 are posters, but as mentioned above, at the price we paid, we were really paying for the frames. One poster is a flower called Red Geranium by Maria Eva. The other is an abstract musically themed number called A Flat by Emmanuel Mattini. It reminded us of Alfred Gockel. Then we got 2 signed prints by Lucelle Raa. One is called “Wonder” and has a little boy and a dog peering into a bucket on the beach. The boy looks eerily similar to me at that age. The other is called “Summer’s End” and has 3 kids sitting on a beach. They will look nice in the beach-themed blue room.

This weekend we stopped by the Curling Club to sample the Harvest Bonspiel festivities. There was a good bit of reveling going on. A group from Inverkeithing, Scotland was there and they have a bonspiel in February that would be very fun to attend. What better excuse to visit Scotland than curling?

While the games are going on, the warm room is alive with activity. My new Men’s League skip, Derek was doing some karaoke, pretty much making up his own words. They also play an interesting betting game where everyone puts a dollar in the pot and gets a playing card. The number and color signify which team must score and how many points during that end. The result makes for some amusing cheering in the warm room. And of course eating and drinking.

Saturday we headed to NYC. We stopped off at Jesse’s house in Jersey City where we were going to spend the night. Jesse was working, so we parked and hopped on PATH to the WTC where we stopped to look at Ground Zero and the memorials there. Then we took the subway up to Fordham, as Mary had promised to show us the “campus” as it were (it’s basically 2 large buildings - one is a dorm and the other has the classrooms) and take us to a diner that she loves.

After feasting on pastrami (the spinach pie sounded good but when I’m in NYC, it’s hard for me not to eat pastrami) and walking around the campus and Time Warner Center, we went down to Macy’s to meet Jesse. While at Macy’s, we tried to see SantaLand where Mary once worked as an elf. Unfortunately, it was closed, although we could see the entrance and peek through the exit.

At this point, it was around 5:30 and we were getting a little bit concerned about the fact that our curtain time for Evil Dead: The Musical was not until 11. We decided to walk up to the theater to see if perhaps we could trade our tickets in for ones at the 7PM show, but it was not to be - Evil Dead is playing very well and both performances were sold out. We were going to have to hunker down and kill a lot of time.

We hiked back up towards Fordham where there was a bar that Mary liked, but it was very crowded, so we stopped by Bar Nine. Mary’s friends had like the place except for skeevy guys hitting on them, but she had never been there herself. Its actually a neat place. Very dimly lit with a sort of goth décor. Instead of tables, there are little “living room” setups with couches, easy chairs and coffee tables. A cat dozed on a nearby couch until a patron came in and sat on the poor thing. Unfortunately, he was similar in color to the couch and hard to spot in the dim light. A band called Led Blimpy was setting up, but we would not be there long enough to see them.

A couple of hours were spent drinking beer and just chatting. We’re not really the loud meat market types, so a nice quiet place where we could just loaf around definitely works well for us. Around 8, we decided to go find some dinner. After some discussion about Havana Central and Virgil’s, we headed to O’Lunney’s. You might guess it’s an Irish pub. It’s spacious, not too expensive, and they have Mary’s favorite, Magner’s Cider. She thought they had it on tap, but they didn’t this time - just bottles.

Food was good - we had some nachos, poppers and wings (we were just going to get nachos, but Jesse has a penchant for ordering (and eating) oodles of food, so he tacked on some extra. I had shepherd’s pie, which was made with lamb instead of the usual beef. Its very good that way. X had some pot roast that was also great. Haven’t had pot roast in awhile. We’ll have to make some this week or next.

After dinner there was a brief wavering of confidence. Jesse had been up since 6AM, X can rarely hack staying up late, and we were stuffed and tired. Skipping the show was discussed, but Mary stalwartly encouraged us to persevere. Off we went to the New World Stages.

The New World Stages is a really neat venue. It is in an underground complex represented at street level by just a small rectangular building with a box office. The place has sort of bomb shelter feel to it, with directions to stages painted on the floor and a very modern concrete and metal décor. Maybe it WAS a bomb shelter of some sort.

I may have told some of you that we were sitting in the “splatter zone.” The first 3 rows cost $25 and are covered in plastic. They sell white splatter zone T-shirts that can be stage-blood soaked souvenirs. In reality, it was decided to sit just outside the splatter zone. We were in the 5th row “Splatter” is an understatement. In the 2nd act they hand out ponchos to those that want them. The final bloodbath isn’t just errant gore flying off the stage. Actors are practically dumping it into the audience! Some people came out completely soaked in stage blood. It would have been fun, but we were also glad to not have to ride trains back to Jesse’s covered in blood.

As for the show itself, it was great. I have not seen any of the Evil Dead movies, but my sources tell me the plot was there and most of the famous lines. The songs are very catchy, culminating in the showstopping “Do The Necronomicon” where the zombies do a dance that’s “like the Time Warp, only better!” It is really a lot of fun, especially if you are not put off by bad language and of course blood and gore. 5 people in front of us went for dessert and did not return for Act II. We were surprised that anyone would come see this not knowing what it was! A few memorable lines:

“I’ve seen games of Guess The Word bring out the worst in people, but that was f***ing ridiculous!”

“They showed Spiderman as the in-flight movie. The directing was the worst I have ever seen!”

Finally, the exhausted crew rode back to Jersey City to crash. In the morning we went to some Ale House for breakfast where they had some awesome choices, like french toast with fresh apples, chocolate chip pancakes with strawberries and amaretto whipped cream, breakfast burrito with chorizo, egg and cheese, and a wrap with lox, egg and goat cheese. I had the pancakes which were very tasty. X got eggs benedict. Good, but the yolks were pretty solid. I don’t know if that was intentional or not…

After breakfast we sat around for a bit, but team Fitz had to get back for a curling match, so we packed up and hit the road.

If you have a chance to see Evil Dead: The Musical, definitely check it out

An Open Letter To CBS

Monday, November 6th, 2006

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Dear CBS,
It happened again. We click over to CBS around 8:30 to start watching The Amazing Race only to find that 60 Minutes is just wrapping up and we are faced with the choice of cancelling other scheduled recordings so we don’t miss the second half of the program.
While I do not disparage 60 Minutes as an excellent news program (although not as good as Sunday Morning), it is not nearly as worth watching as The Amazing Race. Theres a good reason you put 60 Minutes in the non primetime 7:00 time slot - no one actually watches it. Especially during football season when its just the dinner break between the afternoon game and either the late game or prime time programming.
For whatever reason, you moved The Amazing Race to Sunday nights. I’m sure there was sound logic behind this. However, here in the 21st century, the age of Internet and DVRs, we don’t get our news from TV and we don’t watch live TV. The timing of the show is no longer relevant. I will watch The Amazing Race when it is convenient. I will not watch 60 Minutes, no matter when it airs (unless Charles Osgood and Bill Geist take over. Put Geist in charge of 60 Minutes and I’ll watch faithfully.) and I doubt many people ever do.
As a result, 60 Minutes becomes the perfect buffer program for football. I’m sure CBS carries NFL football because it pulls in a good bit of revenue, but the games are always allocated only 3 hours even though they frequently run long. Currently CBS simply bumps all programming back. This causes live-TV watching luddites to tune in at 8:00 for The Amazing Race, only to find a dry news program, which they either must endure, or check back in 15-20 minutes. DVR watchers just get screwed unless they start recording later programs…just in case. But at 9:00 we’ve got Family Guy on Fox and Desperate Housewives over on ABC. I’ve got 2 tuners but that’s still not enough to allow me to record Cold Case just in case a football game ran long..which almost always happens. These days, I’m happy to see Andy Rooney at 7:55 because it means Amazing Race didn’t get bumped.
There’s an easy fix - just overrun 60 Minutes. No one will notice. If football runs over by 20 minutes, just cut off the first 20 minutes of 60 Minutes. All the important prime time programming starts on time, and you sacrifice a few dozen Mike Wallace fans to satisfy far more Amazing Race fans.
Your pal, Troy