february 2011

I've been waiting for years for the complete Larry Sanders Show to be released on DVD, and I finally got my set a couple of weeks ago. I'm not ashamed to admit I've been gorging—the show is just as good as I remember it being.

For Groundhog Day, one of the movie channels we get with our cable package is running the Bill Murray movie Groundhound Day for 24 hours straight starting at midnight, a la A Christmas Story on TNT/TBS. It's bloody brilliant, and the only thing surprising about it is that someone hasn't thought of it before now.

Most of the states north of us have been getting walloped with snow this year, but we just haven't had that perfect combination yet. The winter has been pretty cold, but we seem to warm up pretty quickly when moisture heads our way, so he have these alterating periods of really cold, dry weather and then lots of precipitation with the temperatures in the high 30s so we get mostly rain or sleet.

I'm certainly happy we're not getting slammed like the northeast is, especially after the year we had last year, but it would be nice to see one of these systems produce an honest-to-god snow day (even though I'd still have to work through it—I'm way behind on reading files this year and I only have four weeks left to read about 300 applications).

This Sunday, I am a Green Bay Packers fan. I don't think they're going to win, but I really, really want the Steelers to lose, and even if they were playing a team that I didn't already hate, I still usually like to root for the underdog in the big game if my team's not in it. I'm not going to wear a foam piece of cheese on my head or anything, but it would make me really happy to see the Steelers come back home with a disappointing loss.

I'm about as happy as a Ravens fan can be today, given the way our season ended. A humiliating loss for the Steelers doesn't compare with the thought of the Ravens being in the Super Bowl had they not screwed up that second half in Pittsburgh three weeks ago, but I guess it's better than nothing.

One of the local Twitter feeds I follow from a non-Ravens fan featured the following:

If the Steelers were playing the Nazis with Bin Laden as their quarterback, people in Baltimore would still root for the Nazis.

And you know, I can't really argue with that; that's how much Ravens fans hate the Steelers, and especially Ben Roethlisberger. There was some level of poetic justice to the Steelers' loss as well; the final score was 31-25, only one point different from the 31-24 game against the Ravens, and just as the Ravens did, the Steelers lost because their quarterback turned over the ball twice and their primary running back fumbled once, which led to 21 points for the opposing team.

And now on to baseball, where the Orioles are almost making this town hopeful again and the Braves are facing their first season without Bobby Cox at the helm in over two decades.

So my daily photo feature is back, at least for another couple of months. These pictures were all taken on my trip down to North Carolina in December, some from the snow that fell the day after Christmas in Raleigh and some from a decaying family property in Wilmington that one of my sisters is trying to restore.

I'm hoping to use the momentum from these photos to set up monthly outings with my friend Jeff to go shoot interesting locations around here. I've gotten far too complacent about shooting locally—recently the only photos I've taken have been while I've been on vacation somewhere else, but there's plenty of good stuff around here, and I'd really like to make photography a habit again rather than an occasional pastime.

When my sister took me out to the family property that she's restoring (it's a summer home built in the late 1800s that was on the site of an old rice plantation called Clarendon), she told me about a set of photos she'd found on Flickr from a guy who had apparently used a boat to get to the property (it sits on the Cape Fear River, but the entrance from the road is of course locked and gated) several years ago and broken into the house to take pictures. (Here is the link to his Clarendon photoset; I have since found another set from someone else who was him that day.)

Looking through the photos was creepy, especially because there are some pictures in the set which feature photographs of my family that the most recent occupant left behind when he moved to an assisted living facility in the 90s. It also made me angry, because we knew that these people had broken into the property and could have taken anything they wanted (there have been problems over the years with vandals, looters, and even hunters hunting illegally on the grounds).

There is a locked gate on the road that leads to the house; there is a fence that goes around the entire property; the house itself has the doors and windows locked; it's pretty clear to anyone who cares even a little bit about the law that this is someone else's property and that it is not abandoned, even though no one currently lives there and it is in a state of extreme disrepair (although my sister, with the help of my dad, stepmother, and some hired workers, have made remarkable progress in the last year or so).

What's funny is that some of the other Flickr users leave comments asking questions like "Is this house "currently" occupied?" and "Do you know the owners?", and while it wasn't technically occupied, it did belong to someone else and the doors and windows to the dwelling were closed and locked, and no, this guy didn't know us or have our permission to be on the land or in the house.

Of course, I must admit that there's a part of me that loves shooting sites like this, and it's a little hypocritical for me to be so mad at this guy just because I happen to be connected to the family that owns this particular property. I enjoyed my afternoon shooting the house, and I'm hoping to go back this summer and spend more time there before they clean it up too much, and I've explored similar sites in Maryland, like the Hell House in Ellicott City, an old abandoned seminary that is on private property that I've visited a couple of times.

I guess the difference between Clarendon and Hell House is that, although Hell House is privately owned, there is no house to speak of, just ruins, so it's not locked, there's no fence around the property, and in fact the main set of stairs that people use to get to it are visible and accessible from a parking lot for a nearby state park. This may be splitting hairs in a way that shows my bias, I know, but I do feel like there's a real difference between visiting Hell House and my family's property that is more significant than me being associated with one and not the other.

The thing that really struck me about my visit to Clarendon when I was going through my photos was that, in my memory, I feel like it was a very grey, overcast day when I visited, but in the photos, it's pretty clear that the sky was clear and that there was plenty of sunlight (although it was pretty cold). There's definitely a gloom that hangs over the place, especially indoors, but it's still odd how much that colored my personal memory of the day. Still, I can't wait to get back there; maybe being there in the summertime will make the place seem a little brighter and more cheerful.

Earlier this week when I was driving into work, I was stopped at a light when I started looking in my rearview mirror at the couple in the car behind me. We were looking into the sun, so their visors were pulled down and their faces were half-obscured, but one of them looked like a woman in a department I work with frequently. I like her—she's practical and no-nonsense and seems pretty focused on getting her job done efficiently—but she seems a little bloodless and I've always thought it likely that her lack of emotion on the job carried over into her personal life.

As I was watching them talk, trying to figure out if it was her or not, she spontaneously reached up and stroked the face of her boyfriend or husband, an unexpected, touching gesture that you just don't see that often (and granted, when you're sitting in your car, even when you're surround by other people in their cars, you tend to think of it as a private space, even though it's about as public as you can get).

I had a meeting with her later that morning, so I took a mental snapshot of what she was wearing so I could compare later and see if it was her. When I had the meeting, the cut of her shirt matched, but the color was wrong; I remember a blue shirt on the woman in the car, but this woman was wearing a faded rose-colored shirt when I saw her.

I've tried to convince myself that I remembered the color of the shirt in the car wrong, or that there was something about my rearview mirror and the glass that changed the color to blue, because I'd really like to think that this person is not as cold and distant with the people she's close to in her real life as she is with all of her colleagues at work. I think this is because I tend to take a similar approach at work, where I severely compartmentalized the person I am at work and the person I am everywhere else, and I worry sometimes that the person I am at work is negatively affecting who I try to be in real life. And maybe if this woman, who's about ten times more aloof at work than I'll ever be able to be, is still able to maintain that level of emotion and affection in her life outside of work, then I, too, will be able to maintain my work persona without having in infect the person I'm trying to be for the people in my life who I'm close to outside the workplace.

I know it probably wasn't her in the car, though. But I really wanted it to be.

Yesterday was Julie's birthday, and I surprised her by keeping Will at home instead of taking him to daycare and drove into Baltimore to surprise her with a visit and lunch with us. We also picked up some flowers for her on the way in, and got dinner from a middle eastern place she's been craving for the past couple of weeks (including a big hunk of baklava for her birthday cake). Since she doesn't really have any hobbies, I've struggled to think of gifts for her for the past few years, but I don't think anything could have made her happier than seeing her son in the middle of the day when she thought she still had six hours to go before she'd be with him again.

Way behind on files this year. I have two weeks to read the rest of my files, and I'm only about a third of the way through. I've been putting aside two days a week to work on them from home, but there's been so much other stuff going on this year that I end up working on other tasks those days and making very little headway on my applications.

200 files in two weeks isn't out of the question—I usually get through 80 in two days normally, and if I start throwing in a few extra hours on the nights and weekends (which is what I've done over the past week, when I was able to read 80 or so files from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon without reading any on Friday), I should be able to hit my target. Next year if I'm having the same problem, I'm going to focus on reading at least 20 files a week during the early part of the cycle—if I had done that this year, I would only have 120 files to get through in the next two weeks, which would be no problem at all.

You know, it's not much of a Valentine's Day surprise if they don't deliver it to your sweetheart's workplace until 4:30 in the afternoon, but being that my gift (a dozen chocolate covered strawberries) technically arrived before the end of the day, I couldn't call and complain about it.

I guess I should focus on the fact that Julie was really surprised and really liked them (she has been, unbeknownst to me, craving chocolate covered strawberries for the past couple of weeks after seeing them in a shop). But if they send me any kind of follow-up survey, I'm sure going to have some feedback to give them.

My sister's Facebook posts and the accompanying comments from her friends make my head hurt.

A few weeks ago, Jeff and I went to a talk down at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab down in Columbia to see a man named Charles Bennett, an astrophysicist, talk about the project he's best known for, WMAP. WMAP is a probe that was launched in 2001, the purpose of which was to measure the cosmic microwave background radiation; knowing this allows us to form a better model of the universe, including its age, its geometry, and the makeup of the matter and energy that comprise it.

We didn't know how many people would show up for this, but we weren't expecting to have trouble finding a seat even though we were a few minutes late (mostly due to not knowing where the building where the talk was taking place was located on the APL campus). But the hall was packed, and they had moved the overflow to the cafeteria, which wasn't nearly as bad as it sounds—they had large flat screen tvs mounted every 20 feet or so, and we were able to find a quiet corner in the back where we could see two different screens.

His talk was ostensibly about the WMAP project, and while he did go into fascinating detail about the building of the probe and its sensors and what we've learned over the past decade from the data it sent back to Earth, he also spent a lot of time talking about the history of cosmic microwave background radiation—the theories, the theorists, and how the gradual sharpening of our understanding of this radiation reshaped our theories about the structure and makeup of the universe.

It was one of those talks that I would gladly attend again to hear the same lecture, and one that I almost immediately regretted not taking notes for. Even though it was obviously filmed in order to provide the video feed to the cafeteria, I haven't been able to find an online archive where you can watch the lecture, and that's a real shame, because it was a great talk, whether you are a professional physicist (many of whom were in attendance) or merely someone with a general interest in science and a passable understanding of current cosmological theory, it was entertaining (no, really) and informative.

Jeff was actually the one who brought this to my attention, and after attending, I realized that I don't take advantage of nearly as many of these events as I should, or as I did when I was newer to the university and my schedule wasn't quite so full. But I'll be keeping a better eye out for talks like this in the future (or at least hoping that Jeff will point them out for me).

For my internet browsing, I tend to keep three browser windows open at all times, each with a full slate of loosely related tabs. Firefox has been my browser of choice for a while, mostly because of the Flashblock plugin and because it was the first of the modern browsers to utilize tabs and to be able to remember all of your tabs and windows, even if it crashed.

But over the past few weeks, I had noticed that after a day or so of being active, the latest official version of Firefox would slow to a crawl and start taking up way too much processor time, and the only thing that would fix it would be to shut down the browser and open it again fresh (although I have a feeling it was from a poorly written script on one of the pages I had loaded that was looping and taking up more and more resources, but I had no idea which page it was).

I did a little research on this, but I couldn't find a solution, so I was going to give Chrome and Safari a try to see if they did any better for me, but before migrating to a new application, I figured I'd give the Firefox 4 beta a try and see if that fixed the problem. And it seems to have: it's much faster, it doesn't take up nearly as much processing power as the previous version, and it doesn't slow to a crawl after a day or so, even though I have the same set of pages loaded.

Not all of my plugins work yet, but Flashblocker does, and that's my most critical one—there are other ways to add bookmarks to my delicious account and shop for things on Amazon until those plugins are updated for the final version of Firefox 4. If you're a Firefox user and you're not superdependent on lots of plugins that won't be updated until the final release, I'd highly recommend downloading the beta of 4 now—it seems rock solid, and it's much faster than 3.6.

So...it was in the mid-70s on Friday and we're supposed to get snow tonight. I'll never get used to February in Baltimore...

My mom visited over the weekend, staying with us from Friday until Monday. I had kind of gotten used to seeing my family on the major end of year holidays and then again a couple of times a year, but I have a feeling that we're going to see them a lot more often now that Will is here. The good thing is that we have a house that's just big enough for us to accomodate one set of visitors at a time without us feeling cramped, and he sure loves all the attention.

Next week we'll see my dad and stepmother during our annual skiing trip (which we missed last year because Julie was five months pregnant), and then Julie's mom will be coming to stay a couple of weeks after that. I'm guess that we'll be getting a family visitor of some sort every 3-4 weeks from here on out, which is about right in terms of my tolerance for disruptions to my routine.

I'm really happy that everyone is so fond of him and that they want to be a part of his life, and there are times I wished we lived back in North Carolina so it wouldn't be such a long haul for them to come see him (or for us to go visit). The closest set of parents is about 5 hours away, and the farthest is about 10, but if we were located in the Triangle, that range would be 2 1/2 to 4 hours instead.

Speaking of Will, he's been making some big strides recently. He's still not fond of rolling over, but he can do it if he has to, and we've discovered that if we lean him up against a wall or low table, he's balanced enough to stand there and support his weight for several minutes. The same with sitting—a little back support and he can sit upright for long periods, even leaning forward to pick up nearby objects before righting himself again. I think he could probably sit up without support at this point but for the fact that as soon as you put him in a sitting position, his immediate reaction is to lean back, and that makes him topple over if he doesn't have something back there.

He's getting really good with his hands, too—he can grab just about anything and manipulate it to change hands or shove it in his mouth (which is usually what happens). He's also vocalizing a lot more—no words yet, but a lot of repeated consonant sounds, and a lot of mimicry with certain sounds. He's especially fun to watch in his crib when he's just waking up—unless he's really hungry, he'll use that time to babble to himself or the toys in his crib for 10 or 15 minutes. And he still laughs like crazy, which is just as cute and endearing as it was the first time he did it.

Working on the last of my files today. I still think it's important for me to participate in this process—not only does it give me a more direct connection to our applicants, but it also gives me a unique insight into the business processes surrounding the reading of files, most of which resides in the document management system that I am the campus-wide project manager for (and of which my office is by far the most complex user of). But this year I read fewer files than I ever have (about 250, compared to my peak of 450), and I did a lot more of it at night and on the weekends because there was so much else going on during normal work hours that I had to take care of.

If I still do this next year, I'm going to set more aggressive early targets—I didn't really read many files for the first three weeks of the reading period, and if I had just picked up 20-30 per week during my off hours, I would have been able to read closer to my target of 350 and I wouldn't have had to read such a large number over the last couple of weeks.

Going on a trip to see my parents for a couple of days, ostensibly to go skiing. But it looks like the weather might be pretty warm, and I've had my lifetime fill of crappy skiing, so we may end up just hanging around the condo and exploring the shops and restaurants (although I wouldn't mind a trip over to Green Bank; I haven't been there since they built the new visitors center).

But hopefully we'll get at least one morning where the snow is decent, even if the temperatures get too high to make it worthwhile in the afternoon (skiiing on slush is no fun). But it will be nice to see my parents again, and I have a feeling that if the entire visit was just them sitting around and playing with Will, they'd be perfectly happy.

december 2011
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