january 2008

1.2.08
I had hoped to end last year with a few days of rest and relaxation at home, but that all went straight to hell when I woke up on Sunday morning with a terrible pain in my right shoulder that basically kept me from moving my right arm or turning my head in either direction (I couldn't really even hold it up straight. I spent most of that day trying to find a comfortable position on the couch and applying/ingesting pain medications, to little avail.

Monday was better, but still not great—I foolishly decided to fix shrimp as part of our New Year's Eve meal, which meant I spent about half an hour peeling, cutting, and cleaning them over the sink, which was just about the worst thing for me to be doing given my injury. And it was slightly better on Tuesday, but still not great—I essentially spent three days watching television while trying to find a position that temporarily reduced my pain. I didn't really use the computer at all, and I couldn't read or do much of anything else, so I consider them essentially wasted days. And now I have to go in to work today and sit at my desk working on a computer, and activity that's been so painful for the past few days that I've only managed it in 15 minute spurts.

At least it's just a three day week this week. This is a hell of a way to kick off a new year.

1.3.08
This first batch of files is always hard, because they typically come from the overachievers who sent in their complete files weeks before the deadline. Out of the 22 files I have read so far, four are from one school, and they are from the students who are ranked 1, 3, 5, and 6 in their class of 150+ students, and they're all interested in the natural sciences. They're all pretty good candidates, but I can almost guarantee that they're not all going to be admits. Things are so competitive in recent years that it really comes down to the little things when you're deciding who's going to get the big packet and who's going to get the little envelope.

When I look at clusters like this, I completely understand how the process can appear somewhat random to the applicants, but looking at it from out perspective, where there are so many factors that go into a decision besides just the basics like test scores and GPA, it's really not arbitrary at all. We take a lot of time to put together the best class we can, and there's not a lot of internal second-guessing of our decisions.

1.4.08
The colors I see in the numbers for today's date have a strange fudge ripple kind of flavor to them. It's weirding me out a little bit.

1.7.08
Our Christmas travels weren't too bad this year—we did our typical few days at Julie's parents' house, including spending Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with them before driving to Raleigh to have Christmas dinner with my mom's side of the family. We usually go back to the campus of my mom's alma mater, Chapel Hill, the day after Christmas for shopping and lunch at the famous Rathskellar, but the trend of fewer and fewer stores on Franklin Street and the surprising shutdown of the Rat (which has been in operation for nearly 60 years in the same location) due to government seizure for non-payment of taxes, along with rainy weather, meant that our afternoon was fairly short and uneventful this year.

We stopped by Schoolkids Records, where one year ago I purchased a single blue and white polka dot labbit that kicked off my current obsession with vinyl art toys. It was my intention to buy another labbit from them if they were still selling them (not that I need another, but I figured it would be nice to have another from the place that got me started with this hobby), but there were none to be found—only a few sad looking 3 inch dunnys and a couple of other Kidrobot offerings (I'm guessing they must have once employed a vinyl enthusiast who tried to get them to start selling the toys, but they must not have found many customers for them).

We stayed in Raleigh until a couple of days after Christmas, having lunch on our last day with my mom, my granddad and his wife, and my two sisters while one was passing through on her way to her annual New Year's trip to Snowshoe with her friends and just before the other left Raleigh to go visit my dad for a couple of days. We got back to Maryland in record time because there was no traffic around DC by the time we were passing through there on Thursday night, and we brought all our stuff in and went to bed looking forward to several days off at home before we had to return to work on January 2.

1.8.08
The only microwave I've ever owned I got in 1992 from my grandmother, who was in the process of moving from an independent living apartment at her nursing home to a room on the assisted living wing, and she probably had it for two or three years before that. The clock stopped working a long time ago, and although it didn't have a rotating turntable and the wattage was so low that we usually had to cook things twice as long as the directions indicated, we just couldn't bring ourselves to throw it away and buy a new one, despite the low price, higher wattage, and advanced features on microwaves these days. We had a sentimental attachment to it because it belonged to my now-deceased grandmother, and we're also just too practical to throw away something that's still working, even if it's not working at full capacity.

But the other night as I was microwaving some frozen vegetables to go with dinner, there was a loud pop near the end of the cycle and the microwave went dark. I doublechecked the circuit breaker and the outlet just to be sure, but it was definitely the microwave. Perhaps it had sensed that we were finally ready to move on whether it was still functioning or not, because my mom gave us money for Christmas explicitly for a new microwave and we were planning to get one before the end of the month.

So it was off to Best Buy last night, where we selected a nice stainless steel midsized GE model. It's kind of weird having a decent sized microwave that can keep time accurately and rotate our food for us (no more stopping at multiple points during the cooking cycle to manually turn the box or plate or whatever)—we've just gotten so used to the shortcomings of our twenty year old machine that we don't really know anything else.

I'm not going to miss the other one at all, because this new one is a major upgrade in virtually every way, but I'm glad that it came to the end of its useful life before we replaced it. Now if the ReplayTV would just shut down so we could feel justified in buying one of those new HD Tivos with two CableCARD slots...

1.9.08
I didn't ask for anything specific for Christmas this year, but I wnded up with some pretty good stuff. I've been wanting some of those silicon spatulas for a while, and I got three of those from Julie's parents (with wooden handles, no less—I didn't even know they had ones like that). My mom gave me the very cool Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy , which is exactly what you think it is—a pop-up book about Star Wars. Although this is a serious piece of construction—every page contains not only a large central tableau, but three or four mini-pop-ups that you can operatate independent of the main pop-up for that page, and two of these mini-pop-ups include figures that hold plastic lightsabers that actually light up when you activate them. Mom also gave us some money for something for the house which eventually funded our new microwave oven.

My sister Tori got me a subscription to a literary magazine called The Sun, and she also went in with my brother to get me one of Frank Kozik's Japanese toys, his Usagi-Gon Kaiju, which is a Godzilla-like figure that's incorporates some elements from Kozik's signature labbits. Also in the toy department, Julie got me Bruttino and Carina, part of the Cactus Friends series from artist Simone Legno's Tokidoki company (the same guy who did the Moofia series last year).

We also got some money from dad and Rachel (which will likely end up as part of our Tivo fund, or maybe even our new computer fund), and some other assorted odds and ends. All in all, considering that I wasn't really asking for or expecting anything, I got some pretty cool things.

1.10.08
The artist who makes the Cactus Friends and the Moofia, Simone Legno, is an Italian artist who obviously speaks English as a second language, and his writings have the same kind of feel as when the Japanese write things in English (not coincidentally, he's also very into the Japanese toy scene, so much so that I assumed his pieces were by a Japanese artist when I first saw them). He also mixes in that same kind of quaint exuberance that we saw from his countryman Roberto Benigni during his brief moment of fame following his Oscar wins for Life is Beautiful. Here is Legno's text from his Cactus Friends series, explaining their origin:

The cactus is a sign of protection and kids are naive and vulnerable and need protection. A monster into a cactus suit would not have made much sense in my vision of things. SANDy and her friends zip themselves into cactus suits because they think the world is a cold and scary place, and they need some protection to face it. Cactus is the conserver of water, and water means life. The Cactus Friends for me are the representation of life, of being fragile and strong at the same time...and pure like water.

And here's his explanation of his company name, Tokidoki:

Tokidoki means "sometimes" in Japanese. I chose a Japanese word because I love Japan. I love everything from the ultra modern happy face of Shibuya to the serious magic silence of Kyoto. I chose "sometimes", because everyone waits for moments that change one's destiny. By simple chance or meeting a new person, tokidoki is the hope, the hidden energy everyone has inside that gives us strength to face new day and dream something positive, that something magical will happen to us. Hello, my name is Simone Legno. I am an artist from Rome, Italy.

I love his toys anyway, from his machine toting girl in a cow suit with her crew of multinational milk containers who protects schoolchildren from bullies to his round little animals stuffed into a colorful cactus suits, but his artist's statements make me love them all a little bit more.


1.11.08
Speaking of artist's statements, my favorite is from Frank Kozik. It appears on the packaging of most of his labbit designs, it's substantially more succinct than the ones from Tokidoki that I posted yesterday:

This is a work of art, not a toy.

Brilliant. But it is a toy. It might be a work of art, too, but it's also definitely a toy.


1.14.08
Last week I tried to use one of my Best Buy gift cards from Christmas to finally acquire the new Futurama movie, Bender's Big Score, but for some reason the Best Buy closest to us was out of stock.

Actually, they weren't out of stock, because we asked them to look it up in the computer when we couldn't find it ourselves, and the computer said they had copies in the store. But there weren't any in the two locations where they were supposed to be displayed, which says to me that they were sitting in a box in the back waiting to be retrieved and stocked on the floor, but the morons helping us seemed disinclined to explore that possibility, simply saying that the computer must be wrong and that they are actually out of stock. Pretty impossible given the unit-level tracking that big box stores do these days, but there's only so far I could push them before I started to look like a nut.

Anyway, Dodd got it a while ago (probably the day it came out), so he came over this weekend to have dinner and watch the DVD. It was good to have new Futurama content—that show has aged EXTREMELY well—although this movie was filled with references to events from the series and spent a lot of time revisiting minor characters and constructing and extremely complex plot, and it was obviously meant for existing hardcore fans. But it's the first of four planned Futurama movies (the idea is to release them on DVD first and then chop them into four half-hour episodes and air them on television), and hopefully the others won't feel so insider-y.

1.15.08
I went to New York City for the third time in my life yesterday. Let me describe the trip for you:
  1. Travel by train from Penn Station in Baltimore to Penn Station in NYC
  2. Without leaving Penn Station, take the subway from Penn Station to the Columbia University campus
  3. Walk a block to the center of the Columbia campus to meet with staff from their admissions office
  4. Walk back to subway
  5. Take subway to Penn Station
  6. Take train from Penn Station in NYC to Penn Station in Baltimore

In other words, I didn't really visit the city at all—we were underground for the vast majority of our time (the admissions offices where we met just happened to be underground, along with the train and subway stations), and we were outdoors for probably a grand total of 20 minutes.

That was also my first trip by train in America, and let me tell you, I have very little desire to travel that way again. I have somewhat fond memories of traveling by train in Europe (although I think it bothered me at the time more than I remember now), but this was just a completely miserable experience. The trains were ridiculously hot with no individual fan like you get on an airplane and both our trains were very crowded. And of course, on our way back home, our original train was canceled and the replacement was almost an hour late, and we ended up spending around 7 hours of travel time for 2 1/2 hours of meetings.

I know there are some people who make their livings doing this every day, but I'd never cut it. I was completely exhausted, and once I got home all I wanted to do was get something to eat and fall asleep.


1.16.08
I'd never been to Columbia before Monday, but as we were walking through it, I flashed to some early scenes in Ghostbusters when Bill Murray et al were still employed by a university. As it turns out, those scenes were actually shot on the Columbia campus, and the school still apparently gets some residual money for allowing them to film on campus.

Much of the green space in the center of campus, which presumably holds flower beds or lawns during the warmer months, was shrouded in white plastic tarps for the winter. The story our guide told us was that they aren't allowed to spend the Ghostbusters money on anything besides groundskeeping, so apparently the lawns are immaculately and expensively kept, because otherwise the money would just be sitting there doing nothing.

Hopkins has some interesting little stories about its campus, too, but any connection to Ghostbusters kinda trumps whatever we have. Although having the guy who played Gomez Addams on the 60s television series The Addams Family as one of our theater professors is pretty cool.

1.17.08
I started subscribing to Netflix a few months ago because I wanted to watch the complete Sopranos series, which I got into after watching a couple of episodes on A&E. I never really paid much attention to their Instant Watching feature, which allows you to stream movies directly to your computer, but I decided this might be a good thing to have on in the background while reading files, so I logged in and went to the Browse Instant tab to see what they had. Then I noticed this message on a sidebar:

Your operating system is not compatible with this feature. Try again from a computer with Windows XP Service Pack 2 or Windows Vista.

So, that kinda sucks. On a page with more details about the lack of support for the Mac, they claimed it was because Apple wouldn't license their DRM scheme, and because the studios wouldn't approve any other DRM schemes for the Mac, but that sounds kinda fishy to me; I believe that, like a lot of software makers and content providers, they don't want to do the work to create a Mac version because the market just isn't that important to them. There may be some truth to the DRM claims, but I have a hard time believing that that's the whole story, although it makes a nice cover for them—they get to blame Apple and the studios and only have to promise to deliver the functionality once those third parties get their acts together.

I don't know how much I would have used the feature, but it sucks that the company hasn't found a way to offer this service to Mac users, who pay just as much for their subscriptions as PC users and who are growing in numbers. Since Blockbuster, their primary competitor in the mail-based DVD rental market, doesn't offer this feature at all, they don't have to worry about Mac customers defecting yet, but given how aggressively everyone is getting into the streaming rental market (including Apple itself, although it's still a pay-per-play model and not the unlimited buffet for a monthly fee that Netflix currently offers), it's only a matter of time before there are other options for us to choose from.


1.18.08
We had terrible timing with the snow yesterday. We were keeping an eye on it, and we had several windows when we could leave, but it just didn't work out very well for us. The first window was before Julie's appointment at 12:30, but the snow wasn't looking that bad then. Unfortunately, during the hour when she was at her appointment was when the storm intensified significantly and both the Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools announced that they were closing early, which also meant that lots of parents would be leaving early too and adding a lot more cars to the roads.

By the time she got finished, the snow was still coming down hard and the streets had a blanket of snow and slush on them. It took her nearly an hour to get down to pick me up, and then it took us almost another two hours to get home, all the while navigating unplowed Baltimore streets and dodging the typically terrible Baltimore drivers. The interstate was actually the easiest part of our journey—for some reason it wasn't that crowded, and it was reasonably clear of ice and snow. The closest we came to an accident was when a state trooper suddenly lurched from the right hand emergency lane, turned on his lights, and crossed three lanes of traffic to get to a

If Julie's appointment had just been a few minutes later, she would have been able to cancel it and come down to get me before 1, which means that we would have missed a lot of the snow accumulation on the roads and we definitely would have missed many of the crazy Baltimore drivers, who drive both more aggressively and more fearfully whenever there is any kind of precipitation falling from the sky.

But we got home safe (albeit not much earlier than we would have on a normal day given what time we started to head home), pulled our other car into the driveway so it didn't get buried by the snowplows, and had a quiet evening at home.

1.22.08
I had all sorts of good intentions this weekend: catch up on my applicant files, process the latest batch of photos for my daily photo feature, do laundry, go to the grocery store, go out to the movies, etc. And while I did get most of my files read (excepting the small batch I brought home on Friday afternoon), and Julie made a trip to the grocery store for us, I didn't really get much else done, and I'm not quite sure what happened to the time.

That seems to happen more and more with long weekends these days; I guess I'm so scattered and distracted from increasing responsibilities and fragmentation of my job that when I have an extended stretch of free time, my organizational skills just collapse so I can have a little time to regroup. I keep thinking that next week, next month, next quarter, my job is going to get back to normal, but what I'm started to realize is that this is probably just the new normal for this job.

I wonder if that's part of the reason I never lasted more than a couple years at my other jobs before this one: when you stay somewhere for a while, your job just continues to expand and include more and more tasks without any corresponding increase in time to get those tasks done (or pay, unfortunately). The only real way to stop this continually accretion of duty is start over somewhere else, and in fact I left all my previous jobs (excpet maybe CO2) after I started to get stressed out to the point where I was having mini-panic attacks.

That hasn't happened with this job, but for the past several months I've felt like my job is a mountain that just keeps getting higher and higher, whereas in my first few years I would hit occasional plateaus where I wasn't busy every second of every day and I wasn't thinking about my job after the workday was over. I'm pretty sure those days won't come for at least six months given our current slate of projects, and the realistic part of me knows that this is likely the status quo from here on out.

1.23.08
So I didn't get a lot of my chores done over the weekend, but I did get a chance on Saturday to make my first visit to Atomic POP, the designer toy offshoot of Baltimore's famous Atomic Books. It sells all the urban vinyl/art toy stuff I've been getting into over the past year or so, and it's a real shock to me that I never knew it existed until last week, even though it opened just before I bought my first labbit and it's right around the corner from Atomic Books, which I visit every couple of months.

The really great thing about POP is that not only will I have a place where I won't feel like a weirdo talking about my toys, but I'll be able to preorder a lot of stuff and pick it up in store the same day it's released instead of waiting a week for UPS to leave it on my doorstep. This will be especially helpful for releases by a company called Toy2R, which releases a lot of stuff by my favorite artist, Frank Kozik, but which isn't consistently stocked even by the larger online resellers because of the complicated ordering process (Toy2R distributes their toys in the US exclusively through Diamond, which is a comic book distributor, and because they the owners of Atomic POP already deal with them because of Atomic Books, I think they're more willing to stock Toy2R's goods than some merchants who exclusively deal in toys) and because of their erratic release schedule (you typically have to order items months ahead of release, and they very rarely ship according to schedule, sometimes not appearing until months after the original release date).

The store was actually pretty crowded when we got there, and although I snuck over to take a peek at the new Tristan Eaton dunnys when Benn, one of the owners, opened up a box for another customer, I didn't get a chance to really chat with him until 15 or 20 minutes later when the crowd thinned out a bit. I asked about how the store got started, etc., and he told me that originally they just did all of their toy sales out of Atomic Books, but that the toy business started to overwhelm them so much that they felt like it needed a separate storefront. He also struck me as a very casual collector—he didn't seem that upset about a recent incident where a new employee had accidentally sold some of his personal collection from behind the counter, including the hard-to-find series 4 dunny from up and coming artist Tara McPherson, which would have been a firing offense if I were in charge—which probably isn't a bad thing, as the hobby can be very addictive, and it's not usually good business to be have that kind of personal interest in the prodcut that you're supposed to be making a profit from.

I still can't believe that I didn't hear about the existence of this store sooner, and that I've been within half a block of it several times since it has opened. Every since I started getting serious about this hobby, I've lamented that I don't live near a cooler big city that has one or more local designer toy stores, and although I would have guessed that if we did have one it would be in Hampden and I wouldn't have been at all surprised that the Atomic Books folks were involved with it, I just assumed that if such a store existed it would somehow magically show up on my cultural radar (I found it by chance after seeing the Atomic POP logo on the Atomic Books web site and clicking it out of curiosity).

But anyway. I know about it now, and I'm betting it won't be long before my next visit.

1.24.08
I'm part of the web accessibility committee at Hopkins, not because it's a major issue to me (although I do think it's important for web site managers and designers for public sites to meet the minimum level of accessibility as proscribed by the W3C), but because many of the people on the committee come from a strict disabilities/accessibility background, and they don't understand that in addition be being accessible for the visually and hearing impaired, web sites also need to be compelling marketing pieces for everyone in your audience, especially the 98%+ who don't have any issues that require additional coding. And I didn't want them making any policy decisions about Hopkins' web sites without some regard to the design and market side of things, becaues the sites I maintain happen to be some of the most marketing-oriented sites in the university.

Anyway, we're hosting a conference on web accessibility for other Hopkins affiliates today, which I'm not really that excited about, even though I think increased awareness of all web design issues is important because there's so little in the way of policy or even guidelines. No, I'm not excited about it because it means spending a whole day running around worrying about things like parking and getting people to the right session and making sure the AV equipment is set up properly and that we have enough food for everyone. And I don't really have to do much—we've got caterers and AV guys and an organizer from the conference space, etc., but I just hate being involved in the logistics of events and event planning. Plus I'm feeling so overwhelmed with my normal work duties that I can hardly afford to give up a whole day for something like this, but it's better that I be on this committee so I can have influence over policy decisions than to quietly hope they don't make any bad decisions and then have to react after the fact.

But it will be over after tomorrow, and hopefully at least part of the anxiety and weight I've been carrying for the past couple of months will be lifted. Now if I could just get the vendor selected for our document management system, I'd feel like I could start looking ahead to our plan for this year rather than still feeling like I'm working on the same projects that have occupied my time since the end of the last cycle.

1.25.08
The conference wasn't too bad yesterday, but I'm glad it's over. Those things wear me out when all I have to do is sit in on the sessions and take notes, but having to show up early, check people in, get the rooms set up, and tend to one of the speakers all day left me exhausted. Luckily, when I stopped by my office at the end of the day to clean out my inbox, there was a stack of files in my bin for me to read, so I get to stay home today and read.

1.28.08
We went to see Cloverfield with Dodd on Saturday, and it was pretty good. The filmmakers succumbed to the same bad instincts that made Independence Day a less enjoyable experience than it should have been, e.g., they stuck in a little too much of the ridiculously far-fetched human interest stuff (they came pretty close to being able to avoid it, but alas).

Once you get past the initial setup and into the monster movie proper, it's a pretty fun ride, rarely stopping to let you catch your breath before throwing you back into the chaos. And despite the whole sappy backstory (don't read this next part if you haven't seen the movie and you care how it ends), the filmmakers aren't shy about offing the cast, which I heartily approve of—I'm all for the idea of continuing the story of this monster and/or this specific attack in future projects, which has been hinted at by the folks behind this film, but I don't need to know anything else about the characters featured in this film, so it's fine with me if future sequels/spin-offs don't include them at all.

Frank Kozik, the labbit artist (among other things) who I like so much, posts pretty frequently on the message boards for a couple of the companies that he designs toys for, and here's the review he posted in a thread about the movie:

IT RULED.

It comes from space and FEEDS. It fucking kills everyone and sheds a million babies!

Humans get OWNED.

LOVE IT.

Cloverfield might not be the best movie I've ever seen, but that just might be the best movie review I've ever read.


1.29.08
Computers don't make mistakes. What they do, they do on purpose.

1.30.08
Another couple of days of reading files at home start this morning. It's amazing how as our pool grows significantly every year, so does the overall quality of the pool, which means that we're not just pulling in kids with our marketing who don't really have a chance at getting admitted, we're pulling in more of the kids we want. We're doing so well with attacting top shelf kids who wouldn't have given us a second though a few years ago that the standards we have to apply to the files when reading go up every year too, so that some of the kids I admitted two years ago (my first year of evaluating applications) would be pretty much automatic denies if they were read as part of this year's pool.

That means I'm a little slower reading than I have been in the past, because there are a lot more borderline cases and I really give every one of them serious consideration before making my decision. I'm trying to make up for that by taking home files more often, but we're also doing really well on processing files this year, so even when I take a day or two off to read, I come back and my bin has been replenished. In past years, there would be periods where I would simply have no files to read for several days, but this year I've been reading since December (I usually get my first serious batch of files sometime in mid-January), and there has never been a time when I've gone in search of files and not found any. In fact, after I finish this batch of files, I will have read about half the number of files that I did last year, except that February is typically the heaviest reading period of the year, and I fully expect that the number of files I've read by now will end up being only about a third of what I'll read overall.

1.31.08
I know that compact flourescents are much better for the environment than traditional incandescent bulbs, but fuck, I hate the light they give off. We leave one on 24 hours a day over the stove when we're away on vacation, and sometimes the first day back I forget to change it before I start to fix dinner, and the food just looks horrible under that light—no matter what you're making, that light makes it look like prison food. Bad prison food.

I hope someday soon someone figures out a good coating for the inside of a CF bulb that makes it emit light more consistent with soft white incandescent bulbs, but I'm terrified this is one of those things that's going to end up like diet sodas: they work for years and years and try lots of different artificial sweeteners, but at the end of the day, diet coke doesn't really taste anything like a real coke, and I'd rather not have a soda at all than have to drink a diet soda. Of course, if they outlaw incandescents and force us all to move compact flourescents, I won't really have a choice (and the companies that make the bulbs won't be as motivated as they are now to come up with a CF bulbs that emits light that's substantially similar to a traditional tungsten filament bulb).
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