may 2010

I watched a couple of TiVo'd movies over the weekend. First up was Jarhead, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx. It's a war movie set during the run up to the first Gulf War, and given the pedigree of the actors and director (Sam Mendes), it wasn't all that great. I mean, there were good performancees (especially from Jamie Foxx) and it was decently plotted and scripted, but it was so referential that Mendes may as well have cut and pasted from previous war movies, particularly the best known Vietnam era war movies like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and especially Full Metal Jacket. If you've seen those movies, I'm not sure there's much point in seeing Jarhead, because everything that Jarhead does well, those movies do better.

I also watched Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman from back when they were still married. Mostly what I took away from it is that Kubrick seems to think that all women are batshit insane and that slow pacing adds gravitas to Cruise's and Kidman's rather weak performances. It was by far the worst Kubrick movie I've seen, and I've seen most of his major works.

Back in February, our town council and mayor approved a new ordinance that authorized the use of speed cameras to automatically ticket people, and also created two new school zones (because according to the Maryland state law governing speed cameras, you can only put speed cameras in work zones or within half a mile of a school zone). They claimed, as the people who want to install speed and red light cameras do, that they wanted to install the cameras to improve safety, and totally not to generate new revenue.

Of course, in the midst of their many defenses of the decision, they repeatedly brought up the fact that speeding tickets issued by the police force don't generate any revenue for the town, whereas we get to keep 60% of the revenue generated by speed cameras (up to 10% of the overall town budget), so that showed their real hand and threw all of their pathetic safety justifications out the window; this was essentially going to be a new tax levied on the townsfolk, 60% of which would go back into the town coffers and 40% of which would go to the company that operates the speed cameras.

I'm not a fan of red light or speed cameras—I think they are illegal because when you are charged with a crime by one of these devices, it is impossible to confront your accuser in court, one of the rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution. They're also ridiculous because, unlike a real police officer, they do not ticket the driver who may have committed the infraction, but instead the registered owner of the vehicle; if you weren't driving the car at the time the infraction was committed, you can't simply go to court and say "I wasn't driving, therefore this ticket is invalid because it was issued to the wrong person"; instead, you are expected to pay the fine and you are responsible for collecting money from the person who actually committted the infraction. (Case in point: Julie, who is a legal driver of both of our vehicles just like I am, got caught in a speed camera down in Montgomery County while she happened to be driving a car that had me as the primary registered owner, so I was issued the ticket even though I wasn't even in the car at the time).

So of course I wasn't happy about them coming to our small town that doesn't appear to have a major speeding problem, especially becaue it was such an obvious revenue grab (the Maryland state law governing speed cameras also says that you can't create a new school zone just so you can have someplace to put speed cameras, but that's exactly what our town council did, designating two preschool daycare facilities that have been around for YEARS as schools and creating new schools zones to go with them), and I also wasn't the only one—a few weeks after the ordinance passed, people circulated a petition around the neighborhood so that we could vote on repealing the ordinance.

The petition got enough signatures to add it as a ballot issue, and we vote today on whether to keep the ordinance or repeal it. The town council and mayor have been blitzing the town newsletter and even sent out two separate mailings trying to justify the new ordinance, but I'm hoping that most town residents will see this for what it is and vote to get rid of it.

Two pieces of good news yesterday: Julie passed her second test for gestational diabetes (meaning she doesn't have it), and the voters in our town repealed the ordinance that would have allowed the town government to install speed cameras.

My boss was selected for jury duty a week and a half ago, and he's still in court. He couldn't tell us anything about the trial, but a few of us in the office have a good guess about which case it is. We think it's a murder trial that involves a lot of DNA evidence but which also has room for reasonable doubt, and if that's the case, it's not a surprise that a Baltimore City jury is deadlocked (they have been in deliberations for four days now) and I wouldn't be surprised if it ends in a mistrial because they can't agree on a verdict.

It's a terrible time of year for him to be absent—May 1 was our deposit deadline, and he's expected to give daily updates to the higher ups starting about a week before the deadline. They're especially interested in the numbers this year, because we overenrolled by such a large number last year that we really have to make sure to keep our numbers down this year. At the same time, we don't want to shoot too low and end up spending the summer pulling from the waitlist.

Things are looking pretty good right now, though—we might not even have to go to the waitlist, which would be a nice surprise, since we were anticipating bringing 30-50 kids off the waitlist. Hopefully my boss will be back soon, though—even though our numbers look pretty on-target, I'm sure he hasn't had the time to delve into them as deeply as he normally would. Plus, it's just weird having your boss be out for an indeterminate amount of time.

We have several house changes we're trying to get done by June before the baby gets here: prep, paint, and decorate the nursery; rearrange the study that Julie and I share to create more space; and redo the little-used downstairs den area to get rid of some pieces of furniture we don't use anymore and add more bookshelves for storage.

Julie has been working out cleaning out the room that's going to be the nursery (which has just been an extra storage room for us up til now), while I've been focusing more on plans for the study. After looking at a lot of different options, we went to Ikea last weekend to get a new desk and set of drawers to replace the enormous desk I got in grad school that takes up too much room and isn't really in great shape anymore. I had been planning to tackle that this weekend, but yesterday when I finished with work, I started moving the old furniture out of the room (in addition to Julie's desk, we also wanted to move two bookshelves that hold my CDs downstairs and replace an old ricketly wooden shelving unit with a much stronger chrome and steel model), and I just got on a roll. Aside from taking a break for dinner, I worked pretty much nonstop until after midnight, at which point I had to stop because 1) I was exhausted and 2) one of the table legs we got for Julie's new desk was missing the part that let me attach it to the desk.

So I'm taking today as an unexpected vacation day to finish up the room and run back to Ikea to get a replacement table leg. All of the old furniture is out of the room, the steel shelves are up, my toy display cases have been move to their new locations (the cases themselves were easy to move, but because I had to take all of the toys out of them to move them, it took a couple of hours to move them about three feet and get all of their contents restored to their pre-move state).

I'm pretty happy with how this has turned out—there's a lot more space and light in the room, and there's room to add more display cases at some point. We're having the bathroom upstairs redone next week (tub replaced, new tile on the walls, and new fixtures) and having a lot of old furniture that we don't use hauled away (a couch, two desks, and an old rusty filing cabinet that the previous owner of our house left in the basement when he moved out) so we have more space; once those two things are done, everything else on our list can be done by us, and we should be in good shape to have a revamped house a month before the baby's expected arrival.

A side benefit of our the work we're doing to reorganize the house is that all of my toys are now out of their boxes and on display. I just didn't have enough space to display everything, and there was no room in the study for more display cases or shelves. There were the series 4 labbits, Amanda Visell's new Tic Toc Apocalypse mini series, two new 10 inch labbits, the 5 inch Corpsman labbit, several 6 inch potamuses, the latest mongers series, the last couple of dunny series, and Kozik's Kidmutant variation on the Kidrobot figure, and I just had no idea where they were going to go.

And although the revamp of the study did give me more room for display cases, and our new chrome and steel shelf in the corner gives me a bit of immediately available display space, I managed to fit all of that stuff into space that I already had by tidying up my collection a bit and consolidating collections so that one display space holds dunnys from two or more different series.

I also had to archive some of my armies—a collector's term for when you get multiples of the same figure and display them all together. The Gloomy army is the one I missed the most—an 8 inch Gloomy dunny surrounded by more than a dozen 3 inch clones, and fronted by the rare grey 3 inch version. If I ever add more display space and have an extra shelf, I'd really like to bring that one back, but for right now, economy is the rule of the day, and I'm only displaying duplicates of a couple figures, and that's only when a particular piece has a place in two different groups (say, one group devoted to a particular artist and another group for a particular series of figures).

The bathroom overhaul starts today (hopefully to be finished by Friday), and tomorrow the junk haulers come to take away a lot of old furniture that we don't need. By the weekend we should have space to competely clean out the nursery, we've got the paint colors already picked out, and we will have the furniture ordered sometime this week. By next weekend almost everything nursery-related should be done, and then our last big task before June will be to reorganize the downstairs space where we have Julie's piano and the exercise space. Still a lot to do, but we're a lot farther along than we were just a week ago.

I finished watching both Extras and Rome. Ricky Gervais' Extras is more obviously autobiographical than The Office, but the actor he plays in Extras has his life and career unfold much differently than Gervais' real life did—for example, his character also sells a sitcom he has written about a boss and a workplace to the BBC and gets to star in it, but it's a very different animal than The Office, forcing his character to make choices between fame and money and respect within the acting community.

It's too short, only two "series" (British for "seasons") of six episodes each, just like the British version of The Office, plus a special extended wrap-up. I can respect Gervais for not riding a cash cow into the ground just for the sake of money, but half hour television seems to be his medium, and it's a shame he can't stick to one of his premises for longer than 12-15 episodes given how long it takes to develop a new show with a new set of characters.

Rome was decently entertaining, but I'm not sure what we were supposed to take away as a final message or theme, and I have a feeling it's even less reflective of actual historical events and characters than The Tudors. But it was very watchable. I just don't know if I'll ever feel compelled to watch it again.

The next show I'm watching on Netflix is the HBO miniseries John Adams. I'm through the first two episodes (or "parts" as they insist on referring to them), and I've got to say, given the critical raves about this show and the money that was obviously sunk into it (it features Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney in the roles of John and Abigail Adams, and it has incredibly high production values), it's not impressing me so far.

The pacing is tediously slow, and even though I like Paul Giamatti, I like him most when he's playing an asshole, and it's hard to take him seriously as a grave statesman. Take any random scene featuring him, especially the ones that also feature an overwrought Laura Linney, and it's easy to imagine it as one of the opening scenes on Extras, where they create a fake movie to introduce this episodes guest star. It's serious to the point of being hokey, and even though Paul Giamatti doesn't help the situation, it's hard to imagine any actor who could have brought life to this leaden script.

I imagine I'll finish watching it anyway—there are only seven episodes, and I've already received all three discs from Netflix. But I sure hope it gets better, because it's been a big disappointment through the first two episodes.

Because of all the work being done on the house this week, yesterday was only the second day that I was actually in the office, and of course it was taken up mostly with meetings—some planned, some unplanned. But the thing that I'm starting to realize is that this wasn't simply because I was only in the office for a couple of days and had to cram all my meetings into that time—this is increasingly how I'm being asked to spend my time at work.

I'm not wild about this turn of events—I've always enjoyed doing production work and actually making something—but that's the role that my office and my team needs me to play, and I'm still involved enough with the day-to-day activities of my team that I don't feel like I'm out of the loop. Sure, there are some meetings that are probably a not as good a use of my time as I'd like, but most of them are directly related to my projects, and most of them produce at least a few ideas or courses of action that keep momentum going on those projects.

Friday went pretty well. The contractors finished up with the bathroom changes, which included a new toilet, a new tub, and new tiling around the tub, and the junk haulers, who canceled on Wednesday due to an emergency water issue at a retired living community that they provide services for, came and took away five pieces of bulky furniture that were taking up a lot of space in the house.

The nursery is almost clear—only a few stray piles of books remain—and we have the paints that we're going to use, so we're on track for painting next weekend. We also bought the crib and the rocking chair over the weekend, and those are waiting to be assembled once the nursery is painted (we got a car seat and the breast pump as well, trying to take advantage of the 20% off coupons and sales that Babies R Us is having this month).

There is still some work to be done—we need to get a dresser for the nursery, and the downstairs area with the piano and our exercise equipment is in a shambles, serving as a staging area for boxes and furniture that we're rearranging elsewhere—but we've made good progress in the last month, completely redoing the study, the upstairs bathroom, and the room for the nursery. If the baby comes when he's supposed to in early July, the house should be completely ready for him, but even if he comes early, the upstairs part of the house where we do most of our living should be ready by the first week of June.

After an amazing first couple of seasons, Survivor went through a period where the casts were relatively uninteresting, and it seemed like the show might die a premature death. But then they got good at casting again, and they also started to realize that tropical island settings were one of the hallmarks of the show, and they haven't strayed from that formula in a while.

The shows for the past several seasons have been filled with drama and last-minute blindsides, and pretty much every episode has been entertaining despite the overuse of puzzles for reward and immunity challenges. The one glaring weakness of the show for the past couple of seasons—and it's a killer—is the finales, where the stongest players, the ones who really played the game hard and fought for their survival every week against odds that often appeared insurmountable, ended up losing in the final tribal council to a much weaker player who at best rode the coattails of the stronger player, and at worst simply didn't get voted off because there was always a better target.

Russell is the best example of this. As the player to beat in each of the past two seasons, he was openly manipulative, lied at every opportunity, and had several groups of people (including, often, people in his own supposed alliance) try to take him out. But he was on his guard, and each week he found a way to survive, either by turning some of his enemies temporarily to his side, winning immunity in a challenge, or finding a hidden immunity idol, often without the help of a clue from the producers. He scrapped and fought and kept himself in the game, and it wasn't unusual for him to take out his biggest threat/rival at the same time that he saved himself.

In each of his two seasons, he made it to the final tribal council, and largely chose who made it to the finals with him, and yet each season, he lost the vote in a landslide, winning only two votes his first season and zero his second. I don't particularly care for Russell—he seems like a narcissist and a sociopath who probably isn't that much different in real life than he was portrayed in the game—but within the context of the game, he played better than anyone else in the history of Survivor. He just couldn't close the deal even though his gameplay and strategy got him to the end each time, which is no mean feat.

He seems to be using Richard Hatch as his template. Hatch won the very first season of Survivor with tactics and hubris similar to Russell's, and even the people who voted for him to win thought he was despicable. But they still voted for him because they recognized just how hard he had fought, and just how much he was responsible for getting himself to the end of the game where he had the chance to win the $1 million prize.

But contemporary players don't sem to give any credit to players like that anymore. The two winners of Russell's seasons were only in the finals because of him, and Sandra, one of the most irritating and terrible players in the first 20 seasons (who inexplicably won her first season as well, likely due to the same kind of nonsense that got her a win this time), also beat out previous winner Parvarti, who also played a much stronger game than Sandra did. (Also: could Parvarti have more appropriate last name than "Shallow"?)

I don't know. I like the drama that the producers have been able to capture during the regular episodes of the past several seasons, but I find myself increasingly disappointed with how the seasons end up (although recent winners J.T. and Bob are exceptions to this), and finishing the season with a bad taste in your mouth from an undeserving winner makes the whole season feel almost pointless. I obviously don't have to like the winner to like the season, but I do want to feel like the winner put in some effort and weren't in the finals due to dumb luck or being such a terrible player that they ended up in the finals almost by accident.

We're only about three episodes behind on Lost now, and I'm finally starting to get some sense of how sideways world works. There's still a chance that they could wrap this show up in a very satisfying way, but I have a feeling we won't know for sure until the very end of the very last episode.

Aside from the one month stretch where we got a new mini series from Amanda Visell, two 10 inch labbits, and the release of series 4 of the mini labbits, it's been a pretty slow year for toys. And that's probably not a terrible thing.

I cannot think of anything more unecessary and pointless in the world of entertainment than a second Sex and the City movie. Except maybe a third Transformers movie.

I watched the end of the John Adams HBO miniseries, and man was it horrible. The series never had much vigor or wit—it's two states seemed to be angry and dull or somber and dull—and as Adams' life got increasingly dour (losing his bid for a second presidential term, family tragedies including the death of two children and his wife), the series focused solely on the somber, making the final episode all but unwatchable.

This thing apparently won all sorts of awards and accolades, including multiple Emmys and four Golden Globes (and not just for the costumes and art direction, either), but honestly, the whole thing seemed like a showpiece for people inside the business—it was filled with great sets and costumes and almost every scene was an opportunity for multiple actors to cry or yell or convey emotion through a subtle glance, but it was only at very rare moments entertaining, which should be the starting point in my book.

I can guarantee you that I will never, ever watch a minute of this program again in my life; in fact, I'll run screaming from the room if it somehow accidentally appears on my television screen. I've generally been pretty happy with the HBO series I've watched via Netflix, and I've always at least been entertained, but I should have listened to my instincts with this one and quit after the first episode.

I put a second coat of paint on the lower half of the nursery walls yesterday after doing the main painting on Sunday afternoon. Now all that's left is for Julie to get the detail work done, and then I can start putting the furniture in the room. We've got the crib and rocking chair so far, and we'll probably make a trip to Ikea sometime this week to get the dresser (which will double as the changing table).

There's still lots of work to be done downstairs to set up new bookshelves, etc., for storage, but once the nursery is ready, everything in the house that has to be done before the baby comes will be done. I'm off all week, and Julie is taking off starting tomorrow, so we can make sure we're ready to go by June 1, but we're also hoping to get in some genuine days off this week in between the baby planning activities.

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