september 2008

We went to the Maryland state fair on Sunday, and it was about like I remembered: too close to the city and about half the size of the county fairs from my youth in North Carolina. It's basically held in the parking lot of a horse track just north of Baltimore, so there's only so much they can fit into that space.

I like to play the carnival games, but I'm terrible at them and don't usually win anything. But during lunch on Friday, one of my coworkers revealed that when she was a teenager, one of her summer jobs was being a ringer for a local amusement park—they taught her how to beat all the games, then gave her some cash every morning so she could go around and play games all day. She was supposed to look like a complete novice, play once or twice and do badly, and then win and make a huge fuss about it, thus tricking onlookers into thinking that they could win at the game, too, if they just gave it a couple of tries.

She also said that they best way to win if you don't know the tricks is to play games in which you compete with other people, because then somebody has to win, and you have much better odds there than in a game where you could play all day and never win. So even though we played a couple of games where it was you versus the game, we sat down and played some of the competitive games this time as well. The first one, where you spray water into a clown's mouth to make a balloon explode, we played twice and didn't win—we tried to sit down when we would be the only two playing, but of course as soon as we sat down, five other people sat down as well.

The next game was like a miniature version of skee ball, and the higher your points, the faster your car moved in a race. I practiced a few times before the game started and was hitting the highest value consistently, but when the game started, I started messing up and only hit the highest value two or three times. Still, I kept my head down and just rolled as fast as I could, and when the bell rang I looked up and saw my number in first place.

For my prize, I picked a three foot high Squidward (although I question whether the Spongebob folks are receiving any licensing fees for this) which Julie carried around for the rest of the day. We didn't stay too much longer after that—we had already had lunch, ridden the ferris wheel, and visited the animal judging barns—but we did stop to pick up a couple of caramel apples and watch the pig races.

It wasn't a bad way to spend a few hours, but it just doesn't hold a candle to the state fairs in Virginia and especially North Carolina.

We had a few people over for Labor Day, and the weather was perfect. I fixed the shrimp kabobs that I wasn't able to serve on July 4 because of the rain, along with crazy rice (rice with sauteed onions, red onions, green pepper, red pepper, corn, and bacon) and grilled ears of corn wrapped with bacon.

I also decided to fix some bratwurst, and I tried a new strategy to keep them from drying out: the brat hot tub, which is basically a pan with beer, butter, onions, green peppers, garlic, and sauerkraut that you put the brats into after you finished grilling them. The brats got to soak in that for about half an hour while I finished fixing everything else, and I have to say, that's how I'm going to fix them from now on. The flavors seeped into them and made them tastier than usual, and they were also still perfectly plump and juicy even though some of them weren't eaten until an hour after I put them in the hot tub.

It was very low key, although not necessarily relaxing for Julie and I because we spent pretty much the whole day up until people started arriving getting ready (we had put off some big chores like mowing the lawn, plus we had the every-two-hour ritual of changing the soaking towels for the water heater leak—more on that later). But the cooking was pretty easy, and I was able to do a lot of prep beforehand, so I got to sit and chat for a good bit after people got there.

Labor Day is the end of summer, but it just doesn't feel like it because work has been so intense and I haven't taken a vacation in a while. But we're going to Vegas for a conference later this month, and we're getting there a day early and staying a couple extra days, so hopefully that will refresh me a bit. Lord knows the months after that will be pretty hectic, and with two weeks of training out of the office that I'll need to do before the end of the year, I just don't think I'll have time to take much time off besides the holidays.

I've always resented you daytime people making me work and live my life by your schedule. This explains a whole lot.

A few hours after we got back from the state fair on Sunday, Julie went downstairs to the laundry room and found two very slow moving streams of water that appeared to be coming from somewhere underneath the washing machine. As we were mopping up the water with old towels and trying to figure out what was going on, we realized that the water was actually seeping out of the bottom of our water heater, which is right next to the washer and dryer.

Of course, it was a weekend. And a holiday weekend, no less.

After experimenting for a few hours, we found a strategy where we could use three big towels to keep the water at bay for just about two hours, at which point we could put those on the spin cycle and then the dryer while we rotated in a fresh set of towels, and as long as we repeated this every two hours, the water wouldn't get out of control and we would always have dry towels to replace the soaked ones.

Initially we scheduled an appointment with a plumber for Tuesday afternoon (the soonest they could fit us in) to examine and hopefully repair the leak, but as we began to do more research on the web about leaking water heaters, it became clear that we were likely going to have to replace it, and when a call to my father confirmed this, we canceled the leak visit and started looking around for someone who could install a new one as soon as possible. We settled on Lowe's, both because they were open on Monday and because they had the water heater we wanted on sale for $60 off its regular price.

We were initially hoping that they might actually be able to install it on Monday, but that hope quickly faded when none of the plumbers they normally worked with for installations answered their phones (not that I could blame them, it being a holiday and all). So we got a promise that someone would be out on Tuesday, and we continued our strategy of swapping out towels every couple of hours.

The plumbers didn't get there until after 4 on Tuesday, but once they were here, the job only took an hour or so, mostly because we have easy outside access to the laundry room through a door in the back of the house and because the new water heater and the old were almost perfect matches in terms of size. When I remarked on this to one of the plumbers, he told me that that's because they were basically the same—the new one wasn't actually manufactured by the brand name company that sold it, it was made by the same company that had made our old one and the reseller had simply slapped their brand on it.

Which isn't a bad thing. Our old water heater had an eight year warranty and probably lasted nine or so (it was here when we moved into the house, but it was fairly new), and this one has a nine year warranty, so hopefully we can get at least a decade out of it (if we're even still living here in ten years).

Not the best way to spend the last couple of days of a long weekend, but all in all it wasn't so bad—we caught the leak before the water got out of control, we got the new water heater on sale, and the installation, once the plumbers made it to our house, was about as painless as you can get.

Well, Obama, remember when I said that McCain would have a 2-4% lead on you after the Republican convention? I hate to say I told you so—I mean, it actually pains me to say it in this case—but polls are now showing McCain with a post-convention lead of 4%, probably in large part to Sarah Palin. And, of course, the moderate tone he uses in speeches aimed at national audiences.

I actually thought Palin was going to help even out his post-convention bump because she's so obviously inexperienced that it's hard to believe there's anyone who thinks she would have been selected as a VP candidate if she were a male, and while it's still highly likely that she's going to hurt his campaign in the long run, she seems to be helping for the moment.

(Of course, if I were a Republican, I'd be seriously concerned that people seem more interested in an unknown vice presidential candidate who had no major experience in government until a year and a half ago (and even her governorship is over a population that's about a third of the size of metro Baltimore) than they are in the guy who, you know, is supposed to be running the country. But rationality hasn't been a strong part of Republican motivations over the past few decades.)

Anyway. It's time to start kicking some ass. I don't know what that entails, but you've got lots of people you pay lots of money who are supposed to know what that means, and you've got tons more money to spend than McCain does, and that historically also favors you for victory. But it's not going to come easy, not anymore, and it's starting to feel distressingly like you spent all your energy defeating Hillary in the primaries and you just assumed victory in the actual election would follow naturally.

Not to put any pressure on you or anything, but if your party can't take back the executive branch against Bush in 2004 or McCain in 2008, then you should just disband and let another party rise in your place, because it's hard to imagine more favorable circumstances to win the White House than in these two election cycles. You haven't won my heart, but you've won my vote. Don't make me spend another four years feeling like I wasted it again.

We went to Atomic POP last Thursday to pick up a few of the series 5 dunnys from Kidrobot, whose releases have been mostly unremarkable this year. Normally I only like 4-5 dunnys in a given series, and so I end up picking up the ones I want on the Kidrobot boards or on eBay, but this series has a lot of nice designs, so I wanted to go buy a few blindboxes on release day.

There was a release/trading party that started at 7, and we got there around 6, but I'm not quite sure I'm ready to mingle in person with my fellow art toy collectors, so we got there around 6 and opened our dunnys at the back of the store with Benn and Rachel and Lauren stopping occasionally to look at our pulls. We actually did pretty well: out of the nine boxes we originally purchased, we only got one duplicate (which was a mystery figure from Devilrobots, so that was cool) and only one design that I didn't care for.

We picked up several of the ones I had been hoping for, including a 1/50 chase (that means you only pull it once every two cases) from Junko Mizuno (here's a checklist for the series in case you want to see the designs I'm talking about), the ice cream dunny, and commons from Sneaky Raccoon, Clutter, Jesse LeDoux, and JK5. We also bought one more on the way out and got the Amanda Visell, which is a common but which I'd been hoping for. Really, the only ones that I didn't get that aren't super rare are the MAD and the Mishka, and those shouldn't be too hard to pick up in the aftermarket. The Huck Gee mystery chase might even be doable for not too much—the ratio on that one is apparently 3/50.

I was surprised that this series didn't include a Tara McPherson piece, and I was bummed to see that the Kozik (my favorite artist) was 1/100—basically one every four cases. I don't really like the sculpt that much, especially compared to his series 4 piece which was a dunny version of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, but still, I'm a Kozik collector, and that one's pretty much out of my reach given its rarity and his increasing popularity.

I think I might be able to talk myself into staying for the trading party (if they host one) for the series 4 labbits, which should come out later this year or early next year, because I'm intending to buy a whole case of those. I like talking to Benn and Rachel and Lauren about toys, but I'm not sure I'm ready to be in a room full of strangers who are all obsessed with toys. But it couldn't be any weirder than a blogger meetup, and I've done a couple of those in my time.

Hole in the Wall is the most idiotic, most pointless, most asinine thing that's ever been put on television.

Except for the Hills, of course. I mean, that pretty much goes without saying, right?

After my semi-complaint about the cheesiness of the Shield after watching the first season, I got an email from a friend saying he had had a similar experience with the show until he got about halfway through the second season (after a flashback episode that he didn't care for), and then it really found its groove.

By happenstance, I was about midway through the second season when he sent that email, and I watched the flashback episode that very night. I actually didn't mind that episode at all, but he's right about the rest of it: I just finished watching the final episode of season 2 last night, and I found it the most satisfying series of episodes so far. The characters still aren't as nuanced as in some other police-oriented shows I've watched, and the moral struggles from the lead protagonist seemed kind of forced and empty compared to say, Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue or any number of the detectives from the Wire, but the writers and the actors are definitely getting better at dealing with the characters.

This is a good thing, because it's become my nightly ritual to watch one episode of a show on DVD from Netflix, and I honestly don't know what I'd be watching if I had decided to give up on the Shield. Now between newly released seasons of the Wire and Entourage, and another four seasons of the Shield, I should be set for another few months.


I find it odd that we have candidates on the major party presidential tickets from both Hawaii and Alaska. And each state is leaning towards the candidate they are associated with, for whatever that's worth.

Our third Saturn joined its predecessors and ticked over 100,000 miles over the weekend. It's had a few more problems than the first two, but not to any unreasonable degree—if we were in the market for a new car, a Saturn of some sort would get strong consideration, especially with all the positive reviews we've been hearing about the new Aura.

But hopefully we won't be in the market anytime soon—our other two Saturns are both still kicking (one still belongs to us, the other to a friend who lives in the city and uses it mostly for errands) and both have well over 200,000 miles. Hopefully our newest one can reach that milestone as well without too many issues along the way.

I've waited too long to send my camera back to get the bad pixel on the CCD remapped before our trip to Vegas, so it will just have to wait until after I get. Unfortunately, that means I'll have to clean up what will likely be hundreds of images with that bad pixel, which is kind of draining to think about.

I was going to write a macro that would zoom in on the affected spot so I could quick switch to the clone tool and fix it, but for some bizarre reason, the usually highly scriptable Photoshop won't allow you to put zoom functions into macros. Fortunately, the dead pixel is near the center of the image, and I've found that just using the zoom key command four times on the images will bring it to the lower center of the screen where I can quickly fix it. Not the ideal situation, but it's better than having it somewhere that I have to hunt for it every single time.

I'm feeling panicky about going to a conference in Vegas all next week when there is still so much to do, especially when the only other current member of my staff is going with me (we had to make plans for this back in June, and I felt sure that I'd be able to hire someone to fill our empty spot by now, but no such luck). It has really been a brutal past few months, a grind that is getting harder to do every day.

Unfortunately, I don't know when that grind is going to end, but hopefully I'll get some relief with this trip (the first day and the last two days are going to be vacation, with three days of conference activities in between), and I'm going to do my best to schedule some days off before the holidays. Whenever we get through with all of this, our office will be much better off, but it's hard to take any comfort from that in the midst of all this stress.

I haven't been terribly impressed with any of the applications that I've received for the open position on my team, but I've got to hire someone, so I've set up interviews with the four strongest candidates, and the first one is tomorrow morning (with two more to follow on Friday and the last on the Friday after that).

I've only had to interview people for a place on my team once before, and that was four and a half years ago, so I'm not feeling overly confident about how to conduct them. But it all seemed to work out last time, when I had zero experience, and even if I think a candidate looks good in this first round, there will still be a second round of interviews with some of the other members of our management team before we would make someone an official offer, so there's still plenty of time to spot a problem even if I don't uncover it during my initial conversation.

It's weird to think that I could be meeting someone in the next couple of days who could be a major part of my day-to-day existence for years to come—our team is currently pretty small and there's virtually no project that we don't all collaborate together on. From the limited experience I have with this process, it's kind of a crapshoot anyway—just like a couple can't really know each other fully until they live together, you don't really get to see the quirks and talents of someone in the workplace until after they're hired and have been on the job for a while.

We leave tomorrow morning for Vegas at a brutally early hour, but it was the only nonstop flight from BWI that wasn't on Southwest. Because of the time difference, we'll get there only two hours after we left, so hopefully we can check into our hotel a little early, take a nap, and then have a full day to explore before the conference starts up on Sunday (although most of Sunday is free as well).

Then it's three days of all-day conference activities followed by two days of pure vacation before we fly back again on Saturday, although again because of the time difference we won't actually land until very early Sunday morning local time. We'll have a day to regroup before heading back to work, but I think I'm still pretty likely to be exhausted on Monday even if we have a few days of restful vacation time. And then it's immediately back to the grind, with three days of consultants on-site to do training for our document management system and our official golive for the system on October 1.

We got back from Vegas just before midnight on Saturday night and spent most of the day Sunday relaxing and recovering. It would have been nice if this was going to be a slow week at work, but no such luck—we have a consultant from the document management system on site for the first three days of the week and we're supposed to go live with the scanning portion of the system on Wednesday, and there are still a lot of issues to work through before then. But even though the timing wasn't great, it was still nice to get away from the office for a few days.

I was going to start my entries about our Vegas trip today, but it really makes more sense to start them tomorrow to maintain a continuous narrative. So this is it for today.
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