may 2008

With the exception of my 92 year old aunt dying, April was a pretty good month for me. Let's hope it's a harbinger for how the rest of the year will go, because it sure would be nice to have a string of good months on the books.

I signed up for my final class in my master's program this week. I had originally intended to write a thesis as my capstone, so I thought my final class was the music class I took last summer, but even though I have a good thesis idea and a ton of books to use as reference/research while I'm writing it, I just know in my heart of hearts that I'll never do it. So I opted instead for the portfolio capstone option, which requires me to take another course in the program and compile a portfolio of my papers and my classroom experiences from the program.

It's not like I really need a master's—I'm not going to get a raise or anything once I have it—I was really just taking the courses for personal enrichment and because they are free with the tuition remission I get from my employer. But it will be some sort of cosmic justice to end up with a master's from Johns Hopkins that's been virtually free for me after not getting a master's from UVA that I'm still paying for today (I dropped out of the program after completing most of my coursework, but before I had taken my oral exams, etc.).

My final class will be an eight week summer course at the Walters, which is kind of fitting given that it will be my fourth Walters course in this program, with one of the others being my first course and the other two falling roughly in the middle in back to back semesters. The professor for this course was actually the asisstant for one of the other courses, so she's not unknown to me, and although I was a little worried that I'd just be redoing work that I have already done, she assures me that this will focus on a different period, different locations, and different objects than I studied before.

Since what I want to write about today will take far more time than I have for posting right now, I'll instead give you these words of wisdom from Frank Kozik:

Leasing is only good for Companies that need a bunch of vehicles for employees.

A normal person leasing a car is pretty much a dumbass.

Got it? Good. Now don't be a dumbass.

Today is going to be a good day, I think, because something at work is ending that will make my professional life significantly less complicated. And tomorrow I bet will be even better.

I think I've found my new addiction: this page that displays the fifty most recently posted images from LiveJournal. Every time I load it, it's a completely new, completely fascinating look at the flotsam and jetsam of our global culture. Then wait two minutes, hit reload, and you get a whole new dose of goodness. Potentially NSFW, but generally okay. And like I said, highly addictive.

We went to see Iron Man yesterday, and I have to say, it was pretty damn good, right up there with the first X-Men movie and Batman Begins among brilliant comic book adaptations. I didn't read that comic much as a kid, so either they've changed the mythology quite a bit since I read it briefly in the 80s or they came up with a bunch of new stuff for the movie version of the universe.

Robert Downey, Jr. was perfect for what they were trying to do with the movie version of Tony Stark, and it's kind of nice to see Marvel trying out the Batman type of hero, one that is a superhero because of his technology rather than an innate gift.

It doesn't surprise me that the movie has done very well both here and abroad, or that Marvel announced a sequel slated for 2010 after the first weekend box office receipts came in. Although summer tends to be the time of year when you only hold onto the number one spot for a week, Iron Man's competition this weekend are a lame romantic comedy from Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz and a suspect Speed Racer adaptation from the Wachowski brothers, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Iron Man come out on top again, or at least come very close.

It's been a quiet week at work, and until while we're waiting for the document management contract to get signed and hire a new person, it's probably going to stay quiet for a week or two. But man, this summer is going to be crazy busy.

I was fully intending to go into work today, last night's Radiohead concert down in Virginia notwithstanding. But the seriously ugly weather and poor planning by the venue and the local police meant that we didn't get home until close to 3 a.m., cold and wet and exhausted. So I'm going to take a half day this morning to recover and work a half day from home this afternoon.

I don't think I've every been more miserable going to and getting away from a show, but very rarely as happy during.

Comedy Central puts on Futurama at really stupid times. Why steal the syndication rights away from the Cartoon Network if you're not going to keep the audience that made those rights so valuable? I used to watch that show at least four times a week, even though at this point I've probably seen every episode a dozen times, but with the new dumbass time slots that Comedy Central has chosen, I'm lucky if I can catch it once or twice (I can't even TiVo it because they like to air it in prime time and we're typically recording something else).

Unless they own the DVD rights, too, and this is all part of their master plan to get me to go out and buy the complete series, I'd say that they've wasted a lot of money and that the show will soon be back on Cartoon Network airing in the late night slots where fans will flock to it once again.

I hate off site meetings. But at least it means I'll probably get to go home a few minutes early.

Kidrobot is starting to irritate me a little bit. There's only been one item in the last couple of month's that I've been even a little excited about, and it wasn't a Kozik piece. Now they've just announced their June releases, and it's another ho-hum month lacking a single compelling piece or series that I have even the slightest interest in.

You know, I've got my monthly toy budget to spend, people. I guess you just want me to spend it somewhere else.

A couple of months ago, we won tickets to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at a silent auction, which gave us a pair of tickets at our choice of three concerts. We went with one called Beethoven Re-imagined, which consisted of bookended Beethoven symphonies (1 and 4) conducted by an up-and-coming guest conducter, with a violin concerto composed by that conductor and featuring a guest violinist.

Our seats weren't bad—on the floor, not close but not at the very back of the hall—but what made them less enjoyable was the large school group occupying the three rows in front of us. At first I thought they wouldn't be too bad until a few minutes into the first piece when the two girls in front of us got overly excited about the fact that their chaperone, sitting a few seats away, had fallen asleep in his seat. This became the primary object of their attention for the duration of the concert, culminating with a ridiculous last 10 minutes when the chaperone started to snore loudly and one of the girls started making fun of the conductor by aping his wand movements with her hands. Fantastic.

The show itself was pretty good. I'm not a huge fan of classical music, and I don't know Beethoven very well, but the two symphonies were both pretty upbeat and easy to listen to. The violin concerto was much more modern and atonal (I think that's the right word—I've already forgotten all the musical terms from my class last summer), but there was an interesting bit at the end of the first movement when the violins were making an electric guitar feedback noise and the bass or the cellos (I think) were making a low buzzing noise like when an electric instrument is left sitting too close to its monitor. There was also an evil tuba towards the end that the program described as the musical equivalent of Godzilla stomping on Tokyo, and both the sound it made and the program description were highly entertaining.

Short week this week! Followed by a short week next week! Followed by the start of our summer schedule where I get every other Friday off!

I'm a little bit excited about this. My summer won't be relaxed by any means, but I sure do like all those extra days where I don't have to think about work.

The reason I only have one more day left in my workweek before a five day weekend is because Thursday is commencement, and because they need our parking spaces for visitors, they force all staff to take the day off (normally, Hopkins employees get two floating holidays a year, but staff at the Homewood campus must take one of theirs on commencement). And with Memorial Day on Monday, it's really only essential staff who don't take Friday off, because for one vacation day you end up with five days off.

The dates for commencement and Memorial Day don't always line up properly, so for the last couple of years, we've had commencement, and then another full week before Memorial Day, which means no five day weekend to kick off the summer. It's still a pretty relaxed couple of weeks, but I know I wasn't the only one who was happy to see that the calendar went back to normal this year. I mean, if they're going to force us to use a holiday that all other employees for the institution get to use whenever they want, we should at least get a nice bonus like having that holiday sync up with another holiday on the calendar.

I'm not planning to accomplish much at work today, and I'm not going to put in a lot of work here, either. Being perched on the precipice of five days off will do that to a person.

That was a pretty good long weekend. We painted the deck, went to another BSO concert, did a few other chores, and had some folks over for a cookout on Memorial Day. Weather was beautiful, and I got a lot done and got a lot of rest. Why can't the rest of the summer be like this?

When we were at the Beethoven concert a couple of weeks ago, we noticed in the concert calendar that the BSO was doing a few dates featuring Gershin's Rhapsody in Blue and his Piano Concerto in F. These were both pieces that I studied and enjoyed in my 20th Century American Composers class last summer, so we decided to look into tickets for one of the concerts.

From the standpoint of ease, the Saturday morning concert made the most sense to us, because going to shows on a weeknight is rough given that we don't have time to go back home and regroup from work before the show, and you can also dress more casually for the more informal Saturday matinee. When we started looking into ticket prices, Julie found a really interesting deal on the BSO site: pay $15 per ticket and get the best seats available the day of the concert. So if someone with third row center seats cancel the day before, you could theoretically end up with some of the best seats in the house. Or you could end up in the farthest balcony seats. But either way, you'd get to hear the show for $15, the cheapest tickets available.

We were seated in the orchestra seats, but in the last row. But they weren't really all that different from the seats we had for the Beethoven concert, which were probably 10 or so rows closer. The only real difference was that there was an orchestra employee who decided to stand right behind us and use the railing right above our heads to balance his notebook while he wrote down his numbers for the night, and the scratching of his pen right at ear-level was pretty distracting. I gave his a couple of quick glances, and although he met my eyes, he didn't stop, so I finally turned around in my seat and stared at him until he moved somewhere else (although he didn't stop writing his little notes next to people's ears, which seems pretty rude for someone should be very concerned with making sure people have a good experience).

It was fun and cheap (the parking was almost as much as a single one of our tickets), and it's something we'll probably do again if there's another show that we want to see. We're not huge classical music fans, but we're appreciative of the experience of seeing a live orchestra play, and it's hard to beat that price.

Okay: go read this article about high gas prices in Europe. Back? Good. Now let's discuss.

From the title, the intent of this article seems to be to tell Americans to stop being big whiny babies about our soaring gas prices, because people in Europe have it much worse than we do. And in terms of what they are actually paying at the pump, that's true. But are they paying more because demand is higher there, or because they don't have access to the same suppliers of oil that Americans do for our "cheap" gas?

Nope. According to the information in the article, it's just this: their governments tack an obscene amount of taxes onto their fuel costs.

Let's look at the figures in the article: it says that the average price of a gallon of gas for American consumers is around $4 a gallon, while European gasoline buyers are shelling out $8.70 per gallon. But let's look at what should be the real centerpiece of this article: the taxes attached to each gallon of gas.

In America, it's 11% of the cost, which means that what Americans are paying for gas before the government tacks on its share is $3.56. In Europe, the taxes are a staggering 70% of the cost, meaning that if the governments there weren't so greedy and willing to squeeze their consumers for what has become a necessary commodity for most citizens of industrialized nations, they would only be paying $2.61, nearly a full dollar less per gallon than we are.

So yes, they are paying more at the pumps, but it's because of taxes, not the raw price of fuel. If they had the same level of taxes levied on them as Americans, they would only be paying $2.90 at the pump compared to American consumers' $4.

But while the data that allows us to come to this conclusion is in the piece, it's kind of glossed over on the way to making the point that it needs to make so it can keep it's headline: that we're so, so lucky compared to the Europeans. And I guess in some sense we are: as much as we might grumble about taxes on our gas, those governmental surcharges are actually much less here than they are in Europe.

However, given the title of the article, it's clear that this piece is made to make Americans feel better about the high gas prices here, and that shouldn't necessarily be the case, because as a raw, untaxed commodity, gasoline is actually much cheaper in Europe than it is here. To me, it would have been a much better article if it had gone into the reasons behind the disparity in the base price of gas between Europe and America, because that might give some clue about what we could do to lower our untaxed gas prices to match the prices paid in Europe, which could lead us to lower gas prices stateside.

As it is, the piece feels a lot more like propaganda designed to make us happy about our fuel costs. Although it gives us the information we need to discover that we shouldn't be satisfied with those costs, it makes us do all the math and instead focuses on the plight of our neighbors in Europe, when their only plight, it seems to me, is that they happen to be ruled by people who are willing to tax them at an alarming level.

May should have been a busy month for us at work—I was expecting to have the contract for the document management stuff signed in the early part of the month so we could go to training and start prepping for our implementation before June hit. But thanks to haggling over the amount of interest to be charged on potential late payments and which venue we'll sue each other in if things go bad, the contract is still in limbo, with the legal teams for Hopkins and the vendor trading it back and forth, each undoing what the other did and changing it back to what it was before.

I finally had to get my deans involved, and we're supposed to have a phone call next Thursday or Friday where we'll resolve everything and have a document that's signable by both sides, but we'll see. We've already lost at least a month to this ridiculous process; if we lose much more, we're putting our timeline in serious jeopardy, especially given that I'm still missing one person on my staff and I don't know when I'll be able to find a suitable replacement.
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