march 2007

Labbit wants all the eggs!

Even though we had trouble flagging down cars, the second guy we talked to in the pickup truck was all we needed, because as soon as he got to town, he called AAA, who called the sheriff's deputy, who called a tow truck. This driver, named Leroy, found us around 3:30 in the morning, and quickly got the car loaded onto his flatbed and took us back to a tire shop in town (although he wasn't an AAA driver, his tow fee was still covered by our insurance). There we were finally able to call dad and let him know what was going on.

After we talked to him, the plan was for him to come and get us later that morning, so now we needed to find a motel to stay in for a few hours so we could get at least a little sleep. Leroy was able to help us out there as well, telling us that there were only four motels in town, but there was only one where the owner would get out of bed at this time of night: the Park Motel.

The owner was indeed awake, and he was also nice about getting us into a room quickly, but I have to say, if I had a choice, I wouldn't stay there again. It's a converted house on main street in Petersburg, and I'm guess that most of their business comes in the summertime and comes from fishermen who are looking for somewhere to stay that's close to the river but cheaper than the riverside cabins. There were actually a lot of amenities—tv with cable, refrigerator, DVD player, microwave, etc.—but the sheets smelled like cigarette smoke and everything felt very lived in. The toilet seat, for example, had a big crack in it, and it looked like someone had used crazy glue to put it back together.

Still, any port in a storm. It only took a few minutes for us to get into our beds and fall asleep, where we got a good four hours or so before we heard from dad again. When he called around 8, we thought we were only an hour or so away from Snowshoe, so as soon as he said he was leaving, we decided to walk around town to find some breakfast.

Breakfast turned out to be the best part of our experiences in and around Petersburg. We initially thought we'd just eat at Arby's, which was only a few doors down from the Park Motel, but it wasn't serving breakfast. So we walked a little farther down and found a little home cooking place called Family Traditions that looked like it was straight out of the 1950s. But that's exactly what we needed: good breakfast menu, cheap prices, and big portions. Dodd and Julie got pancakes that were bigger than the plates they were served on (Dodd didn't even finish his, and I've NEVER seen that happen), and I got eggs, hashbrowns, bacon, and biscuits with gravy (I think Dodd also got some sausage and eggs in addition to his pancakes).

After breakfast, we were feeling somewhat human (although my clothes felt disgusting with no shower, especially after they had had several hours to soak up the stale cigarette odor from our motel room), so we went back to our room to wait for dad. It took him a little longer to get there than we'd anticipated—we were more like two hours from Snowshoe, especially with dad's conservative driving habits—but by 10:30 or so we were all piled into his SUV and headed down to the tire shop to work out what we were going to do about our blown tires.

At the tire shop, we talked to the owner, Monk, and he told us that not only were the tires blown, but the rims of the wheels were bent, too, which meant we would have to replace both wheels entirely. His plan was to try to get us OEM Saturn wheels, but he didn't know for sure if he'd be able to. Our options if he couldn't get them would be fairly limited: either hang out in town and wait for the wheels to come in, or find someplace to rent a car and come back and get our car a week or two later, neither of which was very appealing.

Fortunately for us, dad is a car guy, so he had an alternate proposal: find some non-OEM wheels that would fit the car and use those just to get us back to Baltimore, which turned out to be what we had to do since the Saturn tires wouldn't have gotten there until the next week sometime and the non-Saturn tires could get there by the next day, or Friday at the very latest. It's going to likely end up costing us a little bit of money (Julie is still trying to work out exactly how to handle the insurance claims related to this whole mess), but it was worth it to be able to pick our car up on Saturday and get back to Baltimore on our original schedule.

So this whole thing was a total nightmare in a lot of ways, but it actually could have been a lot worse: we could have sat out there all night; there could have been no motels open to give us somewhere to sleep for a few hours; we could have ended up staying much longer or having to make a few more trips and rent a car; and on and on. All told, given the original situation of blowing out two tires in the middle of nowhere in the dead of the night, things didn't work out too bad.

Once we got up to Snowshoe, we ended up sleeping most of Wednesday, which I was pretty irritated about, because according to the weather forecast, Wednesday was supposed to be our best chance at good skiing weather. But that didn't stop us from getting up at 8:30 Thursday morning to tromp down to the ski shop to rent our gear and try to get in as many runs as we could.

But apparently our car luck was still with us; we've been going to Snowshoe for many, many years, and we've always rented our gear on the mountain. I've never had to wait more than 20-30 minutes to get through the whole process the entire time we've been doing this, especially during the week. So of course, on this morning, after all we've already been through to get up to Snowshoe, the line ahead of us has at least 40-50 people in it, and the rental shop is so severely understaffed that there are only two people working the counter where you actually pick up your skis. I know it took at least an hour to get through the line, and it was likely longer than that (it sure seemed a hell of a lot longer).

By the time we got back, we figured we could get in a few runs before lunch, and then get in a decent afternoon of skiing as long as the weather held. But this was apparently to be our weekend of bad firsts—blowing out two tires, waiting in line for more than an hour for our rental gear, etc.—and just as we were getting our boots on, the power went out. Not just in our condo, but on the whole mountain. The lifts ground to a halt, and they had to start up the generators to offload the people currently ridiing them, and after that they sealed off all the trails. Again, not once in all my years coming to the mountain can I remember the power going off for more than a few seconds, and certainly not long enough so that they closed all the slopes and basically shut down the mountain.

They finally got power back on the mountain around 2 or so, and the slopes opened up again shortly after that and we got a couple of hours of decent skiing in before the lifts shut down for the day, so Thursday wasn't a total loss. In the end, we only ended up being able to ski for about half the time we originally anticipated, and we didn't make the trip down to Silver Creek at all (we usually spend at least a half day there), but it was still a worthwhile trip just to get away from work and see dad and Rachel for a bit.

The long line for our rental gear and the power outage were our last bits of bad luck on that trip. The weather was actually great on Friday, our only full day of skiing, and Dodd, Julie, and I spent the second half of the day over at Cupp, Snowshoe's longest and most interesting run. We made seven runs in about three hours, which is no joke considering that, since the slope is over a mile long, it takes a good ten minutes to get down and another ten to get back up on the lift, and that's only if you don't stop at all on the way down, which not many people have the stamina to do.

We also got word around lunchtime on Friday that our car was fixed and ready to be picked up the next morning, so that put to rest our fears of being trapped in Petersburg for a couple of days or of having to rent a car and drive back up there. We fixed dinner at the condo on Friday night, watched the latest Harry Potter DVD together, and went to bed relatively early so we could get to Petersburg the next morning before the tire shop closed at noon. The rest of our trip back was uneventful, and we got home in time to relax on Saturday and get all our chores done on Sunday before going back to work.

I didn't realize it until yesterday, but over the weekend I passed my five year anniversary date at Hopkins. That's so long that it feels like I've been there forever, so I guess it's good that I still feel challenged by the job on a regular basis.

Well, a major part of our admissions cycle is over: we finished the first read on all of our complete apps sometime yesterday. Now we have to work our way through the incompletes as best we can, and send certain cohorts of students back for second reads with the counselors responsible for those cohorts (like engineers or research scholarship nominees).

This year was probably our smoothest ever in terms of the process, but that's thanks more to our familiarity with our crappy system and because of the enhancements and external applications created by my team to make up for deficiencies in the core product, which I think we've done about all we can with. As a result, it's highly likely that we'll be switching to a new primary system over the summer, and although we'll still have to feed our data back into the current system so other offices can use it, our front-end users will hopefully be done using that interface forever.

If we get the system I'm pushing for, we'll be able to do so much more than we've ever been able to do with the system we have now, and we'll also have a lot more control over configuration, workflow, maintenance, etc. It's going to be a big challenge to get it implemented by the end of the summer, and it's also likely going to mean a lot more work for us during the cycle (any new system, no matter how good, is bound to be less efficient it's first year than a system you've been using for four years already), but in the long term, it's going to be worth it.

Ever since I saw Sarah Silverman eating Bugles on the Sarah Silverman Program, I've been craving Bugles.

I guess that means product placement works.

So, earlier Daylight Savings Time: not a fan. It is way too early in the year for it to still be light after 7 p.m.

It's a little pricey, and it doesn't have the appeal of the multiple incarnations of the labbits, but Drunk Frog in Bear Suit is a pretty cool toy.

The warm weather outside these days is fantastic, but it also means that the weather inside our office is back to ridiculous levels of heat and stuffiness, because it's just at that temperature where it's too cool outside to turn on the air conditioners even though the indoor temperature is holding steady near 80 all day.

It's a total nightmare for someone like me, who likes it realy cool indoors, but only eight more months and we'll be in our brand new building and we won't have to deal with this crap anymore. In the meantime, I'm going to try to spend as much time at work as I can outside, although with our letters going out in less than three weeks, I have a feeling I'll be chained to my desk until sometime in April.

This has been a long week, but at least it's almost over. And after spending way too much of my time sitting in rooms with my colleagues talking about all the work we have to get done in the next few weeks instead of sitting in my office actually doing that work, I'm done with meetings and appointments for the week, so hopefully today and tomorrow will pass faster than the past three days did.

Honestly, our entire office deserves a week off once we get those decision letters in the mail, but that's never going to happen. Every now and then we get a day off, but it's not consistent so that we don't come to expect it every year. But I'm praying this year is one of those years, because I could really use an extra day off soon.

Well, Davidson put up a good fight, but they just kind of ran out of gas at the end. But at least Duke got knocked out in the first round, too.

Today's the day we have to try to convince the vice provost and the budget people that we need a new document management system, which will also conveniently replace the crappy database system we've been forced to use for the last four years, which is so terrible that the vendor completely dropped support for the product before any school had completed their implementation (now the lawyers are arguing over just how much longer they have to provide some sort of support and exactly what that support will entail).

That means that, depending on how the meeting goes this afternoon, we'll either spend our summer configuring and launching an entirely new system that will change what virtually everyone in my office does on a day-to-day basis, or we'll spend it trying to eke a tiny bit of extra performance out of our current system while swimming upstream against both the oppressive change control system and the hapless developers (since the vendor will no longer support the product, the university has decided to handle updates and enhancements internally).

I'm hoping this is mostly a formality—in addition to a litany of complaints about our current system, which was never designed to handle document imaging and management, we can show that almost all of our direct competitors have already implemented a system like the one we're proposing (and the few who haven't almost certainly will this year or next), and we've also got a ton of long-term cost savings that will come with the new system. It's hard to predict how the higher-ups will respond, but really, in the overall scope of the university budget, what we're asking for is nothing, and it could dramatically increase both our ability to handle a higher volume of application materials and our efficiency at reading those materials.

Almost every place I've worked has been penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to projects like this, but the system we're proposing would pay for itself in less than two years and would continue to provide cost savings every year after that, savings which could become even more pronounced if other offices were to piggyback on our efforts. If we don't get it, we'll continue to do our jobs as best we can, but honestly, even if we make progress compared to what we did this year, we'll still fall farther behind everyone who already has a system like this in place.

I have to admit, I think I like the Colbert Report more than the Daily Show these days. I never thought I'd find Colbert's parody of a right wing blowhard both funnier and more sincere than Jon Stewart's more direct approach as a sarcastic news anchor, but as he's settled into the role, Colbert has definitely become more adept at presenting current events in a more unique way.

I still don't really watch the interview portions of either show—ideally, I'd love to merge the first 15 minutes of each show into one half hour of pure genius—but other than those final segments, both shows continue to set the standard in political comedy. Honestly, SNL should just give up their news segment—even if they manage to stumble onto a funny political joke, odds are it has already been done earlier in the week by the Daily Show or Colbert or both.

I thought today was the first day of spring, but then I found this article and now I'm just confused.

Either way, I guess spring is now officially here. Just another week or so until we mail our letters, another week after that until baseball season starts, and another week after that before Spring Fair. And after that my life will get a lot less hectic, at least for a couple of months.

Yesterday morning when we were gettting ready for work, we noticed that one of cats seemed to have just vanished from the house. We checked all the spots where they normally hide, and all the ones we could think of that they could get into, even opening all the closet doors and cabinets in rooms that are normally off-limits. But there was no trace of him.

We were pretty sure we'd seen him when we got home the night before, and we had only opened an outside door a few times since then: when we went out to get dinner, when I took out the trash, and when Julie went to the gym. I specifically rememberd checking to make sure he didn't dash out when I took out the trash, and Julie remembered the same for the gym, so our best guess was that he had somehow run out when we were returning from dinner, when Julie had her hands full and I held open the door for her.

We weren't completely sure that he wasn't somewhere in the house, but I had to get to an early meeting at work, so we decided to head in to work and hope for the best. Really, there were four scenarios: he was hiding from us in the house and he'd come out when he was ready (which would be very unusual behavior for him); he had hurt himself somehow in the house and was incapacitated to the point where he couldn't cry out for help (unlikely given our fairly thorough search of the house); he was outside roaming around and he'd come back when he was good and ready (he's escaped a couple of times before and has always returned); or he was out of the house and something had happened to him and we'd never see him again.

No matter which scenario was true, there wasn't anything we could do about it but search the house for him to make sure he wasn't there, which we had already done. Nevertheless, Julie wanted to come home early to look for him, so as soon as I finished my meeting and took care of some other pressing tasks, we headed home and did an additional top to bottom search of the house until we were both convinced that there was no chance he was still inside. After that, we left food and water on the back porch and every hour or so Julie went outside and walked around the yard to see if he might emerge.

He still hadn't returned by the time I started to fix dinner, but while waiting for some water to boil, I wandered over to the back door and there he was, creeping around underneath the grill and slowly working his way towards the food dish we had left out. I called Julie, and even though he ran off the porch when she went out to get him, she cornered him near the fence and brought him back inside.

We're still not quite sure how he got out, but we're just going to have to be that much more vigilant when coming in and out of the house. Because even though it was clear that he was happy to be home—it got below freezing the night he was out, and the next day wasn't that warm either—I'm sure that his habit of trying to sneak out will return as soon as he's recovered from this little adventure.

Every Friday during springtime should be a half day. No one's really working in the afternoon anyway.

Just a few more days to get through before we've mailed our decision letters and our job is mostly done for another year. As far as I'm concerned, this marks the beginning of the slow time of the year for us, although things really don't slow down until May and this year there's a good chance that my team will be busier this summer than we've been for the past several months—and we've been busy as hell the past several months.

Still, it's a nice mental milestone, and chances are that my group will get a break for a few weeks even though most everyone else in the office will still be doing some mop up stuff while we hold our open houses for admitted students and wait for the deposit checks to come in. I've got a lot of work to do over the next week, but at least I feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

I really, really want to like Andy Richter's new show, Andy Barker P.I. But so far I don't. It's not a complete disaster, but it didn't grab me like 30 Rock did, and I was expecting to dislike that show. I guess if they give it some time, it could grow into something, but given the notoriously fickle schedule makers in network television these days, the chances of something that's neither a critical nor commercial hit living past its fourth or fifth episode is pretty low.

Big day today...

As you might have guessed, yesterday was the day we mailed our decision letters for this year, which is mostly a positive experience for me because 1) it means we've completed our primary mission for the university for another year and 2) we usually get the rest of the day off after the letters go out. This year we got a free lunch for all of admissions and financial aid and then we got to go home.

The negative part for me is that this is also the day we send out the decision emails, which I'm completely responsible for. My worst nightmare is sending the wrong decision to a batch of kids, and you wouldn't believe how many times I check and recheck the database file and the email text before I press the send button.

This year we also had a policy change where we decided not to send the emails until after close of business east coast time so that the west coast kids wouldn't get the email while they were still in school. I'm not convinced that this helped keep them focused on school instead of incessantly checking their email for their decision because on our web site and in the admissions blog we announce that the letters have been sent, and even though we told them the emails wouldn't be sent until 5 p.m. eastern time, I'm betting that many of them were checking their email just in case. At any rate, once they knew that today was the day that they were going to find out their decision, I doubt that they were able to think of much else until it arrived in their inbox.

Anyway, that meant that, instead of being able to come home early and relax, I actually had to rush home after lunch and get all the emails prepped to send from my work laptop and then send and monitor them until the early evening when they all finished sending, so I didn't really get to enjoy my half day (I think I actually worked more hours than I normally do).

But the email send seemed to go pretty smoothly, and I'm feeling a lot less stressed than I have in several weeks. Not that our job is over by a longshot, and not that our summer isn't going to be hectic because we're either going to be implementing a completely new system (or two) or we're going to be completely revamping the configuration of our current system, but it is nice to pass the milestone and know that we've done our job for another year.

I'm taking the day off today. There's not really a lot to do at work, but there are some people there who are pretending that there is, and after driving hard to get to where we are for the last nine months, I just need some time to clear my head and get ready for what is likely to be a very busy summer for us.

I'm much more comfortable working in environments with a schedule that has intense periods of work followed by a short break where you're not really expected to do much except show up, and really, that's the way it's usually worked here. But this year some people (not my boss or anyone else on the management team) are freaking out about inconsequential things, and I need not to be around them for a couple of days.
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