august 2010

So it's been over a month, and I guess I'm finally ready to share my experience of buying an iPhone 4. I wrote earlier about being the first one to place a preorder at my local Radio Shack, but missing my chance to get a phone there when they suddenly decided that they'd settle the difference between the number of phones they got and the number of preorders they had by calling people once, and if they didn't answer immediately, calling the next person on the list. I was in a meeting when they called, and by the time I called back an hour or so later (they didn't leave a message, I was calling back because I didn't know who it was that had called me), all of the phones were spoken for.

Luckily (or so I thought), I had also managed to reserve an iPhone 4 for launch day at the Apple Store Columbia; I figured I'd show up on launch day mid-morning (when I hoped they'd be done with the overnighters but when the lunch crowd hadn't showed up yet), wait a couple of hours, and be done with it.

I did show up mid-morning (around 10:15 I think), and saw an enormous line. I was hoping this was for those without preorders, but no, this was the preorder line. I followed it until I thought I found the end, asked the folks standing there if they were in the preorder line, and joined the queue. There was then a pause in the conversation, and one of them asked:

"Are you just getting here now?"
"Yes." I answered. "Why?"
"I've been here since 7 a.m. This isn't the end of the line. This is just the end of this part of the line."

So I went to the Apple Store itself and asked one of the minions outside where the end of the preorder line was. He pointed down to the very end of a long line that started in front of the Apple Store, but that was just the final segment of the line; when that line got to the Apple Store, you didn't go in, but instead, when there was enough room in the line ahead, you were moved to the location where I had originally tried to stand in line.

I figured, okay, I'll wait here a couple of hours and see how far I get, and if it looks like I'm going to be here for several more hours, I'll just take off and hope I can get one later. The problem with that, of course, is that once you've invested those hours, you feel like you've just wasted them if you don't finish the journey, and since the preorder was only good for launch day, there was a guaranteed payoff if I stuck with it, and there was no way to guess when I'd be able to get an iPhone 4 again if I didn't get it on launch day (let me remind you of why I felt it was important to get one the first day: it was going to be the video camera that I used to capture footage of our son, who Julie was due to give birth to less than two weeks after the iPhone 4 went on sale).

There was also just enough movement in the line to keep you hopeful: first you moved up to the front of the segment of the line you started in (which took about two hours for me), then you made a big jump to the end of the main segment, where I had started that morning before being told that wasn't the real end of the line. Doing some calculations after that jump, I estimated that it would only be another 2-3 hours before I reached the front of the line, and so I decided to stick it out.

And that might have been true if the staffing levels had remained constant throughout the day, but for some reason, around 3:00 in the afternoon there was a shift change, and things ground to a halt, both because there were temporarily no sales being made while the change happened and also because the staff after the shift change was about half of what it had been up until that point. So around 3:00, I had been standing in line for close to 5 hours, but I was more than three quarters through the line, and if the pace had kept up like it had the up until that point, I would have been on my way home before rush hour.

But becase of the shift change and reduced staff, that last segment of the line (about the last 20%) took another three hours plus; there were times when we would only move forward 5-10 spaces every half hour. In the end, I spent around eight hours in line total. If I had known that was how long it was going to take, I never would have shown up and would have just rolled the dice with getting a phone later, hoping I would be able to get one before my son arrived.

But at least I got a phone; remember, I was in the preorder line, and the preorders were only good for launch day. When I left, there were still hundreds of people in line behind me, and only a couple of hours until the mall closed (even with full staffing, they were only able to process 80 or so customers per hour; it probably dropped down to 40-50 after the shift change). I don't know if the store handed out vouchers to come back another day, or if those folks were just out of luck, but for that location at least, it wasn't the phones that were the problem—they apparently had enought stock to cover all of their preorders—they just didn't have the staff to process all of the customers who showed up to collect their preorders.

Around hour three, when I was lamenting not showing up first thing, figuring that if I had gotten in line before the store opened at 7, I would have been able to get through the line quicker, I talked to someone who was just leaving the store: he had been in line at 6 a.m. and had just finished his transaction. So it seems like almost no matter what time you showed up, your wait was going to be six hours or more.

I read an article later about the iPhone 4 launch that interviewed a woman waiting in line at the San Francisco store who also arrived at 6 a.m. for the 7 a.m. opening. It was 9 a.m. when she got to the front of her line, and she was complaining long and hard about the lack of preparation on the part of the Apple Store that forced even their preorder customers to wait in line for three hours to pick up their phones. I can tell you, after my day (no food, no bathroom breaks, and only a half a bottle of water that I started to drink in the last hour and a half of my wait), I would have been grateful for only a three hour wait.

The only thing that made waiting in line at the Apple Store for an iPhone 4 on launch day somewhat more bearable (and please take that "somewhat more" in the context of an extremely negative experience that I'd never want to go through again) was the people I was waiting in line with. When I first joined the line, I quickly struck up a conversation with the two people immediately behind me, who were also both planning to spend a couple of hours in line and then leave if we hadn't made significant progress. One of them, Ryan, also worked in the IT field, but the other guy, Eric, had a far more interesting backstory.

He was tall and very well-built, and he kept making vague references to the world of athletics and how he was "the face of the brand" at the company where he worked. Ryan slowly teased more details out of him, and through the information he gave us and a little research on our iPhones while waiting in line, we eventually figured out he was Eric Ogbogu, a former professional football player who now worked for the Baltimore apparel company Under Armour. He played his college career at University of Maryland, followed by eight years in the NFL with the Jets, Bengals, and Cowboys; after leaving the NFL, he went to work for Under Armour full time (he apparently had a relationship with them as a player), where he went by "Big E". He stars in their television commercials, is the DMX-like voice for their tagline "We must protect this house!" (Eric did this a few times in line to get the crowd stirred up), and was also the model for their first mannequin.

He had a lot of great stories to tell about the NFL and Under Armour. He told us about the phone call when he got from coach Bill Parcells when the Jets took him in the draft, and stories about NFL players he had played with or worked with (about Baltimore Raven great Ray Lewis: "Don't call him Ray-Ray."). He gave behind-the-scenes info about the filming of the earliest Under Armour ads and how he came up with his voice for the tagline, and took us through the process of creating the brand's mannequin off his physique.

The thing that really struck me about him was how normal, balanced, and intelligent he was given his background. He lived (and still lives) a life very different from what most of us experience, but he was very down-to-earth, and although we eventually pieced together that he was a somewhat well-known athlete (especially regionally), he didn't bring it up without us prompting him, and he never seemed braggy about it.

His self-awareness was also impressive; when he told us about his first tricked-out luxury SUV that he bought during his first years in the NFL, he followed it by telling us that he had a lot of growing up to do in those days and that he'd never buy a car like that again. He also realized that he could have hung on in the NFL for another season or two longer than he did, but he didn't because, even though he still thought he had the physical skills to compete, he knew that no team would ever see him as a first string player again, and he'd seen far too many teammates hold on for one season too long and end up hurt or leaving the game under someone else's terms and not their own. So he purposely made a decision to leave the game and move forward with the next part of his life, and it was clear that, even though he could have made a pretty good amount of money hanging around the NFL for another couple of years, he had no regrets about the choices he'd made.

In addition to his stories being entertaining (he had a ton of charisma—it was easy to see why Under Armour went with him as a brand spokesman), it was also somewhat gratifying that someone who's very likely a millionaire and somewhat of a local celebrity had to wait in line just as long for his new iPhone 4 as I did. Again, not an experience that I would ever want to repeat, but it was pretty cool getting to meet someone like Eric.

As for the iPhone 4 itself: I've been using it for over a month now, it's a pretty good device. I can sort of recreate the widely reported antenna issues, but only if I really grip the lower left hand corner tightly, and even then, I have yet to have it drop the signal (even though I can get it to lose a couple of bars). But the position I have to hold it in to make this happen is now how I ever hold the phone when I'm actually using it, so it's more of an abstract concern for me. I'm not even sure I'm going to order a free case, because I'm about 99% sure if I had one I wouldn't use it.

It's noticeably faster than the 3GS in terms of opening applications, etc., and the longer battery life claims also seem to hold up. The LED flash is theoretically a nice addition, but when I've tested it out, it produces really weird pictures. Yes, there's no blur in low light, but the flash is so weak that I'd rather take four or five low light photos until I get a non-blurry one than take one with the LED flash. Ironically, I haven't used the HD video recorder at all, and that's the reason I originally bought the camera (although I've taken tons of still pictures of Will using the improved 5 mp camera sensor). But I expect I'll get plenty of use out of that feature at some point.

For the record, the apparently outdated spelling of "Calcutta" is much better than the current version—"Kolkata" just looks really goofy. "Bombay" is also better than "Mumbai", but at least "Mumbai" has a nice visual texture as a collection of letters.

When I left the Apple Store Columbia with my iPhone 4 on launch day, I thought it would be a long, long time before I ever needed to set foot in there again. Alas, this was not to be; less than a month later, my iMac, which is less than two years old, went completely bonkers after a week or so of occasional crashes when I started up a graphics intensive application like Photoshop or World of Warcraft.

When it first started having problems, the screen would stutter and most of the screen would go black. There was a small strip at the top of the screen where the desktop was still being drawn, and if I moved the mouse around, it would still show up and let me move it within that space, but I couldn't interact with any menus; the only way to recover was to do a hard shut down and restart using the power button on the back.

I found that I could stabilize things by increasing the fan speeds so that the graphics processor never got above 160 degrees Fahrenheit, but I knew that wasn't a long term solution. Still, I figured if that I could keep things under control for a few days, long enough for me to bring home a Mac from work and move everything to that so I'd have a machine to work on while I took mine in to be repaired. But one time when I started up a game, the screen froze, and when I did the hard restart, the Apple logo would appear, the gear would start spinning, and then the screen would go completely grey and nothing would happen. And when I tried to start up from the Snow Leopard install disc, the screen would go orange. So that wasn't good.

I used the Apple Store app on my iPhone to make a genius bar appointment for as early I could get the next morning, a Tuesday. I wasn't able to get an appointment until around 11:30 a.m., but I showed up at the duly appointed time, got to see a genius within about 10 minutes, and handed over my machine. He tried starting it up from a portable firewire drive and got the orange screen, and told me that he'd try replacing the RAM just to make sure that one of those chips hadn't gone bad. He said he'd call me back later that afternoon with a diagnosis, and that he'd absolutely call me before he went off shift at 7:00 p.m.

Keep in mind that not only was this machine only about 20 months old, but that it had also already had a hard drive failure about six months prior to this problem that necessitated a complete replacement of the hard drive. It was just out of warranty, and normally it would have cost me $400 for that repair, but even though I hadn't purchased the extended three year AppleCare warranty, they decided to replace my hard drive for free.

I knew I wouldn't be that lucky this time. Whatever was wrong with my machine this time was a much bigger issue, and I was guessing that the replacement part—likely either the graphics card or the motherboard itself—plus labor wouldn't be that much cheaper than a whole new machine, so I braced myself for the cost.

Back in January when I needed to have the hard drive in my iMac replaced (something which I irritatingly can't do myself in the last couple of generations of iMacs, at least not without a seriously risky procedure to remove the screen from the front), I had a pretty frustrating experience. The tech who took my machine in the morning told me he was optimistic that I could pick up my machine later that afternoon, so when I didn't get a call back by early that evening, I called to check in and I was told it would be ready the next morning. I called back the next afternoon, and told it would be ready the next day. And so on and so on, until I picked up my machine four days later. I could only complain so much, because they had performed a multi-hundred dollar repair for free even though the machine was out of warranty, but it was pretty irritating to be given a new timeline every day that was never met, and to never have anyone contact me to give me an update.

So I guess I should have been prepared for what happened with this repair. The Apple tech who said he would call me by the end of his shift to give me a status update on my machine didn't, of course, and when I called just before the store closed that night, I was told that someone would call me the next morning when they had finished running diagnostics on it. No call came the next morning, so I called the next afternoon (Wednesday), and I was told that someone would get back to me by Friday). That call never came, so just as the store was opening on Saturday morning, I called and asked to speak to a manager (they had had my machine for five days at that point, and they hadn't even figured out what was wrong with my machine yet). He had a tech call me, and the tech insisted that my machine was his number one priority that day, and that he'd hopefully be back to me by that afternoon with a diagnosis, but certainly by Sunday afternoon.

I never heard from him again, either, so on Sunday I drove into Baltimore to borrow a work computer so I could actually do some work while at home. And since I had this replacement machine and could do everything I needed to, I decided not to call the Apple store for a full week since that last time I had talked to them and see what happened.

Irritatingly and disappointingly, although I guess not surprisingly, I didn't hear from the Apple Store Columbia all week, so I was a little worked up when I called back the next Saturday morning (when they had had my machine for twelve days and, as far as I knew, still didn't know what was wrong with it). I again asked to speak to a manager, but was told that she was on a conference call at the moment and that she would call me back. Given this store's track record with that promise, I wasn't holding my breath, but I was willing to wait until early afternoon before I called again.

She actually did call me back with 20 minutes, and she immediatley apologized that no one had called me sooner, and she even took personal blame for that. She explained that they had finally figured out what was wrong with my computer; it was the graphics chip (which I had guess from my online research), and it would cost about $700 to replace. But they didn't have the replacement part in stock, and it would probably take at least another week before they received the part and would be able to replace it.

I had figured that this would be the outcome: a repair so expensive that it was probably worth it just to get a new machine, especially because, if this particular computer was a car, it would definitely be considered a lemon. But I was hoping that I could parlay the relative youth of the machine and the length of time it took them to get back to me into a substantial discount on that new machine, say something in the neighborhood of $500-$700.

But before I could launch into negotiations on a discount, the manager offered me something even better: instead of me paying $700 to have my 20 month old Core 2 Duo 24 inch iMac repaired with a new graphics card and having to wait another week or so, for the exact same price I could get one of the just-released Core i3 27 inch iMacs, a discount of over $1,000. Since I had been assuming that a new machine would be the outcome here, I had already decided that I wanted the new quad core Core i5 27 inch iMac, so she agreed to give me the same dollar discount on that machine, which she also happened to have in stock.

So I went that afternoon and picked up my new iMac, and then spent a few hours restoring all of my documents, settings, and programs from a Time Machine backup (Time Machine is one of the best features Apple has ever introduced; not only does it make it very easy to restore your entire system in the event of a catastrophic failure—such as when my hard drive went kablooey—but it also makes it very easy to migrate everything to a new machine).

I'm still very irritated that a computer that was less than two years old went through two major failures withing a six month period, but I think this outcome was pretty fair, especially since I didn't have to haggle with them about it—the Apple Store manager recognized that they hadn't done the right thing by taking so long to diagnose my machine, and she offered not only an apology but this deal before I even had time to get upset with her. I'm not happy about having to spend money on a new computer, but it was a substantial discount, and I'm trying to reframe the purchase of my last machine as a lease for $600 that lasted for 20 months.

I've never considered buying the three years AppleCare extended warranty for an Apple machine before, because aside from a hard drive replacement here or there, the main components of my Apple computers have never failed; I've always stopped using a particular machine because it was so old that I needed to replace. After my experience with the 24 inch iMac, however, I feel like I'm almost obligated to buy AppleCare from this point forward. It's not that expensive, especially if you do have to have any sort of repair (a single repair of almost any component easily comes to more than the entire AppleCare cost), but I'm pretty disappointed that I can no longer have faith in the quality and standards of a company whose products I've been a loyal user of for decades.

I really worry about both the hardware/construction quality and the way the Apple Store repair/diagnosis was handled. Apple is growing every year, not just in the mobile space with the iPhone and iPad, but in the desktop and laptop sectors as well. Even with their growth over the past few years, they're still only about 10% of the computing market, but they're growing out every quarter, especially among high school and college students, and it's not unreasonable to think that they could eventually end up with 20% or even 30% of the market someday. And if this is what the quality assurance and customer service are like with 10% of the market, what's going to happen when the volume is double or triple what they're dealing with now?

It occurs to me that my relationship with Apple of late is like that of an enabling, abused spouse of an aloof codependent. The hard drive in my just out of warranty machine breaks, you don't return my calls and you take three days longer to fix it than you said? All is forgiven when the repair is free. I end up spending eight or so hours in line waiting for a phone that I preordered? Yes, but I got my awesome new phone in the end. You keep my machine for two weeks and my best solution at the end of that is to buy another one? Yes, but a better machine at a substantial discount.

In all of these cases, the resolution ended up okay, but only because I'm a very patient customer. It was the right thing to do to replace my hard drive for free, because it shouldn't have been broken in the first place. The same goes for the $1000 discount on a new iMac—since Apple kept my broken one for so long, it wasn't right to make we wait for a repair on a machine that clearly had some bigger issues and might not make it another year even with an expensive repair. And as for the iPhone 4 debacle, if I ever feel the need to get an iPhone on or near the launch date again, I'm just going to order one online and have it shipped to my home.

I've definitely lost some faith in Apple as these issues have unfolded over the past year or so, but unfortunatley, I know it's going to take more than these few negative experiences to make me stop buying Apple products. Hopefully, the troubled iMac was just a lemon and not indicative of more widespread manufacturing issues, and maybe at some point they'll learn how to properly handled preorders in iPhones in a way that doesn't necessitate people waiting in line for hours and hours to get them. But I'm a lifelong user of the company's products, and my opinion of them is based on many positive experiences with their products. If they're going to continue to expand their empire, they're going to need more than just people like me to buy their stuff, and there's no way I'd still be a customer of theirs if my recent iMac and iPhone experiences were my first encounters with their products and their customer service.

Will is one month old today, which seems both too short and too long. It's hard to believe that a whole month has gone by, but it also seems like he's been part of our lives forever. Most days are okay—he tends to eat pretty well every three hours or so, and most times he'll go to sleep for two or more hours after eating. He does have some lucid periods throughout the day when we let him practice crawling on a play mat and show him things around the house. But it's mostly eating and sleeping at this point.

The evenings, however, are his trouble times. We call it the witching hour, and it usually happens after the feeding in the 6-8 p.m. time period. If he slept like he usually does after that feeding, we'd use that time to have dinner and do our nighttime chores before waking him between 11-12 for his next feeding. But for whatever reason, he has a really hard time transitioning to sleep after his dinner, especially (and nonsensically) if he hasn't napped as much as usual during the afternoon. So a lot of times we end up eating cold food long after it was ready (he has a nice trick of going to sleep and then waking up screaming just as I've finished preparing our meal) or trading him back and forth while we attempt to shovel our food down as quickly as possible.

Once he goes to sleep, however, he's typically pretty good overnight, although he has some bad spells during this time every now and then. All in all, though, he could be a lot worse. I'm not saying we're not exhausted, and that it doesn't get very frustrating for both of us sometimes, but he could definitely be more troublesome. I'm just really looking forward to the time when our interactions with him consist of more than changing his diaper, rocking him to sleep, giving him a bath, or feeding him. We get little glimpses of this a couple of times a day, but hopefully it won't be long before we really start to see who he is.

While I was excited about the return of Futurama to the airwaves as a true half hour show (as opposed to the most recent incarnation as straight-to-DVD movies that were broken up into four half hour chunks), I didn't know if the writers would be able to return the show to the glory days of the original series that aired on Fox from 1999-2003. And after the first couple of new episodes, this concern was justified; the first one dealt with wrapping up the loose threads from the final DVD movie, and the second one, while better, would have been a subpar Zapp Brannigan episode had it aired as part of the original production run.

But things really started to pick up after that; the iPhone episde was inspired (and just missed debuting the same week as the iPhone 4), and the writing and emotional content of the Bender origin episode was as good as anything in the original run. The cat episode and the DaVinci episode were both pretty good, too, and the remaining episodes have at least felt like the old episodes (unlike the DVD movie episodes, which had a very insider-y and artificial feel to them).

There are supposedly 26 episdoes on order, 13 of which will be aired as part of this initial new run and the rest next year. So far the ratings are excellent (the first new episodes were aired back to back and led to Comedy Central's highest rated night in 2010), and if other long-suffering fans like me are enjoying the new episodes as much as I am, I can't see why there wouldn't be more new seasons to follow after this one.

Will's checkup was good—he's showing growth, and they didn't find anything unusual in the tests they ran. We're still figuring out the best way to balance breastfeeding with getting him the calories he needs, but he's put on six ounces in the past six days, so the system we're using now is working. Barring a need on our part to see the doctor, we don't have to take him back again until he's two months old.

Back at my first technology job, I had a supervisor who taught me a lot about how to be a good supervisor. Not by being a great supervisor himself, though—he taught me all the things you shouldn't do if you want your employees to respect you and enjoy coming to work with you every day.

One of his favorite bits of asshattery was the annual review process. We were generally a pretty low key office, and I don't remember a single time during the course of a conversation during the rest of the year when he ever said anything critical about my performance or highlighted an area that I needed to work on. But come your review date, he'd take you out to lunch at a crowded restaurant and proceed to tell you that you were difficult to work with, that your work could be better, and that you didn't really deserve a big raise because your contributions were pretty average. Or those were the things he told me, anyway—he had a different spiel for everyone he supervised, but generally you went into the meeting ready to talk about future goals, etc., and walked out of it feeling like you'd just been hit by a train and wondering if you were going to get fired.

My current supervisor is a genuinely great guy to work for, and he's the kind who does the right thing and has a conversation with you the minute a problem develops so you can tackle it together instead of saving it up to wallop you with come review time (he's also not a big fan of annual reviews, which I take as another indication of his utter reasonableness and sanity). But that first supervisor affected me so deeply that this year, when my boss told me he'd like to take me out to lunch for my annual review, a little panic light went off in my brain and I was really dreading it for the two weeks leading up to it even though I knew that it actually would be a friendly chat focused on positive things and not the gotcha sneak attack that was favored by my first supervisor.

My review was yesterday, and it was fine, of course—if my boss hadn't told me it was my review, I would have thought it was just a chance to get out of the office and discuss office business in a more casual setting.

On Saturday I did something that I hadn't done in over ten years: I hung out with Dave, Ryan, and Jeff and played cards. We all used to work together (coincidentally at that first technology job that I referenced in last Friday's post), and we used to play cards and have pizza once a week. Even after I left to take another job, we still got together fairly often because my new job was just down the hall in the same building as my old job. Jeff left not too long after that, and Ryan and Dave and I found a fill-in for a year or two after that, but that stopped once I left my second job and took a job in Baltimore.

We all stayed in touch—I went to Jeff's wedding in Colorado a few years back, Ryan was in Denver on business often enough to see Jeff every few months, and I try to have lunch and catch a movie with Ryan and Dave (who still work together at that same company) every now and then—but this was the first time that all of us had been together in a long, long time (Jeff just recently moved back to Maryland and came to work on my team as a web developer).

We went to lunch at Frisco's, a favorite sandwich place that all of us were first introduced to back when we all worked together, went to see a movie, and then headed back to Dave's house for cards (his wife and kids were out of town for a few days, so we had the house to ourselves). It took us a while to remember how to play—we started with Hearts, which was fairly easy to pick up again, and then moved on to Spades, which is tougher both because of our house rules and because of the team aspect. But it was awesome once we remembered, even though Dave and I blew a lead we'd had since the first hand when we didn't make our final bid and Jeff and Ryan pulled off a blind nil and a five bid.

Now that we're all in the same area again, I hope we can at least make the lunch and a movie part a regular occurence, although all of us have kids and jobs with decently long commutes, and we live fairly spread apart (two outside of Frederick, one halfway between Frederick and Baltimore, and one in Baltimore City). It's was cool how easy it was to fall back into a comfortable rapport with everyone even though our lives have changed so much over the past decade; for that afternoon it felt like we were back in the house where we all originally worked together and it was just another one of our weekly card games. You always wish you could spend more time with friends like that, but most of all, you're happy that every time you see them, even if there are sometimes years between visits, you know 100% that they are still your friends.

The movie we saw on Saturday was Inception, and the only thing I wished was different about it was that I knew less about it going in. I've been trying to avoid reviews and spoilers because I knew I'd want to see this one in the theater if at all possible, but within the first five minutes I guessed what would happen in the last scene.

It was still an enjoyable movie—even Leonardo DiCaprio, who usually irritates me, had a pretty decent performance (although I couldn't help wondering if the movie wouldn't have been better still if Christian Bale, director Christopher Nolan's longtime muse, had played the part)—and there were enough twists and action sequences to keep me entertained despite my sneaking suspicion about how it was going to end.

I was this close to posting an entry about diapers today. The fact that I didn't is no promise that I won't someday, but for now, I'll try to keep the baby posts limited to the interesting stuff.

Earlier this year, I stumbled on a show on TLC called BBQ Pitmasters. I didn't think it would sustain my interest long-term, as each week you saw the same competitors cooking the same dishes with the same recipes at one of the many contests on the professional barbecue circuit. But I watched it again the following week, and then set the TiVo to start recording it.

I found something very zen-like in the repetition; the venue would change, and occasionally contestants would change things slightly depending on the geographic location of the competition, but generally it was each time pursuing its perfect recipe week after week, and it seemed to be much more about how close they came to cooking a perfect piece of meat according to their process than in trying to impress judges who might be seasoned veterans or rank amateurs, and whose direct comments they never got to hear anyway.

So I was looking forward to new episodes when the series started up again last week, but to my horror, it's a completely different show now. Instead of a reality show that follows pro barbecuers as they criss cross the nation participating in contests with dozens of other teams, going head to head with other circuit regulars and local chefs in different cities, it has now been transformed into a fairly boring cooking competition that isn't at all true to the rules of barbecue that define the barbecue competitions that were the center of the show last year.

Some of the faces are the same—one of the most colorful cooks from last year is a judge, and it looks like all of the regulars and semi-regulars from last year will compete at one point or another, along with a lot of new teams—but the show isn't the same at all. There's a stupid pre-challenge that eliminates one of the four teams before the judges even taste their barbecue (in week one, it was a side dish of cole slaw), and that dish also apparently counts in the overall score. All of the contestants were irritated by this—each one said some variation of "I didn't come here to make cole slaw" in their personal interviews—and predictably, it was the cole slaw that not only eliminated one team early, but made the difference in the final score that determined the winner.

You get the feeling this was an attempt by a TLC producer to jazz up the format and still expose people to the personalities that do this for a living. I'll admit that the original version of the show was a slow burn that definitely took some time to get into, I can't imagine that this new format is going to keep the big stars on the pro circuit coming back (although the $100,000 prize might take care of that part), and as a fan of last year's show, I'm not sure how much longer I'll be watching. And with the glut of cooking competition shows on network and cable, I don't see how this one is really going to stand out.

I'm taking a vacation day today to spend time at home with Will and Julie, and I'm actually going to try to treat it like vacation. All too often when I've taken one of these days over the past six weeks I've ended up spend half of it doing email and making phone calls related to work, and I'm only going to be able to take days like this for another week or two.

Of course, not doing any work today means that I'll likely end up doing several hours of work over the weekend, so I'm not sure what I gain, but I'm still going to give it a shot.

Julie's mom is coming to visit this week, the second re-visit by a grandparent since Will was born (my mom came for a couple of days a couple of weeks ago). The timing works out well, because Julie has a couple of appointments out of the house this week that Will doesn't need to tag along for, and I'm back on a more regular work schedule so I'm not there as much during the day.

He's been fussier the past week or two, but we're hoping that he's on the downward slope towards a more peaceful baby now. There's a picture in one of our baby books (a book that argues that the first three months of life are really the fourth trimester where it's all about transitioning from the womb environment to the real world) showing a fussy baby that is Will to a T: on his back with legs kicking and arms flailing, screaming at the top of his lungs.

The text describes the picture as a "fussy 'fetus-like' newborn", so we've taken to calling him the fussy fetus when he's like that. Other fussy nicknames: the angry goose (when he's really giving his full-throated cries); the mournful goose (when he's doing his quiter, sadder wahs); and the fussy king. We also make various references to riding the fussy bus when he's in one of his states.

All in all, despite his more frequent fussiness, he could be much, much worse. But we're both looking forward to when he more closely resembles the picture of the calm, smiling three month old than he does the fussy fetus.

Due to some reshuffling of the hierarchy on campus, my boss's boss, another dean, and his staff of two (assistant and researcher) are making the move to our building this week so that someone higher up can move into his old office in the main administration building.

This will mostly be a good thing—he knows most of the people on our staff, especially those of us in leadership positions, and I in particular am working on a major long-term project with him and having him close should make that process move forward faster. I'm also good friends with his assistant, and it will be nice to have her in the same building again (my office used to be based in the same building that they just moved from).

My dean and the dean that is his boss get along really well, but I imagine it's got to be a little strange having your direct report just down the hall after you've gotten used to being at the top of the totem pole in a building that was designed specifically for you and your staff. I get along with my dean really well, too, but I'm not sure how I would feel if he came in and took my office and I was assigned to a cubicle right outside his door.

One of the main reasons I went into work yesterday was because I was representing both my office and another admissions office at a big meeting to discuss common statuses for a data warehouse project that is set to go live next January. It's been planned for weeks, and it has already rescheduled once (the original meeting was set for July).

So what does the extremely flakey enterprise group that's heading up the project do less than 24 hours before this meeting (which involved the directors of all the admissions office across the institution, some of whom have to travel more than an hour to get to campus)? Cancel for no apparent reason and reschedule for September.

My other big meeting yesterday involved the same IT group, and it, too, was canceled at the last minute, even though there was already an agenda and a purchasing contract that the committee needed to approve. Given that any one of three people in their leadership should have been able to lead both of those meetings, it's a little weird for them to cancel. Weird, but unfortunately, not surprising. The one thing I've gotten from working with that group for the last eight years is that inconsistency is their only consistent trait.

I wish I could still get excited about new Simpsons episodes. It used to be my favorite show once upon a time, but now that we're entering the third decade of the series, I think there have been more years when it's been meh than it has been amazing. Although in general, it's still better than almost any other half hour comedy show on primetime other than NBC's Thursday night lineup.

I finally worked my way through the first three seasons of Mad Men using my Netflix subscription, and I'm still not sure how I feel about the show. I like how season 3 ended, with Don's back to the wall and him being forced to admit that he actually cares about something, so I'm curious to see how season 4 plays out (I've been TiVo'ing that, so I should be able to catch up with the current episodes by the time the finale airs).

But it irritates me that it took us three years to get to that point; there are so many subplots for Don (and really, most of the recurring characters) that prove the same points about their personalities over and over. And I still don't have a clear sense of who Don and Betty are, either as a couple or as individuals, and Betty's nonsensical decision-making severely undercuts the show's strong female characters like Peggy and Joan.

I don't really like anyone on the show, and that's kind of a problem; even on the Sopranos (which Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner worked on prior to Mad Men), I could identify with aspects of the characters even as I found many of their actions morally repugnant. I still get the sense that these characters are cardboad cutouts, and that we don't really get much more depth from them than we did from characters on tv sitcoms from the era in which the show is set.

But I've come this far, and I'm hoping that the world being turned on its head in both his professional and personal lives will spur Don to some sort of action that will give me a real sense of who he is, so I'm willing to continue with season 4 and give the show another chance.

Our hot water heater will be two years old later this week, and we've had no hot water since Saturday. It had a weird problem a couple of weeks ago, where the water wasn't as hot as it should have been, but none of the self-diagnostic tests found any problems, so I pressed the reset button and it seemed to be fine until the middle of last week. So I hit the reset button again, and again, things were fine for a few days.

But on Saturday, when the water was only lukewarm and it went completely cold after minimal usage, the reset trick didn't work, so I called the manufacturer. Apparently when there is no hot water but there are no diagnostic lights, then it's the controller board itself that is broken. The hot water heater has a 9 year warranty, so the part itself was covered, but the shipping wasn't, and that cost $20.

It's supposed to arrive tomorrow, but then we have to figure out how to get it installed, which I would be fine attempting myself if I didn't have to deal with the electrical hookups. There's an online video from the company that shows the procedure (it worries me a little that they've got such extensive documentation on this, because it means this is not an uncommon occurrence), so I'm probably going to attempt it myself, but I'd be much more comfortable if all I had to do was turn off the power from the circuit breaker and replace the board; design-wise, it seems silly that the power connection has to take place on the board itself.

August has never felt like one of those months that's supposed to have 31 days. But there are plenty of other things that need to fixed about this month before we get to that.



december 2010
november 2010
october 2010
september 2010
august 2010
july 2010
june 2010
may 2010
april 2010
march 2010
february 2010
january 2010

daily links
cd collection