may 2014

I think I might need reading glasses. But what I probably really need is to schedule an appointment with an optometrist...

Still haven't watched a single episode of the new season of Mad Men. This has happened before—I'll save up half a season or more, binge watch them, and then watch the final few episodes withing 24 hours of when they originally air—but I was really eager for this season a couple of months ago, so I'm kind of surprised that the impulse to watch hasn't struck me yet.

I've been enjoying the new season of Veep, mostly enjoying the new season of Game of Thrones, and really enjoying Mike Judge's new comedy, Silicon Valley. That last show could turn out to be pretty brilliant, but it all depends on how the first season ends—it's still toeing the line on being too angsty and not having sympathetic characters for whom things don't always go horribly wrong. But each episode gives me more hope that we're going to end up in a good place—not necessarily a well-resolved place, because if there's going to be a second season, there has to be some sort of cliffhanger element, but a place that we'll want to return to even though the characters still have problems to solve and challenges to overcome.

One week from today is Commencement, the most relevant part of which for me is that the students will all be decamping for the summer, giving us three and a half glorious months of empty parking garages and short waits for lunch at the restaurants frequented by students and staff. I know that students are the whole reason for the existence of a unversity, especially the undergraduate admissions part of a university, but the campus is at its most pleasant when they are on break.

Leaving on a business trip for the rest of the week, so no more posts until next week. I usually load up my Kindlw when traveling, but I'm only about 30% of the way through Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, so even with an egregious amount of sitting in my hotel room and reading, I don't think I need to worry about running out of content.

Back from my conference, and the travel part was not fun at all, thanks to Atlanta's hometown airline, Delta. It started with my flight on Wednesday afternoon, which was scheduled to leave around 3 and get in around 5 to DC. We were just about to start boarding when we saw the flight crew emerge from the jetway with gloomy looks on their faces.

First they said that there were lightbulbs in the lavatories that needed to be replaced and that this would delay the flight a half hour or so. A few minutes later, they told us that the bulbs still weren't working after being replaced, so they had to find a whole new plane for us to board. Since Atlanta is Delta's main hub, they were fortunately able to locate one quickly, and we boarded and got off the ground about an hour after our original departure time. As plane delays go, this one wasn't that big a deal.

So you'd think that the odds were against me hitting some other kind of issue with my plane on the flight home, right? No such luck. I had a noon flight from DC to Atlanta on Saturday, and at first everything seemed to be going smoothly—we boarded on time, left the gate on time, and were headed out to the runway when we just...stopped. The captain came on a minute later to tell us that one of the engines wouldn't start, so we had to return to the gate so the mechanics could attempt to diagnose and repair the problem, and that we would not be allowed to deplane even though the fix would take at least 45 minutes.

After about half an hour of sitting in the plane at the gate, the captain announced that the fix was now going to take at least two hours, so they were legally obligated to let us off the plane, and that if we were smart, we would call Delta and immediately rebook for a different flight because there was no guarantee that this jet would get fixed in time to fly back to Atlanta today.

And here is where I encountered the one bright spot in this whole mess: instead of calling customer service, I opened the Delta app on my iPhone, and it immediately recognized that my current flight had been delayed and offered me a selection of alternate flights that I could book myself on for free. I chose the earliest one, departing at 3:00, and seemed to be confirmed on that flight before I got off the plane.

It wouldn't, however, give me a seat assignment, which concerned me some, so I waited in line behind all of my fellow passengers to talk to a gate agent. After a fairly lengthy wait (at least half an hour, 10 minutes of which was listening to the jackhole in front of me telling the entire terminal that he was a lawyer and that he was going to file a class action suit against the airline on behalf of all the passengers on my original flight), I got the agent to confirm that I had a seat on the flight, but that the only seats left were premium seats and she couldn't assign those until an hour before departure time. She promised to try to get me a window seat, and she did just that—I ended up in an emergency exit row with plenty of legroom next to the window.

So you'd think that would be the end of the story, but no, I had one last surprise from Delta before I could get home. We boarded the 3:00 flight on time, and were just about to pull away from the gate when the flight attendants started frantically walking up and down the aisle with worried looks on their faces. Turns out we had another lavatory issue: a panel had come loose that was considered a security risk because someone could have hidden something behind it, so they had to do a security review and then get maintenance to secure the panel before we could take off.

This took about an hour and fifteen minutes, so at around 4:15, more than four hours after my original flight was supposed to leave, and more than two hours after I should have been back home, we finally left DC. I got back to Atlanta a little after six and was home by seven, ended a very long day of travel. And I was one of the lucky ones: my fellow passengers who had tried to rebook using the phone or a gate agent were generally on later flights, and some of them were eventually bussed off to BWI for a flight leaving at 6:00 p.m. that evening because all of the flights out of National were booked solid.

So: two scheduled flights that took four airplanes, three separate flight numbers, two switched planes, two 45 minute plus waits on the tarmac, and cancelation and rebooking. Not once during any of this did Delta offer any kind of compensation—no bonus skymiles, no discounts on a future flight or free bag check, not even food vouchers for those of us who had to shift our noon flight to much later flight times.

It was a dissapointing experience overall, but the lack of good customer service made it that much more frustrating, especially because that's something that the airline has complete control over. It's hard to book a flight out of Atlanta and not use Delta, and that is the preferred airline of my institution as well, but I'm going to do my best to avoid them in the future if I can.

Even though the conference was a bit exhausting (although reasonably productive), there were some bright spots to my DC visit. The first night there I went out with a couple of coworkers who I don't know that well and had a great time with them, and then when out again with a slightly different group on Thursday and also had a good time.

Friday night I got a chance to see two old friends: Scott, a coworker of mine from Hopkins for seven out of my ten years there, and Tom, a friend from way back when i used to live in Charlottesville in the mid 90s. I saw Scott for a meal last year when i came to this same conference, but I don't think I'd seen Tom since we moved down to Atlanta from Baltimore almost two years ago.

Scott got there first, so he and I had a Guiness at an Irish bar that I'd spent some time in with my coworkers earlier in the week while we waited for Tom to arrive, and then the three of us went out for dinner at a local Lebanese restaurant (we got kabobs, which was probably one of the least adventurous choices on the menu, but they were really good). We all three stayed and talked at our table until around 10:30 when Scott left to catch a train back to Baltimore, and Tom and I went back to my hotel to figure out what we wanted to do next.

Tom had suggested walking down to the Mall and seeing the monuments at night, something he's apparently done solo in the past, and while I was a bit hesitant, I decided a little adventure would be fun, and if I started feeling freaked out, we could always head back early. We took the metro down to a stop reasonably close to the Mall and made our way past the Washington Monument, then to the WWII memorial, then to MLK, then to Lincoln, and finally to the Vietnam memorial. It took us a couple of hours to walk that route, and we strangely found ourselves following a gay couple who had rented bikes—they tended to linger longer at the monuments than we did, so we continually found ourselves walking up to a new memorial as they were still exploring it.

There was nothing scary about it at all even though we didn't get to the Mall proper until after 11:30 or so. All the paths were incredibly well-lit, and it was shocking how many people were out and about at that time of night (the Lincoln memorial was practically crowded). It was a great experience—I'm glad Tom suggested it and I'm glad I had the good sense to listen to him.

So yesterday afternoon I was sitting in a colleague's office having an informal meeting when her computer screen was suddenly taking over by an admin tool that started to run itself. Usually the central IT group pushses those out in the middle of the night, so I figured that someone had just scheduled this update for the wrong time of day and thought little else of it.

That is, until I got back to my desk and found my computer with a black screen giving me the message: "No valid operating system found." Uh-oh. I tried restarting—same message. I tried starting in safe mode—same message. I wrote to our IT service tech to see if he had any informaton for me. No response.

It turns out that someone kicked off a process at central IT that ordered thousands of computers on campus to reformat themselves. Aside from the hassle of having to reinstall everything, I'm not too worried about data loss—I keep all my work files on my personal network drive—but even if there is no data loss on anyone's machines (which seems highly unlikely), I still can't imagine that someone's not going to be in serious trouble over this.

Will had his picture day at school today, and on the car ride home after picking him up, he started jabbering about going out to a restaurant for dinner because it was picture day. I thought Julie had bribed him to behave by promising dinner out, but when she got home, she said she'd done no such thing. But since I had told hiim that we could go out since he had been good for his pictures, thinking I was backing mommy up, that's what we ended up doing.

I suggested Pallookaville, but Will wanted to go to a family-oriented sports bar place in Decatur that did a big remodeling and reopening last year, and which also has a little room with video games that Will loves to visit when we eat there. I reminded him that Pallookaville had corn dogs, which he likes, hoping that would sway him. He thought about it for a moment, then said, "Welll...the game restaurant has corn dogs too!"

And he was right—they do. Little bite sized corn dogs on the kids menu that are perfect for 3 year olds. So we ended up going to the game place. Clever little guy.

I worked at home on Wednesday and Thursday because I still did not have a functioning computer at work, but they tell me that I'll have an operating system on my machine if I show up today. That's pretty much it though—Windows 7 and Office will be the only things installed, so I'll have to configure Word and Excel with my preferences, redownload all my mail into Outlook and set my preferences in that client, and then download and install all the other apps I use on a regular basis.

If this turns out to be true—and until I see it, I won't believe it—and if I can get everything reinstalled and restored by the end of the day today, then this little incident will have cost me three and a half days of time in the office (although I was able to continue to do work from home, so the real impact was less for me).

Some senior level executives have lost quite a bit more than that—despite the recommendation that everyone keep their files on their personal share drives, I know of at least two executives who kept everything on their C: drives, meaning that they've lost years worth of work and files. An IT person can try to blame them all they want for not backing up their files or storing them on a network server, but that won't end up mattering—at least one person is likely to lose their job over this incident, especially given the impact to some of the decisonmakers here.

We don't have company over that often, but I have a work friend that I see for lunch every couple of weeks who has often expressed interest in meeting my family, so we finally picked a day and decided to have her and her partner over for dinner. When we've had people over before, I've stuck to pretty basic dishes: grilling out or marinated and broiled chicken, and since we don't currently have a grill, I was planning on chicken again for this meal. But I asked, as I always do, if she and her partner had any food allergies or preferences, and she told me that they were both vegetarian, something that had somehow escaped my notice despite eating dozens of meals with her.

I had already planned to cook brussels sprouts with a sweet and spicy thai sauce as a side dish, so that one could stay, but I needed to find a new main course and another side dish quickly. After poking around recipe sites for a while, I decided on an apple salad with bleu cheese and pecans and a mushroom quiche with gruyere and scallions, neither of which I had ever made before.

The apple salad was pretty easy and very good—diced granny smith apples with baby spinach, shaved endive, crumbled bleu cheese, toasted coarse chopped pecans, and a pomegranate vinegarette. We've been eating salads a lot more recently, and I think this one will make its way into the regular rotation from now on.

The quiche was reasonably easy to make too, especially because I used a store-bought frozen pie shell (I'm an okay cook, but I am not a baker, and I was not about to attempt a homemade pie crust in addition to everything else). A layer of gruyere on the bottom of the shell, the sauteed mushrooms and scallions on top of that, another layer of gruyere to top it off, and then a mixture of three eggs, half a cup of heavy cream, and half a cup of milk poured over the mushrooms and cheese. I put it in the oven for 35 minutes or so at 350, and it came out just about perfect.

The pie crusts came in packs of two, and I had enough leftover ingredients to try another one a couple of days, so I played around with the mixture some. Different recipes had recommended different amounts of cheese and eggs, and I think what I've learned from the two I've made so far is that less cheese is better than more (too much cheese and the quiche turns into a greasy mess), and four eggs is better than three eggs (three eggs just wasn't quite eggy enough for me). Now that I know the basics, I think quiches will show up on our menu plans with some regularity now—the prep is not hard, and they're reasonably foolproof.

Aside from the food turning out pretty well, the rest of the evening was fun, too. This is a childless couple, and I never know how people without kids feel about having a meal with a very active and talkative three year old, so I offered to have dinner later after Will had gone to bed, but they wanted to eat with him, which he loved—he kept asking if he could go out and listen to music in their car and asked if they were coming back the next day. My friend and I already know a lot about each other's personal lives after nearly two years, but it was nice to see her in a more explicitly social context, and have a chance for our families to meet.

Alright Firefox, I'm giving up on you again. AdBlock Plus doesn't seem to work correctly anymore (disabling JavaScript functionality that I don't want disabled and not blocking things that I actually want blocked), and for some reason the memory footprint has gotten crazy big (as in at least 1 gig after minimal use, and sometimes stretching up to 2 gigs or more).

So I moved all my tabs over to Chrome, took a few minutes to set some other preferences, and afer a couple of days, I'm pretty sure this is the browser I'll stick with for a while—AdBlock Plus is working as expected, and the memory footprint is a lot more reasonable. I can't remember what made me move from Chrome last time I made a browser switch—I think there were issues with some web sites not working properly—but I haven't experienced any hiccups so far.

Iron Man 3 has recently started airing on one of the movie channels, so I decided to give it another watch (I've only seen it once, and that was in the theater a couple of weeks after its release). I remember thinking that it ranked way above Iron Man 2 but not quite as high as the original Iron Man or The Avengers (which used the Iron Man character so centrally that it may as well be another entry in the franchise).

Seeing it again, however, I think it moves into a close tie with the original movie for the best Iron Man movie so far. I think I was a little turned off by the sheer number of suits we were supposed to keep track of, and the staggering number of times one showed up just when it was needed, but when you strip away the bombastic nature of many of the action sequences (particularly the climactic finale), this movie has easily got the best human interactions between Tony Stark, his paramour Pepper Potts, and his best friend James Rhodes (not to mention his AI butler Jarvis, voiced brilliantly by Paul Bettany).

Despite the over-the-top sequences that relied way too heavily on autonomous suits swooping in to save the day and the addition of a random moppet to a series of scenes in the middle of the movie, and a red herring villian that seems a lot less clever than it did originally, there are moments of genuine pathos in this film—the script, the acting, and the directing give you more insight into Stark and make you understand the demons that he's hiding under his smug, charming glibness. I might even go so far as to say that this is Robert Downey Jr.'s finest performance—and not just in an Iron Man role.

Just found out that one of my sisters is moving to Georgia, to a small town about 35 miles east of Atlanta. She is convinced that this means she will be about 45 minutes away from us, but she doesn't really understand Atlanta traffic—even on a good day, that's an hour minimum. Still, it will be nice for Will to have some family close by—my sister really loves him a lot, but we live so far apart right now that she only gets to see him a couple of times a year.

I went to see the new Gozilla movie with a friend last night, and while it wasn't bad, it wasn't fantastic. The easy comparison is to the Mattew Broderick version released in the late 90s, and it's tempting to say that this version is better than that one, I'm not really sure that this is true—they both ape the popular style for big budget action flicks of their time (the 90s version took lots of cues from Independence Day, while the 2014 edition borrows its tone and action sequence style from movies like Pacific Rim and Zach Snyder's Superman), and as examples of a type, neither one is especially good or bad compared to other movies of that type.

The movie theater annoying had only two showings: one at 7:30, which was too early for us to make given that we had to get dinner first and we couldn't leave until after Julie got home so she could watch Will, and one at 10:30, which meant that we wouldn't get home until after 1:00 a.m. We killed as much time at dinner as we could, hanging out in a pub for a couple of hours while consuming only our entrees and a single beer, but we still got to the theater half an hour before the movie's listed start time, which means that we ended up sitting for nearly an hour watching ads and previews before we got to the movie (I was exctied to see that a trailer for Christopher Nolan's new film Interstellar was one of the previews, but not impressed with the trailer at all).

We were the only people in the theater about 15 minutes before the start time, and I started to have some hope that we would have the theater to ourselves, but a lot of folks showed up as the previews were being shown, and the theater was probably about half full by the time the actual movie started. That is a special dream of mine: to watch a movie in a full sized theater with no one else in the audience, and I've tried to make that happen by going to late showings on weeknights for movies that have been out for a few weeks.

The closest I've come so far: Prometheus, which I saw at least a month after it opened on a Wednesday night after 10, and Grand Budapest Hotel, which I saw under similar circumstances a few weeks ago. There were probably only a dozen or so people in the audience for Prometheus, and there were only five other people for Grand Budapest Hotel. But seeing a popular summer popcorn movie in its second week of release was not a realistic way to have this come to fruition, and even though the place stayed empty long enough for me to start getting my hopes up, I knew that it wasn't going to happen.

On Saturday we decided to take Will to do something he'd never done before: go strawberry picking. It was getting towards the end of the season, but Julie found a place about 45 minutes outside of Atlanta that said they still had some, so we headed out in the afternoon. He loves fruit, and strawberries have been his preferred snack for the past few weeks, so he was very excited.

There weren't too many other people there, but the strawberries were very picked through—most of the ones that were left were rotten, and the ones that were still decent tended to be pretty small or be white at the tip. We were probably out in the fields for 45 minutes or longer, and we still barely managed to get one small bucket full after going up and down at least five or six rows.

After the strawberry picking, we walked around the rest of the farm, and Will got to see lots of animals: chickens, donkeys, goats, sheep, and bunnies. He also got some strawberry ice cream and strawberry shortcake (the strawberries for which must have been brought in from somewhere else, because there was no way they got strawberries that big and ripe from their own fields if what we saw was any indication).

Will was reluctant to leave, but he was also running out of gas, so we got him to the car before he completely collapsed. They told us that it will be blackberry and blueberry season soon, so we'll likely be back—blueberries are a close second for his favorite fruit, and he was very excited about the prospect of getting to pick them.

On Sunday we walked down to the annual Decatur Arts Festival, which we also went to last year. It was a nice little walk—about 25 minutes, the same amount of time it takes me to walk to work (in the other direction) on the days when I'm able to do that.

Will rode in his stroller on the way there, but he wanted to be up and walking around once we got there, so we used the stroller to carry Julie's bag. There were a lot fewer photographers there this year compared to last (I'm always on the lookout for these, to compare setups and pricing in case I ever decide to sell my work at these kinds of festivals again). And overall I didn't see as much that I was really interested in buying, but it was still fun to walk around and look at everything.

For lunch we got Will a grilled cheese, and then Julie and I both got brussels sprouts from the Happy Belly food truck. I supplemented these with a beet salad, and Julie added a mushroom burger to order, but the brussels sprouts are the real stars. I've become fond of roasted sprouts over the past couple of years, and so I generally give them a try whenever I see them on a restaurant menu, but aside from the teriyaki sprouts that I got at Golden West in Baltimore (which is what led to my recent interest in a vegetable that used to be among my most hated foods), I've never had ones as good as they serve on this food truck. They season them with honey and a spicy thai chili sauce, and they're so, so good—I think from now on I'm going to dispense with any pretense about wanting anything else and just get two orders for myself.

Julie and Will both got popsicles after lunch, and we walked around a little more before heading home. As we were walking out, I stopped one more time at a booth that had a Japanese-inspired print that really caught my eye earlier, and after talking with the artist for a few minutes, I decided to buy it. Since it was the waning hours of the final day of the festival, he knocked off $30 to seal the deal, which I think was a bargain—it's a huge print, and it came framed as well. We've been meaning to get some art for the house—we currently don't have any for the kitchen/living room/dining room area—and this piece will be a good piece to start building around.

On Tuesday Will got to do something that he seems very well-suited for: he got to be on tv! (Well, he hasn't been on tv yet, but they did come to film him for a story that should air sometime in the next week.)

See, Emory has this thing where they ask various experts that work for them to be available for comments/interviews with the local media, and a couple of months ago Julie's boss asked her if she would mind being on the list. A couple of weeks after she got added, they asked her to do an interview to refute the claims of a psychologist from Chicago who wrote an article for Time that claimed that ADHD wasn't real, so one of the local news stations came to her office, filmed an interview, and aired different segments of that interview over the course of their broadcast the following night.

This time it was a different news station, but they wanted someone to comment on how excessive screen time, especially with tablets and phones, can affect young children, and Julie was called on again to comment on camera. They did the interview at her office, but then they also asked her if she knew anyone with a young child who also had a tablet who would want to appear on camera for some filler shots, just to have a child playing with a tablet, and in the process of going through some possible names, they realized she had just such a child.

They wanted to use someone else for the filler shots if possible, so they said they'd contact her if they couldn't another family for the footage, but a few days later Julie got an email asking if they could come by after work one evening and get some footage. Will was super excited—when Julie's first interview aired, we DVR'd it and he watched it over and over, so fascinated that someone he knew was actually on the television. We were a little worried that he wouldn't sit still or stop jabbering long enough for them to get the shots they needed, but we forgot about the power of the iPad—once we got that in his lap, the house could have been on fire and he wouldn't have noticed (this all-consuming focus is one of the reasons we don't let Will use the iPad very often, and when we do it's for limited bursts with our supervision).

They also got some shots of us pretending to talk in the kitchen, which I'm hoping they won't use. They didn't tell us exactly when the story would air, but it should be sometime in the next week, so we're recording both hours of their 5:00 and 6:00 shows until we see it.

For the first time in almost exactly two years, I'm completely on my own for a few days: aside from making sure the cats have food and water, I don't have any responsibilities to anyone until next Tuesday.

Yesterday Julie took Will to North Carolina to see her mom. It was his first trip on a plane, and I was a little worried about how he'd do (in addition to needing to sit still for an hour and a half, I also had concerns about the pressure changes on the plane—I had terrible problems in my sinuses while flying when I was young, and I was absolutely miserable from about half an hour before landing until a few hours later), but he was a champ, and it was just another big adventure for him.

I used to have the house to myself fairly often when we lived in Maryland, even before Will was born—Julie's mom was only about a four hour drive from us then, and Julie would go down to visit her for a few days two or three times a year. But it's a much longer drive from Atlanta, and we haven't felt like Will was ready to fly yet, so she has flown down to see us instead. But with Will's school being out this week, we figure it was a good time to give it a try.

Unlike my recent airport experiences, they left and arrived on time, but the car seat didn't make it, so they had to get a loaner from the airline while they waited for it to arrive on another flight (which it did later that night). Will had a little trouble getting to sleep in a strange room in a grown-up bed, so I had to chat with him on FaceTime close to 11 last night, but otherwise he's been having a ball.

As for me, it's nice not to have to worry about fixing meals for other people or picking up Will from daycare for a few days, but I imagine I'll mostly end up doing what I do anyway. Maybe I'll sleep a little later on the weekend, maybe I won't eat my meals at normal times, but I suspect mostly what I'll be doing is sleeping, reading, and trying not to let my schedule get too off track before I return to work on Monday.

december 2014
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