Tuesday, September 30, 2003

About time to lose my power again, no?

Alas, yes. This morning, just after I cranked up the computer to work on the free-lance editing I'm doing, BAM! the power goes off. No flickering or anything, just off. It stayed off for about an hour; long enough for me to unplug the things I didn't want to have blow out when the power came back on, and to get the generator out again. Turns out they were restoring power to the people behind me, and they had to shut the power down to hook their line into it. Can't really complain too much about that, I supopose.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Ten days without power. Or a shower.

Finally got my power back on yesterday afternoon. They needed to put in a new pole behind the neighboring house and string wires onto it, and as if by magic, the electricity had returned.

I was able to determine for certain that my cable was, in fact, out. And all I could get on my TV without an antenna was the more boring of the two PBS stations in Richmond. So I spent much of yesterday afternon searching for an indoor antenna, which was difficult to find as there are a lot of folks in the same situation of power and no cable. But I finally tracked one down, and can now get your basic on-air networks – ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and PBS – and, of course, none of the cable channels. But it’s a start. The cable company refuses to even hazard a guess as to when they’ll restore their service, and I don’t know if that means their repair trucks are scheduled for the next three weeks without my area being included or that it’s going to be tomorrow and they just don’t tell the customer service people.

And I got another one of the Dominion Power automated harrassment phone calls last night. Apparently, enough people complained about the message that they edited it to be friendlier. Mind you, they didn’t re-record it – they edited it, with a different voice. But it wasn’t quite so arrogant this time.

Oh, and no showers? No hot water, because the ignition on my hot water heater is electric. And a cold-water sponge bath, while bracing, isn’t something to take very often if you can avoid it. So I adopted a European attitude towards personal hygiene. And I spent much of yesterday afternoon luxuriating in a warm shower.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Dominion Power strikes again.

I got a phone call from Dominion Power last night, one of their automated harrassment phone calls. Computerized call and robotic-sounding (although apparently human) voice, asking to "confirm" that they had restored my power. Well, no, they hadn't, and they knew perfectly well that they hadn't. They just wanted to rub customers' noses in the fact that they had the power to restore our power, and they chose not to. Thanks, Dominion Power!

But there is one part of their operation they're doing well: they restored power to their billing department right away, as I got a bill from them yesterday. Once again: Thanks, Dominion Power!

Saturday, September 27, 2003

And they offer a Ph.D. in basket-weaving.

Ah, the Terrapins. The University of Maryland breaks new Title IX ground by making cheerleading a sport, and offering scholarships to women (only) for participation. I'm not sure which part of "Higher, faster, farther" cheerleading falls under.

It's a scam, of course, as they wanted to add more men's scholarships, and this was the only way they could think of to do so. Could they have made the women's ice hockey club a University-recognized varsity sport instead and given them the scholarships? Well, sure, but that wouldn't have been as history-making as making cheerleading a varsity sport.

Did I mention? Dominion Power sucks.

Their claim is that they'll have everyone back onto the power grid by next Friday. And they've instituted a procedure whereby you can find out when they estimate they'll have your power back on. They describe the procedure as "automated," and you'll find out by calling their automated customer-service 800 number. So you call it. You then wait through a long explanation of how wonderful they are to allow you to find out when they'll turn your power on, and how as of 3:00 this morning, there are only 225,000 customers without power. You're then given the choices for punching a button: 1, if you want to report that you've lost power; 2, if you want details about your account; and 3, if you want to open an account. Which one leads you to find out the estimated date of getting your power back? You have to guess. If you guess "finding out information about your account," you've guessed wrong. (And you have to hang up and try again.) You have to go through the "report that you've lost power" choice. Next level: press 1, if you have lost all power; 2, if you're power is flickering; 3, if there are lines down; and 4, if there's a street light out. Perhaps this one is easier to divine: pick the choice that lets them know you've lost your power. That puts you into the queue to wait for a customer service representative who asks for your phone number (which she, of course, has in front of her because you've called in on it) and address, and then asks about the nature of your call. "I'd like to know the estimated date I'll get power back." Okay, she says, and then goes through the power-out-and-lines-down information I had called in a week ago when the hurricane came through and the power went out. Is there anything else we can do for you today? "Yes, I'd like to know the estimated date I'll get power back." Oh, okay. She rummages around and brightly announces that the estimated date is October 3, next Friday. Thanks a lot. No, really.

But at least I'm not the only one who thinks so highly of Dominion Power. Today's Times-Dispatch has the daily article balancing Dominion Power's back-patting and comments from customers. My favorite customer quote: "Emotionally, it has become draining to tell my three-year-old one more time why there is no power on in the house for his night light. Despite Governor Warner's admonition to not point fingers yet, I am ready to point mine at Dominion Power - and it's not my index finger."

And what does Dominion Power say? "Most customers should have power by tomorrow night," says the state's major utility. Funny, that's not what they told me.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Dominion Power sucks.

Their latest claim is that it will be at least until next Friday before they restore power to everyone. Yes, that will be 15 days since the hurricane. But at least they're working "round the clock" to get things done. Or at least, they say they are. Of course, by "round the clock" they mean "one 12-hour shift per day".

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

And coming this weekend, a plague of locusts.

Turns out that the rain I referred to yesterday was accompanied by tornados. That would explain the sound of the winds, and why the cat was concerned by this storm but not by the hurricane (through which she happily snoozed). And it explains the tree down across the driveway of one of my neighbors.

Dominion Power update: they still say that they'll have "75%" of Richmond's power restored by Thursday, although it's unclear whether they're counting in that total the people who never lost power. And they'll have either Thursday or Friday an estimate of when they'll have power to 90% of the Richmond accounts (or "all" of them, in Dominion Power-speak.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

We needed the rain.

Rained last night. Another 3 inches or so, with winds of, I don't know, 40 to 50 mph. Luckily, most of the stuff that could fall out of my trees had already done so, so I only had another half-hour or so of cleanup this morning. And yes, the Weather Service predicted this as "partly cloudy with chance of showers". I guess Dominion Power is running the Weather Service, too.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Virginia Power repair crews.

Name three things that it would be really nice if they actually existed.

Virginia Power now says that maybe they'll get around to restoring power "in Richmond" on Thursday, and no one I've talked to has seen any repair crews anywhere. They certainly haven't come out to examine the tree down on the lines behind my house or to check the power lines on the ground. They also claim they'll have power restored to "75"%" of the accounts by Thursday or Friday. I guess that if they make enough predictions, either one might be right or people will be so confused they won't remember any of them.

You know what would be a good regulation? If there's a widespread power outage, the CEO and Board of Directors of the utility had to have their power cut off until 90% of those affected had their power restored. I'm certain that none of them have had to suffer during this storm.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

At least it's not raining now.

No sign of the power folks anywhere near my house, although the major shopping center 2 miles away finally has power. (But the traffic lights between here and there don't, and about 40% of other traffic lights are also out.)

But at least the weather has cooperated since the hurricane left: highs in the low 80's and lows in the 60's. Decent enough weather for picking up dead limbs in the yard and hauling them up to the street (where, I presume, they'll sit for months).

I'm looking forward to power being turned on at the local libraries so I can use their public computers for internet access - this is coming to you from Kinko's, at 20 cents per minute.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

It's a hard rain ... gonna fall - B. Dylan.

Isabel has come and gone, leaving destruction and powerlessness in her wake. Not unlike other relationships I've had.

Power went out around 5 p.m. Thursday afternoon, and there's no telling when it'll come back. I'm hoping it'll be by Monday, but given that the main street near my house doesn't have power yet, I'm not expecting anything sooner. (Thus, no TV and no computer, either.) Water was out for about 24 hours - it's back, and they're telling people to boil it before drinking any. I guess I'm supposed to use my grill for that.

No trees came down in my yard, unlike my neighbors' experience. Trees down in roads, so it's difficult to get through the maze to get out to main roads. A tree came down on my power lines, so that's why I won't be getting electricity back soon. Neat when it happened - the sparks looked like fireworks.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Pennsylvania court rules against common-law marriages.

A mid-level state appellate court in Pennsylvania has ruled that new common-law marriages would no longer be recognized in Pennsylvania (although existing Pennsylvania common-law marriages would continue to exist, as would common-law marriages established outside of Pennsylvania). The court's rationale is that the need for recognizing such extra-legal relationships no longer exists - we're no longer on the wild frontier, with no access to the court for a marriage license. The court also noted that claims of common-law marriages often appear in fraudulent and perjurious circumstances: "In hearings such as this, we have been struck by the tendency of litigants in these matters to view common law marriages as something rather like a legal raincoat they can put on and take off as changing circumstances dictate." The losing party has yet to decide whether to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Wonder where the Donkers-Barnhill "marriage" is claimed to have taken place....

The anti-badger.

And when I couldn't take it any more, I just changed the music.

The idiot lantern.

Time for more Thoughts and Things on the new TV season. But first, a complaint. I'm going through painful withdrawal. The forums (discussion boards) on Television Without Pity have been down for about a week, as they're moving them to new servers, or something. They say it'll be faster and less likely to forget which page you want to go to next, but they've also taken a lot longer to get up and running again than they predicted. They now say they'll open on Thursday at noon. And they also said they'd be open by noon on Tuesday. And by Monday. And by last Saturday at the latest. Gotta have my TWOP.

HBO started two new series last Sunday. The jury is still out on both of them, so far as I'm concerned. One is their political semi-reality show, K Street. Executive produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, and starring the fun couple of James Carville and Mary Matalin (gee, those two deserve each other), Michael Deaver, some real actors, and continuous guest appearances by politicians playing themselves. The best part is that it's timely: they start filming a Sunday night episode on the previous Monday. Can't have "coming next week" promos, as a result. But the shows can address actual issues in a timely manner. The first episode focused on Howard Dean and his performance at the 9-candidate debate in Baltimore. Carville helps Dean with some debate prep and suggests a couple of "spontaneous" lines that he could use, and then does, to great efffect. (Yes, I understand: they watched the debate in real life, found those lines, and then filmed the debate prep scenes. It still came across pretty well.) Haven't yet decided what I think of this show, yet. I'm enough of a poltical junkie to enjoy the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the political consultants and lobbyists, but they'll need to have a more coherent story line and characters to effectively bring the series to life.

The other new HBO series is Carnivale. Set in the 1930's, a traveling carnival picks up a young man from a Dust Bowl farm - a young man with an amazing power of healing. At the same time, a minister in California discovers that he has mysterious powers. An opening monologue talks about the balance of Good and Evil and there always being one leader of each power on the earth, at least until the first atomic bomb blast. Wonderful production values, good cast, very odd characters (as you'd expect in a traveling carnival). Sort of a strange combination of The Grapes of Wrath for the Dust Bowl and going-to-California settings, Something Wicked This Way Comes for the feeling of evil in a carnival, and Twin Peaks, because it's all just so darn strange. Don't know how the show is going to go. It sort of depends on which year of Twin Peaks it decides to emulate: the first year, which was edgy, spooky, and chilling, or the second year, which was stupid, pointless, and pretentious. I'm hopeful it'll be like the first year, especially since David Lynch isn't connected to this production.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Hurricane Donald.

I suppose there are worse things to have raining down onto your house than, well, rain. Think: Synchronized flying ducks. And a bathtub full of water won't help you much.

Traveling music.

About 10 years ago, I finally got a CD player put into my car, so I could listen to music on long-distance trips without having to look for local radio stations every 50 miles or bringing along a stack of cassette tapes. With an in-the-trunk-mounted player and a cassette of six discs, I could drive a fair distance before having to stop and put in new discs. Depending on what kind of trip I was on, I'd measure a day's travel by going through the stack of six discs - if I was already at my destination and was just noodling around and finding interesting places, finishing the sixth disc was the sign to find a place to stop for the night. And if it was a day when I was trying to get to my destination, finishing the first stack of discs indicated I should stop for a meal, and then get back on the road to drive another stack's worth.

About 4 years ago, I discovered that music wasn't the only thing I could listen to on long drives: I could listen to recorded books. I quickly discovered that, just as when I'm reading a book, I much prefer listening to an unabridged book rather than a condensed version. I never had much luck listening to taped books - the tape was thin, and seemed often to be stretched, so that the voice sounded odd - but about 3 years ago, a lot more books started coming out on CDs.

Listening to a recorded book while driving is a different experience from reading the same book. You aren't paying as much attention to it (at least, you shouldn't be, if you're driving), so books that are not terribly well written can still be enjoyable. (For me, one example of that is anything written by John Grisham. I've listened to a half-dozen of his books on disc, and they're a fun way to while away the miles. You're paying sufficiently little attention to the story that you don't realize how bad the plot is or how poor the characterization is. You'll get caught up in the excitement in the reader's voice, and then it's over. Actually having to read his books, where you're giving the story a lot more of your attention, is torture.) And you're forced to experience the entire book, at a fairly steady pace - you can't easily skip ahead or read faster, if you want to.

Over the past few years, I've listened to a lot of books, from All Quiet on the Western Front to various science fiction books (which don't really work for me as well in a recorded format) to thrillers and mysteries. (I've heard most of the Alex Cross series from James Patterson on disc, for instance.) I'm currently listening to Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country, and enjoying it immensely. I've read the book before, but it's a new and different experience to hear the author reading the book.

Purple People Eater.

They don't write 'em like that any more. Sheb Wooley, who sang Purple People Eater in 1958, died yesterday. I wouldn't have guessed, but he'd had a career in TV and movies, appearing in High Noon, Hoosiers, and Giant on the big screen and in Rawhide on the small one.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Kool-aid, redux.

Oh, goody. Our favorite lunatic is back in the news. The mother who breast-fed her infant while tooling along the Ohio Turnpike without benefit of a driver's license or child restraints is appealing her conviction on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Well, sure. That's because she represented herself, after rejecting her court-appointed attorney. (Why? Because he wanted to defend her using, you know, Ohio law, while she wanted him to use only the Bible.)

Better still: she's trying to appeal as an indigent, because all of her property passed to her husband when they married, and he's unwilling to fund her appeal. And yet, he claims to be the only person who can speak for her - she's not permitted to - and he gave his permission for her to pursue the appeal. So the husband takes the wife's property, presumably would take the wife's income if she were to work, and is the "sole voice" for the couple, and the taxpayer is supposed to pay for her appeal, specious as it is?

And best of all: this was a pre-emptive strike of an appeal. The judge has apparently not sentenced her yet, so it's difficult to see why (and what) they're appealing. But why should they start acting reasonably now?

A tale told by an idiot.

Okay, now I'm prepared for the hurricane. I've gotten even more cat food piled up ["We need more," says the little voice from near the floor], and I've mowed the yard. They don't often tell you how important that last step is - when the insurance adjuster comes to inspect the damage, he'll often give you as much as $10,000 more if your lawn is neatly cut underneath the downed limbs and debris from your neighbor's house. But the best widely-available advice is here. Oh, well. We're ready for the storm now. Bring on the sound and fury.

(Speaking of mowing the lawn, I haven't seen any evidence of Rosslyn, the neighborhood bunny in the last couple of weeks. Perhaps she's just moved a block over, where she can more easily raid someone's garden. Or perhaps she has hopped off to bunny heaven.)

Monday, September 15, 2003

Hurricane Isabel.

I'm ready for Hurricane Isabel in the event it comes this way. I've got cat food enough to last through the weekend, and I've been assured that's the most important thing.

Reminds me of other hurricanes, though. I went to college in Houston, and each of the four years, we had one day off for weather related reasons: two for hurricanes, two for city-paralyzing snowstorms of 2 and 3 inches, respectively. Being as responsible as most college kids, we had hurricane parties. Water balloon fights, Frisbee throwing. (Not surprisingly, when you throw a Frisbee into winds of over 75 mph, it doesn't go where you aimed it.) And I seem to recall that there was drinking involved.

Hmm. Wonder where I packed away my Frisbees.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Duke 27, Rice 24 (overtime).

Well, it's not as though either school is a football powerhouse. Last night's game was much more a competition to see which team would play slightly less bad, which team's inconsistent offense could overcome the other team's bad defense. And Duke wins in overtime, when the Rice kicker missed the tying field goal from 34 yards. On the other hand, Rice wins the moral victory, as Duke was favored by 11 or 12 points.

Rice had its opportunities to win during regulation, such as a 60-yard drive in the second quarter which ended with a fumble at the Duke 8 yard line. Rice was up 14-7 at that point, and a score there would have aided their cause immeasurably. Duke had its chances, too - stretching their lead to 10 points with 10 minutes to play should have been enough.

Evenly matched teams make for an exciting game, though, even if it wasn't an especially good game. Rice's final drive included converting a 4th-and-7 at midfield with a minute and a half to play and a 4th and 1 at the Duke 25 with 35 seconds left and no timeouts remaining. And the tying score came with 3 seconds left in the game.

Oh, well. It was a fun evening. The Rice Alumni Association barbecue beforehand had some 250 alumni and family attending, which was a pretty good turnout. Didn't see anyone I knew from my time at Rice, but I suppose that wasn't much of a surprise. On the other hand, I did see two people from my class from Duke's business school, so I got to catch up with some alumni, after all. (One of them is also a Rice graduate, albeit some mumblety-mumble years after me, so that wasn't a huge surprise.)

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Matchstick men.

Went to see Matchstick Men last night. Good movie, well worth seeing. Nicolas Cage does a wonderful job, as usual, playing offbeat characters. He certainly takes chances with his roles, and when he connects - as he does here - it's a delight to see. The script does a fine job of weaving together three separate stories - Cage as con man, Cage as a man with neurotic obsessions (think Adrian Monk on speed), and Cage as a man who discovers he has a teenage daughter.

Directed by Ridley Scott, who's been known to make a few good movies, too. Nice to see him making a relatively small, character-driven movie for a change, instead of a big blockbuster.

Homemade ice cream, the easy way.

No muss, no fuss. And a whole lot quicker than having to drive to the store for Ben & Jerry's. Just be careful pouring in the ingredients.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

More good news for red wines.

Researchers at UC-Davis have found a group of chemicals in red wine which are thought to help in the fight against cholesterol. These chemicals, saponins, work to prevent the absorption of cholesterol. The study announced this week at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society indicates that saponins are found in higher concentrations in red wines - especially zinfandel - and in wines with higher alcohol content.

Film quiz.

How good are you at identifying films from stills? How about if the characters are made invisible through Photoshop? Maybe you should start with Invisibles # 111, with scenes from black-and-white classics. Elsewhere on the site are other quizzes, such as Name the Missing Film, where they give year and name of three films by a director, surrounding a fourth year - you provide the name of the film the director made in that year. Definitely tests your movie knowledge. Fun little site.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

More TV-watching.

Yes, the siren call of the idiot box has been calling me this week. But there have been some things worth watching: two were 9-11 related, and one's a miniseries. And none of them were on major commercial networks.

One was this week's American Experience: The Center of the World, the final episode in Ric Burns' series on New York City. This 3-hour episode was on the World Trade Center - its genesis, construction, life, and collapse. Very interesting, very detailed. Excessively detailed, in fact, the way that Ric Burns' documentaries usually are. I took a nice nap during the early part of the second hour. Awoke in plenty of time to watch the 15-minute segment on the Frenchman who did the unauthorized high-wire act between the buildings. Certainly one of the obvious differences between news reporting today and reporting in 1974 when the action took place is that it was covered then with still photographs, while today there'd be a lot of video cameras around recording every instant. The still photographs were more than vivid enough for me - seeing them made my legs go weak and my feet tingle, and they weren't even pointed down at the ground (which was, of course, 1200 feet straight down). The last hour was devoted to the events of two years ago, and I thought they were done in a good, low-key, straight-forward documentary style, although the sentimentality of an American production was definitely present. All in all, I thought it was worth seeing, although there were times I'd have like to have had both a pause button and and a fast-forward.

Another was BBC-produced Clear the Skies, a 1-hour look at 9-11 focusing on the civilian and military control of the sky above the US, and the reactions and decisions of the FAA, the military, and the Secret Service. Interviews with the four pilots of the military jets that were the only quickly-airborne defense for the northeastern US, eventually patrolling 2 over NYC and 2 over DC. Interviews with and videotape from the reporters' section of Air Force One, which had taken on enough food and supplies to stay aloft a week (presumably being refueled in midair). Pilots of additional military jets already in the air on training missions - and unarmed - realizing that they might have to ram their planes into hijacked commercial jets to prevent them from reaching their targets. A speeded-up tape showing nationwide traffic control radar as all of the non-military flights were grounded in the space of a couple of hours. Good show. Absolutely straight reporting. An angle to the story I hadn't seen done before, and well worth watching.

Finally, the fun one is the mini-series on Bravo this week, The Reality of Reality, an in-depth look at so-called reality shows, how they're manipulated through cast selection and copious editing, artificial drama, and the occasional re-filming of scenes "for better television". The higher-tier shows (Survivor, Big Brother) tend to play it more legit than the knock-off series. What people who take part in those shows expect will happen to them (wealth, fame, happiness), and what usually happens (adrenaline rush, followed by a tremendous let-down). As one of the folks who did well on Big Brother put it, "It's a pathetic attempt to get your life validated by strangers." Great fun if you've enjoyed any of the reality shows.

Screwcaps on wine.

Here's a report on a comparative tasting - by expert tasters - of wines sealed with natural cork vs. wines sealed with synthetic corks, screwcaps, and crown caps (as on bottled beer or soft drinks). Of the 40 wines where they could make a comparison, the wines with screwcaps were preferred 21 times, a wine with a natural cork was preferred once, and crown cap was preferred once.

One of the real surprises was that older wines did much better with screwcaps - wines that have aged, and one theory of wine aging holds that wines need to be able to breathe through the cork, which they cannot do with a synthetic cork or a screwcap. That theory may well be incorrect, and protecting the wine from breathing may be a better thing for winemakers to do. And if the wines can be protected from cork taint, so much the better.

Opus the Penguin to return.

Grand news. Some of the best comics news in a long time. Opus the Penguin is coming back. A Sunday-only strip, alas, but once-a-week is better than not at all. With luck, Opus will be bringing back all of the Bloom County gang with him.

Now if we could only get Watterston to bring back Calvin and Hobbes.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Someone old, someone new, someone sleazy, someone blue.

The Game Show Network has announced the remaining four candidates who will take part in the network's debate.

Joining the previously announced candidates Gary Coleman and porn star Mary Carey are artist and blue-clothes-only Trek Thunder Kelly, weapons collector Carl Mehr, college junior Bryan Quinn, and Bill Walton's son Nathan Whitecloud Walton. Their debate will be held on Oct. 1, and the winner of the debate - viewers get to vote on the network website - will receive a "donation" of $21,200.

Yet another contractor update.

A month and a half ago, they came to dig up my leaking heating oil tank. A couple of weeks later, they came back in to dig a well for monitoring purposes: to see whether any of the leaked oil was migrating its merry way down to the stream at the back of the property. Fairly impressive compact drilling rig, which they had to maneuver around to put the well in the likely path of migration while avoiding damaging my trees or knocking down my power lines. Dug a 20-foot well, abour 5 inches in diameter. Barely big enough for the neighborhood bunny rabbit to fall into, if it weren't for the fact that the hole was covered with a locking cover and a cement seal.

A couple of weeks later, they came back to test the water in it. The testing lab decided that there wasn't any oil in it, and the Dept of Environmental Quality decided that was good enough for them; I could abandon the well. So yesterday, the contractor came out and did those things necessary to abandon the well properly: filled it with gravel and clay, topped that off with about a foot of cement, took out the top foot of pipe, more clay, gravel, and dirt, and covered it over so you can't tell it's there.

Having a well for a month, from which one sample was taken for testing? Between $1500 and $2000, your tax dollars at work.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Middle-of-the-night phone calls.

Few things get my heart pumping faster than an unexpected phone call in the middle of the night. Between the time that the sound penetrates my sleep enough to waken me and the point that I pick up the phone, all sorts of possibilities are going through my mind, none of them good. Did something happen to my parents? Is my house on fire? (Look: I'm not awake enough to figure out that fire is not likely to be the problem, it still being dark and all. I'm barely awake enough to find the telephone, and it's making noise.) And whoever it is inevitably hangs up just before I pick up the phone. Thank heavens for Caller-ID and voicemail messages.

Last night's phone call (around 5 a.m.) was identified as originating at one of the local hospitals. Because I'd successfully stumbled into the kitchen to almost catch the call, I decided to wait around for a minute or two to see whether they'd leave a message on my voicemail. They didn't. Figuring anyone I knew who was likely to be calling me from a Richmond hospital would have left a message or called back, I decided not to be concerned. (And they still haven't called me back.)

Over the weekend, I got a phone call from someone in Toms River, NJ. It would appear that I can be a pretty sound sleeper on occasion, because this one didn't wake me up. I found out about it when I went to call someone and heard the beep telling me there was voicemail for me. And a wonderful voicemail it was: they evidently started talking when the voicemail recording started, not realizing that it probably wouldn't record much while my voice was telling them I was away from the phone and please leave me a message and wait for the beep to start. Near as I could tell, they were telling me that there was a street light burned out in front of their house, and I should replace it right away. They called to tell me this at 4:30 in the morning. (I suppose one couldn't tell whether the light was broken or just turned off during daylight hours.)

One of my worst experiences was some 20 years ago. Phone rang at 2:00 in the morning on a Wednesday. Took me a while to figure out that the odd shrill repeating noise was the phone, downstairs in the kitchen, and I probably ought to go answer it. I counted 12 or 14 rings, ceasing only when I got to within 3 feet of the phone. No caller-ID or answering machine at this time, naturally, and I was convinced it was my parents. I had dialed half of their number when enough blood made it to my brain that I considered that just maybe it wasn't them after all, and I probably didn't need to get them as upset as I was. (And if it had been them, they'd call back later.) About 2 hours later - yes, 4 a.m. - the phone started ringing again. I was quicker to the phone, and got it before they hung up again. Turns out it was a high school buddy of mine, then living in Louisana so it wasn't as late there (but only by one hour), and he was up vacuuming his place and thought he'd just call to shoot the breeze. It didn't occur to him that I might be sleeping in preparation for the next day's work: He wasn't asleep, why should anyone else be? I read him the riot act. And you know? I haven't heard from him since. (It's okay, Charlie. You can call. But only between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m.)

Woo-hoo! New shopping mall!

Well, okay, maybe only "Woo", or possibly half-a-Woo. One of the two big shopping malls opening in Richmond this month opened today. The Short Pump Town Center is big and flashy, all right, and brings some stores and restaurants to Richmond that haven't been here before. But it's oddly designed, and today was a good day to show off the flaws.

The mall is designed to bring back memories of old-time small-town town centers - storefronts to look like different buildings, a band-shell for concerts, open-air walking - and the mall is not enclosed. As a result, as you're walking from store to store, you're outside. That's fine on a nice spring or fall day, but what if it's raining, or snowing, or 100 degrees? Well, a lot of the walkways are covered - but not all of them, and the covering is strangely incomplete. You can walk under cover along half a "block" of buildings, and come to a covered crosswalk which goes to the other side of the open space. If you stay on the same side, though, the cover goes away, and if you want to get to any of the stores on the remaining half-block, there's no cover for you. If it's raining as hard as it was this afternoon (during the storm which produced a tornado in the county to the south), you'll have the choice of opening your umbrella or getting drenched. Or, of course, not going to that store, which ought to delight the store manager.

So once you've gotten "inside" the mall, you cannot get to all of the stores without exposing yourself to the elements, and you cannot even get from one end of the mall to the other without being rained or snowed upon (in the appropriate weather). And do you really want to have your paper store bags rained on as you're going from store to store, and end up wondering whether they're going to disintegrate before you get back to the car? I can't believe that anyone thought about any of this when the mall was at the design stage.

The Streets at South Point mall in Durham, NC, which opened in 2002, does a much better job of capturing the feel of a town square, with different shop fronts and an overlying theme of shops built in old warehouses (complete with stressed-looking bricks and faux weather-faded tobacco and patent medicine advertisements). Old time street lamps and park benches add to the atmosphere. But the mall is enclosed, so you don't have to worry about buttoning up your coat to go from one store to another in the winter, or bringing an umbrella to go shopping at the mall.

Bottom line: I'm not impressed by the design and layout of this new mall, I'm not especially impressed by the stores in the mall. Once all the restaurants open, I think there'll be a couple I want to check out, like the Copper Grill lobster and steak house, the Firebirds Rocky Mountain grill (this is their third restaurant in the country, and the second is in the South Point mall in Durham), and Maggiano's Italian restaurant. I won't downgrade the mall for not having any movie theaters, when the Short Pump theater complex is only 100 yards away (as the crow flies; a mile and a half and 25 minutes if the crow has to drive a car). When the restaurants open up, I'll be back. Until then, I probably won't.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Ah, the new TV season is upon us.

Almost upon us, for the major networks. But the smaller nets have already started up their new shows, presumably to get us hooked so we'll watch them instead of series on the big three, or four, or five networks. I've seen a couple of series enough to know that I like them, one because it's done well, and one as a guilty pleasure.

"Playmakers" started on ESPN a week ago. It's the story of a football team - its owner, players, coaches, and families - in a league that really looks like the NFL but isn't (those pesky lawyers!), what people will do to get onto and stay on the team, and what happens to them as the team casts them aside. Rich production values, pretty good performances, pretty good writing, although the characterization is a bit thin: many of the characters are stock characters from sports movies: the Aging Veteran, the Cocksure Young Phenom, the Coach With a Secret, etc. The language is a bit saltier than what you'd get from the major networks, but not as earthy as you'd hear on HBO; the amount of flesh you see is similarly a bit more and a bit less. Been interesting to watch so far, and they have enough repeats of it during the week that you'll still be able to see your network favorites when their seasons start up.

The guilty pleasure started tonight, on Spike TV. It's called Joe Schmo, and the concept is that it's yet another third-rate, cheesy "reality" show - nine people living in a mansion, one voted off every couple of days, silly contests for bonuses, winner gets $100 grand. The twist is that it's not: Eight of the "contestants" are actually actors, and the goal is to keep him from figuring it out that it's all rigged. It's "The Truman Show" done as a reality game show. They've got an over-the-top mix of sterotyped reality show players - a retired Marine, a flamboyant gay, a beautiful virginal religious babe, a marriage-and-family counselor who has herself had three divorces - and they have equivalents for the other trappings of such shows: secret video diary/confessionals (when our hero does his, the rest of the cast huddles with the director and writers to figure out the day's plot twists), lots of cameras recording all the scheming going on (of which only the scheming with the victim counts), secret voting (with pre-arranged ballots being substituted for the ones cast by the actors), etc. It will be fascinating to see how much more they can do to embarrass the victim without his catching on, although as he comes across as an amiable-but-dim fellow who has no inkling that anything odd is going on, I'm guessing they'll be able to do a lot.

But for my money, what's the best TV show to have started in the past month? Reruns of The West Wing, on Bravo. As I didn't start watching the series until late in the second year, I'm really enjoying catching up from the beginning. Great writing, great acting, and four new ("new to me", in NBC-speak) episodes a week, at least until the middle of October.

Change is good.

Of late, I've been getting some odd coins in my change. I'm not sure why they're showing up in Richmond, which you wouldn't think has all that many people gallavanting around the world and bringing home coins to use in their daily purchases. But I've been getting them in change, which I apparently look at only closely enough to see that there are approximately the correct number of quarters and maybe dimes, and no closer.

Yesterday, I received a Netherlands 1-Euro-cent piece. Odd-looking coin: about the size of a punched hole from a three-hole-punch, and not a lot thicker. Made of some sort of coppery compound, so it looks like a shiny new cent, but it seems light, as though it's half aluminum. Feels like it's really not worth a whole lot, which I suppose is just as well.

And about a week ago, I got a Belize 25-cent piece. Just slightly smaller diameter than a U.S. quarter, but otherwise pretty easy to mistake for one, especially when it's discolored from being in circulation.