september 2009

Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line is one of my favorite war movies ever, and I'm convinced that had it not come out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, it would have won several of the 8 Oscars it was nominated for. Malick has a very unique directorial style in the film, interlacing dreamlike sequences that focus on nature with narration that's like abstract poetry with battle sequences that can be as brutal as anything you've seen in other war movies. It sounds kind of strange, and I'm guessing not everyone will take to the movie, but I fell in love with it immediately.

I didn't realize he'd done another film since then (it was 20 years between The Thin Red Line and the movie he directed previous to that one), but when I was looking through Netflix for Christian Bale movies, The New World popped up. It's another Malick film, this one about the colonization of Jamestown and the story of John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe. John Smith was played by Colin Farrell, while Christian Bale played John Rolfe, Pocahontas' eventual husband. Christian Bale was surprisingly subdued, and Malick almost made Farrell seem like he wasn't a complete douchebag in a few sequences. Newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher did an amazing job as Pocahontas.

The film featured the same kind of interplay between meditative, ethereal sequences and conflict, but overall it was much more gentle than The Thin Red Line. The music was amazing too—with the wrong score, the movie could have seemed much longer than it did, but there were some sequences that I just wanted to go on and on because of the music. If you haven't seen a Malick film before, I'd definitely recommend The Thin Red Line, but if you like that one, there's a good chance you'll like The New World too.

It doesn't feel right, having it be September with the students back on campus and we haven't had Labor Day yet.

When we got home from work last night, Spot was sitting on the floor in the living room in an unusual place, and when he got up to come over to us, his left front paw was hanging limply and he wasn't able to put any pressure on it. We assumed he had broken his leg somehow, although he didn't seem to be in any pain (he tried to put pressure on it, and he was purring), so we put him in a cat carrier and headed to the vet.

It turns out that it was a blood clot that was blocking the flow of blood to that paw, which is not a good development for him. He was diagnosed with hyperthyroid several months ago, and the medication that the vet prescribed was slowly making him sicker and sicker—he had no appetite, his fur was coming out, and, it turns out, it was also making him anemic. But without the medication, his hyperthyroid disease would eventually kill him. Our only other option to cure it was to spend $1400 on a radiation treatment that he might not survive, and which might only keep him alive for another few weeks anyway. Add the blood clot on top of all this, and his prognosis for surviving another month is not good.

For now, the vet has us giving him aspirin to thin the blood, his hyperthyroid medication, a painkiller, and a medicine that opens his arteries a bit. This last medicine leaves him groggy and basically unable to function, but the vet also says that's his most critical medication at this point.

We're going to continue this regimen through Friday and then talk to the vet about next steps, but she's made it clear that if he seems to be in pain, it's time to let him go, because the blood clot could eventually become very painful for him and there's nothing they can do about it. Coming on the heels of Bear's demise in July, it's pretty hard to our last cat that we had before we were even married struggling and not likely to last much longer, but we're doing our best to make sure he's comfortable while we see if the medications might be able to help him.

As per my policy of not posting when I have a day off, it's been a few days since I last posted. I took a vacation day last Friday, Monday was a holiday, and yesterday was our office retreat, where I was technically at work but not in the office at all (more on that later). It was a pretty relaxing weekend, and with Labor Day passing and the weather already cooling down, there's no doubt that summer is officially over and we're moving full steam ahead into this year's application cycle.

It's been a week since we got home from work to find Spot's left front paw hanging limply by his side from what we soon discovered was a blood clot, and he's doing remarkably well. We had him on all sorts of medication for a few days—aspirin, a pain killer, hyperthyroid medication, and a drug to widen his blood vessels—and he was out of it and weak and just generally not well, and he also didn't show much improvement. But as the days went on, his left paw slowly started to show more life, his appetite and stomach issues improved, and now, other than an odd gait and a slight limp on the limb that had the clot, he seems pretty much back to where he was before the blood clot.

He's still thin and frail and he might not be with us for a lot longer, but he's eating and much more mobile, and we've gone from thinking that he had only days left to believing that he could with us for weeks or even months more.


Time for another Netflix rundown. First up, the Foot Fist Way, a comedy about a Tae Kwon Do instructor that kickstarted Danny McBride's movie career. It was actually pretty good—it was both funnier and had a deeper emotional connection to the audience than other quirky indie comedies like Napolean Dynamite. It would have been interesting to see what he would have done next had Will Ferrell and other Hollywood comedy bigshots not taken him under their wing after this film. But then I guess I probably would have never heard of this film if it wasn't for the attention they brought to it, either.

I've also recently watched Be Kind Rewind, which is sort of a comedy and it really hard to describe. It stars Mos Def and Jack Black as two clerks at a dying video store who, when a freak accident blanks out all the tapes, decide to make 15 minute low budget versions of the films to rent out. There are a lot of surreal moments in it, and I can't necessarily recommend it, but there were things about it that really appealed to me, and I'm glad I took the time to watch it. I understand completely why this was critically panned when it was released and disappeared almost instantly from theaters, though. Hip hop artist Mos Def has carved out an interesting little movie career for himself, and he's definitely the star here. If you enjoyed him in something like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it's probably worth seeing this just for his performance.

Speaking for quirky comedies (I got on quite a roll here), I saw I Heart Huckabees after Be Kind Rewind. The film is by David O. Russell, the director of the brilliant Three Kings. This is way different from Three Kings though: it feels like a cross between Michael Gondry (who happened to be the director of Be Kind Rewind in addition to the much more well know Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Wes Anderson, and the score by Jon Brion (who also scored Eternal Sunshine) and star Jason Schwartzman (star of Anderson's best known film, Rushmore) reinforce these associations. But it's a pretty good movie, if you're in the mood for meaning-of-life offbeat comedies, and Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman are great as a husband and wife team of existential detectives.

I've had the second X-Files movie sitting around for a couple of weeks, so I'll probably tackle that soon, and both Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age are on the way.

I picked up a case of the series 6 dunnys on release day last Thursday, and the chase I was really hoping for was the Huck Gee flying ninja (at 1/50 and a case containing 25 blind boxes, I had a 50/50 chances). I let Rachel pick my case for me, and she got me a good one—the Huck was the seventh or eighth figure I pulled.

I normally don't buy cases of dunnys, because I'm usually only interested in about half the pieces, but there are a lot of great artists who have put signature pieces in this series—Luke Chueh and his bloody bear, Shawnimals and his wee ninja, Mori Chack and his Gloomy bear, and Devilrobots and the tofu heads, among others. There's also a Kozik figure, and for once it's a common, but just as with series 5, it's not a figure I'm really that thrilled with. I loved his series 4 Clockwork Orange figure, and his endangered series walrus was alright, but his dunny design have generally been less than thrilling over the past year or so.

I'm not going to try to complete the set by any means, because the ones I'm missing are 1/50 and 1/100 ratios that are going to be way too expensive (and besides the Huck, Andrew Bell's design is really the only one I'm really interested in), but I'm happy with the commons I have and I'm really happy that one of my rares was the Huck.

Shark Tank is a weird cross between Pitchmen without the feelgood angle and The Apprentice with relevance to actual business, not the bullshit they feed you in business school that Donald Trump seems all too happy to repeat. Sometimes it feels a little fake and forced, and I wonder about the wisdom of people pitching products on national television that they don't own any trademarks or patents on (as is often, but not always, the case), and I also wonder how many of these supposed deals really go through, given that I'm sure both sides have their lawyers thoroughly vet the actual contacts before anyone signs anything. But I find it entertaining nonetheless.

A lot of my high school friends are on Facebook, and through that medium I've discovered that many of them either still live in or have migrated back to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area where we went to high school. I was talking to one of those friends (one of the few who doesn't live there either) on the phone a few weeks ago, and as I was commenting on this and looking up some of our mutual friends from that time on Facebook, I noticed that one of them had recently changed her location on Facebook from Raleigh to Columbia, MD, which is right down the road from us.

So I sent her a PM via Facebook, and she confirmed that she had indeed been living in Maryland since July. I threw out some dates when we might be able to get together (we hadn't seen her since her wedding nine years ago, and we had never met her two kids, now 2 and 4), including our Labor Day cookout, but by the time she responded, we had already gotten confirmation from another family with a two year old, and given that they had the same type of schedule (a nap after lunch, and then a window of 2-3 hours sometime in late afternoon when they could come over), and we didn't think we could get both of their schedules to match up.

But then on the day of the cookout, the other family canceled in the morning because the mom had come down with something, so I called my high school friend to see if she might want to come over later whenever it was convenient for her, and fortunately she could, so she and her husband and the two kids came over for a few hours early in the evening.

It was really good to see her again; we had been very close in high school, but had gone through a break in our friendship in college and hadn't spoken for many years before we ran into each other at our 10th high school reunion. When we saw each other there, all of the conflict from the past just vanished, and we kept in touch after that long enough to get an invitation to her wedding the next summer. We made tentative plans to get together when we were in Raleigh for the holidays, but they never came to fruition, and we didn't really call or email much after that.

Seeing her as a mom was both weird and oddly fitting. She was still the same friend that I had all those years ago, but she also seemed very comfortable with (and good at) her role as a mother. We caught up on each other's lives for the past several years (we had some peculiarly similar sibling issues) and chatted a bit about our friends from high school (many of whom we'll see again in a few weeks at our 20th high school reunion). It felt very comfortable and natural to me; it was hard to believe that in the past 20 years we've really only spoken a dozen times or so. It's always hard to schedule things with people who have young children (as most of our friends around here seem to), but I'm hopeful that it won't be too long before we see them again and that they can become a regular part of our lives.

We've been talking about getting digital cable since we got our HD-compatible LCD television a few years ago (three? four?), but one of the things that held us back was that in order to use digital cable and the HD channels, we would have to use the digital cable box from the cable company because our ReplayTV didn't have a CableCARD slot, and the interface between the ReplayTV and the cable box was painfully slow (we tried it for a few days, and it took 3-4 seconds just to change the channel). So even though the LCD tv wasn't really optimized for the analog cable signal, we decided that our ReplayTV and normal lag times on changing the channel were more important than the digital/HD thing.

For the past year or so, though, we've been talking about getting one of the series 3 TiVo boxes (ReplayTV is pretty much out of business at this point—they haven't sold hardware in a couple of years), which have slots for not one but two CableCARDs, meaning that not only could we get access to the digital and HD channels, but we could also record two shows at once or watch one show live while recording another (you wouldn't believe how often the handful of shows we're interested in watching end up getting scheduled against one another by the networks). But we hesitated because of two costs: 1) the cost of the box itself (the model we wanted, which could record up to 150 hours of HD programming or an ungodly number of standard definition shows) was $600, which might not have been such a big deal except that 2) we had paid for lifetime service on our ReplayTV, and it was hard to contemplate adding another $10 monthly charge for our TiVo service on top of our internet/cable/phone, etc.

But we've gotten very interested in the TiVo over the past few months because the dual recording feature would be very handy and the digital cable package costs the same as the analog one we've had for years. So when the high-end TiVo model recently went on sale for $130 off of its regular price (likely in advance of a new or upgraded model that will be put on the market for the holiday buying season), we took the plunge and got one.

We still don't have the digital cable—the cable company has to send someone out to install the CableCARDs, and they didn't have any appointments available until next Friday—but I'm already excited by the upgrade, especially the dual recording. And apparently the HD programming comes with the digital package (even though the Comcast web site seems to indicate otherwise), so we'll now be getting those channels at no additional cost. Another benefit: as a Netflix subscriber, I can now stream any content that's available for instanct viewing to my TiVo and television, so I'll be able to remove a bunch of things from my DVD queue (the Netflix feature hasn't been activated yet; apparently there's a software update that happens in the first day or two that activates this feature).

Generally all the spam emails in my personal account get dumped into my junk folder before I even see them, but sometimes when I'm checking my account on the web from work I'll open a few of them for fun. Here's the text in one I got last week:

It is true—men with problems in delicate sphere cause only mockery and contempt among girls.

Now, when you know about our male strength store online you'll never cause laugh, only adoration and lust. Try only one pellet and feel how strong the boost is!

I'd like to believe that they just ran text written in their native tongue through Google Translate and didn't bother to let anyone who actually spoke English proof it, but there's no way a machine is responsible for something that beautifully broken.

More Netflix updates: I watched Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and wasn't that impressed with either. I'm not a big costume drama fan, but after watching The New World a few weeks ago, I was open to other stories from that general time period, and I remember seeing part of Elizabeth on cable once and I wanted to see how it played out. Cate Blanchett was pretty good, although I had a hard time separating her version of the queenly Elizabeth from her portrayal of the elf queen Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings films. If you like stately, overwrought period pieces, you'll probably like these, but otherwise I didn't find much that moved me.

I also finally watched the second X-Files movie, which had been sitting on the coffee table for a couple of weeks, and while it was good to see Mulder and Scully again, I think I understand why the film didn't do that well at the box office and why we're unlikely to see those characters again. It's too bad, really; for a few years there, the X-Files was one of the best shows on television, and there was a chemistry between these two characters that's almost unmatched in the history of network television. But all things must pass, and the time has definitely come for this project.

Finally, I saw the British comedy Son of Rambow, in which two English schoolboys (initially a bully and his tomentee) team up to film a sequel to Rambo: First Blood Part 2 in which the son of Rambo must rescue him. There are some great, dreamlike sequences in which the younger boy's drawings come to life in the world around him, and the acting by the boy who plays the bully is incredible. There's a needless subplot about a repressive religious sect that controls the younger boy's family, but it's generally not too distracting. There's a sweetness to it that doesn't get too cloying until near the very end, and even with the sort of weak and predictable ending, it's still well worth watching.

I would like it if it would stop feeling like summer now. Although we didn't really have a summer this year, so it's not like I ever got a chance to get sick of summer. I guess what I'm really asking for is season-appropriate temperatures.

In a lot of ways, Survivor has gotten pretty predictable, even though the last couple of season have had some memorable players, but I still look forward to new seasons. Maybe it's because it's really the first big reality hit and it sill reminds me of when the whole genre wasn't a cesspool of dating shows and/or celebrities showing us their "real" lives, or maybe it's because it's just a great formula for a competition show that no one has been quite able to match (yes, yes, I love Amazing Race, but there's too much footage of people racing around exotic locales and not enough of people scheming against one another). But I'm glad we have new episodes from now until the holidays.

We're still waiting to get the CableCARD installed so we can get the digital feed (that's supposed to happen today), but I love being able to watch things from my instant queue on Netflix on my television using TiVo. I've started back in on Dragnet '67, which used to run regularly in Nick at Night but which I haven't seen in years. I'm also planning to watch the Tudors and Dexter, two shows that had previously been in my DVD queue.

The shows and movies that you can watch instantly are definitely a mixed bag, but there's some good stuff available, enough that it will take a while to watch it all. And we all know this is the future, it's just a question of how much the cost will go up to watch newer, more valuable content this way. Still, I'm pretty happy that I can take advantage of my instant queue on my television now—even when I'm in one of those bad spots (usually right before the weekend) where I've mailed off my last disc and it will be another day or two before I get a replacement, I'll never run out of stuff to watch.

MMS for the iPhone in this country was activated on Friday, and now I'm wondering if there is a way to turn it off. I've never been big on text messaging (and I don't get MMS at all), so I don't have a text message plan and have to pay $.05 per message, which is still far cheaper than even paying the extra $5 per month for 200 messages. But even though in one of the formal text messaging plans, MMS messages count the same as normal text messages, under the a la carte structure, MMS messages cost $.30, six times as much as a normal text message—and it's that price for messages that someone sends to your phone, not just ones you might send yourself. Luckily none of the people who have my mobile number are big texters, and I can't see any of them sending an MMS, but still, it would be nice to be able to refuse an MMS because of the cost.

Someday we'll move past all this nonsense with text messages and MMSs being broken out from the rest of the data plan that I'm paying $30 a month for (which is broken out from the cost of the voice plan, which is just another kind of data). But for now, I'd like to be able to prevent anyone with my phone number from being able to inflate my bill without my consent.

In my Netflix instant queue on the TiVo, I started out watching mostly episodes of Dragnet from the late 60s, but then I decided to give the Tudors a chance and have been pretty steadily working my way through the first season. I'm kind of doing this backwards: I started this renaissance period stuff by watching The New World, which was set in the early 1600s with the settlement at Jamestown, just after Elizabeth I's reign. Then I watched Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which obviously preceded The New World. And now I'm watching the Showtime series the Tudors, which focuses on Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father.

The show is good, but not outstanding. The ages of some of the characters seem off, especially in the case of Catherine of Aragorn. I really like Sam Neill, but his portrayal of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey is a little flat, and the actress they chose for Anne Boleyn seems a little too simple and plain to have wooed a king and disrupted a kingdom (and really, all of Europe). But I'm hardly a stickler for historical detail, having learned most of what I know about that era in the English court from reading Wikipedia entries about the major players, and the show is entertaining enough. And it's nice not to have to wait for a new disc; I can just call up episodes and watch them whenever I want.

Three years ago, I finally convinced my office to push for a major budget line item to purchase a document imaging system that would let us take our application review process online and make it paperless. A year later, after two formal requests from my dean and our budget person, the university signed off.

I spent the next year going through a formal vendor selection process, including sending out an RFP to the top three vendors (I did research on around 10 or so), hosting demos for all three vendors that included two sessions per vendor (one for executive-level decision makers, one for functional and technical users), doing site visits to schools that used the products for their entire enterprise and specifically in their admissions office, and working to hammer out some differences between the vendor's legal team and ours once we had decided which vendor we wanted to use. I met with the first vendor in July of 2007; the contract was not signed until June 2008.

That contract included a mini-site license clause that would allow us to bring the graduate admissions office into the product if we signed the contract and sent it in by December 2008; that didn't happen, so once our cycle was mostly wrapped up in March, I started negotiating for a new price quote for the graduate admissions area, because there's no way we were going to pay the standard license price for hundreds of faculty (faculty do most of the reading and decisioning in grad admissions, but the vendor we work with doesn't have a good licensing structure for people who only need to access the system for 10-20 hours a year; they expect people using the system to be in it day in and day out most of the year). This involved lots of meetings not only with the vendor but with the decision makers on my campus, particularly the budget people (as you can imagine, this isn't the best year to be asking for major expenditures that don't lead to an immediate reduction in the bottom line).

After months of discussions, I finally got a quote with a price that everyone could agree to in August with an expiration date of September 30, and I thought we were home free. But no: then it was back to a new group of decison makers, which meant several one-on-one and group meetings to educate people about the nature of the product, talk about the long term vision for the product on campus, and explain the licensing issues and cost structure for graduate admissions. In early September, we had what was supposed to be the final meeting, the one where the decision would be made, and that meeting ended with general consensus that we should move forward, leaving me a few weeks to get the purchase order generated before the quote expired.

But then one last person who had the ear of the dean of engineering and who had up until that point not participated in any of the discussions, wanted to have another meeting to address his specific concerns. He wasn't convinced, and until he was convinced, the dean wouldn't be convinced, so suddenly a project that I had been working on for six months (and which was part of a larger effort I'd been working on for three years) was in jeopardy at the last minute because of one naysayer.

There were lots more email discussions and backroom cajoling over then next week, until finally, last Thursday, we got sign off from engineering to move ahead with the project. Then the (now-urgent) question became who was going to generate the purchase order, which had to be to the vendor by the morning of September 30. I started sending out emails and requests for guidance to my dean and the budget people I was familiar with on Thursday afternoon, without receiving any response or action before the end of the week. On Monday I was starting to panic a bit, getting really concerned that even though we had approval from all the right people, the project would be killed because of slow paperwork on our end, so I emailed my dean again, and he was finally able to get the process kickstarted. By the end of the day, the purchase order had been configured in our payment system, and by yesterday at noon the official approval had been granted and the payment sent to the vendor, just under a business day from the deadline.

I love this place, but man is it tough to get things done sometimes. Perseverance is the key, and while I have to work really hard to maintain my composure in the face of an often ridiculous bureacratic structure, I think I do a pretty good job of it. Anyway. I'm glad the budget request part of this project is done now (at least for this budget year) and we can actually move ahead with doing the work of implementing three new offices (the quote also includes licenses for our two academic advising offices) by next summer.

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