january 2010

That was a nice break from work, capped off by a Ravens victory that guaranteed them a playoff spot. But while we were away, our Regular Decision applications were piling up, and it looks like we're going to have a record-setting year again, which means lots of work to plow through in the next three months. I think I could probably do with a yearlong sabbatical from my job, but at the same time, there are a lot of good things in the works, and I'm really excited about some of the stuff the could happen for me and my team in the coming year. So I think I'm about ready to get back and keep the momentum going on those projects.

I didn't ask for anything in particular for Christmas, but I got some nice stuff. Julie got me the new remastered Beatles box set, which I've been wanting for a few months now, and I got her the Wii Fit Plus (the exercise program with the balance board) and a new weather station for monitoring the outside temperature, barometric pressure, etc. I also got some gift certificates to Atomic Books and some cash. And from my sister Tori I got a bottle of blue agave nectar, which is an alternative sweetener with a lower glycemic index and glycemic load than more traditional sweeteners like sugar and high fructose corn syrup (a few months ago I cut out sugared sodas, tried to eat only whole grains for my carbohydrates, and did other dietary changes generally aimed at eating foods that are lower on the glycemic index).

One of the most thoughtful and unexpected gifts I got was the new biography about Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch. It was from my friend Tom, who I haven't spoken to in a good long while now. We worked together long ago, and we used to hang out quite a bit, but I really have no idea where he is or what he's doing now. I still think of him often and still think of him as a close friend even though we've been out of contact, so it was pretty meaningful to me that he remembered my fondness for Flannery. I need to get in touch soon; hopefully he's somewhere close enough that we can actually get together for a day.

It was a relatively short period spent with family this year—a couple of days with Julie's family, a day of traveling and visiting on Christmas, and a couple of days with my mom's side of the family—followed by a week back at home with a few days off (I worked some, but I was able to work from home and avoid going into the office). It was nice to have that time, especially because Julie was able to take off that entire time as well. The last few months have been really hectic, and although there's lots of work to do this year as well, I'm feeling better about taking it on after that time off.

Speaking of books…I always use the holidays as a chance to catch up on some reading, and in the last month or so I've been able to complete a few things. I didn't really bring anything to read at Thanksgiving, but I found a copy of the science fiction classic Ender's Game on one of the shelves and burned through that pretty quickly. I also found a copy of Ringworld, which I read probably 25 years ago, and re-read that.

I read a lot of science fiction when I was a kid, and after devouring these two books, I thought maybe I'd get back into it and revisit books I haven't read since I was a teenager and finally get around to reading some of the classics that for some reason I never picked up. But the more I thought about the experience with these two books, the less inclined I was to dive back into the genre. They're both compelling reads that zip along very quickly, and there are a lot of interesting ideas in them, but the endings just suck.

If I had read them without knowing that they were decades old, I would have assumed that the endings were so terrible because they were setting up sequels. And although they both have sequels, I don't think it was the norm back then that you would plan for sequels as a science fiction writer (although I could be very wrong about that). It's like the authors had these great ideas and interesting characters and engaging plot points they wanted to work through, and once they got past all that, they had no idea what to do with the characters or the story to wrap it up in a meaningful way.

So although I enjoyed reading them, I'm not sure I'm ready to really reenage with the genre. I'm thinking it might be better to remember some of the books I loved as a child as they exist now in my memory, because reading them again might decrease my current opinions of them.

A couple of days before we left town to go visit family for Christmas, I stopped by Atomic Books looking for something to read while on vacation. My original plan was to get a novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, but while I was browsing, a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life caught my eye and I ended up buying that. It's the story of how several different threads of the indie rock tapestry were created and evolved in the postpunk 80s, with each chapter being a lens into how one particular band fit into the bigger picture.

I'd heard of all the bands profiled, and am a fan of about half of them (I would probably like a few of the others, but they just never crossed my path when I was younger—the Beat Happening in particular seem like a band that I would fall head over heels in love with), but even when the chapter was on a band whose music I wasn't familiar with, it was still an engaging read. If you're a fan of indie music in the 80s – for me, the chapters on Husker Du, the Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth alone are worth the price of the book – you'll probably find a lot to love here.

In other media news, my two most recent Netflix viewings were Transformers 2 and Inglourious Basterds. Frankly, I don't even know why I ordered Transformers 2—I thought the first one was shallow, overstuffed with stupid special effects, lacking a coherent narrative, and soulless, and that pretty much describes the second one as well.

Inglourious Basterds, however, joins Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill as one of Tarantino's undisputed masterpieces. It actually didn't spend as much time on the Nazi-hunting covert unit fronted by Brad Pitt's character as you would expect from the title and the prominence of that group in the trailers—a lot of the movie features a French woman whose family is exterminated by a Nazi Jew hunter who I don't remember seeing in the previews at all—but it's a nice ensemble piece with some great scenes and classic Tarantino dialogue.

I've also been using the Netflix-TiVo streaming service to watch the first two seasons of Dexter, the Showtime drama about a serial whose victims are other serial killers (loosely defined for his killing purposes as anyone responsible for more than one murder). I've kind of been gorging on episodes, and I'm guessing I'll finish season 2 sometime early next week, which means I'll have to add season 3 to my physical DVD queue (since only seasons 1 and 2 are available to watch instantly) and wait several agonizing months for season 4 to come out on DVD). It makes the gore on a typical CSI episode look pedestrian, but if you can get past that, it's a fascinating psychological drama. Sure, there are some soap opera-y plot twists now and then, but overall it feels pretty grounded given the premise.

Okay Ravens. You barely squeaked into the playoffs in a year when you could have won the division and even competed for a bye-week if you handn't blown several close games, but with your trouncing of the Patriots in New England, you've established that the postseason is a whole new ballgame and you're just as deserving of a shot at the Super Bowl as anyone.

Next week you have the Colts in Indianapolis, which isn't going to be easy, but it's been a month since their starters have played a complete, meaningful game and two weeks since they've played a game of any sort, and if you can get to Manning early and rattle him like you did Brady, there's no reason you can't get past them to the conference championship game. It was an ugly second half of the season, but yesterday you looked like the team that started the season 3-0 and seemed unstoppable on both offense and defense.

I kinda hate American Idol, but I love the auditions (although that used to be better when they didn't have so many weepy backstories they showcased and instead spent most of the show focusing on the truly awful who won't make it to the actual competition phase). Plus, it traditionally signals a return to new programming after the six week holiday rerun period, and since we're now caught up on all our Tivo'd shows, we're ready for some new content.

I'm starting on the third season of The Tudors via Netflix after having watched the first two seasons via the streaming Netflix service through my TiVo, and so far I'm less than impressed. The show was only average to begin with, but now that we've entered the post-Anne Boleyn period of Henry VIII's reign—a never-ending cycle of get rid of your old wife because she couldn't bear you a son, find a new wife, stay with her for a while until you figure out she can't bear you a son either, then repeat—it's hard to see the king as the conflicted, layered character that he was written as in the first two seasons.

Now, whenever anyone gets in his way or displeases him, he just has them executed and replaced—there are no more lifelong friends and allies like Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas More that cause him pain when he exiles or executes them. Everyone in his current circle was brought to power by his hand, and there are no messy bonds of friendship or loyalty to get in the way of him destroying them when he perceives them as standing in his way.

The first three episodes have been beyond boring, and I can't imagine that they last two discs are going to be any better. But they are already on their way to my house, so I'm going to plow through them and get back to Dexter as quickly as I can.

It's application season, which means I work from home two days a week so I can focus on reading files without the day-to-day distractions of the office. In past years, once I've gotten my reading patterns down, I've usually been able to read 35-40 files a day, a decent pace considering that the full-time admissions counselors are only expected to read 40 files a day.

This year, however, with all of the projects we have going and my increasing involvement with the operations team, I've only been able to read about 20 files a day, even when working from home. Yesterday was a reading day and I didn't even start looking at files until the afternoon, and I expect today will be the same. And our huge increase in applications this year will probably translate to an extra 50-100 files for me, so I really can't afford to fall behind.

It helps a little that we started reading much earlier this year—I usually don't start reading files until the second or third week of January—but even with a headstart, I think I'm going to fall behind. I could work another day at home, or try to read while I'm in the office, but if I'm constantly getting pulled into other tasks, it doesn't really where or when I'm trying to read. I could always read on the weekends when things are pretty quiet at the office, but that really is a last resort.

I had high hopes for Adventureland, but Kristen Stewart and Ryan Reynolds killed it for me. Great soundtrack, though.

This has been a season of heartbreak for Ravens fans, of games that could have been won and should have been won and great plays taken back by stupid penalties or ruined by stupid mistakes, so Saturday's playoff loss to the Colts was a fitting capstone. And still, even with all the mistakes, if they could just take back those last two minutes of the first half, they still could have won.

Ed Reed should have been the big hero, but neither of his two major plays ended up as a positive for the Ravens. He's already talking of retirement; let's hope he has at least one more season in him so his can go out on a higher note than a fumble after a brilliant interception and another interception called back due to a questionable penalty call on a teammate. He owes himself more than that, and the team certainly owes him more than that.

Well that was unexpected. I haven't posted in the last week because on Wednesday night, my computer started acting screwy, not saving files and erroring out when I tried to open or close programs. I restarted from my OS install DVD and ran the disk utility, and it found an error that it could not repair. I tried a few more things after some research on the internet, but eventually the hard disk stopped responding altogether, so I scheduled an appointment first thing Thursday morning at the closest Apple store.

When I got there, it took them all of two minutes to determine that the hard drive was fried, which I kind of suspected but still wasn't happy to hear, especially because the machine was just past its one year purchase date, meaning it was no longer in warranty. Luckily, they noticed this as well and agreed to put in a bigger, brand new hard drive for free—I didn't have to pay for labor or parts (it probably didn't hurt that in my purchase history they could see that I had bought two desktop machines and three iPhones from them in the past three or four years).

I wasn't too worried about my data—one of the most brilliant features Apple has ever introduced in its OS is Time Machine, which takes incremental backups of your machine every hour, so even though my hard drive was completely gone, I still had an easily recoverable backup. Yes, it would take a few hours, but my data was safe so long as I didn't somehow destroy my backup drive before I got my computer back.

On Thursday morning when I dropped off my computer, they told me it would possibly be ready that afternoon but certainly by Friday. Towards closing time on Friday, I called to check on the status and they told me it would be ready Saturday. Close to the end of the day on Saturday they said it would "probably" be ready by Sunday, so I was expecting Monday or later, and I didn't have a lot of room to complain since they were repairing it for free even though it was out of warranty (although really, hard drives simply should not fail within the first five years with normal use).

But to my surprise, they called Sunday morning, and by noon I had the machine back home and was performing my restore. It took a few hours after the restore to check that everything had been restored appropriately, but all in all, the experience was about as painless as you could expect losing your entire hard drive to be (although it would have been nice if they had designed the most recent iterations of the iMac to be accessible by your average hardware-savvy user—this is the first Mac desktop I've ever owned where I wasn't able to replace a hard drive myself).

Watched M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, and while it wasn't as bad as the unanimously terrible reviews would lead you to believe, it wasn't that great, either. I like Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, but that's mostly for a single great performance they each gave early in their acting careers (Three Kings for Wahlberg and Elf for Deschanel) that I'm waiting to see repeated in some form in all their other movies, and they have almost no chemistry in this film. Add in the typically preposterous plot from Shyamalan, and it's close to a disaster.

He's still capable of crafting some great moments, but he hasn't been able to pull a full film together since the underrated Unbreakable (I'm an apologist for that film, but I will admit it could have used some tightening up in some places). I'm sure he still makes a profit for the studios when you factor in global distribution, DVD sales, television rights, etc., but they're still holding out for another blockbuster from him that may never come. His next movie is a children's adventure movie, so that might help goose his box office receipts, but I don't know if he'll ever become the director we all hoped he would be after The Sixth Sense.

We saw Avatar a couple of weekends ago, and it was a lot better than I expected, both in terms of the story and the CG world that Cameron created for the film. We didn't see the 3D version because my friend who went with us and I both have monocular vision, so the only thing we get out of 3D movies is wearing a stupid pair of glasses, but the visual effects are stunning to say the least, and the motion-captures performances for all of the Na'vi characters pick up where Peter Jackson's Gollum left off and take CG characters given life by real actors to the next level.

I'm not sure it will bear repeated viewings—as cool as the special effects were, I don't know if they alone are enough to hold my attention for the 2 1/2 hour running time. Sure, I'm sure I'll watch it again someday via TiVo or Netflix, but one trip to the theater might be enough for me. But it's definitely worth going at least once, and if you can see the 3D, I'm betting that's worth the extra dollar or two they typically charge over the 2D version.

I'm less than impressed with what we know about the iPad so far, although it looks pretty certain to be a Kindle-killer, especially if Apple allows the Kindle reader app that's currently on the iPhone app store to be used by iPad owners (and if Amazon supports an iPad-specific version of this free app).

The device won't be officially released for another couple of months, however, and there's lots of time of Apple to announce features that weren't demonstrated (but weren't specifically ruled out) at the product annoucement yesterday, like a camera, support for Flash, the ability to run stripped down versions of Word and Excel, etc. But based on what we saw yesterday, even the cheapest model won't be cheap enough for me—for an around-the-house netbook substitute and e-reader, I think I'd top out at around $300, and only a price point at around $200 would guarantee a purchase.

I think Apple will get there someday, and that $500 price point will certainly be reduced before the holiday selling season ramps up next fall (I expect it to go down by at least $100, if not $200, before the end of 2010), but I think I might be more of a second- or third-generation owner with this particular product.

New dunny series came out yesterday, and for the first time in a while, I think instead of buying a whole case, I'm just going to buy a few blindboxes and pick up the ones I really want from people selling their dupes on the Kidrobot message boards. It helps that in this series the ones I want are all pretty common (most are two per case, a couple are one per case) or so rare that it's unlikely I would have pulled them from a case anyway.

It's going to be an interesting year for toys—I'm going to restrict myself more to the artists I already collect—Amanda Vissell, Frank Kozik, and Tara McPherson mostly, with some David Horvath—and try not to buy cases of stuff unless almost everything in the series appeals to me (like it did with the Dunny 2009/Series 6 last fall). So far I don't know of much from any of the artists I mentioned other than a new 5 inch labbit from Kozik that comes out next week, but I wouldn't be surprised if Tara and Amanda both have individual artist series of some sort this year, and I'm hoping that the long-delayed mini labbits series 4 will finally make their appearance.

I wouldn't exactly say I'm losing interest in art toys, but is seems like the hobby is moving towards either ultra-rare, ultra-expensive pieces that I can't/don't want to afford, or stuff that's so common that it loses some of its uniqueness, and neither of those are really great places for me to be as a collector. Sure, when I see a piece I love, it doesn't matter whether it's common or not, but increasingly the best pieces by the artists I really love are ending up in that ultra-rare category, and it's not much fun to be a collector if some of your favorite pieces are simply out of your reach.

This could be a big year for the hobby in general, in terms of it breaking through to the mainstream or shrinking back a bit if some of the recent collectors who have expanded the base end up viewing it as a fad and move onto something else. I personally wouldn't mind the latter, as it would likely produce more limited runs but still have things fairly accessible. But if having this hobby become more popular is a way to keep it from turning into a battle for impossible-to-get exclusives and variants, then bring on the crowds.

december 2010
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