march 2011

Our ski trip was nice, although the actual skiing part was nonexistent. The weather on Monday was warm and rainy with thunderstorms, which got so bad that at one point they closed the slopes (shortly thereafter there was lots of lightning and even some hail). Tuesday was a bit better, but given the conditions the day before and the still-warm temperatures, I think there as really only so much they could have done to make the slopes usable, and at this point in my life, given the choice between struggling through a morning of bad ski conditions or having a relaxing vacation day with Will, I'm definitely going to choose the latter.

We read and ate in and watched movies and went to bed early, with a couple of small trips to the shops on the mountain, but mostly we just took it easy. Not skiing this year means it's now been three years since we've been skiing (we didn't even make the trip to the mountain for the last two years), and I'm assuming that when we hopefully go again next year, my aging body will feel differntly about it than the one I had in my mid-30s. But in the meantime I have been exercising more and eating better, and I intend to call myself a skier for many years to come. And I can't wait til Will is old enough to be out there with me.

During my vacation, I did get a chance to really dig into Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, which I've had on my to-read list for several months. The writing is pretty great, and the story itself is interesting, although once you hit the 20th century it becomes more the story of electricity than it does the story of artificial light. I'm about up to the 1920s now, though, and there's still a decent chunk left, so I'm not sure what the rest of the book is going to talk about (unless there's a 50 page reference section that I'm going to stumble onto two chapters from now).

I don't know why I keep ordering more books; I'm already like a year behind in keeping up with my reading. I guess I'm hoping my good intentions will keep the reading gods happy even though my follow-through is poor.

Also: I'm trying to remember the last time I finished a work of fiction. Thinking back to my high school self, who read at least two or three books a week (and who admittedly had signifcantly more free time), mostly fiction, it's hard to believe that I've turned into someone who can generally count the number of books they've read in a year on one hand, and that those books tend to be biographies, histories, or pop science texts.

I started Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, which I liked a lot, but it's been months and months (a year?) since I last looked at it, and I think I've lost the thread enough that I'd have to start over with it. I also have China Mieville's Kraken next on my pile once I finally finish Brilliant and The Disappearing Spoon, but who knows when that will happen and how long it will take me to work through that book.

I mostly read now when I'm on vacation, either because there aren't many other entertainment options or because it just feels lame to watch tv when you're on vacation somewhere, but since we don't take many vacations, and most of those are going to be centered around taking Will to visit family, even those breaks aren't enough time to really work through a long work of fiction (I spent a good deal of time with Brilliant while on vacation last week, and I probably only got 2/3 of the way through that).

The picture today is from the library at Clarendon, the house my sister is restoring in the hopes of opening a bed and breakfast there eventually. There are a lot of rooms that seem creepy initially, especially in the fading light of the late afternoon, but this is the only one that sent shivers down my spine when we went in there. There were rooms that were darker and there were rooms that looked like they had once been home to a madman (which they kind of were), but this is the only one where I had a visceral reaction—my body just wanted me to get out of there as soon as I could.

I don't much believe in ghosts, and I don't think anything horrible ever happened in that room, but there was definitely a presence there that I felt with the preconsicous, reptilian part of my brain. I'm curious to see if I feel it again if I'm able to return in warmer, cheerier weather.

I went to a concert down in DC last night, and as has been my custom for the past several years, I had planned to take the day after (i.e., today) as a vacation day. But then a few days ago my boss scheduled a special lunch outing for one of the teams I manage, and I feel like I should probably be there for that. Plus there are so many things going on that we have to finish before we mail our decision letters later this month that it's probably a good idea for me to be there anyway.

But I'm really too old to stay out at a club until 1 a.m. on a work night and come in and be fully functional the next day, so hopefully this kind of thing doesn't happen too much in the future. But today is mostly meetings and lunch, so hopefully I'll be okay (even though it will still be a long day).

I finally finished watching the complete Larry Sanders Show on DVD, and I think the real surprise for me was just how many of the episodes I had already seen. I never really had HBO when the series was originally airing, except for the occasional three months free when I moved into a new place and got my cable switched, but I must have hit a real sweet spot with reruns of that show. Out of 89 episodes, there were no more than 10-15 that were new to me.

I don't regret buying it one bit though, even though I already had season 1 (the only complete season released on DVD up until this set) and a best-of, which happened to contain many episodes from the final season. I loved working my way back through all of them, and even the episodes I had already seen I hadn't seen in more than a decade. And there's no doubt in my mind that after a suitable hiatus from watching the DVDs, I'll return to them and watch the series from start to finish all over again.

Work is always crazy this time of year (we're about three weeks away from mailing 18,000 decision letters), but everyone agrees that this has been one of our toughest, most complex campaigns in years. This a result of many things: a change in our priorities (sometimes on a daily basis), uncertainty about some of our budgetary stuff, losing a long-time staff member right before the cycle kicked into high gear, some mistakes by the IT group that maintains the enterprise-wide database/student information system that cost us a couple of weeks to identify and help them correct—the list goes on and on.

My team in particular has a lot of work to do even once the cycle is over—this is not going to be a relaxing summer for us—but at least with everyone else calming down once the letters go out and we get through our April campus visit events, we should be able to focus more on our tasks and not get so sidetracked by the chaos elsewhere in the office.

Pi Day! Although if some mathematicians get their way, it may eventually be replaced with a celebration of Tau Day on June 28.

A couple of friends at work turned me on to a few weeks ago, and I bought my first item from it last week: a refurbished 32 inch flat screen tv. We had actually considered buying the 37 inch version from the same company (we needed a bigger one to put downstairs in our workout/secondary family room area, because we needed to move the small one down there up to the study to replace the 20 year old Daewoo that Julie has had since college), but we couldn't quite convince ourselves to buy it because of the size and because we weren't quite sure of the quality.

Luckily, when we went up to Snowshoe to see my parents a couple of weeks ago, my dad happened to bring that exact tv to replace the tube-based tv up there, so I got to see the quality of that manufacturers screens firsthand. And when the 32 inch version popped up on woot! the week after we got back for $80 less than it was selling for at Walmart, it wasn't a hard decision to pull the trigger.

So far it's been a great purchase—shipping was only $5, the image quality is great, it's the perfect size for the space we have down there, and even though it's refurbished, it comes with a 90 day warranty. It seems like about half the inventory at woot! is televisions, so I don't know how soon I'll purchase something from them again, but my first experience has been a great one.

I have always followed my grandfather's custom of substituting a dill pickle spear for the traditional stalk of celery in my Bloody Marys, but I think a strip of crispy bacon might be even better.

And yeah, this entry might have ended up as a tweet if it had been just a little shorter.

The logical part of my brain is well aware that UNC is not going to win the national championship this year, but that's apparently not the part of my brain I'm using when I fill out my NCAA bracket. I filled mine out several times over the past couple of days without saving it, because each time I kept on ending up with UNC in at least the Final Four, and I really don't think that's going to happen this year as much as I'd like to see it.

In fact, I don't have a single number one seed making it to the Final Four, which, in my past experience picking lower seeds for the finals, is not going to turn out well for me. But hey, in the extremely improbably event that the final game ends up being played between Florida (Seriously? Florida? WTF? How did I ever end up with Florida making the finals?) and UNC, then I think I'm probably going to win my pool no matter which team actually wins the championship.

My new favorite site: Passive-Aggressive Notes. The ones that coworkers leave for each other in the office kitchen are always the best, but there's something to be said for the annoying neighbor/roommate ones, too.

Since I haven't been able to properly motivate myself to go out and shoot photos locally in a long time, I've been looking for another photography hobbyist who I could spend a day with every month or so, the idea being that one of us would pick a new location and we'd go out and shoot it together. And it just so happened that my friend Jeff, who moved back to Maryland from Colorado last year, is also an amateur photographer, and he was into that idea.

After shooting Clarendon over Christmas when I went back to visit my parents in Wilmington, I wanted to look for similar decaying, abandoned places locally, and after doing some research online, Jeff and I settled on Henryton State Hospital, which was built in the 1920s and shuttered in 1985. Since the weather forecast was sunny and relatively warm for Saturday, we decided to give it a go.

I also read some tips online about how to get to the property, since there were reports of police or security guards occasionally shooing people away, and we decided to use one of the more roundabout methods: parking at a state park parking lot north of the facility and following a path through the woods get to the buildings. That route actually worked pretty well, and although it took a little more effort and took a few extra minutes, it allowed us to keep a pretty low profile and stay away from any potential patrols on the outskirts.

I had driven past the entrance on the way home from work the day before, and I could already see that the warm weather was bringing out lots of people like us—there were four cars parked near the north entrance, and I even saw two people with cameras getting out of one of them on my way past. So we were expecting to encounter other adventurers, and we weren't disappointed: almost as soon as we set foot on the grounds, we saw two women exploring the property, and throughout the day we probably ran into a dozen others, including a crew of four from Pennsylvania who did this sort of thing on a regular basis, a lone goth girl who had visited the site a few times before, and a trio of teenagers who were the only ones we encountered without cameras.

Tomorrow: our explorations at Henryton.

When we got to the buildings at Henryton, the first and most obvious one to explore was the big white one that is easily the largest structure on the property. But there was an omninous banging coming from that direction, and given the stories we'd read about homeless people sometimes taking up residence on the grounds, we decided to try our luck elsewhere and avoid a possible confrontation with a deranged squatter (we never did explore that building, but we gradually became convinced that the sound was the wind blowing a metal door open and shut sporadically).

So instead we turned to our right and entered the brick building there, which, after it exploring it, was probably the main hospital building before the white one was built in the second phase of construction. We took our time in this one, exploring virtually every room of the first and second floors (there were four total) before Jeff realized that he was running low on memory card space. Given that, we decided to explore some of the other buildings for variety, but when we go back (and I'm pretty sure we'll be going back), I still want to check out the last two floors of that building.

It's hard to describe the amount of destruction and decay we saw; I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it took more effort to reduce Henryton to its current state than it did to build it. Every single window has been broken; every single door has been kicked in. There was evidence of fires in many rooms, and graffiti was everywhere. Sinks and light fixtures were smashed, there were holes in the walls and floors, and every room that we went in looked like it had been set upon by some combination of looters, vandals, and bored teenagers for decades, which is likely exactly how these buildings got the way they are.

All in all, there are still five brick buildings, the large white building (which probably has more square footage than the other five buildings combined), a block of garages, a small cottage, and an industrial power plant at Henryton, and even though we were there for several hours, we only explored three or four of them, and none of them as thoroughly as we would have liked (we only entered the white building long enough to walk through it to get to the southern part of the property—we didn't really explore it at all, and it is enormous).

I wanted to take a look at the Henryton railroad tunnel that's not far from the southern entrance to the hospital (the power plant is located right next to the train tracks), so we walked down to that for a quick peek. As we started to head back up to the road that runs down next to the hospital grounds so we could get back to our car, a pickup truck drove through the tunnel (not on the tracks, to one side of the tracks), which it turns out held two Maryland state police officers. They promptly proceeded up to the road we were planning to take to get to our car and parked there, obviously intending to thwart anyone with intentions of visiting the hospital grounds. Before embarking on this adventure, Jeff and I had both remarked to one another that we're the kind of people who ALWAYS get caught when we're doing something like this, and that's kind of what happened here—if the police had come ten minutes earlier, they would have been able to apprehend somewhere in the neighborhood of half a dozen other visitors either entering or exiting the property.

We thought about walking past them and telling them we were just on our way out, but instead we walked up the tracks and around a bend until they were out of site, then climbed a hill until we got back up to the hospital grounds. As soon as we got up there, we saw three teenagers who had obviously come up the easy way past where the cops had been sitting, and they waved us the all-clear, meaning the police had likely only stayed for a few minutes before moving onto more important matters.

It was a good trip. I got a pretty decent amount of photos, and we have a much better sense of the layout of the property and the best ways to sneak around. I'm really hoping we can make another trip or two this year, but I think after Henryton and Clarendon, I need a break from the urban decay/destruction stuff, so maybe we'll do a nice nature-oriented daytrip sometime in April when everything's in bloom again.

One week from now, the decision emails, letters, and packets will be out the door, and I'm going to be very surprised if I'm not in the office every day until then. Usually we get to breathe a little sigh of relief and have a week or two to recover, but not this year—April's shaping up to be just as stressful as March, and this has far and away been our most stressful and chaotic cycle since I joined the office nine years ago.

Discovery aired a new show called Gold Rush: Alaska a few months ago, although if they were going to name it accurately, they should have called it A Bunch of Incompetent Morons Wasting Money in the Woods. This group of "miners" risked their lives, their families' lives, and spent $250,000 and six months of their time only to end up with a paltry 27 ounces of gold.

If these idiots had instead spent that money investing in gold in April (when the price was around $1120 per ounce) instead of going looking for it in Alaska, and then sold it in October (when their mining season came to an end and when gold was selling for around $1350 an ounce), they would have made around $51,000 profit and not have been out any money. Selling their 27 ounces at $1350 an ounce gives them about $36,500...minus $250,000, leaving them over $200,000 in the hole.

Granted, this doesn't take into account whatever they got paid by the show, which could have been substantial if they had bonuses tied to ratings (the show was a huge hit for Discovery), and since the show has been renewed for a second season, they're not only going to cash in on the television revenues (presuming that they or their agents are smarter about negotiating contracts than they are at finding gold), but there is a chance they could find a lot more gold, given that they spent most of the last season dicking around and didn't really figure out how to mine gold and where to dig for it until the last few weeks, when they mined four or five times as much as they had the prior five months.

But even if they come out ahead, they're still a bunch of idiots. That show would have been absolutely unwatchable if not for TiVo, and the only thing it was really good for was serving up punchlines for The Soup—and even that got old after a while.

Does it being Friday really mean anything if you have to go into work on Saturday and Sunday?

I'll be glad when we get to next Friday, which is my next guaranteed day of not being in the office, but I'll be really glad when we get through April and things at work hopefully settle down a little bit.

I thought I had picked a terrible bracket this year, with no number one seeds making it to the Final Four, but I came very, very close to having a dominating bracket. I had Florida and UNC playing each other in the final game, and Connecticut as one of the other teams in the Final Four, and both the UNC and Florida games came down to the last minute of play.

If either one of them had made it, I'd be in good shape to win my office pool, but I still have a chance even without that. There's only one person who has an active team in the Final Four, and that's Connecticut, but if UConn loses their next game, he won't get any points from that and he will remain behind me in total points (I've currently got the most total points).

I'm really proud of UNC's performance this year. As a fan, I picked them to win it, but in my heart of hearts, I didn't expect them to make it to the Final Four (I actually thought Duke might win this year, but I was happy to have their asskicking by Arizona bust that part of my bracket, even though I had them getting beat the next round anyway). The trick now is to keep some of that talent, which will be hard to do with John Henson, Harrison Barnes, and Tyler Zeller all looking like probable picks in if they decide to leave UNC for the NBA (especially Barnes and Henson, who both seem likely to go in the first round). It's hard to begrudge a player giving up millions of dollars to play one or two more seasons for a college team, but it's crazy to imagine what this squad might do a year from now after the year they had this year.

Decision letters going out today. I'm exhausted and feel like I haven't slept in a week. Hopefully I can take off some time later this week to recover. Wish me luck.

Growing up in southeastern North Carolina, one of my favorite sodas was a yellow citrus concoction called Sun Drop. It was as easy to find where I lived as Mountain Dew and Mello Yello—there were several restaurants that even served it as a fountain drink—and it wasn't until after I moved out of the area that I realized that Sun Drop was only available in a few select areas of the country (apparently it's also the favorite soda of Green Bay's cheeseheads), and I happened to have been fortunate enough to grow up in one of them.

It is distinguished from Mountain Dew and Mello Yello by its much stronger bite from a higher level of citrus and carbonation, and it also contains pulp from the orange juice that is one of the components. Although I drink the diet version now, it's still a treat for me when someone visiting from NC brings me a case of Sun Drop cans, because it's about a five hour drive to the closest place where Sun Drop is sold.

That is, until recently. Coke's Mello Yello disappeared from the national market several years ago, ceding the yellow citrus soda space to Pepsi's Mountain Dew. But now it seems like Dr. Pepper, the owner of the Sun Drop brand, wants to make a push to get some of that marketshare, and they recently rolled out a national ad campaign to push Sun Drop (which of course means that they are now making it available nationally). I had seen a couple of these ads (which are incredibly annoying, and clearly aimed at a youth segment I am no longer a part of) and also noticed that it was fully stocked in a fridge on one of MTV's reality shows, but I was still suprised to find both regular and diet Sun Drop suddenly appearing on the soda aisle of my regular grocery store.

Unfortunately, they only had the diet in 2 liter bottles, and I prefer cans, but maybe if it catches on they'll expand the offerings. But while it would be nice to be able to buy this product whenever I wanted to, it would lose a little bit of its nostalgic childhood mystique. It's one of the things that still makes me miss North Carolina, and knowing that I could buy a case of it in a grocery store five minutes away makes its connection to my past feel a little less resonant now.

Speaking of sodas: since I switched to diet drinks a year and a half ago, I've been trying in vain to find a dark cola whose taste is close enough to the sugared version that I could enjoy it. I had no problem with the yellow citrus sodas or the clear sodas like Sierra Mist and 7-Up, but Pepsi Max was the closest I found to a traditional cola that I could drink, and even then there was something a bit off.

But on a whim, I tried Diet Dr. Pepper again, and I can't taste the difference between what Dr. Pepper tastes like in my memory and this drink. This was one of the first ones I tried, because Julie told me it was the one that was closest to its regular version (she's been drinking diet sodas forever), but my initial experience was pretty negative. I don't know what has changed—maybe after so long without drinking a soda with sugar in it my taste buds have readjusted to the artificial sweeteners found in diet drinks—but I'm happy to have a diet cola I can drink without reservations.

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