november 2006

11.1.06
We left work a little early so we'd have time to stop by the nursery and pick up our pumpkins. There wasn't a great selection left, but we found two decent ones and headed home to carve them, finishing just in time for the trick-or-treaters (mine's the one on the right):

The counts were looking very good this year—by 7:10, we were at almost exactly one trick-or-treater per minute (trick-or-treating is allowed from 6-8 in our neighborhood, so that means we were right at 70). Last year was our poorest showing yet, a still impressive 87, and given the steady flow of the visitors, I was sure we'd bounce back and post a higher total this year. Alas, it was not to be: traffic seriously declined after 7:15 (which is a little unusual; it typically doesn't drop off until closer to 7:45), and we finished with a heartbreaking 86, one short of last year's count. Oh well. More leftover candy for us.


11.2.06
Our next port of call on our cruise was Cozumel, which we had also visited during our honeymoon cruise. On our first trip, we spent the early part of the day on the mainland, taking a boat over to Playa del Carmen and taking a bus from there to visit the Mayan ruins of Tuluum. After that, we returned to Cozumel and had dinner in the main shopping area before returning to the ship.

Since there were other Mayan ruin excursions available both at Cozumel and at our next port, Costa Maya, we thought about doing something different than last time, especially because Julie really wanted to work in a trip to the beach somewhere in our shore excursions. But then we saw an all-day combination package that included a trip to Tuluum followed by a few hours at Xel-Ha, where you could snorkel in the lagoon, so we decided to do that.

Tuluum was as beautiful and magical as I remembered it being; it is perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the crystal clear blue sea. The big difference on this trip was that the region is currently suffering from a plague of locusts, and hundreds of thousands of these had taken up residence at Tuluum, covering all open ground like a living brown carpet. Children would run through them, flapping their arms and causing the bugs to take flight and swarm around for a few seconds, and the iguanas that make their home in the ruins were all very fat and happy, easily able to run into a group of locusts, jump up with their mouths open, and come down with a nice snack. For the bug phobic, it might have been kind of disgusting, but the locusts don't bite or sting, and having lived through a summer of the Brood X cicadas in Baltimore, I found the locusts more amusinig than anything.

Tomorrow: Xel-Ha.

11.3.06
Okay, no post on Xel-Ha today. I spent all my time last night farming for consumables for a very intense new encounter that our raid group is going to attempt for the first time tonight. If we can get this mob down early, the one right after him is supposed to be pretty easy, so there's a possibility we could take down two new bosses tonight, which would put us in second place for progress in Naxxramas on our server. If we don't get him down...well, then as a group, we'll end up blowing several thousand gold in consumables and repairs this evening and have nothing to show for it.

11.6.06
When we were looking through our port excursion options for our cruise before the trip, Xel-Ha sounded pretty interesting: it was described as a unique natural preserve with caves, a lagoon, and hiking paths through a rainforest. When we looked it up on the web, however, it seemed more like an amusement park, and since we couldn't figure out which description was more accurate, it got bumped from our must-do list to our maybe list. Once we were on the ship, we decided to go ahead and take a chance on it, taking it onto a trip to Tuluum since we were going to Tuluum anyway and the two attractions are just down the road from one another.

We arrived in mid-afternoon and only had a couple of hours to explore, and at first I was worried it was more amusement park than natural park. And while there were some touristy things, the main attraction, a lagoon that mixed warm saltwater from the sea with cold fresh water from an underground river that came out of a cave and into the lagoon, far outweighed the amusement park aspect. After a little difficulty getting our rental snorkel gear (the snorkels themselves you got to keep, so you weren't reusing someone else's, thank god) and finding a place to change, we got to spend a little over an hour in the water, and it was far and away one of the coolest things we did on the trip; I know next time we have the opportunity, we'll be much more inclined to take a half-day or longer excursion focused on snorkeling because of this experience.

I've been snorkeling a few times in my life, but only once seriously in the ocean. When I was a teenager, my mom got remarried to an army major who happened to be deployed to Panama for six months. My mom, my sister, and I all went to visit him for a week or two, and aside from getting to see the Pacific ocean for the first time in my life (in fact, that might be the only time I've seen it), watching ships go through the locks of the canal, and going fishing in an enormous man-made lake that was a side effect of the building of the canal, we got to go snorkeling at a little lagoon that was about 8 feet deep on one side of the reef and about 30-40 feet on the other side. It was a really cool day; swimming in this completely beautiful place with gorgeous clear water, tons of tropical fish species, and not another soul around except the four of us. It stormed in the afternoon, and we saw a water spout form offshore, only a mile or two from us. That was the only time I've ever seen a tornado; we just sat on the beach and watched it for half an hour, before the storm swept up the coast and the funnel disappeared.

Anyway. This wasn't quite as good as that experience for me, but it was Julie's first time snorkeling ever, and we had a great time swimming to the different mini-reefs in the lagoon, where you could find different species of tropical fish, and we even found a couple of stingrays, one of whom we caught in the act of shuffling himself into the sand to hide himself. There were times when, because of the temperature and salinity difference, you could actually find large pockets of the salt and fresh water meeting, resisting one another, and finally blending together.

We were exhausted by the time we got back on our van to head back to the ship, but it had been a great day. It was nice to revisit our favorite excursion from our previous trip, but if we ever go back, there's a good chance we'll opt for the all-day excursion to Xel-Ha instead.

11.7.06
I hope the Dems take at least the House today, so someone can at least start to put the brakes on the mindless overspending and warmongering of the Bush administration, which has been completely unchecked by our congress for six years now. I would feel even better voting for them if I thought they had a plan, but they're doing the same thing they did in 2004, when they thought they could coast on Bush's downward slope and win the presidency just because they weren't Bush, not because they had delineated their own strategy for dealing with our country's ills (many of which were visited on us by Bush and his hawkish neocon advisers).

Still, anything is better than two more years of what we've had for the last six years. Although I'd be a little more excited about voting if I had any confidence in the voting system itself...

11.8.06
Here's how my morning at the polls went: first, we showed up at the same polling station we've used for the past 3 elections (starting with the 2000 election), a local elementary school, to find that the polling station had been moved to a fire station up the road. So we drove up to the new location, found almost no one else there, and immediately went in to vote.

I think we've used electronic voting machines in our precinct since the 2002 midterm elections (starting with the 2004 election they were mandated statewide, despite a report comissioned by the governor that showed they were unreliable and susceptible to fraud), so I didn't expect any surprises. Two new issues came up, however: first, when I identified myself so I could get the smartcard that would allow me to vote, they printed off a piece of paper from a little receipt machine that included my name, address, and my party registration. Before I could go to a voting machine, I had to give this piece of paper to an election worker.

The problem with this? Say there was fraud going on in this polling place; it would be very easy for them to rig up select machines to change the votes of a certain party to another, and election workers could then simply look at the party affiliation on that piece of paper and make sure people were using the machines that would affect their vote improperly. There's simply no reason for my party affiliation to be printed on that piece of paper, especially because, as far as I could tell, we weren't allowed to choose which machine we wanted to vote on; that decision was left to the discretion of the poll worker (it also didn't instill confidence when my poll worker directed me to machine #5 at the same time that two other nearby elections officials were talking to one another about how machine #5 had had issues all morning).

Second, I was told by another poll worker that I would have only two minutes to complete my ballot, and that if I had not completed my ballot within 1 1/2 minutes, a warning box would pop up telling me I had only 30 seconds left. This is absolutely different than anytime we've voted previously, and I couldn't see the need for it, especially because 1) we live in a fairly sparsely populated area and there should be plenty of time for people to take as long as they want to vote, especially given the low turnout for midterm elections, and 2) a summary paragraph or two is always included on Maryland ballots for propositions and constitutional amendments so that you can review them while voting if you haven't taken the time to do so beforehand, and putting a time limit on voting means that you don't really have time to review the issues quickly before casting a vote. Also, Julie wasn't given the two-minute instruction at all, and although she didn't take long to vote, I'm curious what would have happened if this warning had popped up for her; I'm guessing she would have just had to redo the whole voting process, but the two-minute rule and the lack of consistent communication about it certainly gave me pause.

So, my lack of confidence in the machinery of voting remains, but it looks like, for this election at least, it doesn't matter if my vote was counted properly, because the important races I was voting in all came out the way I had hoped. Goodbye, Governor Earlick. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

11.9.06
Taking the House and the governorship of my state from Republicans was sweet enough, but now the Senate too? And Rumsfeld is out?

I have one word to describe my feelings about this election: w00t!

11.10.06
Happy birthday, Dodd. And thanks in advance for letting me take you out for a long lunch so I can subtract a couple of hours from my workday.

11.13.06
Adult Swim has posted a trailer for the supposedly forthcoming Aqua Teen Hunger Force full-length movie. I can't tell if it's real or if they're just fucking with us, but an ATHF feature film would be pretty cool. And if they're serious, I hope to god they're working on a Venture Brothers movie, too.

11.14.06
Our final non-US stop on our cruise was at a port called Costa Maya, which was south down the coast from Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. We thought it was going to be another little port town like those two, but it turns out not to be a real town at all: all that's there is a pier (which from my reckoning looked like it could dock up to five cruise ships at once), a fake plaza lined with shops, a saltwater swimming pool, a bar (of course), and a beach that was only for sitting—no swimming.

We figured out the artificiality pretty quickly—everything in the little plaza seemed very controlled and also very new. There was a little tower you could climb to get a view of the surrounding area, and we went up there (I didn't see anyone else do this the whole time we were there), there was this little fake town and then nothing but jungle surrounding it as far as the eye could see. Some of the cruise staff told us that there was a real fishing village a few miles up the road, and I also think that there were several resorts under construction in the area, but right now, it's basically a Disney-fied Mexican town that exists solely to pull some extra money out of the cruise passengers pockets.

We had missed our chance to buy some nice Mexican silver items during our trip to Tuluum—we were afraid to buy because we had no idea if we were getting ripped off or not—but it was clear from the prices in this pretend town made for tourists that we would have gotten a much better deal if we had purchased on the way to Tuluum. Still, we were determined to come away with something, so we found a silver and jewelry shop that had the items most like what we were looking for (a silver and turquoise bracelet for my mom, a gift for Tori that I won't reveal yet because I haven't given it to her and she occasionally reads this I think, and some gold earrings with Australian opal for Julie) and proceeded with the bargaining.

Julie and I are terrible at this game, but we worked out a good strategy for this one: I would play the clueless husband who had no idea how much the stuff was supposed to cost and Julie would play the penny-pinching wife who refused to spend above a certain amount. The way it worked was, we would both pick out stuff together, and I would then take it to our salesman, who would then give me the price (he always tapped at a calculator, but since he didn't have a lookup sheet and the weight of the items didn't seem to be on the tag, I think he was essentially making up a number based on my high gullibilty factor, which I'm sure was as evident to him as the color of my skin).

I would then take the price back to Julie, who would immediately say no and supposedly give me a price that she would not go above. I'd go back to the salesman, who had been vigilantly watching our interaction, and tell him it was too much, and then he'd go to his boss to see if he could get us a special price. He'd return with a signficantly reduced price, which I'd then take to Julie, and we'd go through the whole dance all over again.

To create further wrinkles, Julie would occasionally add a new item to our basket, and have me ask the salesman if we could get more of a discount if we bought more (which seemed to work). We were in there for more than half an hour going through this highly ritualized buying process before we reached an accord, and the final price we paid for all our items was just over a third of the original price we'd been quoted. However, they accepted our final offer a little too quickly, which means we probably could have dropped it a little lower. All in all, though, I was proud of us. I think we negotiated a fair price, not the absolute rock bottom price, but nothing to be ashamed of either.

We also bought some other trinkets and geegaws from some of the other vendors, and although I don't think we fared as well with them, I was too tired to really haggle. We got cokes and sat on the beach under a straw umbrella for a while, but the temperature that day was well over a hundred degrees and not a cloud in sight, so we didn't linger too long before returning to the ship.

11.15.06
Early Decision deadline for us today. Things have already been pretty hectic for us for the past month, at least on my team, but today officially signals the start of our panic season, which runs from now until April. Fortunately, I've been asked to read apps with the counselors again this year, so I'll get a break to do that for at least two days a week starting in January, but we still have a lot of projects to finish up before then.

Oh, and the vendor for our enterprise-wide database system, which we've been live on for almost four years but which still isn't fully implemented in all divisions (the implementation is currently scheduled to be completed for the final office in summer 2007), announced last week that they will no longer market or sell the product, and that after a small patch in December, they will no longer support it, either. In other words: they've basically canceled the product and we're pretty much screwed in terms of upgrades, enhancements, bug fixes, etc. But I'll rant about that in more detail later.

11.16.06
Blah. I'm ready for this week to be over.

Actually, if it's not too much trouble, could we just skip ahead to, say, the week after Christmas?

11.17.06
I used to really hate the concept of NBC's "supersize" episodes, where they stretch a 30 minute show to 40 minutes or more. Even though I didn't really watch any of the shows they tried this on, I disliked it because 1) it screwed up the half hour/hour schedule for network television that his been set in stone as long as I've been alive (I know if I'm not watching the shows it shouldn't matter, but for some reason it does), and, more importantly 2) because I'm not sure that we're really getting that much more content with our extra 10 minutes of airtime.

Having said that, when The Office and 30 Rock are two of the shows that are being given bonus time, my objections to the practice become significantly reduced.

11.20.06
After a week like I had last week at work, dealing with the incompetence and outright lies of IT department responsible for supporting the enterprise-wide database system that we are forced to use, I would normally use this space to rant at length about their idiocy and lack of professionalism. But I won't, because I'm just so sick of them and I expended all my ranting energy getting them to meet a deadline last Friday that was crucial to my office (they knew about it well in advance, and we've been working and keeping on top of them for the past two weeks to make sure we met that deadline, only to have them decide at 4:30 on Friday afternoon that they were moving the deadline back to next Tuesday, which would have really screwed up our Early Decision reading process).

And happily, I won't have to deal with the IT idiots at work today, either. Today I'm participating in an applicaton reading retreat with the counseling staff in Annapolis, and I won't be in my office, checking my email, or dialing in to my messages at all. I participated in the read last year, taking about 40% of my weekly time to help get through the crushing overload of applications we received (another record-breaking year, our fifth in a row), but I had something else scheduled during the retreat and couldn't attend. This year, our applicant pool looks like it's going to be bigger than ever, and it will be nice to do the read again, as well as go to the retreat, where we will discuss our goals for this class and any changes in approach we've made to the read process since last year.

I get really sick of some aspects of my job (especially dealing with an incompetent IT organization and working on a product that was just recently canceled by the vendor before a single university had completed their implementation, leaving us all wondering what the future holds as far as the technology that drives our business process), but it's really cool to work somewhere that lets me switch into a completely different role periodically and make use of different parts of my brain than the ones I use for the technology/marketing part of my job. By the time the read period is over, I'm pretty exhausted from reading apps, too, but while I'm doing it, it's a nice break from my normal responsibilities. It's almost like taking a new job for three months, which goes a long way towards keeping me from burning out on the IT stuff.

11.21.06
One more day of real work, and then I'm off for a week. That's a little longer than I had originally planned to be off, but I'll explain more about that later.

11.30.06
The short version of where I've been for the last week: we hosted Julie's parents at our house for Thanksgiving, flew to Florida on Friday for my sister's wedding on Saturday, and then stayed with my mom for a couple of days after the wedding.

The long version is way more complicated than that, and it might take me a while to work up the energy to go into it in detail, but all the stuff with my sister's wedding has been taking up an enormous amount of my mental and emotional energy this year, even though I've hardly mentioned it in this space at all. But I'm way too exhausted to go into it right now; I just want to get through the next couple of days at work and try to recover from it all this weekend.
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