april 2010

Our decision letters went out yesterday, and it was our most complex operation to date. See, in the past, when waitlist candidates have wanted to let us know that they wish to stay on the waitlist, or when admit candidates let us know whether they are accepting or declining our offer of admission, they've had to wait until they got our packet in the mail and then send back a paper form to us, where it would be data entered by our operations team.

This year, however, we set up two custom forms where students can go to a personalized web site, enter their decision (and for admits, some other basic information like their major or, if they are declining admission, which school they have chosen instead of us), and press a button that will load their information into a database where it can be instantly loaded into our student information system without any additional data entry.

This easing of the burden for the operations staff (who traditionally open the mail and do data entry) comes at a cost for me and my staff, however—in addition to configuring the form and database for the waitlist kids and working with a third party vendor to get the admit form up and running properly (we only used an outside partner because we wanted to offer the ability to pay the enrollment deposit online, and we can't do that internally), I also had to send out decision emails with custom links in them. This added signficantly to the complexity of configuring the waitlist and admit emails, especially the admits—the custom links could only be generated after uploading the admit file to the vendor's system and running it through a batch process before downloading it so I could run an email merge using the IDs from that system to embed the custom link in each admitted student's decision email.

From the time I get the final decision lists from the head of the operations team, it usually takes me a couple of hours to get all of the emails configured for sending, and then another hour or two to actually send them (we wait until 7 p.m. eastern so we aren't sending decisions to kids on the west coast while they are still in class). This year, it took me nearly six hours to get everything configured for the send, partly due to some quirks in the process that we had to iron out with the vendor, but mostly due to the new elements in the process that let students submit information online rather than mailing back a piece of paper.

The send itself went a little faster than normal—I usually send the decision emails from home using a work laptop, but this year I ran it from the Windows virtual environment on my Mac, which has a much faster processor than the work laptop, so it only took about 45 minutes total to send all of the emails.

Anyway. Another year without any major screwups in this part of the process. There's at least one school every year who sends out admit emails to waitlisted kids or something like that, so when we have another successful send, I breathe a little easier knowing that we won't be making headlines and doing damage control for two weeks because we made a stupid mistake with our process.

So the series 4 labbits finally came in on Tuesday, and I went immediately after work to pick up a case. I also couldn't resist and picked up a few blindboxes to open immediately.

The ratios on this series are a little weird. There are a bunch of 1/25, which means you should get one per case if the distribution isn't screwed up, but there are also a bunch of 3/50 figures, which means that every case should have one to two figures. There's also a really cool 3/100 figure with a monocle and a tophat, and ratio means that there should be one in three out of every four cases. The hardest figures to get are the ball and chain labbit (1/50), the stabbed labbit (ratio unknown, but suspected to be either 1/50 or 1/100) and the rarest chase, the airplane labbit (ratio unknown, but suspected to be either 1/100 or 1/200).

So when I got my case, I was hoping I would get a mostly full set, with at least one of all the ones with the 1/25, 3/50, or 3/100 ratios and hopefully one or the other of the stabbed or airplane chases. But it was a pretty disappointing case distribution-wise—I didn't get the 1/50 ball and chain, the 3/100 monocle, and I ended up with two of the 3/50 American flag and three of the 3/50 jack eyes murder labbit. I also got neither of the two rare chases.

Luckily, I pulled the 1/50 ball and chain from one of the blind boxes, so all that's left are the monocle (which should hopefully cost me no more than $15 on eBay once the prices settle down), the stabbed (which I'm hoping I can get for $20-$25), and the airplane (which may end up costing me upwards of $35-$45).

Very excited to finally have these—it's a pretty good series overall, and it's certainly taken long enough to see the light of day. Hopefully it won't be another 2 1/2 years before we have series 5.

Tomorrow is my grandfather's 90th birthday, so most of his extended family gathered in Raleigh last Saturday to have a big dinner to celebrate. Normally making the trip down on Saturday, spending the night, and then driving back on Sunday wouldn't have been a big deal, but as you probably know, Sunday was Easter, and further complicating matters, it was also my birthday, and I didn't really want to spend it on the road fighting holiday traffic.

I was really torn about what to do—drive up on Friday and come back Saturday after dinner? Drive up and back in one day? Drive on Saturday and come back on Sunday? Nothing really appealed to me, and I ended up with the one that probably sounds the craziest—driving up on Saturday morning and driving back Saturday night after dinner.

We got there around 3:30 in the afternoon, which was just about perfect—we got to visit with my mom, my sister, and my brother-in-law, who all live in Florida, for about an hour, and then when they went back to their hotel to get changed for dinner, we hung out with my dad and stepmother, who had driven up from Wilmington (this was all taking place at my grandfather's house, so of course we were spending time with him and his wife all the while).

Dinner was huge—probably about three times as many people as were there for his 80th birthday, including all of my cousins. The food was good, and it was nice to see everyone, even if the way they had the room set up (one long table) made it hard to hold a converstation with anyone not sitting next to or across from you.

The drive back wasn't too terrible—we didn't get out of the restaurant until close to 10, and we were back home by 2:30. We had originally planned to go to the sunrise Easter service, but that plan went out the window when we got back that late, so instead we spent a lazy day at home, sleeping in and napping in the afternoon to recover from our 10 hours on the road the day before.

I was one of only two people in my 30 person NCAA pool who had Duke to win, so you'd think I'd be in pretty good shape going into the weekend. But I wasn't—the other guy who picked Duke had the exact same picks as me going into the elite 8 round, and he was ahead of me when that round started, so even if Duke ended up winning, I'd still be behind this guy in points.

Luckily, this isn't a winner-take-all pool, and as the runner up, I ended up with about $30 in winnings. Not enough to soothe the sting of UNC winning the championship last year and not even making the tournament this year while Duke takes the crown, but better than nothing.

Finally getting back into a bit of a Netflix rhythm. The series I'm watching now is Extras, the Ricky Gervais series about struggling actors. The hook is that there is a famous actor every show who is ostensibly the star of the movie the stars of this show are extras in that week. It's got kind of a Curb Your Enthusiasm vibe, with a little bit of the actors-playing-themselves feel of the guest stars on Entourage, but it's also very British and has a decided Gervais tone.

The first season is only six episodes, and there are only two seasons, so I'm guessing this will end like the British version of the Office where Gervais walks away well before the potential of the show has been tapped out. That's not necessarily a terrible thing, but several seasons into the American version of the Office, I think they've proven that the concept has legs, and that's obviously the case in a show like Extras where you expect to have a new guest star every week who can change the tone and approach of the show so it doesn't get stale.

I also finally saw District 9 via Netflix, and although it wasn't quite what I was expecting, it was quite good. There were some pretty big plot holes, but that's almost to be expected in sci fi movies, especially ones filled with social commentary (anti-coporate bent is pretty similar to Avatar, actually, and the hinted-at sequel could easily parallel Avatar's karmic retribution for humankind's poor treatment of other cultures).

I never latched onto the human protagonist as much as I was probably supposed to—he always vaguely irritated me and seemed a bit untrustworthy even though he of course did the right thing in the end—but that wasn't a big deal even though he's in virtually every scene. Not quite sure it was worthy of an Oscar nomination (and I'm quite sure it wouldn't have made the Best Picture cut if the category had remained at 5 nominations this year), but worth seeing for sure.

We're going to our first childbirth class tonight, which I'm sure will have some helpful information (like breathing techniques), but which I'm dreading the same way I've always dreaded any kind of instructional lifeskills workship. It's also three hours long and it starts at 6:30, so we have to go almost as soon as we've finished work and will either have a very early or very late dinner.

Luckily, we only go twice, tonight and next Friday, so no matter how painful it is, it's not a major committment. 10 to 1 we're the oldest couple in the room, though.

A couple of months ago, we moved the Wii from our main upstairs tv area to a smaller tv downstairs, primarily so we could have more room to use the exercise programs like Wii Fit and Wii Sports Active. That's where we already had the treadmill and free weights, and I figured, hey, when we're not doing exercises that require the Wii, we can use it as a DVD player.

So I popped a disc in the other day as I was about to start weights, and the Wii told me that it couldn't recognize the disc. That's funny, I thought, maybe I was wrong about the drive in the Wii being a DVD drive. But when I went to research it online, I found out that there is indeed a DVD drive in the Wii, and that's it's perfectly capable of playing movies and television shows on DVD, Nintendo just didn't include the software to let you use the drive that way.

This seems to be because they didn't want to pay the licensing fees for the decoders to read standard entertainment DVDs, which is about the dumbest thing I've ever heard. At the very least they could have made it optional by letting you download DVD playing software from their online store, the price of which would cover not only their software development costs, but also the DVD licensing fees. Instead, I'm stuck with a perfectly capable DVD player that has been gimped so that it can't play DVDs.

One thing that will help with the Nintendo-DVD situation is Netflix's new service that lets you stream Netflix instant content to your Wii. They do this by sending you a DVD that has software for the Wii that will connect to the streaming service, a DVD that you just get to keep (it doesn't count as one of your rentals in your queue).

Ours is supposed to arrive today, meaning that even though I won't be able to play DVDs I already own on the Wii downstairs, I will be able to stream some of the same television shows that I would have watched on DVD to the Wii when I'm doing exercises that don't require one of the Wii games.

I still think it's pretty stupid that there's no legal, Nintendo-approved way to activate DVD playback on Wii consoles, but this at least gives me a few more options for content from the device.

Here's why the Kindle is doomed: the week the iPad debuted, it was featured on the cover of Newsweek. On the back cover, a paid advertising slot, was a nondescript ad for the Kindle. Yes, the Kindle got cover story treatment from Newsweek when it debuted, but do you ever think it will make the cover again? How about the iPad? It might take awhile, but there's little doubt in my mind that Apple and its devices will be commanding media coverage and dominating new forms of content distribution, including the e-books that the single-purpose Kindle offers, for a long time to come.

I got the Sunshine DVD from Netflix several weeks ago, but I was never quite in the mood to watch it. I ordered it primarily because it was the second film from Danny Boyle that starred Cillian Murphy, and I loved their first collaboration, 28 Days Later.

It wasn't quite as strong as 28 Days Later, but I liked it quite a bit, primarily because it reminded me a lot of 2010, one of my favorite underrated sci fi movies. It's got a slow pace, although there are some nicely constructed moments of tension and violence, but I'm not really sure who I would recommend it to other than Cillian Murphy and/or 2010 fans. If you're one of those, though, you'll probably like Sunshine.

Julie's dad was admitted to the hospital last night with stomach pains and low blood pressure, and this morning around 10:00 he died. He has been in ill health for quite some time, but the end came on very suddenly. We're heading down to North Carolina today; not sure when we'll be back.

Hectic weekend. Julie and I drove down to her parents' house on Friday, and then I drove back to Maryland on Saturday, leaving her with her mother to work through the funeral arrangements.

I'm heading back down tonight, because the church memorial service is tomorrow morning, and then there's a second graveside service in a different town on Wednesday morning, after which I'll head back up to Maryland. Unfortunately, this is s very busy time at work for me, and I'm trying to keep on top of everything going on at the office which still being there for Julie and her family.

Julie likely won't come back home until Saturday, and I'll be able to work on Thursday and Friday, but I'm already exhausted from all the travel and I can't imagine what I'll be like after a couple more trips. I'm looking forward to getting past this week and hopefully getting back into some sort of normal routine again.

Tomorrow will hopefully be the end of a very long, strange week. I came back into town late Wedensday night, worked from home Thursday and today, and tomorrow I'll head back down to northern Virginia to meet Julie and her mom so I can get Julie back home.

The funeral services on Tuesday and Wednesday were both really nice. Tuesday was the church service, and a surprising number of folks made the trip to pay their respects, including Julie's father's siblings from Hickory and Chicago. His brother, Buddy, delivered some remarks that were really touching and reminded everyone of the man we all knew before his first stroke in 1997. He was still the same guy inside after that, even as his health continued to deteriorate, but he had a lot harder time vocalizing, and he was a life-of-the-party kind of guy who was pretty much always talking. It was a beautiful day, and after the church service everyone gathered in the great hall of the church to have lunch and share stories about Julie's dad.

Wednesday morning was the graveside service, held in a town a couple of hours south of where Julie's parents have lived since before she was born, and most of the people who were there on Tuesday also showed up for the short service to put the urn of his ashes into the ground, along with a ton of locals who hadn't been able to make the trip on Tuesday. It was drizzling when we got there, and it was full-on pouring rain by the time the service got underway, but as Julie said, it seemed kind of appropriate.

After that, everyone gathered for lunch at a nearby restaurant owned by a cousin. My stepmother and sister made the trip for the graveside service, so I sat with them and got caught up on the goings-on at home (my dad wasn't able to make it because of work). It was really good to see them—it was a very surreal week, and being able to see some of my own close family members helped normalize things a little bit.

On Saturday night, we were supposed to go to a charity auction that I had donated one of my photographs to, but we didn't get back to Maryland until close to 5 and after the week we'd both had, neither Julie or I were really up to driving back into the city. Sunday we each relaxed in our own way, me by catching up on some writing and playing video games and Julie by continuing to get the room that's going to be the nursery in shape and napping on the couch.

Tomorrow we both head back into offices that we haven't been to in over a week (I worked about four days worth of time last week, but it was all from home) and try to get adjusted to our normal lives again. Luckily, this is the time of year when things slow down for my office slightly (even for my team, although our slow time is still pretty busy compared to most of our colleagues), and Julie doesn't have any testing this week, so we should be able to ease ourselves back into work without too much stress.

Shortly after I watched Sunshine on Netflix, I recorded Solaris on my TiVo and watched that a few days later. It was another weird, creepy space movie that owed a great debt to the 2001/2010 movies, but it wasn't nearly as good as Sunshine, and the ending, if I understood it correctly, was kind of stupid. I think it was supposed to be some kind of uplifting message about the enduring power of love, but what it actually said to me was that life is pointless and we're better off living in a pretend reality than dealing with genuine, universal human conditions like grief and loss.

I also finished watching the first season of Caprica last week. I'm still not sure if it's going to be as good as BSG, but it definitely improved as the season went on, and I'm curious to see what they do with it next season. It's got great potential, but now that they've spent nine episdoes on the setup, it's time to kick it into gear with some faster-paced action.

Julie finally took the test for gestational diabetes, and unfortunately she failed. From what we've heard, however, failing the first test is fairly common (they make you drink a supersweet liquid and then take your blood sugar an hour later; if it's over 129, you fail, and she was 143), and there's still a good chance she'll pass the lengthier test that she'll take next week.

The second test involves following a certain diet for three days and then going back to the testing facility for a three hour session. If she fails that one, then she'll have to start monitoring her blood sugar and changing her diet. But she shouldn't have to change it too much—since last fall I've been sticking pretty well to a diet focused on glycemic index values, meaning we don't really eat the kinds of carbohydrates that are metabolized quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar. Still, I'm hoping she passes the second test—it's hard enough being seven months pregnant and trying to prepare for the arrival of the baby, and she doesn't really need another thing to worry about.

Blerg. Woke up feeling terrible today. I've been feeling off all week, trying to get back into a rhythm after last week's crazy schedule, and I had headaches and congestion from allergies, but this was something much more than that. Several people in my office were out earlier this week, so I guess I must have caught what they have; luckily, they were only out for a day, so I'm not expecting this to last too long.

There's still some work I have to do today, but I'm mostly caught up with my to-do list (at least the short-term stuff), so even though I would have liked to have been in the office, there are no projects with critical timelines that are being set back by me not being there.

Time to get back into baby prep mode after a couple of weekends off to deal with the passing of Julie's father and the recovery from all the travel that accompanied that event. The study and the downstairs area need to be rearranged, the nursery needs to be cleared out, and we need to finalize our paint colors and get the nursery painted. There's a lot to do, but we still have enough time to get it all done as long as the baby doesn't come early.

december 2010
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