may 2007

I used to be a voracious reader—one of the reasons I think I got into Davidson was because they asked for a list of all the books you had read in the past two years both in and out of class, and mine had well over two hundred entries—but I've basically stopped reading for pleasure since grad school beat the love of literature right out of me. I've still read the occasional novel or, more likely, work of non-fiction, but it's very sporadic. The last two books I finished (Devil in the White City and American Gods) were last October during our cruise, when we had plenty of free time to lounge around and read, but the habit didn't carry over once we got back to port.

I tried to address this issue a few years ago by signing up for a part-time masters program at Hopkins, and while I did have to read some works for class, I did so fairly grudgingly, and I never really added any non-required books to my reading list. And I haven't taken a course in that program since last spring, even though I think I'm only one course away from being able to write a thesis and get my degree.

But I'm going to try to finish off that last course this summer, and I'd also like to give reading on a regular basis a go again, so I poked around some recent issues of EW and some frequently visited web sites to try to find a variety of new books to pick up, using my Christmas gift cards from Barnes & Noble to fund the majority of my purchases.

First up is The Blind Side by Michael Lewis, the author of the fantastic Moneyball (one of the few books I've read and really enjoyed over the past few years). This time his focus turns from Billy Beane's revolutionary baseball strategies to the evolution of the left tackle in modern football. I'm interested in learning more about football—I was never a fan growing up, so grasping the complexities of the game is a real challenge for me—but I also loved Lewis' insight and writing style in Moneyball, and he definitely deserves another purchase.

Next I chose Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown by Benjamin Woolley. This purchase was mostly based on a review in EW—there are a glut of Jamestown books coming out this year (the 400th anniversary of the founding of the colony), and I'm content to take their recommendation. This was my historical non-fiction selection, and the one I'm most likely to finish because most of enjoyment from books over the last decade has come from non-fiction works.

The Raw Shark Texts is my fiction selection, again mostly based on an EW review. It seems like one of those post-modern deals that can turn out to be truly awful or truly amazing, so I'm hoping it will pan out like my last major read in this genre, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (which I loved). I considered picking up Danielewski's follow-up to House of Leaves, Only Revolutions, but even many die-hard House of Leaves fans seem to be disappointed with Only Revolutions, so I think it will have to wait until I've made reading a bigger part of my leisure time.

The Violin Maker is another non-fiction selection, again from a review on EW. It's about the quest to create a modern violin that sounds as good as a Stradivarius, and it goes into both the history of violin making and into the creative process between the musician and the artisan who is crafting the instrument. I don't really know anything about violins, and I don't listen to much classical music, but this seemed like an interesting process to dive a little deeper into. So I'm giving it a shot.

Last is my just for fun selection: The Cheater's Guide to Baseball, from blogger Derek Zumsteg. This covers the history of illegal and legal cheating in baseball, from doctoring the ball to how the grounds crew preps the field to chemical performance enhancers. It's going to be hard not to tear into this one first, but I'm going to try to read two others before it and save this one as a bit of a palette cleanser before I finish off the last two.

Man, work sure has been interesting the last few days, and I mean interesting in a very bad way. I know better than to write about the details of what happens in my office on a site like this, but suffice it to say that it never ceases to amaze me how different people can perceive the same situation in such wildy disparate ways. I've always believed that poor communication is at the root of most of the problems and inefficiencies in large organizations (or small ones, for that matter), and my tenure at my current job has offered me an almost never-ending string of examples to support that position.

I guess I spoke too soon when I wrote about the Orioles getting off to a good start this year. They have lost 9 of their last 10 and are now essentially tied for last place in the AL East with the Yankees and the Devil Rays. I mean, I knew they were likely to crush any hope their fans might have mustered at some point this season, but come on, they could have at least given us a good April before dropping the hammer of doom on us.

I've been using Firefox as my default browser at work for a while now, only firing up IE when I had to access some very poorly designed web applications used by my university that require IE (for my money, a web application isn't really a web application if it's only accessible with a certain browser/OS combo, but what do I know). But now I've finally made the switch at home as well.

At home, I'm a straight-up Mac user, and my loyalty has been to Safari since the release of OS X because 1) there weren't really any other browsers that were compatible with OS X for a long time, even after OS X became the dominant OS for the Mac platform; and 2) it was the first browser on the Mac to introduce things like tabbed browsing (I know, I know, they stole the idea from a Mozilla-based browser, but at least they hired the guy who came up with it) and a search bar built into the default UI of the browser's main navigation toolbar.

The one thing that bugged me about Safari for a while was that you couldn't save your sessions, so each time I shut down my browser or my computer, I had to go through a laborious process to recreate my former windows and tabs (I typically have three windows with 7-10 tabs open in each). However, last year sometime I found a nice plug-in that let you easily restore your previous browsing session after either a crash or a manual closing of the browser.

But in truth, Safari hasn't been updated in a very long while—even the one major revision they did was more dealing with making the browser faster and more efficient behind the scenes, because there were virtually no changes to the interface or the functionality. And recently, that lack of attention has started to become noticeably, especially as content-heavy news sites play around with new ways of loading data into the page, ways that Safari is not particularly adept at handling.

At first it was mostly confined to MSNBC, which I could kind of write off because it's not unusual for Microsoft applications/properties to not play nice with their competitors products. But then I started to notice slowdowns on other site redesigns with Safari that didn't seem to slow down Firefox in the least (the worst was the recent USA Today redesign—the site is all but unusable on Safari, with significant times when the browser just seems frozen when jumping from page to page, or especially when you load the front page).

I was also missing a good session manager for Firefox, though, which is why I hesitated to make the switch. At work, I had found one that would restore the previous session if the browser closed due to a crash or if it was closed by the OS as part of a shutdown routine, but what I really needed at home was a session manager that would restore the session even if I chose to restart the browser. And about two weeks after the USA Today issues started, I found just such a plug-in, which seemed to be a much more robust update to the session manager plug-in I'd been using at work.

Once I got that plug-in installed and verified that it worked the same way that the session manager plug-in for Safari did, I said goodbye to Safari, and spent a half hour or so getting my windows and tabs set up in Firefox and teaching it my login information for sites that I visit frequently. Since then, I haven't opened up Safari once, and unfortunately for Apple, I probably won't feel compelled to again.

Even if Apple released a major revision to the browser that eliminated some of the problems that the current version has, I need some sort of new functionality that was so useful that I couldn't live without it once I'd tried it (like tabbed browsing). And, of course, it would have to be a feature that was exclusive to Safari. But the Firefox developers have got a roadmap for another few major releases, and the plug-in writers will always be there to add features that are missing on the default install—all in all, it seems pretty unlikely that Apple's sluggish development efforts will ever be able to keep up with such an active development community.

Today is going to be a long, long day, my friends. An appointment first thing in the morning and then three meetings at work, the first one starting pretty much the minute I walk in the door. Mondays suck anyway, as I'm usually still adjusting my sleep schedule from the weekend, but this one's going to be especially unpleasant. Really, all I want is for it to be over.

My dad is a big fan of the Pearls Before Swine comic, and every now and then he'll email comics out to my siblings and me with funny messages. Here's one he sent me today (here's a link to the official version):

Along with the comic was his caption: "So this is how you do it?"

Well, yeah, that's actually pretty much it. Seriously.

Man. I was home sick yesterday and I still can't believe it's only Wednesday. Monday really took a lot out of me, and all I want is for it to be the weekend now.

We went to our fourth Orioles game of the season last night, and they won again, making them 4-0 in games we've attended despite their somewhat lackluster overall record of 16-18. I'm starting to think maybe they should pay us to go to the games instead of the other way around.

I'm pretty sure one of my cats is going deaf. And of course, he's the only one without any existing medical issues.

Earlier this year, my employer implemented a new enterprise-wide payroll/accounting/budgeting system that was supposed to make everything easier for anyone who had to deal with accounts payable, billing, payroll, travel reimbursement/advances, etc. Of course, it's been a complete clusterfuck, causing untold problems with almost every aspect of payments. I don't have to deal with the system directly very often, but the people in my office who interact with it every day tell me that many tasks that used to take them half an hour now take three days, and that's only if they do everything EXACTLY as the system wants it—screw one thing up, and you basically have to start over.

I have been unaffected by this new system so far, since the only things that I need it for are getting my paycheck and getting reimbursed for any travel. I haven't had to do any travel since the system went live, and I also haven't had any problems with my paychecks—the proper amount was direct-deposited into my checking acount every pay period, just as it had been for the four years before this new system had been implemented.

That is, until two weeks ago, when I didn't receive a paycheck at all. I noticed a curious thing on the mid-month payday for April—I received two separate direct deposits for the same amount (each one was the correct amount for one paycheck), and then a debit for one of those amounts. I assumed at the time that they had for some reason accidentally double-paid me and then taken back one of the payments, which has never happened before, but since it looked like they had corrected their error, I didn't think any more of it.

But now it looks like they believe that they paid me twice for the middle of April, so now they don't have to pay me at all for the end of April—somehow the credit of one of the amounts back to the system seems to have escaped the notice of the system. Worse yet, they've already posted on an internal site a preview of the paycheck I'm supposed to get later this week, and even though the base pay and the deductions are correct, the final amount paid is much larger than it should be. At first I thought they might be correcting for the paycheck that I didn't get at the end of April, but when I did the math the unexplained larger total is nowhere near what I should get for two paychecks.

In other words, my pay is all fucked up and god knows how long it's going to take to straighten it out. Luckily we don't have to live paycheck to paycheck, so we can pay the mortgage even though we're missing a whole paycheck, but it's still pretty annoying. I'm going to our payroll and budget person first thing this morning to get the process of correcting this error started, but I have a feeling that the next two weeks of my life are going to involve lots of paperwork.

I've finally decided to get serious about finishing off my master's degree, which means I have to take one more classroom course and then spend a semester writing a short (40-50 pages) thesis, which my program calls a graduate project. I'm really not in the mood to spend much time in the classroom, so I decided to take a summer course which meets twice a week and so finishes in six weeks instead of the normal thirteen.

When I went to register, however, I read through the fine print and realized that, since I hadn't taken a course in three terms (my last class was last spring), I was no longer technically considered an active student, which meant that I shouldn't have been able to register for classes.

I went to talk to my program advisor about this, and she said that the administrative staff weren't that good at keeping up with things like that, so I should just go ahead and try to register and see if they missed my technically inactive status. Lo and behold, I sent in the registration forms, and yesterday morning (the final day for registration), the class showed up in my course schedule. For once Hopkins' inefficiency works in my favor.

The class is a music class with a professor from Peabody that everyone loves. There doesn't seem to be any reading; instead, he gives lectures on music theory while playing you samples of music that illustrate his points. Grades are based on in-class tests where he plays you snippets of music and you are asked to identify some salient points about the piece, so the only work outside of class is listening to the compositions that will be played during the tests and learning how to recognize the formal elements discussed in the lectures.

I figure this is a pretty painless way to get through my last class, and after this I just have to write the thesis, which is already half-written in my head. I'll need to read a decently long list of books so I can build support for my arguments, but aside from my chronic procrastination issues, I don't really expect this to be that hard. My plan is to write it next fall, but if I don't get far enough with my reading this summer, I might save the formal writing semester for next spring. Either way, by this time next year, I should have my master's finally in hand after five years of work.

They're not quite as cool as my beloved labbits, but Mozzarella and her Moofia minions have earned a place on the shelf above my desk, along with my collection of twelve series 2 labbits, a set of totem doppelgangers, a cactus dunny azteca Artemio figure, two Pogues pint glasses, and my Jango and Boba Fett transformers. Yes, it's getting a little crowded up there.

Last Thursday was commencement, and since they need our parking spots for parents and other guests, everyone who works on my campus is forced to use one of their floating holidays. And, because I have a decent amount of vacation and it's so hard to pass up a four day weekend, I took the day off on Friday, too.

I did do a little work on Friday—there was a conference call held by the larger IT organization on campus where they were supposed to introduce a whole new change control/code review process (we write the vast majority of the code we use, but they control the production servers, so we have to get all of our code approved by their team even though everyone on my team has more professional experience and experience specifically on this enterprise project than many of the people who are reviewing our code). A change to this process is, of course, of great interest to us, because they have used this process in the past to hold up implementation of our code, and the process is, frustratingly, always changing and never very well documented. So I decided it would be worthwhile for me to spend an hour of my day off to make sure they didn't propose anything ridiculous and to get some understanding of how they might be changing things.

Big waste of time.

It was basically a pep talk by some woman I've never met before who sounded like she was rehearsing a speech for a motivational speaker conference. It was full of empty, treacly platitudes about how to get along better in the workplace, and it contained no actual information about how the process is going to change, only that it is indeed changing. It seemed more aimed at the larger IT staff, because most of the talk (which was accompanied by a 27 slide PowerPoint presentation that we had to download and follow along with) was concerned with listening to other people's ideas and not being so rigid about the process. And since the divisional offices have no choice but to listen to their ideas, and we have no input into how the process works, those directives don't really apply to us.

Also, it lasted way longer than an hour—I hung up after about an hour and a half when it became clear that nothing of value was going to be covered, and I'm pretty sure it went on for another 30-45 minutes after I gave up on it. Even if the meeting had been useful, I think it was pretty stupid of them to schedule it on a day when many of their customers would be taking the day off, but it was especially irritating given that the meeting accomplished nothing (and I swear, the presenter repeated at least three phrases/concepts that have been mocked on episodes of The Office, including the "praise sandwich").

But that was a minor blemish on an otherwise pleasant four day weekend. And now I just have to make it through this week and I'll get to follow it with another three day weekend for Memorial Day.

You might have noticed that my daily photo section wasn't updated for most of the month. I just kind of ran out of steam and didn't have anything new to post, and despite the gorgeous weather we've had recently I haven't been that motivated and get some new shots.

I hit these dry spells every now and then, but this was one of the longest, and it happened to come just as I was about to start my sixth year of posting a daily photo (June 2001 is when I started the daily photo feature; back then I was using a video camera to take stills, and it would take me a year to convince myself that it was worth investing in a real digital still camera). Last year I was helped a lot by the two big trips that we made, our Niagara Falls visit in June and our cruise to Mexico in October. The photos from those two trips alone probably accounted for six months of my photos from the past year, and having such a big backlog for so much of the year, I unfortunately got lazy about seeking out material more frequently.

But it's been nice to have a break, and I think I'm ready to get back into the habit of carrying my camera with me more frequently, and posting pictures in closer proximity to when they were actually taken. For now, I've populated the month of May with photos from my archive that didn't quite make the cut the first time around just so there isn't a gap, but I've pretty much exhausted the material from my archives, so from June on out, I'm going to need new material if I want to keep that section of the site active.

I know the new sitcom based on the Geico caveman commercials is likely going to be so horrible that it gets canceled within a month, but there's a part of me that's really hoping they pull it off. I love those commercials—seriously—but I think they're kind of like the Itchy & Scratchy cartoons on the Simpsons: they're so short that they only have to pull off one or two good gags to make them seem tremendously funny, but if you actually tried to make an Itchy & Scratchy that was the length of say, a Tom & Jerry cartoon, you just wouldn't have enough material. They're short bursts of comedy, but for longer form works, even cartoon or sitcom length, you've got to find a way to fill the space with stuff that's still funny and interesting without having a one-liner every 15 seconds.

I think Cavemen might have a chance because of the deadpan nature of the commercials—you might even be able to fit in a little genuine drama around the funny stuff—but again, there's a big difference between a 15-30 second commercial and the 22 minutes of content that are needed to build the typical half-hour sitcom. You have to believe that the network would have their concerns about this, too, so the fact that they picked the show up based on a pilot would seem to bode well, because it means at least a few people thought they managed to keep the flavor of the commercials and rework the concept to work in a much broader format.

Still, I know it's likely to be a complete disaster, so I'm not really getting my hopes up. But man, it would be so cool if it turned out to be good.

Well, another Orioles game attended by us, another O's win, which makes them 4-0 when we've been present at Camden Yards. It's great that we're getting to see them win and everything, but it would be better if they could play even half as well in the games we don't see in person as the games we do. At this point, after all these years of losing, I don't think most fans are looking for a playoff appearance—we'd be happy with just a winning record at the end of the season.

I got my gift card-financed order of books from Barnes & Noble a couple of weeks ago, and I've finished my first selection: Michael Lewis' "The Blind Side", whose title refers to the left side tackle in football (the player who protects the quarterback's blind side) and the increasing importance of that position over the past 25 years. I loved Lewis' book on the revolution in player evaluation in baseball that was spearheaded by the Oakland A's Billy Beane, "Moneyball", and although I'm not as much of a football fan as I am of baseball, I'm very interested in learning more about the game, because it's clear to anyone who's even pretending to pay attention that it has ascended to the top of the sports hierarchy and replaced baseball as the national pastime.

"The Blind Side" wasn't a bad read, but it was a much different book than "Moneyball". Whereas in "Moneyball" the analysis of the strategic, economic, and historical aspects of the game was at least equal to the biographical details of some of the major players in the stats revolution, in "The Blind Side", the focus is almost entirely on a single individual. There are sections that tell the story of the rise of the left side tackle, but by and large the book is the biography of a single player (who has yet to play a single NFL game, or even be drafted) and his adopted family, with very little in the way of insight from actual professional football players and coaches who have changed the way the game has played so that players like the subject of the book have become so important that journalists are writing books about them before they've even played a single game of professional football.

Like I said, "The Blind Side" is still a pretty good read—Lewis knows how to craft dramatic tension around real people and events without making his characters feel artificial—and it's a quick read, too. This is the perfect book for a football fan to take to the beach for vacation, or to pick up as a prelude to the approaching training camp/exhibition season. But if you haven't read it yet, and if you have even a passing interest in baseball, "Moneyball" is a much better book.

We really didn't do much over the holiday weekend, and that was pretty okay with me. Dodd came over on Saturday for a late lunch/early dinner cookout of bratwurst and hamburgers and stayed for a while afterward to watch some of the first season of the Larry Sanders Show, but other than that we just kind of hung around the house and did our normal weekend chores (laundry, grocery store, etc.).

I half-intended to spend an afternoon out somewhere gathering new photos, but I really needed a non-task oriented weekend—there's a lot of stuff at work that's going to be decided in the next week that will determine how stressful my work life is going to be for the next year or so, and I just wanted to unplug from responsibilities and have a very undefined weekend.

I start my final class tonight, and although mentally I'm not really ready for it—there's just been too much going on at home and at work recently—I'm hoping I've made a good choice and that the next six weeks will pass quickly and with minimal stress. I'm still not sure if we have to purchase any books or any CDs (it's a course on 20th century American composers with a professor from Peabody) becase the syllabus hasn't been posted, and last time I checked there wasn't a classroom listed for it either, but this won't be the first time in this program that crucial information has been withheld until the last possible second.

I'm still not convinced that I'm up to writing a thesis, even though I already have a topic picked out and a lot of secondary sources to use as references, but in case I decide that it's going to take more time than I'm willing to put in, my program as another option where I would take one more class and then write a summary of my experiences in the program that would be much shorter and easier to compile than a thesis (you also have to turn in papers from three or four of your classes). I don't really want to take any more classes after this one, and I feel like the portfolio option is kind of a copout, but it's nice to know it's available just in case.

My class last night was pretty good: the professor was very engaging (everyone I've talked to who's had a class with him raves about him, which is one of the big reasons I took this course—I just can't deal with a bad professor right now), there weren't any overtly annoying people in the class (in fact, there were a couple that I've either had classes with before or who are friends of friends), and, as expected, we spent most of the class listening to music, after which the professor would comment on both the historical placement and the structure of the music itself.

The class will focus on six pieces by four composers: Charles Ives' "Symphony No. 2", George Gershwin's "Piano Concerto in F", Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and "Billy the Kid", and Leonard Berstein's "Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish)" and "Chichester Psalms". That's essentially our syllabus—there's no required readings—and our grades will be based on in-class identification quizzes and a final paper. We didn't get the class information until the day of class, so I wasn't able to order CDs of the selected pieces until yesterday, but they should be here by Friday so I'll have plenty of time to absorb the music for next week before Monday's class.

The first class focused on the history of American orchestral music through the beginning of the 20th century, which didn't take long to get through—I think we looked at maybe six composers, most of whom were very derivative of European styles and almost none of whom is remembered by anyone besides music historians. The professor also mixed in snippets of more modern music (for example, he showed a couple of clips from Scorsese's "The Last Waltz", his documentary of the final performance of The Band) to show how contemporary pop music is still strongly influenced by the innovations of Stephen Foster, a mid-19th century composer who my professor called America's first true musical genius (you'll probably recognize many of his songs, including "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", and "My Old Kentucky Home" among many, many others).

This is going to be an intense class—there's a lot of just listening, but it's not passive listening—but I think it's going to be intense in a good way. I also don't anticipate having any trouble with the listening quizzes, so all that stands between me and my final grade is one paper. I started taking classes in this program just for fun, but I really haven't been into it for over a year. It would be silly to drop out when I'm this close to my degree, so I'm glad I was able to find a course that is both engaging and which will be over fairly quickly for my final classroom effort.
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