Saturday, December 30, 2006

When one door closes, another one opens.

As expected, Friday was the last day on my document production project. It was a good project: when I signed on, it was expected to last 3 months. It actually lasted 30.

I don’t think anyone was especially sad to see this project end. Sure, it’s been a good, steady paycheck. But the past few months have been so boring and unchallenging that I’ve been afraid my head might implode.

The saddest part of the end of the project was the way BigLawFirm acted. They never directly told us that the project was over: the oblique reference two weeks ago was it. They didn’t tell some of the staffing agencies, either, who had to hear it from us. They didn’t even tell their own employees, such as the Staff Attorney who asked on Tuesday whether his last day working for the firm would also be on Friday – and they didn’t respond to him until Friday around noon. And none of the folks who worked on the project – senior partners, junior partners, associates – ever came by to thank us for all our work or to wish us good luck in future endeavors or anything. Oh well: further evidence that I would never want to work for BigLawFirm or spend any unpaid time with any of its employees.

And the open door? We all found new document production projects, with most of us going to the same project that starts on Tuesday.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Recent reading.

I’ve been listening to Microthrills by Wendy Spero. I happily recommend it. I’d like to write as entertainingly as she does, but she has a head start, as she does standup comedy. And I like the fact that the author was the one to read the book. That seems to make books more interesting to me, as you know that the tone and timing is exactly what was meant. Similarly, I liked the CD version of In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson's book about his trip to Australia, quite a bit more because he read it.

As a timely example of contrary, I’m now listening to Loop Group, by Larry McMurtry. The person reading it is mighty distracting: she sometimes mispronounces words or “reads” the wrong word, and often puts emphasis. In a clearly wrong place. When the reader causes you shake your head and go “Whaaa?”, I’m guessing that’s not what the author really had in mind.

I’ve also recently been reading Awake In the Dark, Roger Ebert’s latest collection of reviews and essays. As always, very entertaining, and well written.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ho, ho, ho.

Looks like my contract attorney job will be over at the end of the year. I suppose I can’t really complain, having worked 30 months on a 3-month project.

And, of course, I don’t know for certain that the job will in fact be over. The bubble-headed associate who is sort of in charge – although on a project of this size, she really isn’t – came over today for the first time in three weeks, to have us change the procedure we’ve been following for the past two months. “You’re doing too much. There’s no way you can be finished by the end of the year if you do all that. So instead, do this other thing which will accomplish only 1% of what you’ve been doing but at least you can get through all of the material. That way, you can be finished by the end of the year.”

This was, naturally, the first that anyone in the room – including our handlers – had heard the phrase “the end of the year” spoken with respect to this project, and it wasn’t entirely clear that she realized she’d said it. And there’s an outside chance that she didn’t really mean to suggest that the project won’t continue into next year – but no one has come forth to officially make that clarification.

Oh, well. We all knew the project would end sometime, and the end of the year is as good a time as any. And my understanding is that there are plenty of other similar projects out there to jump onto.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Reindeer games.

My neighbors are crazy. Oh, sure: not the “I’m Napoleon” kind of crazy. Or chainsaw murderers, that I know of. But crazy just the same.

Those are their illuminated reindeer above. Nothing wrong with illuminated reindeer, of course. The building I work in is surrounded by 75 or 100 of them. So what’s odd about these particular reindeer? They’re in my neighbors’ back yard. Visible only from their neighbors’ back yards, including mine, although my guess is that the least-obstructed view is coming down my driveway, looking through the gap in the trees that line the back of their property.

Okay, I can hear you saying, “Oh, isn’t that cute. It’s the overflow from their flock of painted wicker reindeer with white Christmas tree lights that they have in their front yard.” Sadly, no. That’s what makes it so odd. They have no decorations at all in their front yard. No lights, no inflatable carolers, no giant sleighs, no fake packages. Nothing.

It’s not because garish holiday decorations in the front yards are prohibited by restrictive covenant. (I could only wish. A neighbor two houses down from me proudly exhibits a 7-foot-tall Santa that looks more like a nightmare version of a South Park Underpants Gnome.) And it’s not because the backyard is their Testing Grounds – they’ve been there for over a week, more than long enough to decide, “Yep, it works, let’s move ‘em to the front.”

Someone at the office came up with a semi-plausible explanation: it’s for the grand-kids. Perhaps the Extended Family is coming for Christmas, and the grandchildren are concerned that Santa won’t be able to find them. So the solution was to put the illuminated reindeer in the back yard and then contact Santa, so he’d know what to look for in order to deliver presents to the missing grandchildren.

Nah, I don’t buy it either.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Time to go bowling.

No, no; not that kind.

The New Orleans Bowl. Rice is playing in a post-season bowl game for the first time since 1961 (in the late Bluebonnet Bowl, conveniently played at the Rice Stadium). A very minor bowl in the pantheon of minor bowl games. Played two weeks before that other bowl game played in New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl. But at least it will be on ESPN2, so I’ll be able to watch it.

And that will be the fourth Rice football game that I’ve watched on TV this year, doubtless a record for their national exposure. They’ve been on national TV sufficiently rarely in the past few decades – perhaps once every five years, most notably with their upset of Texas in 1994 – that starting off this season getting to watch their games against Cougar High, UCLA and Texas was fairly amazing. Of course, this may not be the best of omens: Rice lost all three games. Oh, well. “The fourth time’s the charm.”

The last time I saw a Rice football game in person, they lost to Duke. That was in September, 2003. Since then, Duke has won only five games.

It seems to me that I heard about 10 or 15 years ago that Rice held the NCAA record for bowl game futility – they then were the Division I-A school that had been absent from bowl games for the longest time. I think we're happy to pass that record on to someone else.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Peter Jackson to direct The Hobbit, after all.

Good news for those who like the Lord of the Rings trilogy: it sounds as though Peter Jackson will direct The Hobbit and the oddly-conceived "prequel" movie set between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring (you know, where J.R.R. Tolkien didn't think to write a book). It just won't be done by New Line, the company that produced the trilogy of movies. Their rights to do movies from the books expire sometime next year, and when the rights revert to producer Saul Zaentz, he'll bring back Peter Jackson and all his crew, and do it up right.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Peter Jackson NOT directing The Hobbit.

Nor, for that matter, is he going to direct a prequel to the Lord of the Rings. Yes, two separate movies, only one of which would be based on an actual book by J.R.R. Tolkien. Unless they're planning a movie version of The Silmarillion, which I would pay good money to watch.
Update: See above.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Guess which yard is mine.

Hint: My neighbor is retired, and raked his lawn on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday of this past week.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Not to be confused with the Heinz 57 Route 66.

So here’s an idea for financially-strapped municipalities: Sell “naming opportunities” for roads.

Not that it’s a completely new idea with Hazleton. On the Washington Beltway, they changed the name of one of the bridges crossing the Potomac River to the “American Legion” bridge, even though generations of drivers knew the bridge as the Cabin John bridge. But the commercial possibilities are staggering.

I look forward to driving on the Sherwin-Williams Blue Ridge Parkway.

(And the best part of the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce Beltway? It doesn’t go all the way around Hazleton. It doesn’t go halfway around Hazleton. Not even a quarter of the way.)

A long time ago.

Went to my high school reunion last month. The Mumblety-Mumbleth. As I was walking from the parking lot to the main entrance of the country club where it was being held, I looked in the window and thought, “Gee, there are a lot of old folks in there. Wonder where my reunion is? Must be on the other side of the main entrance.” It only took another five seconds for me to realize that the group of old people was my reunion. Gack.

It was otherwise okay. Eventually those classmates of mine who have dyed their hair and done other things to make themselves look young showed up, so it didn’t feel quite so much like a meeting of the AARP. Oh, wait: My classmates and I are now all eligible for membership in AARP, aren’t we? Gack.

This year, for the first time, they invited teachers to the reunion, and a couple showed up. My favorite teacher from my senior year and her husband (who introduced me to Othello) were there. My classmates? In most instances, seeing them for 2 hours every five or ten years seems about right.

Every reunion, though, I find myself having a conversation with someone I haven’t talked to since graduation, and discover that they’ve turned into relatively normal people in the interim. This year’s conversation turned ominous when he said, a propos of nothing, that he already knows he won’t be able to make it to our next reunion. In this age group, that often means some sort of terminal condition. I had to ask though, preparing to cringe: “Okay. Why not?” Because he’s going to retire from his government job in about two years, and then he’s moving to Rio, where his government pension will allow him to "live like a millionaire.” And with no family in the area, he really doesn’t expect that this reunion will justify a plane trip from Brazil.

Yeah. Every five or ten years sounds just fine.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

If you're going to wake us up, the least you can do is to bring us breakfast in bed.

That’s Mosby on the right, and her kitten Rebel on the left. Rebel is now six months old, and I’m guessing that Mosby is about a year and a half.

And they’re both available for adoption. Sami and O Henry will even kick in a bag of cat food to entice you to adopt them.

Friday, November 10, 2006

1-800-PHONE ME.

Or not.

Always intriguing to find out what I’ll do for amusement when I’m stuck in a traffic jam. In this case, stuck on an Interstate in the wilds of northeastern Pennsylvania, three miles away from where the two lanes of travel merge into one, while they’re fixing a bridge.

Well, okay. Nothing else to do but wait, so I’ll cast around for something to read. How about the truck immediately in front of me? (And yes, you’re really hurting for entertainment if you’re reduced to reading the back of a truck.)

Hmm, yes. There’s the “Wide Turn” sign. And the obligatory “How’s My Driving?” sign. Except – just where do you suppose you’re supposed to call to comment on his driving?

Not that his driving was bad, you understand. For about a half-hour, his driving was impeccable. No one could have been motionless in the left lane better than he was.

Oh, and the most delightful part of the traffic jam? The Pennsylvania highway department very helpfully put up a sign – one of those movable message signs – that said something to the effect of “BRIDGE WORK AHEAD. ONE LANE TRAVEL. CONSIDER ALTERNATE ROUTE.” They placed the sign after the last exit prior to the bridge being worked on.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Library at Boston.

Other than visiting with friends and eating good meals, one of the most fun things I did was to visit the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Lots of good information – you could watch JFK’s acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic convention and his Inaugural Address in their entirety, and pieces of the presidential debate or quite a few other speeches – with a lot of lighter information to keep the visit enjoyable, such as rotating exhibits on gifts to the President and an in-depth examination of JFK’s trip to Ireland. And it was all presented in a way that seemed academic and nonpartisan, as befits a Presidential Library (unlike, say, the Nixon Presidential Library, which misrepresents objective historical fact and is overly defensive).

Leaving the JFK Library, it really struck me that, since JFK’s death, this country has not had a President who was an active, effective leader. What a shame that breed has disappeared from the national landscape.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A bridge too far.

On the other hand, there are a number of the nice things about going on vacation off-season: No crowds, for one. No hordes of leaf-peepers jamming the highways; no waits at good restaurants. (Well, provided they're open.)

And those who make their living in the tourism industry are more willing to go out of their way to ensure that tourists have a good time. Here, for instance, someone understands that one of the things tourists enjoy doing in New England is seeing and crossing covered bridges. And if you aren’t willing to go way out of your way to see a covered bridge? They’ll bring one to you.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Weather forecast: crummy.

It turns out that there are some good reasons to avoid going somewhere on vacation off-season. Crummy weather, for one. During the nine days of the trip that I was north of the Mason-Dixon line, I saw a total of four hours of sunlight. The rest of the time looked no better than this photo: overcast. Or drizzling. Or light rain. Or the occasional snow. Never quite so crummy that you couldn’t drive somewhere to do something indoors, but almost always too raw to want to do something outside. And during that same nine days, it never got over 45 degrees.

No, I wasn’t expecting shorts-and-t-shirt weather in New England in late October. But clear-and-chilly would have been a nice change. (And I understand that it cleared up quite nicely, once I got back home.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

I've been polled!

Well, almost. While I was on vacation, I was called by WUSA (Channel 9 in Washington), and the Caller ID says "WUSA9 NEWS POLL". I was, alas, unable to take part in that poll, and presumably they didn't leave a message asking me to call back because it would have been a week too late to be included.

I've been getting the usual barrage of phone calls; this year, from both sides. And I'm really tired of it. Thank heavens for Caller ID.

I got an absolutely repugnant voicemail message over the weekend, from some "nonpolitical" right-wing nutjob group, ironically called "Progress For America." Their message was that the best way to fight terrorism was to vote on Tuesday, because if you don't vote, the terrorists win. Or something. About every fifth word was some variant of "terrorist." If you look at their website, it's absolutely clear that it's a front for the Republicans, about as nonpolitical as George Allen's noose. And about as subtle. The saddest part was that they conned the parent of someone who died on 9/11 to be their spokesman - what an incredibly twisted way to gain his fifteen minutes of fame, besmirching his son's memory to flack for the invaders of Iraq.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mower or less.

I celebrated the return from my trip by raking the front yard. Well, okay, “celebrated” probably isn’t the right term. But, strictly speaking, neither is “raking.”

On Sunday, I was guilted into removing the leaves from my front yard by my neighbors, both of whom had raked their front yards earlier in the day. And I didn’t want to be The Guy Who Doesn’t Rake His Leaves, so they blow into other people’s yards.

Not that it really mattered all that much: the fallen leaves I collected probably account for less than 20% of all the leaves produced by the neighborhood trees that will end up on my yard this year, and within two days, enough new leaves had fallen to make it impossible to discern who had already raked once this year, and who had not. Still, both of my immediate neighbors saw me out raking, and that’s enough to gain me the appropriate Neighborhood Brownie Point.

And I don’t actually rake my leaves any more. I tried that once, four years ago. It took me three and a half hours to do my front yard, and I sprained my wrist so badly that I couldn’t write for two weeks. So now I do like everyone else in the neighborhood, and “rake” leaves with my lawnmower. Much easier on the wrists – but a much sillier feeling when you’re running the lawnmower in December, when the grass has not grown at all since the last time you mowed/raked.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Library at Tuckahoe.

It’s in my genes: my mother was a librarian. So it’s probably no surprise how much I enjoy hanging out in libraries and bookstores.

And it’s probably no further surprise to learn that the closing of my local library three months ago threw my book-reading routines out of whack. Sure, Henrico County has plenty of other libraries around that I could go to instead, and the closest is only two or three miles farther than “my” library. But it’s a smaller library with a smaller selection of books and some strange ways of shelving their collection – they shelve the books on cassette tape with the books on CD, all mixed together, for instance, so you have to pull the plastic box down off the shelf and open it to see whether it’s a tape or a CD, only one of which I can play on my computer.

But all is well with the world again: my local library has reopened. In a new building, and all the modern library accoutrements: They’ve put RFID chips in all the books, so you can do a check-out or check-in on your own, without bothering the librarians. There are lots of computers. Lots. They’ve weeded out a lot of old books, and replacing them are many, many new books and books on disk, and two rows of shelves full of DVDs. There are small meeting rooms, and a computer training lab. To me, the biggest surprise was the addition of a cafĂ© in the library, where you can get coffee, muffins, sandwiches, and the like. Food in the library? Sacrilege!

The most fun, though, was going to the library on the day it opened: Because this library had not been checking out books for two months (as it was closed) while everything that was previously checked out had come due and was returned, all the items in their collection were present in the building: all the bookshelves were full, including all the books on disk and DVDs. You could make sure that the library had all the volumes in a series before starting in on it, you could see what books they have on disk, to make it easier to decide whether you wanted to read a book or listen to it. Getting to wander around in the library before anything had been checked out of it was like having the entire library be mine.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Workday antics.

Exciting doings at the full-time job as contract attorney. On Wednesday a week ago, the local partner in charge of the project paid a visit to our lowly digs, and told us that the project was going to end on Friday. (Not much notice, sure. But the usual notice on this kind of project is a phone call from your staffing agency when you get home in the evening, telling you that today was your last day and you don’t need to go back. So 2 and a half days notice was actually a lot.)

He thanked us for his hard work and flattered us with outrageous statistics (e.g., the normal “error” rate for this kind of project is about 5 to 8 percent, and our error rate was 0.125 percent), and told us that we could continue to come in and be paid through Friday. He didn’t quite wink, but the point was clear that we really weren’t expected to work all that hard between Wednesday and Friday.

And oh, by the way, two little caveats: 1) they were going to have a small group of 10 or 12 people continue on, doing clean-up and record-keeping work on the project and taking care of any small productions that might come through, and that group would continue on for some 4 to 6 weeks; and 2) if bigger productions came through or if expected (or perhaps "hoped-for") new clients came through, they’d call folks back in, as needed.

Given that there were 65 or so people on the project, having 10 or 12 people stay on wasn’t all that reassuring to most people. And for those who thought they might be among those continuing, neither did subsequent remarks from the associates that the continuing portion might last 2 to 3 weeks, or maybe 6 to 8 weeks.

By Thursday afternoon, though, I’d been asked if I would be willing to be one of those who stayed on. Hmm: Did I want to be employed? Or unemployed? This struck me as one of those questions that answer themselves. Yes, please. (I have to be able to purchase catfood.) Okay, but keep it under your hat that you’re staying on, at least until we’ve got our 10 to 12 lined up.

Fine. We were all pretty good at not revealing whether we were staying on – at least in part, not to rub it in to those who were leaving. Not that that kept us from speculating who the fortunate dozen were. Or from asking, "What are you planning to do next week?" (There was a lot of yard work to be done, the responses indicated, and a lot of applying for unemployment.)

So Monday morning, those of us still on the project showed up with a bit of suspense as to who the lucky twelve would turn out to be. To our surprise, there were twenty of us. Only a couple of surprises in who was kept on, and only a couple of surprises in who wasn’t there. (The non-returnees included folks who had been asked to stay on, but turned the offer down.)

Still, the project is as well-run as always. There’s work to be done, but the folks in charge can’t seem to get it to us in a steady flow, and there are often sizable chunks of time when we’re forced to look like we’re working instead of actually working. Well, that’s okay: we’re getting paid by the hour, not by the piece.

That instruction to look busy came in handy Friday afternoon, when BigLawFirm bigwigs escorted a couple of strangers into our work area, pointing out the space and storage areas – "more than enough to hold all your documents" – and answering the strangers' questions about the software we use to view document images and the like. It seemed less like a sales pitch and more like an implementation visit.

From what we could overhear, it sounds like this is a new project that will come our way, and probably before the current one is completely over. So it's likely that there will be continued employment, probably a good thing.

How geeky am I? Very, it would appear.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

The harder they fall.

It's not all that often that I get to see something interesting on my walk from the parking garage to the office. I did yesterday, though: I spotted Ralph Sampson.

Admittedly, he sticks out in a crowd. And there he was, on the other side of the street, surrounded by 20 reporters, most with TV cameras that were pointed up at a sharp angle. "Well, that's kind of cool," I thought. "Wonder why he's in town?" And then I realized where he was standing: just outside the Federal courthouse. Not the best way to get your name back in the papers again.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The old man is snoring.

Hurricane Ernesto - well, Tropical Storm Ernesto - well, the unnamed tropical depression formerly known as Ernesto - has come and gone. Leaving 325,000 customers without electricity. Guess who's one of them?

Dominion Electric - that bastion of efficiency - has promised that sometime over the weekend they'll be able to tell people when they might get around to restoring their power.

So much for my planned weekend of watching movies on DVD.

Update: The power came back on by Saturday evening, more than 24 hours after it went off. Still, better then than "by Monday," which is what a number of folks were promised. And the good news about scattered power outages, instead of widespread ones, is that when you go to the grocery store for a bag of ice to keep the food in the refrigerator from going bad - there's still ice available.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


I’m always entranced by marketing gimmicks, and NBC certainly needs one. Their poor ratings this summer, mirroring their poor ratings over the last year, have made it difficult for them to build much buzz for their new shows starting this fall. (If no one is watching their programs this summer, then no one will see all their promos for the new fall shows.)

So they came up with what I think is a neat idea: making pilot episodes for a couple of those new shows available through Netflix. A single DVD disk has the pilot episodes – and precious few extras – for Kidnapped (with Dana Delaney, Timothy Hutton, and Jeremy Sisto) and for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (with Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry, and Steven Weber, among others).

Okay: it’s no surprise that I was planning to watch Studio 60, it being Aaron Sorkin’s new series. This pilot episode seems to be a good combination of his previous shows, Sports Night and The West Wing, and unlike a lot of new shows, appears to have the characters’ relationships fairly well developed and nailed down. Good writing, good potential for story lines, and I’m guessing it will be the better of the two series this year based on Saturday Night Live. I’m definitely looking forward to it, and to getting hooked on it.

Kidnapped looks like it could be pretty interesting, too: a season-long investigation into, and the (attempted) private recovery of, the child of a very wealthy family. A few concerns: how do they attract viewers who miss the first few episodes? How do they keep the interest and suspense up in the mid-season episodes, and not have them turn into Red-Herrings-of-the-Week? And what do they do at the end of the season? If they don’t get the child back, the series will jump the shark as fast as Lost or Twin Peaks did, and if they do, what happens next season? Kidnapping another member of the family? Or follow an entirely different kidnapping, thereby losing Delaney and Hutton from the series roster? My prediction is that this series will struggle to find its audience, and probably won’t be a great success. I could see it being cancelled mid-season; if it’s more successful, it could be renewed for a second season – but not a third.

Monday, August 14, 2006

If this was amusement, then I'm glad we stayed away from the Torture Park.

I had the day off on Friday. (Well, not so much "off" as "locked out." An unpaid day of vacation, so to speak. At my horrid job as contract attorney, Friday was Moving Day, as they're moving us from one warehouse where the air conditioner doesn't work especially well to another of about the same size - and cramming 50 percent more people in with us. But that's a tale for another time.)

One of the guys I work with has a part time job at the local amusement park (King's Dominion), doing training. (Funny how so many of us have part time jobs elsewhere. And yet - a tale for another time.) The good news is that, as an employee there, he gets a stack of complimentary tickets. So he invited a bunch of us to spend our mandatory day off riding roller coasters and whatnot.

Well, why not? Certainly, the cost was right. And it turns out that only one of our group had not yet been born the last time I went there, back in 1979.

A lot of things had changed since the last time I was there. Many, many new rides. A Water Park. Lots of movie-related things (not surprising, as the present owner is Paramount).

Probably the most important thing that has changed since my last visit? I discovered I'm not as fond of roller coasters as I once was.

Getting to the park, I realized that I wasn't interested in rides that turn me upside down, or in being suspended from something instead of riding in a car. If I look down between my feet and see ground way down there instead of floorboards, I'm not getting on it. And I really wasn't interested in 270 feet of free fall. (See photo above, taken with a telephoto lens - because you don't get that much detail with the naked eye.)

Fine. I could still ride traditional roller coasters, and did. Including the Rebel Yell, one which I recall riding the last time I was there and enjoying it. And I discovered to my horror that I no longer found being loosely strapped into a vehicle hurtling over a 100-foot high precipice down a 75- or 80-degree slope to be "fun."

Further experimentation revealed that other rides having the common thematic element of simulating dashing yourself against the ground from a great height and at a high rate of speed were also ones that I found to be somewhat less than entirely enjoyable.

Some rides were fun, to be sure, and the morning overcast kept the crowds down, so all in all, it was a pleasant way to spend the day. But I'm glad I had a complimentary ticket, instead of one I'd had to pay $40 or more for. (And the free ticket made it easier to put up with the other price gouging - $10 to park and $3.25 for a half-liter bottle of water, for instance.)

It might well be another 27 years before I go back.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mow, mow, mow the yard.

I mowed my front yard this past weekend, much to my neighbors’ delight. Not especially exciting, to be sure, other than for the fact that it hadn’t been mowed since before Memorial Day.

And not that it had grown all that much in two months. We’ve had lots of heat and very little rain, and the grass responded wisely by not growing. So other than the three weeds that thrived in the drought, there wasn’t much need for a session with the lawnmower. (Well, other than to give the neighbors one thing fewer to glare at me about.)

Forty-five minutes, two-thirds the volume of grass clippings of the previous mowing, and a bucket of perspiration later, I was done. With luck and a continued drought, I won’t have to do that again until Columbus Day.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Like popcorn with margarine and no salt.

It was a disappointing weekend of movies at the Cellar: Disappointing in that good books did not successfully make the transition to the big screen.

Perhaps it’s that we’ve been spoiled of late: The Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy were translated to cinema extremely well, with the story intact and the spirit alive. Movies where it was easy to believe in the new worlds created on the screen, and that the inhabitants truly lived and loved and died within them. Not so with the movies I watched this weekend.

One disappointment was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The special effects were excellent, the story seemed complete, and the characters’ speeches seemed to match what I recall from the book (although it’s probably been since junior high school – many, many years ago – that I last read the book). And Tilda Swinton as the White Witch brought a depth to her character that was utterly missing with all other characters in the movie. Other than her and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, all the characters – alive and animated – had the short range of emotion you would expect to see at a table reading on the first day of rehearsal. Everyone walked through their scenes by rote, bringing no sense of wonder to the land of Narnia and ultimately no soul to the film. A fine example of the observation that a movie needs more than special effects to be good.

A bigger disappointment was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The special effects were pretty good, although not great, and again, the story seemed to match my memory of the book. This time, though, putting the dialogue into the characters’ mouths worked poorly. The words matched what I recall of the characters’ speech in the book, but it just didn’t work at all well. The visuals, the poor acting, and the cumbersome dialog combined to put me to sleep three or four times during the movie, and at no time was any part of the movie compelling enough to make me want to go back and re-watch what I had slept through.

Perhaps it’s that Douglas Adams’ writing isn’t well-suited to a direct translation to the movies; that the scenes and images he creates play better in the reader’s imagination than they do when realized in a movie. A better adaptation of this book could be found in the computer game for the Commodore-64, and I’d happily recommend playing that to watching this movie.

Another book adaptation I’ve watched recently that wasn’t as good as I’d hoped was The Twelve Chairs, by Mel Brooks. One of his first movies, it had tantalizing glimpses of the humor that blossomed in his next few movies – Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety – but not enough of them to make it qualify as a good, funny movie. Maybe it’s that the underlying book from which the movie was adapted was intended as a biting satire of the Soviet system, and the movie takes its tone from that. Or maybe it’s just that Brooks was still feeling his way as a director. The movie often seems disjointed and without a coherent structure: it has too many plot twists and new scenes for no reason other than Brooks needed five more scenes before he could get to the movie’s end. It really felt as though I was watching a 90-minute version of the hoary old “Tiz Bottle” joke, albeit one without a Tiz Bottle. And yet, a Tiz Bottle joke told by the Mel Brooks who made The Producers would have been a good movie. This one didn’t quite reach that standard.

(Yes, I have liked some movies I've seen recently. Match Point, for one, although three quarters of the way through it, I wasn't sure. But by the end, I was.)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Lost in the desert.

Very bizarre: I open my email program, and there's no new email for me. There's been only a couple of new emails since yesterday morning. And none of them are the ones I'd expect to receive even if my correspondents were all on vacation: daily news summary emails, wine lists, spam.

Hmm: the only email I've gotten since 3 a.m. Saturday has been addressed directly to my ISP account, and everything that's missing would have been addressed to my alumni forwarding service at Duke. Hmm.

So I've left the Duke IT people an on-line "problem sheet" and they've sent me an automated email that they'll get to it when they get to it.

If you've sent me something recently and I haven't responded --> I'm using this as my excuse.

Yes, the email link above works fine.

The Duke IT people got around to it. Well, what they actually got around to was telling me that they aren't responsible for the alumni forwarding service - the alumni association is. And to be helpful, they give me the snail mail address for the alumni association. Thanks. A lot.

Monday, July 03, 2006

I've been busy.

Yes, yes, I know. I haven't been writing much here of late. I plead overwork and silly deadlines at my horrid job, and many hours of watching World Cup matches and referreeing domestic feline disputes. I'll try to be better, but I make no promises.

Customer "service", AOL-style.

You know, not unlike the way that a bull services a cow.

Very funny article in the NY Times yesterday about someone's attempts to cancel his AOL account. Funny, that is, so long as it doesn't happen to you. It took a 21-minute phone call, 15 of which was waiting to talk to a live person. The best part was the conversation with the customer service person, also known as a "retention specialist", who wouldn't let the customer cancel even though the customer used the phrase "Cancel my account" (and close variations) thirty times in that five-minute conversation.

How do we know about this conversation? The customer recorded it. At the moment, the customer's website is down because of all the hits it's received, but YouTube has an NBC news story about the conversation, including a lot of the call.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Field trip.

Saturday, three of the kittens went for a ride. They came in to my contract attorney job with me, as the warehouse we laughingly call our "office" is somewhat more relaxed on the weekends. (Any actual employee of BigLawFirm is off at the beach, sitting under an umbrella with rum drinks in their hands, in preparation for a federal-court-imposed deadline of June 30 to produce a boatload of documents. But we are exhorted to work harder. Go figure.)

Just as with last year's kittens, the three chosen kitties were there to show off to prospective adopters how cute they were, to get some exercise in a room other than their current prison (aka my spare bedroom), and to gain exposure to people other than me, the better to socialize them. Not surprisingly, they were a big hit. Cute and furry and ready to play with anything that looked like a toy, how could they not be?

And just like any good kitten, they ran and played and ran and played until they conked out, and then went to sleep in a heap. And they stayed asleep for an hour or so.

Thus, they were good and rested for the ride home, where they serenaded me with their songs of woe of the terrors of being in a cat carrier.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

First in war, first in peace.

I went to the Nationals’ game on Sunday. Good game, as they beat the Phillies 6-0. And the meaningful runs were scored the old-fashioned way: with two outs, they put together a couple of walks and a couple of doubles for the first three runs; all they needed.

My first time to a major league game in ten years. And my first baseball game at RFK since the Senators left in 1971. I don’t know if the game has changed that much since the game I saw in 1996, but the ticket prices certainly have. Good seats, and all, but for forty-five bucks, I’ve come to expect scenery, stage lights, and either an orchestra or a playwright at some point in the production.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Lights! Camera! Inaction!

If a movie producer is the guy responsible for getting a movie made, then Sunday I got to be a movie anti-producer – someone responsible for keeping a movie from being made.

Over the past couple of weeks, they’ve been filming Evan Almighty here in Richmond (among other places). A sequel of sorts to Bruce Almighty, but without Jim Carrey or Jennifer Aniston, whose agents were apparently good enough to preclude a ”must appear in sequel” clause in their contracts for the first movie. Morgan Freeman and Steve Carell are the stars in this one, which has a “Build me an ark!” theme.

The past two weekends, they’ve closed down Main Street in front of the building I work in. We haven’t been able to park in front of the building as usual, but the weather’s been nice enough that the three-block walk we’ve had to take has been a pleasant stroll.

Saturday, they were filming scenes with a Hummer. All I saw was prep work, as I needed to go inside and get to work. (Okay, okay: “to go inside and clock in.”) From what I could see, it looked like they were getting ready to do closeup shots – presumably conversations within the Hummer – with at least one dolly shot coming up to the driver’s window.

Sunday, though, was a bit more exciting. I got to the office just a few minutes too late to see the buffalo, sheep, and goats running up the street. And just the same few minutes too late to be hassled by the movie production folks and the Richmond police, who were keeping people from walking along the sidewalk to the sole entrance to their place of work, some for over half an hour. (By the time I arrived, all the animals were gone and most of the movie folks were on a lunch break, so I was able to walk right up to my building.)

Five of us left work at the same time later that afternoon. Out the door we went, scattering in four different directions. About five steps later, I realized that there were a lot of people around who looked oddly out of place for a Sunday afternoon, because they were dressed in business attire – not the t-shirts and shorts that we and the production staff (and anyone else in his right mind on a beautiful spring afternoon) were wearing. Scattered along the sidewalk, in groups or singly, talking to each other or in mid-stride – and all perfectly still. Hmm, I thought. “Extras. Set up for the next shot, and waiting for the director to call ‘Action!’” Well, no matter: we’re already in the middle of their set-up, we might as well keep on going, and thereby keep them from the shot for another minute or two. (It didn’t occur to me until later that we might not have been in the middle of the set-up – we could just as easily have been in the middle of the take, as they could all be frozen in place though actions of Evan. And if that’s the case, maybe we’ll all show up in a gag reel for the movie.)

They got me back, though. I was parked on a one-way street and needed to cross Main St. to get out of downtown – and the police were keeping traffic from crossing while a take was underway. I had to sit at the intersection through two more takes – maybe 10 or 15 minutes – before I could go on my way.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A cat in the hand.

They're two and a half weeks old now, and while they're starting to walk, they aren't too thrilled about the concept, preferring to stagger instead.

I have good leads on adopting out three of them, and I haven't yet resorted to taking them in to work to show them off.

Mosby is a bit more restless mother than Outdoor Cat was a year ago, and has taken to demanding short releases from her prison into the rest of the house. Much hissing ensues when she spots the Resident Cats. And her forays into the rest of the prison are fairly short, as she suddenly remembers that her kittens are alone.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Open for business. Again.

It would appear that John's Home for Wayward Cats is open for business again.

Mosby gave birth to her kittens about 10 days ago, in a place unknown to me. And it's taken me this long to find them.

My neighbors' house has a flower box built into it - a five-foot high set of walls underneath a kitchen window, open at the top and with metal bars across the top of it that you could put smaller flower boxes onto. Mosby discovered this, and discovered an opening that she could jump down to ground level inside those walls. A safe place to have kittens, she concluded. Mostly protected from the elements, and close enough to my basement door that she could hear me when I came out to feed her.

I think she was surprised when I showed up this afternoon to remove the flower boxes at the top and try to get her and her kittens. She wasn't all that difficult to coax out - it just took some wet cat food. The kittens were a different story, though. They were too far down to reach, and the metal bars would prevent even a skinny person from getting into the structure to get them.

So I had to go fishing. I tied a string to a bucket, and lowered it to the kittens' level. When they didn't rush into the bucket, I encouraged them with a yardstick. Eventually, I was able to raise all five of the little kitties.

They're now in the same luxury hotel suite - known to me as my spare bedroom and to them as a prison - that the Outdoor Cat had last year.

And I'm willing to bet that "fishing for kittens" is more unusual than what you did for Mother's Day.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Good news, bad news.

Well, the good news is that Mosby isn't pregnant.

The bad news is that two days ago, she was.

The worse news is that I hadn't been able to convince her to stay inside, so she's had her litter outdoors, under an azalea bush or something.

With luck, she's had them in the crawl space under my house, which will make it easier to find them and corral them all so I can take the kittens inside, thereby making it easier to convince Mosby to stay inside with them.

I guess I have my weekend exploring all set out for me.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

I've seen fire, and I've seen rain.

The aroma of burning pine logs is a distinct and pleasant one, and the smell of that smoke conjurs up images of campfires past, of camping trips taken with the family or with Boy Scouts. A very pleasant trip down Memory Lane – until you realize that you’re smelling that pine smoke while inside your house, and you don’t have a fire going in the fireplace.

It was about ten days ago, when a line of powerful thunderstorms moved through the area, bringing the first measurable rainfall in months. Lots of lightning strikes nearby – almost enough to read by inside. Then one of them knocked out the power. Only for three seconds or so, but that was long enough to reset all the electrical appliances in the house. (Most notably, it reset the DVD player, and I’d gotten through almost all of the interminably long – 13 minutes and 20 seconds – end credits to the latest Harry Potter movie. Over 13 minutes! Of end credits! Gah! But that’s a rant for another day.) I wandered towards the office to check on my computer, when I started thinking about campfires of yore.

When I snapped out of my reverie, I realized that I was smelling the smoke while in my basement; with no doors or windows open. That got me moving. I quickly checked around inside to see if I could find the source of the smoke, and when I couldn’t, I went outside to look for flames. Glowing embers, at least. A quick check of my house and my neighbor’s didn’t reveal anything, so I went back inside for a raincoat. (It was still raining pretty hard, of course, but the need to quickly find the fire overrode any desire to stay perfectly dry.)

The smell of the smoke was very strong by my basement door, so that’s where I started my search. In a couple of minutes, I was 75 yards from my house, still looking without finding anything. I ran into some folks from around the corner and down a ways, who were searching from the other direction. They hadn’t seen anything, either, but had called the fire department. Indeed, we could hear the sirens, on the other side of a small woods. “I bet those sirens are from my call,” the neighbor said. “This street has two parts, and they’re not directly connected. They’ll have to go on a three-mile route to get from that part of this street to this one.” Sure enough, about six minutes later, the fire engines roared up. (You know, I’d be concerned about that response time and the fire trucks getting lost, if I lived on that street.)

The neighbors confirmed that they’d made the call, and everyone looked around for the source of the smoke. The firemen told us they’d gotten a lot of phone calls from the area, but no one calling in had actually seen the fire. Another report on the radio revealed that other firemen had now seen the fire, about 3 blocks away from us, across the woods. And with that, these fire trucks turned their sirens on and zoomed away.

By now, the smoke had dissipated, so I went back inside.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Four for the road.

It turns out that the reason I had to watch the borrowed movie is that the guy who loaned it to me was leaving the project, and while he’d forgotten that I had the movie, I hadn’t. And since I didn’t want to admit that I’d had it for months on end and hadn’t yet watched it, or to give it back to him and then get it from Netflix, I needed to watch it right away. Well, first I needed to find it.

At any rate, last week was an interesting week at the project, as four of the thirty or so of us on the project quit during the week: one to concentrate full-time on his solo practice, one to go to a different project (one that pays more, alas), one to work as inside counsel for a large Richmond company, and one to do, well, not much of anything, it would seem.

It’s always interesting when someone leaves our little project for a real job. You’re happy for her, of course, but that happiness is tinged with a feeling of “Why didn’t they pick me?” (Okay, the answer to that question usually is “Because you didn’t apply for it,” but still.) It feels a lot like what I imagine being in an orphanage is like: you’re glad that someone got adopted out into a family, yet at the back of your mind, you wonder whether you weren’t picked because you’re not pretty enough, or something.

Monday, April 10, 2006

That little box.

A few – okay, six or eight – months ago, someone who works on the project at BigLawFirm with me loaned me a movie he thought I should see, “True Romance”. An early Tarantino script, with an ensemble cast including folks who have become a lot more famous since (Brad Pitt, Patricia Arquette, Christian Slater, Gary Oldman, James Gandolfini) and some old favorites (Dennis Weaver, Samuel L. Jackson).

Between the time he loaned it to me and last week, I had forgotten that Tarantino was the writer, and somehow thought it was going to be a relatively light flick, somewhat like “St. Elmo’s Fire”. And since I didn’t look at the box or read the description on the back of the box as I was pulling the tape out, it was a bit of a surprise to me when the movie turned out to be, well, more like a typical Tarantino movie. Still pretty good, of course, but not quite a light romantic comedy or family fare.

In any case, it dawned on me as I was putting the tape into the VCR that the last time I watched a movie on video tape was probably over six years ago, and that this was the first VCR movie I’ve watched since I bought a DVD player. Amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly a new piece of technology (the DVD player) can change one’s habits. I still use the VCR all the time, but only to record stuff from the TV that I’ll watch later. And I bet that when the day comes that I get a DVR – shortly after I get an HDTV, I’m guessing – I’ll stop using the VCR altogether.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Introducing ... Mosby.

It's official. She's Mosby. The winner should contact me soon for official transfer of his or her prize. Bring a cat carrier.

Many of the suggestions were good. I've already had a "Misty" and didn't want to tempt fate by giving her name to another cat who lives outside and could thus share the original's demise by being hit by a car. Decided against "Empress" or "Palpatine" because I just didn't want her to continue working on her Dark Powers to cause lightning to shoot from her paws. Figured that "Erdos" wasn't appropriate because not only could she not write a mathematics paper (or whatever the Cat Equivalent thereof is), she couldn't read one either. (Remember, this is the cat who declined the opportunity to sleep inside the house when it was fifteen degrees outside.)

She has, however, slept inside the house a couple of times this week, and has been introduced to the Inside Cats. Sami is always happy to find another cat to play with, but O. Henry wasn't too pleased at the idea of sharing her house with yet another feline. Not that it mattered much: Mosby was too busy growling and hissing to really tell what the other cats' reactions were.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

No topic is too trivial for me to discuss.

For instance, the NCAA pool at my office. 17 of us are taking part. 16 of us are dead for the coming weekend, having predicted as winners in the national semi-finals and finals none of the teams that made it to the Final Four. And the 17th person picked UCLA to win in the semis and lose in the finals. Seven of us correctly predicted exactly one of the Final Four (six, myself included, picked UCLA, and one picked Florida); everyone else was 0-for-the-Final-Four.

The good news is that the final rankings in our pool are almost set: if UCLA wins its semi-final game, the guy that picked them wins the pool; if they lose, he comes in second. And whatever happens, I come in third.

Idle speculation leads to the next question: what are the odds of perfectly predicting the entire 64-team tournament? This article indicates that if every game were a 50-50 proposition, the odds of a perfect bracket are about one in nine million trillion. If you factor in the observation that, more often than not, favorites win their games, the odds are somewhat more reasonable: estimated at between one in 150 million to one in a billion.

Good enough odds that various companies - including AOL and PapaJohn's - have contests promising huge prizes (a million bucks, or a million pizzas) to anyone who correctly picks the entire bracket. They won't have to pay out this year, as no one in any of the contests got through the first weekend with perfect picks.

Still, I'd liked to have picked as well as this guy (who is leading in the Washington Post's bracket contest). Perhaps I could get him to pick stocks for me.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Here are the new resident cats.
This one is Sami, and he's 13 years old.

And the other:
O. Henry. She's about eight.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

There and back again.

I've returned from a quick trip to Florida to pick up my father's cats. Not a terribly exciting trip as these things go, although I suppose that's a good thing. Good weather, both ways, so that was a plus. But a one-way distance of 860 miles, with all but the first 2 miles and the last 3 on Interstate highways (or their equivalent) through a relatively flat landscape with no view of mountains or ocean makes for a pretty boring drive. South Carolina is especially interminable, and it's less than 200 miles of the trek.

The cats were very well behaved on the return trip: Sami complained for five minutes every half-hour, and O. Henry complained for the first twenty minutes of each day and not at all thereafter. And they have taken to their new home as though they'd lived here for years. The as-of-yet-not-officially-named gray cat was happy to see me return, bag of cat food in hand. That didn't stop her from giving me a lengthy piece of her mind waiting for the cat food to hit her bowl.

One of the highlights of the trip was seeing a school-bus-yellow Hummer. (Well, a Hummer H2, like the one above, which I guess is the SUV version of the Machomobile for idiots.) Very bizarre, indeed: why would you buy the vehicle in the pretense that it makes you as rugged as the Marlboro Man, and then paint it to look like a school bus? I suppose it allows you to sneak unseen through the school bus yard on the way to your secret manly spy mission.

The best part of the trip, though, was a 20-minute piece of highway theater in Florida. I'm cruising along at 2 mph over the speed limit in the middle of the three lanes going in my direction, and am passed by someone going perhaps 10 mph over the limit. Then I'm passed by someone else doing 10 miles over the limit - and it becomes pretty clear that this second car is an unmarked police car. (No markings, no lights on top - but a big star on the license plate and a uniformed driver kind of give it away.) The first driver tumbles to the secret and slows to my speed, as does the cop car, now 5 or 6 car lengths ahead of me and no more than 2 lengths behind the first driver. Someone else goes around me pretty quickly, and slams on his brakes when he recognizes the license plate as being the police. I drift over into the righthand lane, the better to watch the vehicular interaction. The first car slides into the middle lane; the cop immediately slides over right behind him.

Cars keep getting added to our little Kabuki group. Someone zooms up in the middle lane and starts to go around - and slows abruptly when he's close enough to see the star on the license plate. Forty-five seconds later, someone else zooms up behind him and starts to go around, only to stop when the immediately previous car slides into the right lane ahead of me, revealing the cop car.

A couple more cars join our pack, always doing the same: overtaking the back car and weaving their way through all the cars going the same speed, until they spot the cop car and slow themselves down. And the whole time, the cop car is no more than 2 car lengths behind the first speeding car.

After about 20 minutes of cruising along like this, now with 12 or 15 cars in our convoy because no one wants to speed past the police car, and with all traffic ahead of our group having gone out of sight long ago, the policeman finally decides to stop messing with the head of the driver in front of him, and pulls into the right lane and accelerates away from us.

Monday, March 13, 2006

A piece of pi, to go.

Tomorrow is World Pi Day. Why tomorrow, of all days? Because you can write "March 14" as 3/14, which ought to look familiar to fans of pi.

A much bigger version of the pi poster above can be found here. Much bigger - a file size of 1.7 mb and what looks to be about 65,000 digits in the background.

Yes, I suppose it's all somewhat irrational.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Name that cat!

It's contest time, here at the Cellars. The little gray outdoor cat needs a name; something better than her temporary name of The Gray Ghost. We've decided that she is, in fact, a female, although that need not limit your choice of a new name for her.

She continues to be skittish, although as The Provider of Food, I am permitted to pet her and briefly pick her up. But I think she's also getting a bit used to being around people, as she seems to like my company for substantial stretches, so long as I'm between five and ten feet away.

The deadline for entries in the Name that Cat! contest is "soon" and all decisions will be final and arbitrary. The winner's prize is yet to be determined, but will include having the winning name given to the cat. And if you live close enough and are easily persuaded, the prize may also include the cat herself.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Yet another self-distribution update.

A few updates on self-distribution by Virginia wineries.

First, this year's legislation remains "tabled" and thus will be dead for this year's session. Don't know whether there was any serious attempt to revive it; if there was, it didn't come to anything.

Second, I got an email from an owner of a Virginia website, in response to one of my earlier postings on self-distribution:
Comment about your post regarding your belief that wineries won't go out of business: I'm having to make the decision of whether to sell my house because the winery can't afford to pay me more, and I'm stuck with an ever-growing mortgage payment because of taxes. And I'm sick of working 3 jobs. We are not a profitable business yet, and probably won't be for another year or so. Even using current projections, profitable means a meager margin. That will now be eaten up by the cost of having to set up and support a separate business entity, warehouse, employees, etc., not to mention making less money per case. The threat is real, and although I believe that everyone needs to be able to play with the big boys when you're talking about business, I built our business model on being able to self-distribute. We will probably survive because we're a bit more established--but if you're thinking about starting up a winery and having to go directly to a distributor, good luck. Perhaps they will pass something that will allow a cooperative that can make the alternative more palatable, but I assure you, there was no exaggeration from my end about the gravity of this development to [my winery].

Fair enough. The owner also went on to note that having their wines in retailers and on restaurant lists helps push customers to visit the winery and to their booth at festivals, which are on-site sales that won't have to go through distributors. So losing the ability to self-distribute hurts both direct and indirect sales.

Finally, with the defeat of the bill, there have now been a few articles in the press about losing self-distribution will hurt wineries. It's too bad these articles didn't appear before the legislative session, when they might have done some good.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Showing your work will not be required.

You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

And no, you can't clean the blackboard for extra credit, either.

Another minute of fame.

My local watering-hole had its second annual “Taste That Beer!” competition last night. Well, not a competition, exactly, as Virginia’s alcoholic beverage control laws frown on such things. And certainly not something that would award prizes, either, other than bragging rights. But a blind tasting of 12 different beers, and you try to determine the style and the particular beer.

At last year’s not-a-competition-as-that-would-be-illegal, you may recall, I came in second, one point behind a professional beer writer buddy. So I claimed that he won the professional division (consisting of him) and I won the amateur division (consisting of the other 39 participants present).

This year’s format was different from last year’s (where all you got was the beer, and you had to dredge your memory to come up with styles and beer names): they had a list of 120 beers, broken into 12 groups of 10, one group for each style. Once you guessed (ah, I mean “determined”) the style, you had to pick the actual beer from the 10 possibilities. They awarded 4 points per beer: 1 for the correct style, 1 for the correct location of the brewery (state, if U.S., otherwise country), and 2 for the correct beer. Thus, a total of 48 points were possible.

As usual, it was a lot of fun, in a humbling sort of way. Since you knew what the 12 styles were, you had the opportunity to second-guess yourself. The beer that you thought was the hefeweisen when you had it in the first round might well have been the Belgian light malt when you try a beer three rounds later that tastes more like what a hefeweisen really should taste like. And they admitted that they were going to include some difficult beers to identify, or even to classify.

Once again, I didn’t win. The winner had a total of 11 points. (Yes, out of 48.) Once again, I came in second, one point back. The good news, I suppose, is that the winner wasn’t the professional beer writer (who had 8 points). And thus the bad news is that I can’t even claim to have won the amateur division.

Unlike last year, I had a couple of regrets about the answers I eventually turned in. The one beer I correctly identified was the Smuttynose Smuttinator doppelbock – and I misremembered the state that Smuttynose is brewed in. It’s in New Hampshire, of course, and not Maine as I recalled. (My excuse is that I was remembering having fresh Smuttynose when I visited friends in Maine. Yeah, not that great an excuse.) If I had gotten the state correct, I’d have tied for first, and there would have been a sudden-death taste-off. Or something.

The bigger regret was failing to identify the brown ale. At least I got the style correct. It turns out to have been the Cottonwood Low Down Brown, which is my favorite brown ale and from one of my favorite breweries. But it didn’t taste quite like I remembered – a bit thinner body than I recalled – so I ruled it out, and picked something from the other side of the country. If I had gotten it correct, that would have been three more points in my column, and a clear win. Alas.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


To my great surprise, I came home to a dark house last night. And, I'm happy to report, it wasn't that I failed to pay my electric bill. Unless, of course, all my neighbors forgot to pay theirs, too - and that seems unlikely, as most of them are pretty responsible.

It wasn't a lightning strike or an ice storm, as the weather was clear and reasonably nice yesterday. It wasn't even the usual cause of blackouts around here, a hurricane. No, it was the far more typical cause: a tree (or big branch) fell on the above-ground lines.

Well, no surprise, I suppose. When one lives in a residential subdivision that's over 50 years old and was built in a fairly heavily wooded area, one learns that these things happen.

(Don't know when the blackout started, as I no longer have non-digital electric clocks in the house. But the area was dark at 7:30 when I got home from work, and the electricity came back on around midnight and the cable was back by 9 a.m. So the stuff in the freezer is still safe, or so I've convinced myself.)

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Gray Ghost update.

The new outdoor cat is willing - barely - to allow me to touch her, although she still tries to squirm away. But she's hungrier than she is squeamish, so she puts up with it while she's eating. And yes, her fur is soft.

And after she eats? She's more than happy to have a conversation with me, so long as I stay five or more feet away, and even better if I'm on the other side of the fence from her.

But she's not interested in coming inside to be warm, even though nights lately have gotten down into the teens.

No, it's not.

A quick little quiz:

What's the correct spelling and punctuation of the federal holiday being celebrated tomorrow (the third Monday in February):
(a) Presidents' Day,
(b) President's Day, or
(c) Presidents Day?

Certainly, if you look in the ads in the paper today, you can find support for all options, sometimes with two or three of the variations being used in the same ad. And it makes a difference, as the first would seem to celebrate all presidents, regardless of how poor they might have been; the second would appear to celebrate a single, albeit anonymous, president; and the last looks like it honors the father-and-son pair of presidents whose last name is "Day."

So which of the possible answers is correct?

You guessed it, this is a trick question. The correct spelling and punctuation of the holiday is "Washington's Birthday".

If it makes you feel better - and I'm not sure it should - the schools systems in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and the City of Alexandria, Virginia (where George Washington was born and where Mount Vernon is located) both refer to the holiday as "Presidents' Day." And shame on them.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A spot of yellow.

Time for the annual posting on how early the crocuses are blooming. I first saw them peeking up on Tuesday last week, but lethargy and the weekend snow kept me from taking their photos until today. (Seventy degrees today - might as well take some photos.)

And yes, the crocus blooms are surrounded by the remains of last year's leaves. When the darn things stay attached to the trees until the middle of December, I figure they can jolly well stay on the ground until I get around to mowing the yard sometime this spring. (My neighbors sometimes figure otherwise, alas.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Breakfast time at the Cellar door.

The gray cat greeted me this morning. Well, if complaining that breakfast is well overdue can be described as a greeting.

She - or he - still won't let me get within 15 feet, unless there's a closed door between us. So while her/his fur looks soft, for now we'll just have to assume that it is.

And I got to see interaction between the two cats yesterday. This cat was sitting on my back deck, and the "tuxedo" cat (who actually turns out to be black-and-gray tabby-striped with a white hind leg, not that you can easily tell the difference between black and black-and-gray-striped at 11 p.m. as the cat is diving under a parked car) was walking up the steps towards it. You could pretty easily figure out that the gray cat was saying the feline equivalent of "This is MY house and MY territory and MY food so you should just stay away" while the tabby was responding "Yah, yah. It's a free country, and I'll go where I want."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

R2 Potatoo.

For those wondering what the next Star Wars / Mr. Potatohead tie-in would be.

And surely there must be someone like that.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The neighborhood cat lady.

You know how hoboes had a whole intricate network of signs they'd mark on fenceposts at people's houses or going into town, indicating such things as "wealthy person lives here" or "tell pitiful story" or "mean sheriff" or, above, "kind woman lives here."

Well, cats must have a similar network.

It would appear that last year's saga of The Outdoor Cat has been making the rounds, as there are now two cats I'm feeding at my back door.

One is a tuxedo cat with a white hind leg, and might well be the father of last summer's kittens. (Or some degree of sibling.) The other is solid gray - almost Russian Blue in color.

Neither one seems to be to interested in making friends with me or in coming inside to sleep, which is perhaps just as well, as I'm scheduled to get my father's two cats sometime this spring. And even I would agree that three or four cats inside the house would be too much.

Friday, February 03, 2006

People with too much time on their hands.

The Lego Suicides - a slideshow of various ways to do yourself in. Using Legos.

Possibly not what the manufacturer had in mind.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Self-distribution: Another update.

It's like a "good news / bad news" joke, except for not being funny.

The good news is that the proposal to allow self-distribution isn't dead yet. The bad news is that it's not especially healthy, either.

Yesterday, the entire General Laws Committee voted to table the bill, thereby keeping it around to be finally voted on at a later time. And it seems pretty clear that the alternative to tabling the measure would have been a vote killing it.

Opposition to the bill is coming from wholesalers, who want to maintain their monopoly stranglehold on the industry. And they've got more money to give to the Delegates than small farm wineries do.

Don't know what can be done to change the minds of people on the Committee. I've suggested to the sponsor of the bill that he try a two-part change:
1) Authorize the self-distribution as a one-year (or better, two-year) test, and
2) Charge the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission (who would issue the licenses and collects the excise taxes) to study how much wine is actually distributed by out-of-state small wineries. It should be easy to find: the wineries would be identified by having to obtain the special license to self-distribute, and the wineries will then have to pay the state excise taxes to the ABC.

My guess is that such a study would show that only a handful of wineries - all located in bordering states - would self-distribute into Virginia, and even then, they'd only be distributing 10 or 20 cases per year. But even if my guess is way off, accurate information from this study would conclusively show whether enacting self-distribution has any impact on the financial viability of wholesalers.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

It's that time of year again.

You know, Valentine's Day. And this year, something special: "Law & Order: SUV" Valentines. They make the Marge Simpson candy valentines I gave last year look positively tasteful.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Self-distribution: Update.

Actions of politicians continue to astound, although I really suppose they shouldn't.

On Thursday, the subcommittee (of the House Committee on General Laws, which has jurisdiction over alcohol-related matters) considering HB 1288 - the wineries' self-distribution provision - voted down the provision by a 4-1 tally.

There has been no press coverage of this bill, so it's unclear to me why the delegates voted against the bill. I can think of only two groups who might oppose the legislation: (1) the neo-Prohibitionists, who knee-jerk oppose anything that makes it easier for adults to purchase a product they're legally permitted to purchase, and (2) Virginia wineries who are big enough that they already have distributors in order to get their wines throughout the state and who won't be able to benefit from self-distribution because their contracts with their distributors prohibit it. (And I don't see those Virginia wineries opposing the bill, because their future is dependent on a strong, growing Virginia wine industry.)

Distributors aren't going to oppose the bill, because they don't want the hassle of distributing small wineries' products, when there isn't much profit potential in the small-volume, small-markup wines. But if the bill passes, the Virginia ABC will force distributors to distribute the wines - I've seen it happen in the case of a small microbrewery - with threats to the distributors' licenses. And if that happens, no one involved with the distribution - wineries, distributors, retailers and restaurants, and customers - will be well served.

And plenty of groups - among them, the Virginia Vineyards Association,
Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, Virginia Agribusiness Council, and
Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association - supported the bill.

The good news - to the extent there is any here - is that the bill is scheduled for reconsideration on Tuesday, by the entire House Committee on General Laws. There's still time to contact your representatives (and, more importantly, the members of that committee).

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Saturday, January 21, 2006


There has been legislation introduced into this year's General Assembly, designed to address the distribution of wine by in-state wineries; a subject thrown into some turmoil by last year's Supreme Court decision requiring that states not discriminate between in-state and out-of-state wineries. This bill addresses the ability to small wineries to self-distribute their wines, directly to retailers and restaurants, without having to go through a distributor.

Self-distribution seems to be a win-win for all interested parties: Wineries get to make sales to retailers and restaurants without having to yield a portion of the proceeds to distributors, retailers and restaurants get to deal with those who are most interested in selling them the wines, and distributors don't have to concern themselves with low-volume, low-profit wineries.

So this legislation would allow wineries "small enough" to qualify for the federal small winery tax credit (27 CFR 24.278) to self-distribute. Yes, it's an arbitrary cut-off, but at least it's not one easily changed by the Virginia ABC regulators. And yes, I believe that all current Virginia wineries fall under that limit. But my guess is that this set-up would pass muster as being constitutional on its face.

I've heard from two wineries, asking that I contact my state senator and delegate in support of this legislation. That's fine, and a reasonable request. What bothers me about the requests, though, is that they both stray into Parade of Horribles territory, suggesting that some/many/most Virginia wineries will go out of business without the ability to self-distribute, and that some/many/most Virginia wines won't be available at retailers and restaurants. Well, baloney. I suppose that might be true if the legislation didn't pass and these wineries did nothing to find distributors. But I think that if the legislation isn't enacted, those wineries would find it in their best interest to go together and create an independent distributor whose main purpose was to distribute Virginia wines, and I'm sure they'd find support from the retailers and restaurants who would otherwise not have wines available for the customers who want them. Market forces will find a solution to this dilemma, even if the legislature does not.

My other concern with the requests was that they both urged me to use their cut-and-paste form letter to send to my representatives, without even considering that I could write my own. Knowing that elected representatives ignore obvious form letters, I'd think that asking us to send our own notes of support would have been the better approach.

How'd they do that? Not to mention, Why?

I'm a sucker for cool marketing ploys. Not to the extent that I'd buy a car for one, but I've certainly bought boxes of cereal for the neat premium inside.

In the car category, however, is this ad for the Honda Civic. Appears to be a British ad, so we're unlikely to see it here. (Unless they show it once, during the Super Bowl.) Push the "Watch" button, and be amazed.

Cool, eh?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Weather. Or not.

Bizarre weather of late. (Yes, that's the best excuse I can come up with for not posting lately.) Fairly warm days - each week of the month has had a couple of days in the upper 50's and one making it to the 60's - and little cold weather. And for the past two or three days, lots and lots of wind. (Enough to bring down small limbs from the tree in my front yard. Thankfully, the limbs hit my front yard, too, and not the house.) The wind was blowing so hard this morning - especially when funnelled down the streets of Richmond - that it almost knocked me over; a sensation I last felt while going outside during Hurricane Isabel. Weather- and wind-wise, you'd think it was March.

My suspicion is that we're being set up for a cold and snowy February.

Monday, January 09, 2006

And a couple more.

Recommendations, that is.

When you sit around inside the Atlanta airport for untold hours on end ("Atlanta" is an Indian name, meaning "excessively long waits for no apparent reason"), you have the opportunity to read a lot of books. Thanks to Delta Airlines, I got just that opportunity on my trip out to Colorado. In both directions.

Lance Armstrong's War is an in-depth look at Lance Armstrong's 2004, the year he became the only person to win the Tour de France six times. An interesting approach to a biography: you get a lot more detail about what goes in to winning a Tour and what it's like to be a professional cyclist than in books that cover a longer timespan. (And you have to love the internet: here's an NPR interview with Daniel Coyle, the author. And here's an excerpt.)

And I got out to see Munich this past weekend. Excellent movie. Definitely worth seeing.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Yes, yes; I'm still around.

Trying to recover from the cold I caught on my trip to Colorado over New Year's. The wedding - no, not mine - went off just fine. Let me tell you, though: airplane flights when your ears don't pop properly are no fun at all. They make sitting around for hours and hours and hours in the Atlanta airport, awaiting flights which were delayed for no apparent reason, seem like a party in comparison.