November 2006 Blog Posts

Legos and Chinese Rollercoasters

Two interesting articles I happened across this morning.

First, Slashdot reports that Businessweek.com has a piece on how LEGO bricks are made. There's a walkthrough and a very interesting article.

Second, Gizmodo is running a clip showing a Chinese supermarket that installed a rollercoaster in its aisles. You sit in the coaster and grab items as you pass. I might have to shop there for the novelty alone.

The Tree Is Brighter

I got home yesterday and Jenn decided we should go cold turkey and get all new ornaments for the tree, once again proving I made the right decision on October 14.

We stopped in at Starbucks for a peppermint mocha Frappuccino and continued on to Target where we loaded up with various sizes of gold and red balls as well as a few accent ornaments we thought were really cool. Brought all that back home, un-decorated the tree, packed up the old ornaments, and decorated the tree with our all-new fixings during the commercials while watching Heroes.

It looks pretty cool, if I do say so myself. I'm really curious how the tree skirt will look when we get it done, but it's mostly black and gold with a little cream in it, so it should be OK. The tree topper is still the one that came with the tree, but it's not horrible and we ran out of Target gift cards getting the ornaments anyway.

So I don't hate the tree anymore. Next step - finishing the tree skirt!

Game With The King

The Burger KingBurger King has this crazy promotion going right now where you can get three Xbox/Xbox 360 games for $3.99 each when you get a value meal. The games are:

Sneak King: You sneak around as the Burger King and surprise people with food. It's sort of creepy and extremely novel. It gets a little repetetive after a bit, but it's still pretty fun. This is my favorite of the three.

Big Bumpin': You and three other players (local or over Xbox Live) drive bumper cars around in a variety of competitions. This is a pretty decent party game, but there are only four courses and four game types, and you don't pick them individually - there are a certain number of pre-set combinations of course and game type. Not super flexible, but still fun.

PocketBike Racer: You and three other players (local or over Xbox Live) drive miniature motorcycles around courses. It's basically a slimmed-down kart racing game. You have some weapons that don't seem to come in too handy and the controls are a little sloppy. Of the three, this one is my least favorite, but I can't complain much for $4.

They have a whole BK Gamer web site where you can see more about it and the leaderboards for the games. You can even add the Burger King as a friend (Gamertag: BurgerKingGWF). If you get a chance, head out to BK. It's too novel to pass up.

Not a Thanksgiving Fan

I just came off a four-day weekend and I remember all over again why I'm not a big Thanksgiving (or holiday, for that matter) fan. Yeah, that sounds very grinchy and it's not a super popular opinion, I'm sure, but everyone's got their thing.

Thursday was Thanksgiving. Getting people together on Thanksgiving, especially with Jenn's and my collective family, is a lot like getting cavemen to chisel out gears from stone that can be used in a watch that tells time with atomic precision. Schedules don't line up, things just don't jive, and plans don't ever get made until the last minute, at which point it's far too late to get anything of any reasonable size accomplished.

Jenn had to work on Thanksgiving, so that threw a wrench in the works. Add to that the fact that everyone seemed to want to plan through me - the guy that didn't have any schedule complications. It felt a lot like three people standing in a room where two won't talk to each other, but those two people are ordering pie in When Harry Met Sally. "Trav, tell Jenn we can get together at such-and-such time if she wants unless it's going to take her longer, at which point we can get together at this other time." "Trav, tell your parents it'll need to be later than that unless I can get off early, in which case I can come home and get you unless you want to meet there, which means we might be able to get together earlier."

Add to that the fact my parents don't coordinate between themselves - Mom calls, makes arrangements, then Dad calls, makes different arrangements, Mom calls back, updates me based on new information she has... I'm getting stressed out just thinking about it.

Oh, and I don't like turkey, stuffing, or most of the other "traditional" Thanksgiving food.

In the end, Thanksgiving was just Jenn and I. I made some butter chicken, rice, and chapati bread (the bread didn't turn out all that great, but I tried, dammit). Jenn sort of moped through dinner because "it didn't feel like Thanksgiving," but there really wasn't a lot I could do about that.

Friday I was off work, so I thought I'd get a little gaming in whilst (and at the same time) doing the laundry and running Roomba/Scooba to clean the floor. I figured I'd get some stuff done on Jenn's day off so we could take it easy Saturday and Sunday. Jenn came home tired from the day so Friday night was lame; we had some Chinese food from Happy Panda and watched The Break-Up (which does not end the way you think it will). Not really sure if Jenn noticed the housework was all done. Hmmmm.

Saturday my parents came over to help us put up our tree. We didn't see them Thanksgiving, so they were nice enough to come over and help out with one of the larger stressful events of the season.

Putting up the Christmas tree is a lot like raising a barn. We have one of those artificial trees that folds up sort of like an umbrella and gets stored in a box in the attic. The box is fairly large and unwieldy and isn't really something Jenn can deal with. Here's how the typical year goes:

Trav gets in the attic and man-handles the tree box out of the attic. Trav then slides the box down the stairs because it's too large to safely carry. Trav unpacks the tree and assembles it. Trav then realizes he's put the parts together in the wrong order, at which time the entire thing gets disassembled and reassembled in the correct fashion. Trav then sets about going around to each individual branch and fanning out the little branches to fill the tree in. When the whole nightmare has finished, Jenn steps in to help decorate. (Jenn doesn't participate in the tree raising for two reasons. First, Trav gets irritable and foul-mouthed, which isn't pleasant. Second, Jenn believes Trav is being a perfectionist in the fanning out of the branches when really he just wants the tree to look full. There is ongoing heated debate about whether he is being reasonable.)

This year, Dad helped me get the tree out of the attic and down the stairs, which was awesome and made the process way easier. The parts got assembled in the correct order the first time, then Dad, Mom, and I fanned out the branches. Jenn still didn't take part in the fanning, which nearly was (again) the source of some fairly heated debate. I'm still sort of irritated, but it's just a small stick on the fire of my holiday irritation.

All four of us decorated the tree, during which time I realized I hate our ornaments. Independently, each one of the tree ornaments has merit. This one is cool looking, that one has personal memory or meaning attached to it... but they're not "several great tastes that go great together." Jenn doesn't like my ornaments - many are Marvel super heroes my Dad got me and are very brightly colored and tacky, flying out of the tree or climbing the branches. I don't like Jenn's ornaments - they may have memories attached, but they sure aren't my memories, and I can't deal with the "70's-looking 'Christmas 1982' pastel ball with a small child drawn on it" style. Yeah, she's going to beat me down for that, but she knows it. We both dislike the other person's ornaments. We both know it. Once the ornaments got combined on the tree, I stood back and seriously wanted to cry I hated it so much.

Anyway, so my parents helped out, and that made it go up a little faster and easier, which was good. I went to get the tree skirt out...

... when I remembered that Jenn's cat destroyed it last year, so we don't have one. Time to go to Jo-Ann to find a new one.

Of course, we didn't like any of the ones they had, plus they're so expensive - like $50 or more for a tree skirt! Instead, we found a pattern and some fabric we liked and came out with $92 worth of materials and no tree skirt. Makes perfect sense, right? We are now working on putting that together. Let me tell you how pissed off I'm going to be if her cat destroys this one.

We got home from Jo-Ann and I got sad looking at our tree again, so I went upstairs and found this awesome blown-glass "Q" ornament I keep on display. Opened up the box and started pulling it out of the package when it literally exploded in a cloud of glass shards. I'd never had it out of the box before. Six years I left it in the box and the one year I decide to get it out, it breaks. I guess it serves me right - there's a precedent. I had another awesome ornament I had loved since I was a kid - an old-fashioned Santa in a glass ball that looked a lot like a floating wizard. It was my favorite ornament ever. A few years back, our tree ended up falling over and the only ornament that broke was that one.

We went to the Winter Hawks game Saturday night and sat in the same section we used to have season tickets in, only a few rows back from our original seats. It was the "Teddy Bear Toss" game, where you throw a teddy bear or three out onto the ice when the Hawks score their first goal. This game had three things running against it. First, the game was scoreless until overtime when the Hawks finally scored and won. A scoreless game in hockey is a boring game. I remember now why we don't have season tickets. Second, the people behind me would not stop extolling the virtues of Bon Jovi and Meat Loaf music. Just shoot me. Third, the guy directly in front of me rode his chair like a jockey - his ass went up and down, hovering just above the seat, but he never actually sat down. Made it a little difficult to see.

Okay, so Saturday was a bust. That leaves Sunday.

Sunday I actually started on the upswing. First, I started the day off with a Big Rig, and the caffeine contributed toward a mood improvement. I still walked past the tree several times, which brought me down a bit, but the Big Rig did some work to counteract that. Jenn had some errands to run, so I set out on the town doing my own errands. I hit the comic shop (it'd been about a month) and picked up my subscriptions. I stopped at Michael's to see if they had any different stuff for the tree. I checked out the Game Stop to see what new games were out and to pick up a case for my PSP games. I went all over the place. By the time I got back, I was feeling a little better. Not great, but better.

Jenn and I played some Xbox games Sunday night and went out to The Curry Leaf for some dinner. Dinner was pretty tasty and the games were fun, so that brought the night up a bit. Just in time for bed.

This morning I got up around 4:45a to use the restroom and couldn't go back to sleep after I got back in bed. I laid there until 6:00a when the alarm went off, steaming over a fairly crappy vacation-that-wasn't, and not really looking forward to having to work today. Thus ends the weekend.

I'm not anticipating awesomeness come Christmastime. I have a couple of weeks off at the end of the year to try and relax, but I know the schedule thing is going to bite us - trying to make it to everyones' houses and see all the people that need to be seen. It really turns the holiday from a holiday into a moral obligation. (Yeah, yeah, "it could be worse." But that doesn't make it better, it just gives perspective. That's a huge difference.)

Collection Drawers

Single Collection Drawer BoxI'm a comic geek (you'd never have guessed, right?) and I've got a closet upstairs full of comic long boxes that make it a super pain to file comics as I get them.

Was over at Aaron's house last night and my world was turned around when he showed me Collection Drawers: Comic boxes designed to stack and pull out like drawers, greatly easing the filing system.

I'm totally ordering these.

Create Your Own South Park Character

Over at South Park Studios they have a Create-a-Character Flash game where you can create your own South Park character.

I made one of me:

Travis as a South Park character

And of course I did Jenn and Stu, too:

Jenn as a South Park character Stu as a South Park character

The Vesper

In Casino Royale (both the book and the movie), Bond orders a fairly unique martini while gambling and names it after the girl he's with. Just as much a reminder for me and information for you, here's the recipe:

3 measures gin
1 measure vodka
1/2 measure dry vermouth

Shake ingredients together, strain into a martini glass, and garnish with lemon peel.

They specify Gordon's gin, but I'm a Bombay Sapphire drinker so I'll probably stick to that. They also specify Kina Lillet, but that's been thought to be a little too bitter so Lillet vermouth should be used instead... but I'm not a vermouth connoisseur so I couldn't say on that.

There is a fantastic outline of James Bond drinks over at The James Bond Dossier and a great discussion specifically about the difference between shaking and stirring a martini at The Straight Dope. Interesting stuff.

Casino Royale

Just got back from seeing Casino Royale, the 21st installment of the James Bond series.

They've finally given the Bond series the kick it needed to get back into the game. You could see it turning around with Pierce Brosnan, and I won't lie, I didn't have a lot of faith in Daniel Craig (even after seeing Layer Cake), but they really did it.

They take you back to the "early years" and show you how Bond got his double-O status, then through his first mission. It's a really fun movie on any level, but I'm so glad to see it hold its own with other action/adventure movies that have been coming out lately. You used to have to rate Bond movies on a separate scale; you can rate this one on a scale with its peers and it holds way up.

The bad guy is great, if a little creepy, and the causes they fight for are actually reasonably believeable. There's not really a "Bond girl" in this one. Not that I didn't really like Eva Green, but she... I don't know. She wasn't really a Bond girl.

The only thing I took a little issue with (and quickly got over) was that they created a sort of a time paradox. Bond fought his way through the Cold War and kicked SPECTRE ass. But at one point, M says, "I miss the Cold War." If Bond is just starting at MI-6, then the timeline sort of says the Cold War hasn't happened yet. (Then again, of all the stupid inconsistencies and holes to pick up on, that's what I find? Yeah, I let it go just like the rest. If you give up and just buy it, it's a hell of a lot more fun.)

I'll definitely be picking this up when it comes out on DVD. If you haven't already gone to see it, go. It's worth the full price at the theater to see Bond back in the saddle again.

Cable Cost

Xbox 360 VGA cable

Xbox 360 VGA cable - $40.

Belkin VGA to DVI Adapter

Belkin VGA to DVI adapter - $25.

image

Custom cut DVI and audio cables that I can't use anymore - $75.

Two hours of contortions getting behind the entertainment center to unwrap and re-wrap all of the cables for the cable box and the Xbox 360 because Comcast can't manage firmware updates - PRICELESS.

Comcast/Motorola Firmware Update Breaks DVI

For the last week we've been fighting with the Comcast HD digital cable box. The video will come on and then disappear after three or four seconds, leaving us with audio only. The guy who showed up last week to fix it rewired the cable outlet and that seemed to temporarily fix it. A day later, the problem was back.

A different cable guy showed up today and let us know that a recent firmware update to the Motorola digital cable boxes - something ostensibly to fix certain DVR problems - broke the DVI connectivity. Sure enough, connecting the component cables to the box gets us video back again.

Of course, that doesn't help me because the only input I have left on my TV is digital connection (a shared input that can be HDMI, DVI, or VGA), so now I have to go get the Xbox 360 VGA cable and swap the inputs - Xbox 360 for cable box.

Oh, did I mention that's a $75 custom-made DVI cable out the door? And all of my cables are totally custom wrapped and organized, so all of it has to be torn up so I can put in new/different cables? Thanks, Comcast. Even with the free month you're giving us, it doesn't make up for the ridiculous inconvenience. If Verizon had its broadband TV service up and running, we'd switch tomorrow. (UPDATE: I'm not the only one pissed. At least I wasn't sent to collections.)

The firmware fix for this, which is "currently being worked on" is due out in January. That's fantastic. Keep up the good work, guys. Hire a QA department when you get a chance. Thanks.

Online DVD Collection

I've been using this program called DVD Profiler to keep track of the DVDs I have. It's nice to have an easy to browse catalog, and it's great to print off periodic reports for insurance purposes. Plus there's an ad-supported free version that does pretty much everything you want it to do.

I've had it for a while and dig it, so I registered it for the $30. It's a one-time thing with no upgrade cost, so I figured what the heck - I use it and like it, right?

Registering allows you to upload your DVD collection to their site. Now you can see which movies I have, and I can make sure I don't run out to Target at lunch and get something I already have. If the family wants to see something, they can look at the list and borrow it from me instead of renting. Pretty cool, if I do say so myself.

.NET Framework 3.0 Released

1080p and HDTV Explained

eCoustics has a great article on HDTV that explains everything you ever wanted to know, including whether 1080p is something you should step up to. Given the human eye's limitations, you may not actually be able to distinguish a 720p from 1080p broadcast, pending on how far away from the TV you sit. This is a good complement to the Hanselminutes episode on HDTV.

I have a 37" LCD screen that displays at 1366 x 768, effectively limiting me to 720p (upscaled, or 1080p downscaled). Unless I sit 4.8 feet from the screen, I probably won't really notice the difference between 720p and 1080p display.

Now I'm going to have to go home and measure to see how far we are from the TV.

Finishing the Wedding Registry

Kate Spade 'Gramercy Park' Casual ChinaWe went to Macy's on Saturday and bought the remainder of the dish set we put on the wedding registry. We got a few items for the wedding, but three dishes and a couple of bowls really didn't equal "complete dish set," so we finished out the 12-person place setting list we had put together (minus the platter and serving bowl). It was a little on the spendy side (I think we came out with a total of around $830) but we had a lot of Macy's gift cards to contribute to that so it wasn't that much out of pocket. Thanks to all the folks who got us dishes and Macy's gift cards - you are contributing to the "Stop Eating on Mom's Hand-Me-Down 1970's Corelle-ware" cause.

Actually, I like the new plates a lot. Enough that I'm almost scared to eat on them. They're microwave and dishwasher safe, but... well, I've never had nice plates. It's a new thing.

While we were at Macy's, Jenn picked up a new outfit and I started thinking maybe I need some new stuff. You know, change it up a little. I'm not sure what I want, but while I like a casual dress look, it's not terribly sustainable for me - about halfway through the day I end up feeling (and looking) all wrinkled and rumpled. I do like the stuff they sell at the Cirque du Soleil boutique because I feel like it's reasonably stylish, different, and fits comfortably without making me look/feel unpressed by the end of the day. Jenn says it looks like skater punk stuff and there's only so much skater she can handle. So I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I just know I'm not a chain wallet guy (even though I secretly want to be) and Stu is a golf hat guy (even though he really doesn't want to be).

Speaking of Stu, he came over on Sunday and we put in our final units against Oblivion, completing the game with all achievements fulfilled and clocking it in at just under 61 hours. My dad bought that game and hasn't even started yet. I'm pretty sure he'll never get it finished. Anyway, now that we're done with Oblivion we'll have to look for a new game to put in units on.

Saw that Contra is coming to Xbox Live Arcade on Wednesday, so I'm pretty stoked about that. I remember playing that when I was a kid at the neighbor's house across the street on original NES. Good times. Looks like there's a lot coming out that I might have to check out. Not really sure how well Missile Command will translate without that roller-ball controller it had in the arcade, but I'll give it a run.

imageI've become an Xbox Live Uno junkie. I'm not sure why playing a card game over Xbox Live is so addictive, but it is, and it's really the first Xbox Live game that has me sucked in. I think the key with it is that there's not a lot of skill involved, so regardless of who shows up to play with you, everyone's on level ground - you don't pop into the game to get your ass kicked by the 14-year-old kid who's suspended from school and has nothing better to do all day than practice the game and yell profanity at you while shooting you dead. Jenn's liking Uno, too, and has doubled her friends list since starting. It's a load of fun.

Uno has the Xbox Live Vision Camera enabled in it so you can see who you're playing with online (if they have the camera). Thus far I'm not sure if the camera was really that great of an idea. Sometimes it's fun, but you can't imagine the crazy (and sometimes gross) stuff people will do on the camera while playing. We've seen countless people smoking pot, Jenn's seen a naked guy, a guy I was playing against said he saw someone eating a raw heart... I'm sure Microsoft saw this as a potential issue, and yeah, you can file complaints against people doing that, but somehow I don't see that stopping the issue. I guess Penny Arcade was right.

Russian Spam

I just got this weird spam letter that wasn't even advertising anything. I thought the contents of the spam were interesting, though, almost like a stream-of-consciousness writing from an overloaded engineer.

Now or never. Possible Interpretation: Refers to doing two things at once, or multi-tasking. If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Alternative: Who will act as gatekeeper to the gatekeepers? All hat and no cattle.

Recruiter Pet Peeves

I get a lot of calls from recruiters, and I'm always happy to hear about interesting opportunities because I don't like to close any doors. Hey, if someone wants to pay me a million bucks a year to eat candy bars or something, I'm gonna take it.

That said, I've got some huge pet peeves about the way some recruiters deal with things.

For example, I'm pretty clear about what I like to hear about. I'm only interested in permanent, full-time positions (no contract or contract-to-hire). I'm not interested in relocation (that includes the "keep an apartment where the job is and fly home on weekends" notion - that's relocation, too). I don't want to travel extensively.

Being very clear about that, it's interesting to get incessant calls about "a phenomenal three-month contract in Podunk, Michigan." I'm not interested. You know I'm not interested. Stop spamming me with crap and show me something I'm interested in.

Here's another one: recruiters love the phone. Love it. And I understand that, since salespeople also love the phone and recruiters are basically job salespeople. The thing is, I hate the phone. Hate it. I can't do anything else when I'm on the phone (I can email and do other things). It's hard to get a private conversation on the phone (you can email people without people hearing what you're emailing about). It's not memorable (I can tell you over the phone that I don't want to relocate and you can ignore it; you can't ignore a documented email).

The big pet peeve with the phone is that recruiters abuse it. You do not need to schedule a time with me where I can take your call and talk privately and you can reel off the company backgrounder to me. You do not need to schedule a time where I go to the effort of calling you before work or when I get home so you can tell me about "a phenomenal three-month contract in Podunk, Michigan." You certainly don't need to call me right in the middle of the day and stop me in whatever I'm doing so you can tell me you just got my resume and then promptly start asking me to restate everything that's already listed on my resume.

A recommendation to recruiters everywhere: Get off my phone. We're in an electronic age - use the facilities provided. Use a database to keep track of people and pay attention to what it says. If the "no relocation" box is checked on the form, don't send me the opportunity no matter how cool you think it is. If the "no contract" box is checked, don't tell me about that super-awesome week-long contract in Australia.

Does that make me hard to work with? I don't think so. I just think that a recruiter is more valuable to me when they choose to maximize the value they get out of my time and their own. Respecting my time shows me they respect me and really do pay attention to my needs, and in turn I'm more interested in hearing what they have to say. If I want job spam, I'll sign up for a Monster search agent.

Get Rid of Auto Dialers

We've been getting a lot of stupid pre-recorded calls for election-related crap lately. I'm tempted to follow this advice on Slashdot about how to sue the people making those calls.

162 Trick-or-Treaters

We rang in at 155 last year, but this year we had 162 trick-or-treaters show up at our door looking for candy.

I think we had far fewer "too old for this" kids, and I didn't run into any lippy ones this year. Here's the breakdown time-wise:

2006 Trick-or-Treat Graph

The 6:00 - 7:00 hour was our most productive, with the block from 6:30 to 7:00 topping us out at 59 kids. I thought about trying to tally kids by age group and time, but it's too hard to tell with the costumes on and the kids come in far too fast for any accuracy beyond a basic count.

I wore my Joust costume and the kids seemed to like it, but the parents loved it. Comments included "You're my hero!" and "That's the greatest costume ever!" One dad stooped down to address his kids and explain the merits of classic arcade games right there on my front porch. I claim that as success.

A couple of folks told me they had seen a costume like mine earlier in the evening. Is someone out there reading my blog and ripping off my ideas? Bastards. (That said, what the hell else would you do with an inflatable ostrich costume. Kind of obvious what it lends itself to, isn't it?)

We, again, didn't run out of candy this year, so it looks like two big Costco bags will work. We didn't know how far it would go, so from 6:00 - 7:00 we were giving out two mini-candy-bars each, but at 7:00 we switched to one because we were running low. We had enough left over that I think we could have stuck with two bars per kid and maybe had just enough.

Home Theater Racks

I love my home theater, but I hate having to try to get behind all the components to get the wiring together. I may have to check out some of these cool (but slightly pricy) slide-out-and-rotate racks that mount in existing cabinets.

ASR-HD Slide-Out and Rotating Shelf System