December 9, 2008

Bandolier Of Carrots

There's a Woot-Off going on over at Woot right now, so I figured this is a good time to brag about my haul from the last Woot-Off.

If you're not familiar with Woot or the idea of a Woot-Off, see "What is Woot".

Usually about once every Woot-Off and at infrequent other occasions, Woot will list an item for sale called simply "Random Crap". This is an item, priced at $1.00, which entitles you to at least one item of random crap thrown in a box and sent to you. Like any Woot item, you can choose to buy up to three. Buying three and adding their fixed $5 shipping charge, you'll end up buying a mystery box with at least three items for a grand total of $8.00. This is usually how Woot gets rid of broken items, scratch and dent stuff, stuff they have too few of to actually sell in normal Woot fashion, or stuff they thought was funny but couldn't justify selling through normal means.

Woot is very up front about the idea that this stuff is most emphatically crap and really not worth the $6-8 you'll spend to get it. However, that doesn't deter the masses of Wooters from jumping on this thing whenever it's available. The appearance of Random Crap, or "Bag of Crap" as it's more affectionately known, usually foreshadows the complete meltdown of the Woot servers under the crushing load of everyone trying to get in on the crap action. Sellout is usually acheived in less than 5 minutes, and trying to get an order to go through in that time is pretty difficult considering that every single browser request times out or comes back with a server error.

I've been watching Woot-Offs closely trying to get the bag of crap for like two years now. Usually it comes on right when I step out to go to the bathroom or something. But, I've been sitting right at my screen when it comes up several times only to be stymied by the server meltdown.

Last month's Woot-Off, I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and had the bag of crap pop up right in front of me. I began clicking furiously, and was getting nowhere for about 5 minutes. I was sure that it was sold out and done, when finally, my order went through, and I got the confirmation page. Success!

To save money on shipping crap, Woot sends the bag of crap out via the absolute slowest shipping method imaginable, which probably involves loading things on an actual slow boat somewhere. It seems from checking the Woot forums that 2-3 weeks seems to be the average it takes to actually get your crap. So, even though the Woot-Off was about a month ago, I just got my crap last week.

Getting the crap is of course the highlight of the experience, because that's when you find out if you've scored anything great, or if you should be embarrassed that you wasted the eight bucks. I had the crap delivered to work, and when the delivery person brought it, I was really surprised at the size of the box. It seemed rather big for just 3 little items of crap. I was cautiously optimistic.



Opening the box showed me a lot more than three items, and the more I dug into it, the more excited I got. Here is all the crap laid out:



I got (going sort of clockwise from the far left):
  • A 4 pack of iGo cigarette lighter power adapters. These are universal power adapters, the idea being that you have one adapter and just buy interchangeable tips for all the electronics you have. Well, I have 4 of the actual adapters now, and no tips, so that's kind of useless. The tips cost as much or more than cheap cigarette lighter adapters do, so I don't anticipate using these much.
  • A RCA remote control. It doesn't appear to be universal, but has controls for VCR/DVD/TV/SAT, so it probably came with some RCA product and controls other RCA products. Well, I have an RCA TV in the bedroom, so I guess this will be a good backup remote if the three other remotes I have for that TV get lost or break.
  • Some cheap Chinese earbuds. I thought these would be great for running. They weren't.
  • An expansion pack of cards for some trading card game of which I've never heard.
  • A JVC camcorder bag. I actually needed something like this a couple of months ago, but just went and bought a bag instead. I'm sure I'll find good use for this to hold something though, as it appears to be pretty durable, and has good size pockets and stuff.
  • A ThermoHawk infrared thermometer. This is actually pretty cool. Basically, it lets you measure the surface temperature of something without touching it. It's fun to watch the pan heat up, or see how much colder the window is when compared to the wall. It has a built in flashlight as well. I don't have any serious use for this, therefore could never justify paying actual money for it, but it's nice to have.
  • A Motorola Bluetooth headset. My car has a built-in Bluetooth handsfree speakerphone, so I don't have a lot of need for this, but it might come in handy around the house. Or, I might just start wearing it around at work so I can look like a tool.
  • A Kodak digital camera. The camera comes with computer cable, carrying case, power adapter, and EasyShare dock adapter, but doesn't come with a battery or a crack-free LCD screen. I assume it would still take pictures even without displaying them, but I haven't a battery, and haven't broken out the power adapter to try it.
  • Mr. T & The Mystery of the Mind Thieves, a book and record set still in the shrink wrap complete with old school Wal-Mart price tag ($2.77, if you're curious). This is quite possibly the choicest item of the bunch.
  • The last item is definitely the highest value item. It's a white 30GB Microsoft Zune. The box is pretty banged up, but it has all the accessories, and the player itself is spotless. I don't quite have a need for this, since I've got music on my phone and would rather just carry one device. However, this could be a great gift or make a good profit for me on eBay.


Disclaimer: Not all bags of crap are created equal. This is not at all representative of the average haul. Your crap may vary. Don't go out wasting two years of your life expecting to get something as good as what I've got.

November 26, 2008

Let 1000 Personalized Oil Paintings Bloom

This is why I love the internet. Ever since I was a little child, I dreamed of having myself appear in a Maoist propaganda poster. I had always assumed that the only way I could get that to happen would be to move to China, become a foot soldier in the revolution, then work my way up the ranks until the Great Leader saw fit to immortalize me by having me painted into one of his many propaganda posters.

Now that we have the internet, I've discovered an easier way. Apparently there are people on the internet who will take an emailed photograph of you and send it to an actual Chinese propagandist, who will then paint a complete oil painting in the Maoist style with you as the subject. Three weeks later, your painting finishes its long march back to your home, where you can hang it to permanently commemorate your fight for the glorious solidarity of the motherland.

The examples they show are quite remarkable, and very high quality. Definitely much better than my own attempt:



We haven't finalized our home decorating and artwork budget yet, because we're still assembling our "keep the house from falling over" budget. However, once we move on to the "spend money on artwork" phase of our existence, I'll definitely be plunking down the $200-$300 it would take to get one of these.

October 20, 2008

"Is that Dave Coulier?"

Cheeth alerted me to this literal version of Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels", done by the same person that did the "Take on Me" one. Funny stuff.

October 15, 2008

"There's No (Long Pants) In Baseball!"

I was a huge baseball fan growing up. But, a combination of missteps and blunders culminating in divisional realignment and the strike caused me to turn my back on Major League Baseball in 1994.

I will occasionally catch a glimpse of a game on TV or something, but I would be hard pressed to tell you who current players are, or what teams are ahead in the (now meaningless) pennant race. Flipping through the channels today, though, I saw something that completely freaked me out.

Apparently, baseball players wear long pants now. Not just long, but hanging down past the ankles dragging in the dirt kind of long. When did this happen?

I'm going to set aside all of my rants about disrespecting tradition, because they've been falling on deaf ears all these years anyway. Instead, I'll just step right to this: Does no one realize how stupid this looks?

Oh, and in related news, apparently they have baseball teams in Florida now. Who knew?

October 9, 2008

An Open Letter to CrashPlan

This worked so well last time, I thought I'd try it again.

(cc'ed to support@crashplan.com)

Dear CrashPlan,

So, I launch the front end to CrashPlan tonight and find that suddenly everything looks a little different. Turns out from checking the log, my CrashPlan client updated itself last night. Wow! What new features/gotchas did that bring?

Hmm... There's nothing about any new release on the CrashPlan blog. The release notes on your site are still from the June release. The "User Guide" PDF on your site (the hard to find one that's only linked to from the download page and not the support page) is still from the December 2007 release.

So, now, I have a piece of software running on my computers (I bought three Pro licenses) that operates differently than it did before with different settings and options, yet I don't get any documentation about the changes? Do you plan on updating either the release notes or the "User Guide" soon? Given how out of date the "User Guide" is, I'm guessing the answer is "no".

It's not a bad thing to autoupdate software, but it's a horrible idea to do so when:

A) none of your very sparse documentation ever mentions the possibility of an autoupdate.
2) there is no setting in the application to prevent an autoupdate from happening.
d) you make available absolutely no information about the new version, or changes, or anything like that.

Bad form, CrashPlan.

October 7, 2008

Pipe Wrench Fight

a-ha is my absolute all-time favorite Norwegian pop band, so I was excited to come across this video the other day. Of course, anybody who has seen television has seen the video for "Take On Me". This little gem takes the video, and replaces the song with a... more literal version.

October 2, 2008

Googling ex-girlfriends

Derek sent me a link to an Onion article that ends with a reference to "Googling ex-girlfriends" which made me think that it's been quite a while since I've ever tried Googling my ex-girlfriends.

The one and only time that I did actually try Googling ex-girlfriends, I was stymied by the fact that either I didn't know enough about their current situations (married name, location, etc.) to get a fix on them, or they had a common enough name that there was no way to find the specific person I was looking for in the Google morass.

I was struck by the wide variety in all the results that came up when looking for a specific name, however. While I rarely found the person I was looking for, I found plenty of people that were arguably more interesting than the girl I had dated, though I guess they'd have to be something notable to be ranked so high on the Google search. This discrepancy between reality and the results caused me to reflect on just why I was even looking for these people in the first place.

Why do people Google their ex-girlfriends (or ex-boyfriends/spouses, etc.)? If I ask you, you'll say you're just curious to see what they're up to, or you want to make sure they're having a good life or something like that. But, that's all baloney. There's only one reason people Google their exes, and that's to make sure that their ex is somehow more worse off or miserable than they are. People want validation for their own miserable experience, as well as ensuring that their ex is somehow worse off for not being with them anymore.

I've already moved through the whole Kubler-Ross stages of grief about my own miserable lot in life, and in general I'm not the sort of person who likes other people to suffer. So, I guess that's why I haven't spent a whole lot of time Googling my own ex-girlfriends. However, this all got me to thinking about what it would be like if I was comparing my own life to that of the more exotic people who would come up in my Google searches.

I devised a little experiment whereby I would first compile the names of every girl I ever kissed, then whittle it down to the subset comprising every girl who ever kissed me willingly, thus eliminating truth-or-dare hookups and that one really awkward scene where the police were called. I would then enter each name into the search box at Google.com and click the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button to go straight to the highest ranked result. (By the way, the first commenter who attempts to sully my little sociological experiment by making some off-color comment using an alternate meaning of "Lucky" will get smacked, or, complimented if it's particularly clever.)

I'm putting the following constraints on my research: Each name will be enclosed in quotation marks. Each name will be typed in using the form in which I would expect to find it written. If the person goes by a nickname or diminutive most of the time, then that will be used. However, if the diminutive is normally only used in a casual setting, I'll use the regular given name. If I know the married name, that will be used. Otherwise, I'll use their maiden name.

The Results:

Ex-Girlfriend #1 is a professor in the Philosophy department at Spring Hill College. A rather pretentious one from the looks of her website... Since I wouldn't want to be this person or even know this person from the looks of the site, I'm going to go ahead and call this one for me and say that I'm better off than the person that Google's turned up in this search.

Ex-Girlfriend #2 is a veterinarian in Madison, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the name I searched for is gender-neutral enough that I could be looking at a guy. It's unclear from the LinkedIn profile I landed on. I'm going to give this round to the veterinarian, unless, of course, he/she is a post-op transexual veterinarian.

Ex-Girlfriend #3 brings up a Classmates.com profile, and although it's not really filled in, it appears to be a direct hit. The town and the timeframe match up with the actual person I was searching for. There's no other information there, so it doesn't tell me what she's doing now or anything, though. So, I'm disqualifying this round and moving on.

Ex-Girlfriend #4 is an orthodontist outside of Austin, TX. Orthodontist beats desk jockey, so orthodontist wins.

Ex-Girlfriend #5 is a middle-aged lady holding up a glass of champagne in her Facebook profile. I don't have a Facebook account, so I don't know if it would show me any more than this if I did. Either way, she's ugly, and apparently a drunk. I win this one.

Ex-Girlfriend #6 is a LinkedIn profile for a product designer and computer software consultant in Zürich, Switzerland. It seemed a little too good to be a girl that I actually dated, but then I noticed the LinkedIn profile mentioned BYU, so I might have scored another direct hit with this one. Zürich beats Tucson.

Ex-Girlfriend #7 is the former human resources director of a San Francisco company and "the 2nd former director of that company to be sentenced in the nation's first criminal trials for stock options backdating". Whoops. Let's just call this one for me and move on...

Ex-Girlfriend #8 is a profile at an athletics-geared social networking site of which I was previously unaware. I can see right away from the picture on the profile that this is the actual person I was seeking, and I can see from the data on the profile that said person is a way better athlete than I am. I'll call this round for her.

Ex-Girlfriend #9 is another LinkedIn profile of someone working in the Georgia State Department of Human Resources. I'm calling this one for me because that just sounds so boring.

Ex-Girlfriend #10's name is such a distinctive spelling that Google only has a single entry matching that query. It's a Classmates profile of the actual person I'm looking for that doesn't have much info at all. It does list a married name, though, and if I rerun the query with that name, I get another high school alumni page with even less info. Boo.

Ex-Girlfriend #11 is a swimwear designer. That's way cooler than me, but the swimwear's hideous, so I'm calling this one a wash.

Ex-Girlfriend #12 is a legal marketing consultant in Ohio. Her picture on her site is better looking than me, so I'm going to give this one to her.

Ex-Girlfriend #13 works in community journalism, whatever that is. Her website says she lived in Japan for 6 years, so that right there makes her cooler than me.

Ex-Girlfriend #14 arrives at a page of someone who has chosen an online pseudonym using the first name of her favorite writer and the last name of her second favorite writer. This just happens to coincide with the real actual name of the person I'm searching for. The person I found is an English high school pretentious aspiring writer girl. Since she's British, I shall use words like "wanker" and "prat" to describe her. Either way, I win.

Ex-Girlfriend #15 links to a page about an opera singer in the Juneau Opera. I was sure that this wasn't the person I was looking for until I saw a picture on the page and saw that it was exactly the person I was looking for. My memories of the time period in which I spent dating this person are really hazy in my mind, but I don't honestly remember her as a singer at all, much less at the level you'd have to be to perform with any sort of opera company. I feel bad for not knowing or remembering that, like I've really underestimated her or something, so I've got to give her the win here.

Ex-Girlfriend #16 is a representative on a church council in Newfoundland. She loses, because, well, it's Newfoundland.

Conclusions:

I was surprised that I found any of the actual people at all. I assumed every single search query would be miles off the mark. So, that's something. One other surprising thing was that at one point I reran one of the queries to check something and noticed a different page came up first. Google's page ranking is so dynamic I saw it change in just a few minutes. For fairness sake, I went with the first one I found.

Other than that, it was much as I expected, and I feel that I effectively proved the hypothesis that random people found on Google are cooler than me.

September 29, 2008

Fall TV Review: Worst Week

Worst Week is an American adaption of a British series about a guy going to visit his girlfriend's family preparatory to asking for her hand in marriage. Along the way, there's a series of contrived mishaps that put him in increasingly embarrassing situations.

There's one episode of The Brady Bunch (Season 5, Episode 18, "Two Petes in a Pod") that I use as my farce benchmark. This is the episode where Peter meets an identical looking kid at school, then puts him to work when he accidentally has two dates on the same night. The doppelgänger later backs out, and Peter has to keep both dates on opposite sides of the house, while running back and forth keeping them entertained. One date expects to be going to a costume party, so Peter's dressed up like Dracula, with a cap, and fake hair and teeth. Everything starts to fall apart when Peter forgets to take off part of his costume when going to the other side of the house.

If I'm watching any sort of show where there's any case of mistaken identity, or someone has to keep someone else occupied while pretending to be something else, or there's some giant misunderstanding, I immediately think of Dracula and try to determine if what I'm watching is better or worse than "Two Petes in a Pod".

So, back to the review. In the opening credits, there was an "Adapted for American television" credit. Becki saw this, and said "It must have been French. Or worse, Belgian". I thought about this for a second, and actually, this show would have been way better if it had been French. I don't mean of French ancestry, but actually French, like with French actors, speaking French, with English subtitles. If I went to the movies and saw something this silly and contrived (example: guy pees in a pot containing a marinating goose, thinking he's in the bathroom), but in French, I'd probably be rolling in the aisles. I would expect that out of the French. Instead, I'm just groaning.

There are other things wrong with this show besides the fact that the premise of ridiculously forced predicaments can't possibly last more than a few episodes. Example: the male lead looks like a potato. There were a couple of good things about the pilot, though. Aziz Ansari was in it, which made it a little more bearable for the 30 seconds he was on screen. In a scene in a funeral home, Herb Alpert's "A Taste of Honey" was on in the background, which is funny because it's so out of place.

We recorded the second episode to see if we could figure out how they could possibly extend the premise past the pilot, and see if by chance it got any better or what. It didn't.

So, anyway, this is worse than the one where Peter left his Dracula cape on.

September 3, 2008

Beautiful Naked [Large-Chested] Women Just Don't Fall Out Of The Sky, You Know...

A couple of weeks back, I made a post about backup software that posed questions and concerns that I needed addressed. I was amazed to see that within hours, there were several relevant comments, including one very in-depth comment from the maker of the software in question. These comments were completely out of nowhere, from people who don't read my blog, but just jump in whenever and wherever some Google alert tells them they're needed.

The first thing I thought of when all these comments started pouring in was a scene in Dogma, where Jay and Silent Bob are following the lead, Bethany, and yelling at her about not choosing to stay with them. "Guys like us just don't fall out of the [expletive deleted] sky, you know", says Jay. At this point, a naked black man falls from the sky. When the man lands with a thud on the road in front of them, Jay is quite taken aback. But, he pauses only a couple of beats before looking up at the sky and yelling, "Beautiful naked [large-chested] women just don't fall out of the sky, you know!"

The second thing I thought of was that one time, when Scott made the post about chicken fingers, and then the guy from Raising Cane's got in touch with him and gave him a gift card. That was awesome.

Well, it turns out that I'm going to Vegas in a couple of weeks. They have Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers there, so I'm finally going to get to try the goodness that is Raising Cane's for myself. I thought it must have been cool for Scott to get a gift card, and wished I had a gift card for myself, so that I could either eat in greater quantities, or perhaps obtain more food for others in my party to try for themselves. Then, I thought, "If it worked for Scott, maybe it can work for me, too". So, I decided I would post here to see If I can perhaps show up on the Raising Cane's radar with equally positive results.

This is part experiment and part shameless begging on my part, but I figure if there's someone out there actually looking for blog postings about Raising Cane's, they might see my post and see fit to bestow a little bit of free chicken fingers on me. So I'm purposefully trying to shake that dude out of wherever on the internet he/she lives with this Google-bait so I can state my case for free chicken fingers. So, how about it, Mr. Raising Cane blogger searching guy? I've heard such good things about your establishment. I'm already committed to trying it for myself, but would love the opportunity to also treat my wife and mother-in-law to your fine chicken fingers. I promise that if you give me anything at all, I will come back from my trip and post glowing reviews of your establishment and your food items here on my blog where all 4 of my readers will see them. Hey, I may not have many readers, but every single one of my readers has considerable influence in their household.

If this possibly works with Raising Cane's it wouldn't hurt to try with the other places I plan to eat in Vegas as well. Cafe Rio, your salmon tacos and tortilla soup are wonderful, and my wife loves your barbacoa pork salad with salsa instead of dressing and no cilantro. We don't get to eat at Cafe Rio where we live, but would like to in Vegas. Can you help?

Togoshi Ramen, we will definitely be visiting you if you are not closed for health code violations. If you are not too busy trying to stay open in the face of whatever vermin infestation you are battling, can you spare some ramen or even just some gyoza to throw our way?

I'd also really want to go to one of the good buffets, like Paris or Bellagio. I'd especially like to try the Wynn Buffet, because I haven't been to that one yet. Casinos, do you have some way that someone like me can enjoy a free buffet? You do? So, let me get this straight: You will provide me free things as long as I stay there and gamble a lot at your games of chance? Hmmm... Intriguing... Just out of curiosity, do you perhaps have some way that doesn't involve me losing a lot of money?

September 2, 2008

Fall TV Review: 90210

The local CW affiliate has their transmitter located south west of our house, and 'A' Mountain is directly between our house and the transmitter. So, I can't get an HD feed over the air from them. DirecTV doesn't include the CW in the HD locals they provide, so I can never see anything on the CW in anything better than blurry over-compressed satellite delivered standard definition. So, anything on the CW automatically has a strike against it.

Because of some screwup with the DVR where it was trying to get the over-the-air channel that it should have known it can't get, I lost the first 45 minutes of the 2 hour premiere. I'm not sure that having those 45 minutes back would have made this any better though.

The first scene I saw had what looked like a spoiled teen shrugging off someone's attempts to protect her and taking responsibility for her own actions. I thought I was watching some pilot from Bizarro world, but luckily it didn't last.

Shortly thereafter, some people went to some rich people's birthday party where Tilly and the Wall were playing. This part was awesome. The only bit of the original Beverly Hills, 90210 that I ever watched was one time when I recorded it because The Cardigans were on. It's fitting because Tilly is likely all I will remember about this version. I was only able to enjoy Tilly for a little bit, because it was at this time that the local affiliate declared a tribute to the silent movies of yesteryear and stopped broadcasting sound.

The sound was cutting in and out for about 15 minutes, and the picture was lost a few times as well. During this time I saw Lori Loughlin, who strangely doesn't look a second older than she did on Full House. I also saw Jessica Walters apparently reprising her role as Lucille Bluth. I also saw Shannen Doherty who looks about a ton uglier than she did before somehow.

By the time the sound came back for good, they were into some sort of plot that I couldn't keep straight because I honestly can't really tell all these young good-looking people apart. Like when one girl is introduced to a guy, but looks awkward, is it because this is the guy she was just on a date with, or this is the guy that she ditched to go on the date? I don't know. The kids these days all look the same to me. Especially when I'm yelling at them to get off my lawn.

So, I didn't really follow any of this well enough to determine if it was any good, but, come on. It wasn't likely that this one was getting added to my list anyway

September 1, 2008

Annual Fall TV Review 2008

It's that time again, time for my annual assessment of the new fall TV season, where I sift through the crap so you don't have to.

It's starting early this year, because the CW was hell-bent on getting 90210 to start on September 2nd, as in "9/02". Thanks a lot, CW. I just barely finished the Olympics, and I was counting on taking a few weeks to catch up on other stuff. But no, you needed the gimmick of the date (because every little bit is going to help this turd, right?). So, why couldn't you get the show to start at 10 PM?

August 25, 2008

In Which I Run A Marathon For The Very First Time


Those of you who haven't seen my other, far more boring blog are possibly unaware that I have been training to run a marathon. On Saturday, I actually ran said marathon. I bring it up here in a brazen attempt to solicit more recognition for this rather impressive feat.

Please feel free to read my write-up here, then review the rest of that blog if you're at all interested in my training saga.

Then, you should feel free to offer me any sort of congratulations or kudos that you deem appropriate. I feel no shame in pointing out how cool I am, and you shouldn't either.

August 18, 2008

One Backup Solution I Won't Be Considering

My recent post on the subject of backups brought out a couple of helpful comments that I'd like to address separately from the main post.

One such comment was from Roberts G Keeling, who writes:

Aaron, did you look at Togglenetwork's TrueVault? www.togglenetwork.com,
Totally automatic,encrypted (448 bit) onsite and fully secure (level 4)offsite, totally pain free trial.
Incremental backup and restore and easily programmable both as to what is backed up and what is restored. Inexpensive due to efficient design and compression.


(I assume Mr. Keeling is affiliated with Toggle Networks in some way. That's not a bad thing; the info's still helpful either way. A little disclosure would be nice, though.)

I had not heard of TrueVault before. URL is www.togglenetworks.com (with an 's'), by the way.

I went to the web site, and spent a couple of minutes looking around, but then I tripped and fell into a giant pool of buzzwords and drowned. I have a general feeling that if I can't figure out what a product is and how it's different after a few minutes, then the web site/brochure/other marketing material isn't doing it's job. I also go by the old adage that "If you have to ask what it costs, you can't afford it." There's not a hint of pricing on the website, so I assume it's out of reach for this small business.

But the most annoying thing about the Toggle Networks website is that if you click in any text portion (besides a link), you get a popup that says "The contents of this page are copyright protected".

Really, Toggle Networks? You're really choosing to do this? You really think someone's going to steal your whole website if not for the little bit of JavaScript protecting you? And if I want to send an email to someone at my company to say, "Hey, we should consider paying unspecified amounts of money for Toggle Networks' TrueVault" and want to copy and paste a paragraph from your website to show why we should, you really want to keep me from doing that?

Sorry, Toggle Networks' True Vault, that's strike three for you. You're out.

August 17, 2008

Gold Medal Embarrassment

Becki and I were watching a particular Olympic event the other day when a particular athlete with a rather unusual name came up for their turn in the event. Becki and I both commented how stupid we thought the name was and placed the blame solely on the parents for making up such a silly name. At one point, one of us probably said "What kind of mother would give their kid a stupid name like that" or something equally insulting towards the mother.

Today, we found out said athlete's mother is in our ward.

Whoops.

August 16, 2008

Backup Manifesto & CrashPlan Review

Whenever I'm dealing with a fairly complex problem over a long period of time, I find it helpful to write a manifesto to lay out exactly what I want to to accomplish and how to go about doing that. It seems to organize my thought process in such a way that I more clearly understand what the desired result really is, and lets me achieve that desired result sooner. Here for your perusal is the manifesto that I worked on for several days on the subject of revising my backup strategy at work (and at home). If either of my readers can add anything to my thinking here, I'd definitely appreciate the feedback.

At work a couple of years ago, we started scanning all paper that would otherwise be filed, and also started taking all x-rays digitally. This has huge advantages, and I'd never consider going back, but the big current drawback is we've now outgrown the capacity of the DAT72 tapes we were using for backup.

At the same time, I've been trying to reevaluate my backup needs at home. I decided I wanted to get all my data onto my laptop, including my music collection, so I never had to use our flaky sucky desktop computer. So, I upgraded to a 320GB drive in the laptop, which is great, but it's now the biggest drive in the house, so I can't conveniently back it up to an external drive like I used to without spending more money on a new, bigger external drive.

I've also just got a new flash memory based Hi-def camcorder (the Canon HF100, which I'm very enamored with so far). Flash is convenient, but I can't just keep a box of tapes around the house anymore, and I'm sure as heck not going to buy a new card every time it fills up (at today's prices, anyway). So, I needed to calculate some way to store my "magical moving graven images" as part of my backup strategy.

My needs at home are fairly simple. I just want all my data backed up, and I don't want to have to fiddle with anything to make it happen. I want a backup off-site, as well. I used to use Time Machine (OS X built-in backup magic), but I'm stuck with a couple of it's limitations, now. Time Machine's usefulness only comes when the external drive you're backing up to is larger than your computer's drive. Time Machine can back up a smaller data set than your whole drive, but unlike other backup programs, you don't tell Time Machine what you want it to back up. Instead, it defaults to the whole drive, and you have to go in and tell it what you don't want backed up. I find the interface for setting exclusions to be a little cumbersome and time-consuming, especially if the only thing you actually want to back up is buried several directories deep on your hard drive. Additionally, Time Machine doesn't provide me any off-site backup unless I use a different external hard drive and take it somewhere, which isn't a huge hassle, but gets out of date unless I bring it back and swap frequently.

My needs at work are simple also. I need all the patient data to never go away or go bad ever for any length of time. The actual implementation of this ideal is a little more complicated though.

The server's got a mirrored RAID, so that addresses the problem of immediate hard drive failure, but then I need something external to the server to handle the case of complete server meltdown or database corruption, neither of which RAID can help with. So, I back up to tape every night. But, there may be cases where some problem or change happens that we don't catch right away, and need to go back a few days. So, I set up a week's worth of backup tapes to be able to go back to any point during that week. I may need to go back farther than that, so I've got a set of tapes alternating weekly backups so that I can go back a couple of weeks if necessary (although not necessarily to the precise date that I want). And I need offsite for disaster recovery, so I alternate a set of monthly tapes and take one with me every month.

There are a number of drawbacks with the current setup. One, if someone doesn't put the right tape in on the right day, the backup fails. I assumed this wouldn't be a problem, but I've left it to other people to do instead of doing it myself, and I'm only getting like 90% success that way. That's not a huge deal on a daily backup, but if I miss a monthly and somehow don't catch it, I might end up with an off-site backup that's three months old. With my luck, that would be the month we have the fire, and then we're really screwed. Two, this only addresses our patient record database, and the x-rays. This doesn't back up any other stuff like our accounting records, patient correspondence, internal documents or other stuff that we'd really miss if it were lost.

The bigger drawback, though, is that even though we're just backing up patient records and x-rays using this method, our data set is just too big for those tapes which formerly seemed so capacious. I can fix that a couple of ways. I can get an autoloader, and keep using DAT72. That would fix the compliance issue as well, but cost a lot. I could get a new drive and tapes in some higher capacity. That would still have the compliance issue, and also cost money. Or, if I didn't want to spend any more money, then I could reconfigure the daily backups to be differentials instead of doing a full backup each day. Then, I'd only do a full backup once per week, scheduling that backup to run overnight as usual, but then finishing the next day after someone changes the tape. This would mean even more tape changes for someone to forget to do, and would actually get part of the backup running during business hours, which I don't want to do. Our hardware isn't exactly top of the line anymore, and I want the server to not be spinning its disks feeding a backup at the same time three other people are trying to feed it an x-ray.

So, what I really want to do at work is take the humans out of the equation, and get something automated with a more up to date offsite backup. So, what I really want is to separate the tasks into some sort of local backup coupled with an online backup service. Local backup only should be easy to do, because I have plenty of unused disk space on the network here. I can designate one or more machines as the home for backups, and then just configure my backup software to copy the data to them with the right combination of full backups and differentials to get as far back as I want to go. That part of the problem's solved with $0 expenditure for at least a few more years.

For online, the first place I looked was the vendor of the practice management software. They have an online backup client and storage available, but the client is hideous and ridiculously complicated. Worse, the storage component is ludicrously expensive. We'd back up maybe 40GB, but because it's priced in tiers, we'd have to sign up for the 50GB tier at $150/month. That's after a $100 startup fee, too. That's asinine. This is Dentrix eBackup, by the way. I need to name it here in case anyone is insane enough to consider it and googles the name.

I then checked out Mozy, because I heard a few good things about them. They had a lot going for them, because they were cheaper (even in their business offering), and had a cross platform client. But, when I looked closer, I didn't like what I saw.

They had a free trial, but it's capacity limited, so I had to pony up for 1 month at $26.95 just to test out how it would deal with my full backup set. The pricing is also tiered, although much more reasonable than Dentrix. I still don't like this, though, because it's capped at the level you buy. If your backup set starts to exceed that level, I don't know what will happen, but it seems like your backup will fail. Sure, you'll probably get notified that it's time to upgrade your plan, but I don't want to deal with that. Also, the Mac client was second-class to the Windows client, which was already nothing to write home about.

When I started Googling for reviews, I discovered that they evidently have some really huge issues restoring files. You can restore through the client, but there's some sort of packaging that needs to be done, and that takes a while and apparently doesn't work all the time. You have the option of restoring from a web page, which is really nice, except again you have to wait for the files to be packaged, which could take a day or more for a long backup set, delaying what will already be a painful download. Again, it doesn't work all the time, either.

A third option for restore is for them to burn your data to DVD and Fedex it to you. If you've got 50GB of data, this seems like an excellent solution whatever the price, since it would take several days to download 50GB on a T1. However, the net is full of stories of people who ordered restore DVDs, and then didn't get them for weeks. That's completely unacceptable. If you're going to offer a service like that, you have to automate the process, allocate x minutes for burning each DVD, then when the order is placed, have your order system do the math to determine whether it makes that day's cutoff or gets bumped to the next. Display that delivery date to the customer, and then stick to it!. If you can't do this, do not offer the service. If you do offer a service that you know you can't deliver in the way a customer would expect, you might as well have your order confirmation page be a big ASCII drawing of a middle finger, because that's the kind of contempt you're showing for your customers.

Aside from the DVD thing, a backup system without a bulletproof restore process is no backup system at all. So, after reading all of those horrible things about Mozy, I didn't even wait for the first backup to finish and went to cancel my account. There is no link online to cancel a pro account. I had to email, and the guy told me where to go to find the link to cancel, but it wasn't there, and I sent him a screenshot to prove it. He said he'd cancel it manually, but I'll believe it when I don't see a charge next month.

Sorry, Mozy. I never really got the chance to get to know you myself, but evidently you really suck.

Many of the online reviewers of Mozy mentioned that once they kicked Mozy to the curb, they switched to CrashPlan and loved it. So, that was my next stop. I'm not in love yet, but I do kind of have a crush on CrashPlan.

CrashPlan is a little more of a philosophy than a backup program. CrashPlan's philosophy is that what everyone needs is a nice simple program that can run in the background and backup your data to your one or more friends' computers over the Internet. I've seen some programs with this idea before, but CrashPlan's is by far the most polished and simple. The thinking is that you'll know someone with extra space on their computer who'll host a backup for you, and you might have some extra space to return the favor for them. The common scenario they suggest if you don't have the free space is to each buy an external disk and station it at each other's houses.

Online backup is all it does, over LAN or Internet. No backup to a local disk. No backup to external drives. Just online backups. The software has a one-time charge of $20$25 or $60 for the more customizable Pro version, then no other charges as long as you're supplying your own backup location.

If you don't have any friends, fear not, because CrashPlan will offer to be your friend for a fee. You don't have to host their backups for them, either. Their CrashPlan Central service provides integrated hosting for your backups at a flat fee of 10 cents per GB per month, with a minimum charge of $5. That's about half the price of Mozy, and 1/30th the price of Dentrix.

The other features that I like are:
  • 30 day free trial, of the software and unlimited CrashPlan Central
  • All of the data is compressed, encrypted, and deduplicated before being sent to minimize bandwidth. Files that have changed will only send the portion of the file that has changed. They even claim that if multiple computers are backing up to the same location, it will not send any data that's duplicated between them. (note: I had read this in someone else's review. Turns out it's not true. Sorry)
  • Versioning, with the option to keep x versions, or unlimited.
  • A pretty simple restore interface. You just pick the date and time you want to restore to off a calendar and go from there.
  • Backs up in order of modified date. An intelligent prioritization algorithm that puts smaller, recently changed files ahead of larger, stale files. Even if the first backup's not done, it'll make sure that recently changed files get backed up first, and re-backed up if they change again before moving all of your super old files.
  • Will watch files in real-time, and back them up as soon as they change (or after a user-configurable number of minutes)
  • If you're using their storage, it's just billed by total usage at the end of the month. If you back up 100GB and pare down to 40GB by the end of the month, you only pay for 40GB
  • If you have multiple computers, they can use the same CrashPlan Central account, which pools the usage. So, you could back up two computers, each with 30GB (for example), and only pay $6 instead of 2 X $5.
  • There are a lot of customizable options as well, such as when it runs, how long after a change a file will get backed up, how much CPU and bandwidth it uses, QOS, etc.
  • It's cross-platform, and works the same on all platforms. That should be expected since it's written in Java, though. (Clarification: It's possibly only the front-end that's written in Java. The back-end engine appears to be a platform specific daemon or service.)
  • A local restore option, in which you get the backup archive onto the machine you want to restore to, moving physical drives if necessary, then run the restore locally. This in theory would go much faster than even doing the restore over a LAN.


I've been using it for a few weeks now, and I believe it will suit my needs well. I've already got it backing up my desktop at work and the server to the CrashPlan Central. I could also install it on the backup machine at work to do my local backups through it, but I'm pretty sure I won't. There's just no need to run through the extra CPU overhead for compression and encryption for local backups, plus I don't want my backups on the LAN to be encrypted. If I need that data, I want at it fast, without anything standing in my way. So, I'll probably still use NTBackup and scheduled jobs to do the local backups even though it's not as easy to use or polished as CrashPlan. However, CrashPlan seems like the way to go to install on the two computers that I need backed up offline.

I'm not 100% convinced, though. I'm still having some concerns and some unanswered questions. The web site is very sparse and the documentation equally so. This is a testament to the ease of use of the product, but there are some options whose interaction could be fairly complex, and it would helpful to have clear documentation about how they work. Either that or the wording in the client could be clarified.

Another problem with the website is that there's lots of references to a business product (as opposed to their Pro product?), but no real information about what it is or why I should use it. Most of the links about it go to pages that describe the Pro product. The few oblique references I could find made it seem like a VMWare server image used as a client/server thing for backing up multiple desktops in your organization. I only need to back up one desktop and a server; all other computers here are glorified terminals. So, maybe I don't need it. But someone probably does, and you can't sell your product if they don't know what it is/does.

The program is dog slow at backing up over the LAN. I've been tryng to have my latop seed the backup to the server here at work so I don't spend three weeks doing the initial backup from home. I'm not allocating it all of the CPU (unknown whether or not it supports dual processor), so maybe that's the bottleneck, but it's barely faster on the LAN than over the cable modem at home. It's certainly not 30-50 times faster than the Internet as they claim on their web site. 1.30-1.50 times faster, maybe...

Another thing is that it doesn't do VSS or have any way of backing up open files. I have scripts shutting off all the computers at 6 PM, so there shouldn't normally be any open files in the practice database by the time the backup starts, but I do work late frequently, and I'm sure that will be an issue at some point. If the backup goes often enough it's not much of an issue, but still. They have a beta client with VSS support, but it's XP only, so apparently doesn't work with Windows Server.

The versioning only lets you specify to retain unlimited versions, or to specify an actual number. That's useless to me. Our database is a set of files that's all got to be in sync or massive corruption will occur. So, having the 7 most recent versions of a file that changes every 2 months extends pretty far back, but then I would also have the latest 7 versions of a file that changes hourly. So, no matter how many versions I set that setting to, I can only go back as far as the most frequently updated file. So, I have to set that to unlimited or none at all. I'd really rather have a time based option like "retain the last x days worth of versions" or something. Think Time Machine.

This is an issue because I can't find out if the CrashPlan Central usage that you pay for is the actual total of all versions of all files on the server, the actual de-duped disk usage of all versions on the server, or just the usage of the current set without regard to versions or deleted files. If it's all including versions and deleted files, and you cycle through these files a lot, you could quickly find yourself with a set that takes 20GB on your box but takes up 200GB at CrashPlan Central.

And then there are the options that might look self-explanatory, but really aren't, especially when you try to figure out how they interact:

There's an option whether or not to keep deleted files at CrashPlan Central and for how long, but if you choose to never remove them, how long are deleted files kept? Is it really forever? Or is it in some way tied to the versions number? If really forever, how does that figure in to disk usage? And what happens in the case of the file that keeps getting deleted and then recreated. I might see that as multiple versions. CrashPlan may see that as a bunch of separate deleted files. If I don't want to see versions, but do want to retain deleted files, what happens there?

There's a setting for "Back up changed files after:" set to some number of minutes. On the surface, this seems useful to control the number of versions of a file I end up with. If I've got a file that changes every minute. I might only want 1 version per hour at most, not 60. But how does this option really work? If this is set to 60, does this mean the file won't get backed up until a 60 minute has elapsed with no changes to the file? Or does this mean that the file won't get backed up until 60 minutes have elapsed since the last time it was backed up? If it's set to 60, and the last time it was backed up was 2 days ago, and the file changes, how long after the change will it get backed up? Less than or greater than 60 minutes?

The program has by default a realtime scan for changes in files, as well as a set interval to do a full filesystem scan, looking for any changed files that the real-time scan missed. If real-time scanning is off, and "Verify Backup Selection Every:" is set to only every 7 days, will nothing get backed up in between? In other words, when real-time scanning is off, is the verify scan the only way that CrashPlan knows to back up a file?

So, if real-time is off, and a file is changed at 5:55 PM on Tuesday, and "Back up changed files after:" is set to 60, and the verify scan is set to run at 6:00PM every 7 days and the scan actually starts at 6:00PM that Tuesday, what happens? Does the file get caught by that scan and backed up? Does it get caught, but not get backed up because it hasn't been 60 minutes since the change? Does it get flagged for backup once 60 minutes has elapsed? Or, does it not get backed up until the next scan catches it the following Tuesday?

I'm good at QA and setting up test scenarios, so given a few days I could answer these questions by myself. However, I shouldn't have to. They should have clear wording for the options themselves, and enough info in the documentation to be able to answer them.

When the documentation (PDF) says something unclear, it has what looks to be a link to further information. For example, when talking about versions, it has a blue sentence afterwards that says "What happens if I keep all the versions of a file?". Hey, that's what I'd like to know. It looks like a link to a FAQ or something, but it's not; it's just blue text. I thought maybe these were links and they broke them in the PDF conversion, but the more I look at it, the more I think these look like notes from QA or a technical writer of questions that they needed answered by development. Maybe some developer wrote the first draft, and then some tech writer cleaned it up and added some notes to answer later, then got hit by a bus. Not knowing the tech writer wasn't actually done with it before his untimely demise, they just threw it straight on the web. Also, the screenshots don't match the currently shipping product. Not good form, guys.

As for my home needs, I've got enough space left over on the server at work to do a full online backup of my latop through CrashPlan free of charge (after initial software license fee) to that server. So, now I know that whatever happens, I'm fully backed up off site in a very current fashion. That's never been the case before, and I'm totally excited by that. I'd like a more readily accessible local backup, though, so I'll probably still use Time Machine and it's crappy exclusions interface just to get my more crucial stuff in locally accessible form. In the long term, I'll either get a nice big external drive, or a Time Capsule, or something like that and do it better.

As for the camcorder, I was holding off on its purchase for a while because I assumed flash would end up way more expensive by the time I backed up the files in a reliable (i.e. redundant and off-site) way. Once I ran the numbers, though, I saw that although initial investment in the backup media may be more, it's actually cheaper on a per-hour basis.

DV tapes, bought in bulk from the Price Club^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^HCostco might run about $3 a piece, with each tape holding an hour. This camcorder at highest settings uses a little under 8GB for an hour of footage. If I look around for the right deal, I can get a 750GB external drive for $100, or about $1/hour. Drives are inherently less reliable than tapes, so I need to get another one to compensate for that, but then, I'm still only at $2/hour. And, if I take one drive to work, I've got the safety of off-site storage, which I never had with tape. Yeah, a tape will last forever with at most a couple of drop outs or sparklies, but if my house burns down, it's gone.

In the short term (like for the first few GB of footage), I'll just store the files from the camcorder on my hard drive and let them get backed up with everything else, either locally or off-site. Then, when that pile gets too big, I'll move them to two of the external drives I already have, and carry one off-site. When the file pile gets too big for those (the smallest external I currently have is 40GB), only then will I have to shell out for new external drives dedicated for storing video. At that time, pricing might be close to 50 cents per hour, making it way cheaper, indeed.

In the longer term, when I've got a 4TB drive in my laptop, and a 100mbit/s upload bandwidth on my internet connection, I'll reintegrate all my movie footage to my laptop the same way I keep all my photos and music there, and just let it get backed up with everything else. In the meantime, I'm fine with using offline storage for the video because I really don't need access to every minute of video footage I've ever shot all the time.

August 13, 2008

Olympic Fever... Catch It!


Becki and I have been watching a shedload of Olympics coverage the past few days. This is very uncharacteristic for me, as I don't watch a lot of sports in general, and certainly not those featuring people, teams, or sports with which I am unfamiliar. But, the last few days, I've been glued to the TV for hours every night. Actually, I've been glued to the TV for hours every night for many years now. But, I'm glued to the TV watching Olympics every night now.

I watched the 1980 Winter Olympics, saw Eric Heiden win all his medals, and then desperately wanted to be an Olympic speed skater when I grew up. In 1984, I watched a lot of the LA Olympics, but I think that was mainly because I was a kid, there was nothing else on TV, and it coincided with a huge promotion at McDonalds that gave free food if the US won a medal in the event listed on your game piece (or something like that).

I didn't really watch any of the 1988, or 1992 Olympics, nor the 1994 Winter, nor the 1996 Summer. I saw none of the 1998 or 2000 Olympics. And even though the 2002 Olympics were in my backyard, and I even went to one of the medal ceremonies, I saw nothing on TV beyond the opening ceremonies. Everything since my first kid was born is a blur in my mind, so I can't remember whether I saw any of the 2004 or 2006 Olympics, but I'm guessing not.

So, with a long history of Olympic apathy, why am I so interested in it this time out? That's a very good question. I'm glad I asked.

I've thought a lot about it, and narrowed it down to two factors. One, is just the quality and quantity of the TV coverage. On DirecTV, there's something like 9 or 10 channels that cover the Olympics, 8 of which are in HD. I've watched a lot of crap that I otherwise would never consider watching just because it's in HD, and maybe some of the Olympics fall into that category. Either way, I'm just fascinated by the ability to get both tuners on the DVR recording two different channels, then scan through them while two more chunks record.

Although I didn't watch any of the 1992 Olympics, I was a big fan of the concept of the NBC Olympic TripleCast, a pay-per-view package of three channels of 24 hour Olympic coverage. If you like watching the Olympics, that really seemed like the way to go. Nowadays, with all these channels, and the VOD replays available, and the internet coverage, the TripleCast almost seems quaint.

So, massive availability always draws me in, just like I'll always eat more than I should at a buffet, even if the food is crap. But, I think the real reason I'm watching so much is that I got suckered in by the opening ceremonies.

We have a Chinese student living with us right now, so we were obligated to watch the opening ceremonies with him anyway. But, after hearing just how much money and effort was spent on putting them together, I was intrigued to see what they would actually pull off. It was really stunning, for lack of a better word, and I was hooked from the first fireworks blast.

Dear Chinese Olympics opening ceremonies,
I was blown away by your massive floor TV, your flying people, your lit up people, your bouncing up and down printing block people, and your running sideways on the Death Star people. But, you had me from insanely massive pyrotechnics.

The opening ceremony was really representative of a lot of things, but mainly representative of what you can accomplish in the singular focus of a totalitarian society. The massive transformation of Beijing in the last few years is another testament to that. I guess that means the one thing we can all look forward to after Russia's current return to totalitarianism is a really kicking Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

Much has also been written about how this was China's big coming out to the West, but I think it's a little more than that. It's more like China's big spectacle to kick off their upcoming domination of everything: all Olympic sports, economics, world military power, whatever.

So, I've watched a lot. I watched rowing for two straight hours the other day. I've watched what seems like a dozen hours of swimming. I've watched badminton, whitewater rafting, boxing, a lot of gymnastics, volleyball, and a lot of stuff I can't remember. I've seen some pretty cool things too. The amazing come from behind US victory in the 4x100m men's freestyle relay was really cool to see. I've seen tons of records broken in swimming, which is kind of old hat since everyone's wearing that crazy new suit now. But, I saw a cool pair of races where one guy broke another guy's record, and the other guy broke it back in the next race. I watched an entire USA-Australia softball game last night that ended up as a no-hitter.

But, I think my favorite parts are the ones where a commentator has been talking all day and has just given up on sounding professional and just starts to fill time. Those times come often with this level of coverage. Just yesterday I listened to the women's volleyball commentator rail on about how bad the USA team was, and how it was shameful that they're really dishonoring their coach by sucking so much. Beach volleyball has Karch Kiraly providing "analysis", and he's usually good for something stupid. Today, the play-by-play guy asked Karch why a particular athlete would be wearing a watch, trying to find out why she wouldn't take it off for the match. Karch replied by listing all the things a volleyball player would be able to do before the match if they knew what time it was. Basically answering that watches are good for telling time. Thanks, Karch.

July 13, 2008

Chocolate Chip Cookies

The New York Times ran a story a few days ago about the quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie. They interviewed a few fancy-pants bakers and pastry chefs and developed a recipe incorporating all of their suggested tips and tricks.

I whipped up a batch of these today to try them. I followed the recipe exactly, except for the following modifications: I did not go to New York to get Jacques Torres chocolate, and I couldn't find the Valrhona fèves at my local Whole Foods. This turned out to be a good thing, because I later found out that the Valrhona stuff would have been easily over $15/pound, and I really worry about how much the Jacques Torres stuff would cost. Instead, I splurged on some 60% cacao Ghiradelli chips down to the Safeway for closer to $5/pound. I also discovered after I started that I only had about half the unsalted butter that I thought I had, so I made the cookies with half unsalted and half regular butter. I also only refrigerated the dough for about an hour before cooking the first few cookies, because I'm impatient like that. I've kept the rest of the batch plus one whole other batch in the fridge, though, so I can adequately test the effects of the 24-36 hour refrigeration they recommend.

So, except for the above, I followed the recipe exactly. I even went out and bought parchment paper (which I love but can't normally justify) and cake flour (for which I would normally just substitute regular flour plus corn starch). I'm happy they provided weights for the dry ingredients, as I would much rather measure by weight for dry ingredients than by imprecise measurements of volume. I even weighed out the cookie dough to the recommend 3.5 ounces per cookie. I went through all this trouble because if the cookies did not turn out to be delightful, I didn't want to have to blame myself.

I'm pleased to say they did indeed turn out wonderfully. They really look like a fancy cookie that you'd pay >$3 for in some bakery. They taste great, although the large size and richness of the chocolate limits me to only about one before feeling like I'm overdoing it. Becki doesn't like chocolate chip cookies, and she didn't like these chocolate chips when I gave her some last night. That said, she thought this cookie tasted terrific, and was easily the best chocolate chip cookie she had ever had.

I would definitely make these again. The recipe is no more difficult than any other cookie recipe as long as you have the ingredients. If you don't have the right ingredients on hand though, it's not necessarily worth going to France to get the right chocolate for it or anything like that.

I think the techniques learned here are more important than the actual recipe. For example, I'll probably try the sprinkling of sea salt (which I do always have on hand) on other cookies and baked goods in the future. If the refrigeration trick pays off as well as they say, I'll try that with my cookies as well, no matter what the recipe. And I think the overall shape and appearance of the cookie owes a lot to the parchment paper, which will allow the cookie to spread the right amount on the pan without regard to pan composition. Normally when I bake a batch of cookies, I'll be using a variety of cookie sheets: some non-stick, some not, some light, some dark, some kind of new, some 40 years old. My cookies really come out a variety of different shades and consistencies as a result. I could get all new cookie sheets, but that's expensive, and sometimes I might actually need one kind of cookie sheet instead of another. Instead, I think I'm just going to make sure I always use parchment paper from now on.

So, bottom line: These cookies are good. Try them.

July 7, 2008

Mullet/Stache

Back in the end of 2002 or so I cut my long hair down into short hair. I had no particular need to get that done all at once, so for two glorious days, I wore a breathtaking mullet and Camaro-mustache combination.

I tell people this occasionally, but I haven't had any photographic evidence to back it up. I somehow forgot to take any pictures of this myself. I do remember my aunt taking a picture of me at the time, and The Shambles gave me a picture that he took of all of us at the El Vez concert back then.

Up until now, I had assumed that those were the only two mullet pictures that existed. Yesterday, The Shambles sent along another one of the El Vez concert that he must have recently unearthed:



I'm kind of torn about this, because on the one hand I'm happy to have more pictures, yet on the other hand, this picture is so downright embarrassing. It's not even a good showcase for the mullet, although you can at least see the 'stache.

For the sake of completeness, here's the other picture of us with The Thin Brown Duke himself:

July 1, 2008

The Past Tense

Joey has always done well at language development, like rapidly picking up new words and easily following new grammatical concepts. One thing he latched on to pretty quickly is the meaning of "past tense".

When kids are learning to talk, they quickly learn that if they want to say that something happened in the past, they just add an "ed" to the end of the word. It works 99% percent of the time, so they figure it's a safe bet. With Joey, every time I heard something like "I eated that sandwich", I made a habit of pointing out "The past tense of 'eat' is 'ate'". I didn't really spend any time explaining what a "past tense" is or demonstrate the correct usage of the new word or anything. I would just throw it out there and see if he caught on. He did catch on really quickly and has a much better usage of all of those irregular declensions than other kids his age (if I do say so myself).

A couple of months ago, we went to Costco for the semi-monthly stocking up. Right after we finished checking out, Joey said, "Wow, look at all these things we buyed!" I responded, "Yeah, we bought a lot of stuff." Joey looked down and muttered, "That's right, the past tense of 'buy' is 'bought'" in his best "Please, Daddy, don't hit me for getting it wrong" voice. I was mortified, but quickly looked around and was relieved to see that no one had overheard this little exchange.

I was reminded of this yesterday when Joey walked up after having just finished a drink and told me, "Daddy, the past tense of 'full' is 'empty'." I could not argue with that logic.

June 22, 2008

"Hello Michael, where do you want to go today?"

I have a GPS navigation system integrated with my car, so I'm not really in the market for a standalone unit right now. However, if my needs change and I do start shopping for one, you can believe that this one will be the first one I consider.

June 12, 2008

As seen in the Cruise Compass

On my recent cruise I had many issues with incorrect information being presented in the daily Cruise Compass (the onboard program listing the days activities).

Some of the errors were serious ones that caused us to expend a ton of effort to be some place a couple of different times only to find it closed both times, despite what was told us by the Compass and the cruise staff. Most of the other errors were simple grammar or spelling mistakes that were awful hard to overlook because they gave the whole thing this rinky-dink air, like the whole cruise line is being run by the high school journalism club.

This particular typo, though, they can make all they want as far as I'm concerned, because while they may be still in high school, I'm still in junior high.

May 8, 2008

The Gong Show... With Dave Attell

I've always been a huge fan of The Gong Show. If I ever get to see clips, I'm hugely nostalgic, which is quite strange considering I very rarely ever saw it growing up.

I was one of about 12 people who saw the movie version of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and since that time I've always been wondering why nobody's ever tried to make a modern day version of The Gong Show (and no, American Idol doesn't count). Just a couple of weeks ago, I was making a list of every mediocre game show that's had a modern day remake and wondering how it was that our national obsession with nostalgia had never revisited The Gong Show.

Today I received this bit of news, which announces the July 17th premiere of the all new Gong Show on Comedy Central, with host Dave Attell. One of my concerns was whether any modern remake would have the same goofy yet subversive sensibilities of its predecessor, and I feel really positive about this one. I'm a fan of Dave Attell, and can easily imagine him as an heir to Chuck Barrus. So, needless to say, I'll be watching this when it's on. Heck, I'd be trying out if I could only come up with something suitably retarded yet entertaining enough for TV.

So, until this new version hits the air, I leave you with The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo:

April 16, 2008

T-Shirt Sighting

During the intermission at the Wallace & Ladmo shindig, I saw a guy wearing the exact same t-shirt I got for a 5k I ran in Provo in 2001. It took my brain a full two seconds to process what I was seeing, because for most of that time it was stuck in the mode of thinking, "Hey, that's my shirt, the one I wear to do yardwork. Why did that guy take my shirt?", followed by "What would a 7 year old shirt from Provo be doing here?"

My brain was hung up on this because I wouldn't ever consider wearing a race t-shirt out in public. It's not that it's not a nice souvenir or something to be proud of. I've just got so many other t-shirts and nicer things to wear. And, if I were to wear it around, it probably wouldn't be 7 years later. To me that seems like advertising to passersby "I'm proud of this thing I did 7 years ago, and I've accomplished jack-all since then."

I didn't get a chance to ask the guy about it, because I couldn't figure out what I could say that didn't make me sound like the dork. "Dude, I've got the same shirt!" "America's Freedom Festival 2001, woo hoo!" "Yo, what was your time? I ran over 33 minutes..."

April 13, 2008

Ho Ho Ha Ha Hee Hee Ha Ha


If you were a kid in the Phoenix area between 1954 and 1989, a good chunk of your afternoon (and probably morning) was occupied watching The Wallace and Ladmo Show. If you were to meet someone from the area, you wouldn't even bother asking, "Hey, do you remember Wallace and Ladmo?". You can just take it for granted that it was just as much a part of their childhood as it was yours.

I originally became acquainted with Wallace and Ladmo from visiting my cousins in Mesa. When I was 8, we moved to Casa Grande for a year and had Phoenix TV stations, so I watched the show enough during that time to have some pretty fond memories.

My mom's cousin, Mark Arnett, is the producer of a little gang of folks that call themselves the "Citrus Valley Playhouse". What they do is perform on stage in the style of a taping of an old time radio show. Think Prairie Home Companion, but with a focus on Arizona culture and history. All the people involved are top notch, and it's really funny stuff.

Last night, they put on what they billed as "An All-Star Tribute to Wallace and Ladmo". They covered the history of the show and its impact on Arizona. And, they gave out their first ever "Citrus Valley Lifetime Achievement Award" to Bill Thompson (Wallace), Ladmo's widow, Patsy, and Pat McMahon (the utility player best known as "Gerald"). I never got to see them at Legend City or anything, primarily because I never got to go to Legend City, so getting to see Wallace and Gerald live last night was kind of a big deal for me.

Besides Wallace and Gerald, there were a lot of other notables there: Tempe mayor Hugh Hallman, former Attorney General Grant Woods, Dan Harkins (president/CEO Harkins Theatres). They had video appearances from Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon, current Attorney General Terry Goddard, and a handful of newscasters and DJs and things. The most exciting VIP for me, though, was Maricopa County Sherrif Joe Arpaio. When I first saw him before the show, he was flanked by four deputies, ostensibly for security, but most likely to check everyone's citizenship papers.

For the big grand finale last night, they gave away Ladmo Bags. On The Wallace and Ladmo Show, kids who attended the tapings could get their seat number picked to be the lucky recipient of a Ladmo Bag, which was a brown paper bag labelled "Ladmo Bag" and filled with junk food, an autographed picture, and sometimes small prizes from the sponsors. To get a Ladmo Bag was a big huge deal. Most everyone knew someone from their school or church that had received a Ladmo Bag. If you had never got one yourself, though, you never quite got over the resentment.

They gave away 50 bags last night by delivering them to the seat numbers they had previously randomly drawn. You could try to argue that these weren't the real thing since they weren't given away on The Wallace and Ladmo Show, but I don't buy that. The bags were endorsed by Wallace and Pat, and each bag was hand-lettered by Wallace himself, so I'm pronouncing them bona fide. I didn't get one, but the middle-aged woman three seats down from me did. I had overheard the woman saying that she had gone to school with Ladmo's daughter, and Ladmo was her brother's coach, so she had some personal connection that brought her there that night. When I first sat down, she had expressed her envy of the paper Ladmo tie that I had picked up at the VIP reception before hand. When she got that Ladmo Bag, though, the shoe was definitely on the other foot.

When the usher handed her that bag, she was stunned and shocked, which quickly transformed into this joy the likes of which I haven't seen before. It was clear within the first two seconds that receiving this Ladmo Bag was the highlight of her whole year, if not the whole decade. She pulled a couple of things out of the bag to look at, but I think she was afraid to dig into it too much for fear the whole bag would run off or something. She held it tightly to her chest, and when she was walking out of the theater, she had both arms wrapped around it like it was the most precious possession anyone could ever own. So, I was pretty bummed that I didn't get a Ladmo Bag, but seeing just how happy the bag made her took a little bit of the edge off of my resentment.

April 2, 2008

Creepy Man


I'm in Phoenix for a couple of days for a convention. Tonight, after we got to the hotel, I thought I'd get a little exercise by going down and swimming in the pool for a little bit. In the hot tub next to the pool was a group of about six or seven twenty-something girls. Besides them, there was no one else in the pool area.

My first thought was that the girls are probably thinking to themselves, "Oh great, here comes this hairy fat creepy man down to the pool, putting a damper on our young girl style". But, when I was getting into the pool, one girl shouts to the other, "Hey, are your boobs real or fake? Didn't you get a boob job?" Then, they all proceeded into a conversation where they demanded to see each others' "boobs", and talked about who had the best set. Then, they went on to discuss which boy celebrities they thought were the cutest.

This whole time, I was getting pretty upset because not only did they not think of me as a creepy man, but they were apparently not thinking of me as a man in their presence at all. I was dismayed that they weren't at all threatened by me. I have to concede that at least part of me would rather be regarded as a pervert than not be regarded at all.

March 31, 2008

First Day Guidelines


To all new employees:

This should go without saying, but an incident today with our new intern has prompted me to issue the following memo reiterating our corporate policy on appropriate first day behavior.

The fundamental tenet of appropriate first day behavior is this: When other people are working and are trying to find you to help out, try to make it a point to not be sitting at the front desk computer playing solitaire. When your boss looks at you incredulously, do not make it worse by complaining how hard it is to win.

On the second day, this may be acceptable. On the first day, however it is not.

Exceptions: If you've been hired for our solitaire department, the above policy does not apply to you.

March 14, 2008

Monkeys in People Clothes

This is a drawing. Therefore it is not actually endangered.I came across this article at Ars Technica today, which summarizes a recent paper in the journal Science written by several leading primatologists (including that Jane Goodall tramp).

The gist of the paper is that the frequent appearance of chimpanzees in the media misleads the public into believing that chimpanzees are not an endangered species. The authors asked survey respondents to look at pictures of various great ape species and identify which was endangered. Although almost all respondents correctly identified gorillas and orangutans as endangered, only 66% of respondents identified chimpanzees as an endangered species. When pressed for followup as to why they thought chimpanzees weren't endangered, the most common response was that their prevalence in the media was an indication that they were doing just fine.

The journal article goes on to assert that it's not just the appearance of chimpanzees in media, but specifically their appearance as caricatures that is the cause of all this. I'm guessing they're on to something. It seems true that if you see a chimpanzee on TV or in a magazine, it will more often than not be wearing people clothes. And chimpanzees wear people clothes far more often than all other primates put together.

Now, I've got to admit that I'm the world's greatest advocate for monkeys in people clothes (the word monkeys used here generically to mean all great apes and lower order primates). However, because of my strong stand on monkeys vis-à-vis clothes, I feel a little bit of responsibility to ensure that I'm not unwittingly undermining the efforts to protect these creatures that God so generously provided for our amusement. I hereby resolve from here on out to no longer display any depiction of any primate wearing people clothes without some sort of explanation of that primate's status as an endangered species. I believe strongly that it's now my duty every time I display a monkey in people clothes to warn other people that if they appreciate monkeys in people clothes, they will need to support conservation and protection efforts so that we may always have plentiful supplies of monkeys to dress in people clothes now and for generations to come.

February 25, 2008

2008 Oscars

Two observations on this year's Oscars:
  • Becki and I watched the whole thing, and were a little dismayed to notice that out of every film nominated in every category, we had only seen two, Ratatouille and Once. Yes, it's true, we need to get out more. Are you volunteering to babysit? And to maybe, you know, chip in a little for the popcorn? No? I thought not...
  • Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won the Best Original Song category with Falling Slowly. I did not expect this, and from the looks on their faces, neither did they. But, I am thrilled by this, and I wish to use this space to give them "mad props", as I believe that's what the kids are saying these days.

February 20, 2008

Project Genesis

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line is launching a new ship next year in their new Genesis class. This ship will be, at 220,000 tons, almost 50% larger than the current largest cruise ships in the world (also Royal Caribbean's). This is also larger than virtually every ship ever made with the exception of a small handful of supertankers.

I don't believe I would ever pay to travel on such a ship, although I certainly wouldn't turn it down if it were free. Even though I'm turned off by such a large ship, I am totally amazed by the fact that a ship of that size is even possible, and even more amazed that the cruise line can make a business proposition for building such a thing. In reading about the new Genesis ships I stumbled across a naming contest that invited people to submit their proposed names for the two ships that make up "Project Genesis".

I submitted Behemoth of the Seas and Leviathan of the Seas, both keeping with Royal Caribbean's "____ of the Seas" naming tradition. I had great visions of the two great ships locked in battle at the end of the world. I was pretty proud of myself, but I had the distinct feeling that I wasn't the first to come up with this. I searched through the wide wide world of web and found a few posts on cruise forums that showed that others had in fact had the same idea. I'm so disappointed when I find out I'm not as clever as I think I am.

Ignoring my disappointment for a moment, I was very pleased at some of the other naming ideas that I saw represented on the cruise forums.

There were a few attempts to try to tie in to the "Project Genesis" codename:
Paradise of the Seas
Eden of the Seas
Peter Gabriel of the Seas
Phil Collins of the Seas


I was hoping to see some more prog-rock references, like a King Crimson of the Seas. I was also hoping that Project Genesis could expand to a three ship program so that we could see ships that collectively could be named the Emerson, Lake, and Palmer of the Seas. Alas, those ideas seem to be exclusively mine.

There were a couple of attempts to tie the ship names in to the "Project Genesis" from Star Trek II, but those are way too nerdy to show here.

There were a few attempts to dig on the problems associated with a ship of such a large size:
Disorientation of the Seas
Confusion of the Seas
Bewilderment of the Seas
How the Hell do I Get to the Dining Room of the Seas?


Then of course, there were the inevitable jabs at the sheer size of the ship:

Enormity of the Seas
Immenisty of the Seas
Gargantuan of the Seas
Giganticness of the Seas
Monstrosity of the Seas
Colossus of the Seas
Mammoth of the Seas
Titan of the Seas
Brobdingnag of the Seas
(look it up)
Ginormous of the Seas
Oprah of the Seas

and my favorite, That's No Moon, That's a Space Station of the Seas

Discussion of the ships also veered towards speculation as to what onboard features the new ships may have. While all cruise ships have swimming pools, this one is rumored to have a full olympic sized one. The largest cruise ships will have a basketball court on the upper deck. This one has a football field. The Voyager and Freedom class ships have a sort of mini-mall on board. This one has a full-size replica of the Mall of America. Some previous Royal Caribbean ships have had 9 hole miniature golf courses on the upper deck; this one is regular size. One of the Costa ships has an auto racing simulator; this one will have a full race track. Royal Caribbean ships all have a rock climbing wall; this one had an actual mountain installed. Repeat ad infinitum.

February 12, 2008

Huzzah!

We went to the Renaissance Festival over the weekend. The Festival in Arizona has been running for 20 years now. I've been always meaning to go, but never got around to it. So, we finally went this year, and I was really surprised by how big it was and just how much stuff and activity was involved. It's a fairly huge complex, which makes me wonder how so much investment in building can be justified for something that only runs 8 weekends a year. Maybe they use the medieval village for corporate retreats or church camps in the off season?

All of the workers, and a large percentage of the attendees, were dressed in costume. The costumes weren't necessarily specific to a particular time period. There was authentic medieval garb, but also just some random fairy princess and pirate costumes and things too. I recognized pretty much everyone who was dressed up there as one of those AV club type social rejects from high school that stay in on Fridays to play D&D instead of going out for normal activities with the normal people. I can recognize them easily for they are my spiritual brothers and sisters with whom I shared my own tortured adolescence. For some reason, though, the years of social isolation I experienced did not cause me to make my own knight costume.

At one point, a youngish nerdy-but-cute blond woman in costume came up to me and said, "Prithee, sir, dost thou have the time?". I'm normally a little tongue tied when a member of the opposite sex who's even mildly attractive speaks to me out of the blue, but this had me completely flummoxed. I spent a couple of seconds trying to think of some appropriate way to respond but couldn't think of anything that didn't make me sound like a pirate. "Yar, it be half past four on the dial glass" or some such. So after a couple of seconds of stammering I finally blurted out "um, yeah, it's 4:25". She said "Thanks be unto thee" and walked off. I felt really bad afterward because I felt like I really let her down.

There were some attempts at authentic depictions of the middle ages, but most things you see there are just more medieval influenced. Here's one of the games they had:


Apparently, paintball battles were a big part of the middle ages (as was poor spelling). Other anachronisms abound. At one point I pulled out my iPhone and noticed that there was free WiFi available in the fairgrounds. The SSID for the WiFi network? "YeOldWIFI".

One of the huge disappointments of the day was finding out that one of the stands sold a Monte Cristo sandwich, but that they were all out. I don't know if a Monte Cristo has anything to do with the middle ages, but I would always eat one if given the opportunity, no matter what time period I was in.

There was a free petting zoo for the kids. While I was standing over the goose pen, Joey accidentally bumped my glasses and knocked them off into the pen. A goose saw them fall and started running over to where they were like he was going to eat them or something. I reached down and picked them up long before the goose could get there, but when the goose got to where the glasses were, he was evidently pretty mad that I had taken his newfound bounty away. While I was putting them back on, he stuck his long goose neck through the slats in the fence and started pecking me in the leg. It kind of hurt, and almost caused me to drop the glasses again, which I think was his whole objective.

I'm sort of getting concerned that Joey might be growing up to be a real wussy. Everytime we asked him if he wanted to do something like ride an elephant or something, he'd say no, and kind of shake his head in fear. We finally found this little butterfly swing ride to put him on:


This picture was taken right before the thing started to pick up some real speed. At that point, all trace of a smile disappeared and panic set in. Every time the swing would go around the side where we were standing he would quickly shout "DaddyMommyIdon'tlikethisanymore" or "DaddyMommyIdon'tlikeitgoingfast" in the quarter of a second he had before he spun around to the other side. Miranda, on the other hand, was bored and was trying to climb out until the swing really got going, at which point she was laughing and cackling.

Joey redeemed himself a little at the end of the day when we found a playground at the end of the fairgrounds. Instead of going to the little kids' slide, he went straight to the big slide and started going down it head first, landing face first in the sand every time.

Thus ended our day at the Renaissance Festival. And no, despite my overwhelming desire, I never invited anyone to "sample my fist":