Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Oregon and Seattle trip recap


We arrived in Portland late Wednesday night after a six-hour flight on JetBlue. Liz's aunt and uncle picked us up and we had a 90-minute drive to Sheridan to their house. After sleeping in Thursday morning, we had lunch at an art gallery/café, then visited two wineries in the Willamette Valley. We sampled several delicious varieties of wine and bought a few bottles to ship home. We had dinner at a brewpub in McMinnville and went home.


We stopped in McMinnville for lunch and picked up our rental car, a compact Kia sedan. We left for Seattle around 1 PM and arrived about 5 1/2 hours later, about what we'd expected. On the way, we enjoyed the beautiful Pacific Northwest mountains and forests, along with weather that changed from cloudy to sunny to torrential rain every twenty minutes. We also got a chance to try out my Belkin TuneCast FM transmitter for my iRiver MP3 player, which I wrote about just the other day. We had dinner with our hosts Tanya and Jeff and one of their two daughters and then went with them and their French bulldog Emmy for a walk along West Seattle's Alki Beach. Later that night we watched (or perhaps "endured" is a better choice of words) National Treasure and made fun of the major flaws with the movie.


Liz's friend Muse picked us up in the morning and dropped me off at the Cinerama theater in downtown Seattle. After I picked up my ticket for Revenge of the Sith, I met my cousin Elly for lunch. I hadn't seen her since my wedding in 1998, so we had a lot of catching up to do. She's about to graduate from the University of Washington with an art degree. She had to go home to work on a paper, but was kind enough to drop me off back at the Cinerama, where I waited in line for about an hour and a half to get into the theater. I have already posted my review of the movie and the theater itself, so just check out that post below.

After the movie, Liz and Muse picked me up at the theater and we went back out to West Seattle. Later that evening we had dinner at the Palace Kitchen, a restaurant that was coincidentally right across the street from the Cinerama (though there was enough of a gap between the movie and the dinner reservation that hanging around the neighborhood didn't make any sense). The meal was excellent, and so was the people-watching. There was a group of older women waiting impatiently for a table and one of them kept pushing her way past us to bother the hostess about their wait. Then she ravenously devoured a plate of spring roll appetizers, to the point where I was concerned that she'd eat my fingers if I shook hands with her. About an hour and a few drinks later, on her way out, she stood in the restaurant's doorway and hollered at her companions across the room. When the evening showing of Revenge of the Sith ended, a few costumed fans came into the restaurant, Darth Vader helmets removed but capes still donned.


We left Seattle around noon and made the drive back to McMinnville in four hours, in what Liz's aunt Candy described as record time. Since they live in a house way up in the mountains, at the top of a steep, winding driveway that seems to be accessible only to cars with four-wheel drive, we had them pick us up in McMinnville instead of driving back to their house ourselves. We got there in time to catch the season finale of Desperate Housewives, which along with the movie was the other big pop-culture event of our vacation that I couldn't miss.


We drove to Portland and had lunch at Papa Haydn's, a café with unforgettable desserts. Liz had the carrot cake and I had a mint chocolate torte cake. Now logy from too much food, we rolled ourselves to Music Millennium where I loaded up on used CDs of Bruckner and Mahler symphonies. After that we drove across town to Powell's Books, and I filled my summer reading list with books by William Gibson, Brian Greene, Dan Brown, and Tom Clancy. (I haven't read a Clancy book since Debt of Honor, so I'm continuing in the Jack Ryan sequence by reading Executive Orders and Red Rabbit.) We ate dinner at a sushi restaurant downtown before making the drive back home.


Our first stop was the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, where Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose is on display, along with many other military and civilian aircraft. Then we drove out to the Pacific coast, where we had lunch at a brewery and took pictures on several windswept beaches. These aren't swimming and sunbathing beaches -- it's too windy and cold -- but there were a few hardy surfers out in the waves.


Since our flight home was a redeye and didn't leave until 11:55 PM, we had most of the day to spend in Portland. We had lunch at a little Mexican restaurant that a friend and former Portland resident had recommended to us, then we walked along the riverfront and enjoyed the best weather of our vacation. Workers were setting up rides for a carnival, so we made many jokes at the expense of "carnies." We took our time getting to the airport, and even after we checked in, we had plenty of time to visit with Liz's aunt and uncle and show off many photos from my four-year collection of digital images. The flight back was a little less than five hours, but the limited legroom and uncomfortable seats made sleeping difficult and eventually impossible. We landed at 8 AM and had a rush-hour-impaired cab ride home, but the cats were happy to see us and we them after a hard night's traveling.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Traveling with your MP3 player

Sunday's Washington Post reviews several options for using your iPod or other MP3 player in your car. They review two FM transmitters (the iTrip and the Belkin TuneCast II) and three cassette deck adapters. The reviewer prefers the iTrip to the TuneCast and doesn't have a problem with any of the cassette adapters. He does note that most cars don't have cassette decks anymore and that neither one is superior to the simplest (and least common) option: a line-in jack on the front of the car stereo.

Last weekend, on our drive from Portland to Seattle and back, we used a TuneCast II to listen to several podcasts and albums on my iRiver H140 through the car stereo. The TuneCast did its job as designed, but suffered from the same problems that the reviewer points out: it sounded tinny and distant most of the time, like any other FM radio station, and we had to adjust the frequency on the TuneCast every hour or so, as we moved in and out of the range of various FM stations. It was better for rock and blues music than for classical, as we found out during a brief attempt to listen to Beethoven. The audio sounded slightly better when I placed the TuneCast next to the gearshift, but maybe I was imagining a difference. I admit that it's an imperfect solution to the problem of using an MP3 player in a car without a direct connection to the car stereo. On our drive to DC for Easter weekend, I used James' cassette deck adapter with the iRiver and the sound was just as good as the CDs he brought along. But for $30 I was happy with the results.

If you're going to buy a TuneCast, get the "II" version, as it allows you to transmit on any FM frequency between 87.5 and 108.1 MHz. Earlier versions used four preset FM frequencies, and if there was a stronger radio station on those frequencies, you were out of luck. At least with the TuneCast II you have a chance to avoid any radio stations in your area by choosing an empty frequency. Also, get a fresh set of AAA batteries before you hit the road, as the TuneCast only lasts about three hours on one battery. For $20 extra you can get an in-car power adapter for the TuneCast that lets you run the transmitter off the car's power. I don't know why Belkin packages it separately from the TuneCast, except that it can also be used to charge your iPod instead, so maybe they're aiming the charger at a different user group.

Monday, May 23, 2005

quick "Revenge of the Sith" review

I saw the movie on Saturday at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle. (It did in fact remind me of the Uptown in Washington, DC -- it had the same large, curved screen and incredible sound system that the Uptown has, though the Uptown is larger and holds more people. But if you want a great movie experience in Seattle, the Cinerama is the place to go.)

I thought the movie itself was great. Definitely better than the first two, and an excellent way to wrap up the trilogy. Of course, the effects were better than anything I've seen lately, and the lightsaber battles (all five of them) were beyond anything in Star Wars films before. The fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan was especially tense and thrilling. I suppose if you're not planning to make any more Star Wars movies, you'd better make your last battle the best one. Maybe the best parts were the ones I was expecting: the beginnings of Darth Vader's career, how the droids end up where they do, and what all that blather about the midichlorians and disappearing ghostly Jedi really meant.

Some of the dialogue was cheesy and wooden, and the two little girls sitting next to me giggled at every bad line. Also, it ran a bit long for a Star Wars movie, I guess because George Lucas needed to get every last item into the story. But I really enjoyed it, and I can't wait to see it again when I get back to New York.

Here's one quick spoiler (scroll down a bit):

R2-D2 knows everything!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

vacation time

Liz and I are leaving for Oregon this evening, where we will visit her aunt and uncle for a few days. We are also going to visit some friends (and in my case, my cousin) in Seattle over the weekend. While in Seattle, I will be taking in a showing of Revenge of the Sith, since there's no possible way I could wait to see the movie until we get back next week. (I will have to wait until Saturday, though.) I'm going to see it at the Cinerama, which is one of those old-style movie theaters with a wide screen that's been renovated and restored like the Uptown theater in Washington, DC. Since I grew up watching the Star Wars films, I'm as excited as I could possibly be to see this latest film. I liked but didn't love the first two prequels, despite the lackluster reviews. Sith is getting good-to-excellent reviews from many critics, so I don't think I'll be disappointed a third time. If I have a chance, I'll post a review up here over the weekend.

Blogging will be sporadic, or even less frequent than usual, while we're on the road. I think Liz's aunt and uncle have broadband, though they live in a rural area up in the mountains. I should really learn how to survive without being connected 24/7.

By the way, the cable TV is working again after I installed the new box. The new box has a few minor enhancements for program searches and recording, and the picture looks better than it looked with the old box. This time, we put the cable box inside our entertainment center, instead of on top where one of our cats would sleep on it. We put the VCR up there instead. If the cat breaks it by sleeping on it, it's not a big loss.

Monday, May 16, 2005

More cable woes (not so bad this time)

We got our cable TV and Internet fixed two weeks ago when the Time Warner guy who showed up fiddled with the junction box on the roof of our building and got us a strong signal. He also replaced our nearly two-year-old Scientific Atlanta 8000 DVR cable box with a new(er) one of the same model. Until last night, all was well. Then, around 1 AM this morning, the replacement cable box started rebooting spontaneously. It never got past the initial boot stage -- I could tell because the LED display on the front kept showing the word "b00t" and cycling through what I can only assume are PC POST (Power-On Startup Test) messages. Eventually the display stopped cycling and just flickered faintly before going off completely. I called Time Warner and the technician got it working initially over the phone (he had me reboot it again) so I stalled him by asking some stupid questions until the box shut down again after a few minutes. Rather than wait until after my vacation for another visit from the cable guy, this morning I took the cable box back to Time Warner's office on 23rd St. to exchange it for a replacement. I went early, figuring that I'd find a long line at 8:30 AM on a Monday. To my surprise, there were four people working behind the desk and no one in line. I was in and out of there with my new cable box (a new model this time) in 15 minutes. And no runaround either: the woman I spoke to had no problem taking the old box back and giving me a new one. I'll have to wait until tonight to hook it up and see if it works, so no "PTI" for me today. But the old box had the decency to fail after we'd watched all of our Sunday night TV shows, so we didn't miss anything good. As long as this new box records the season finale of "Desperate Housewives" next Sunday, we're OK.

At least my Internet access has been fine for the past few weeks. [knocks on wood] However, last weekn the MPAA sued a few of my favorite Bittorrent sites for recent TV shows, and most of them disappeared from the Internet within hours. So my options are shrinking for downloading shows that I've missed. Damn studios.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

I'm still here...

...I'm just in a Microsoft Active Directory training class in midtown Manhattan this week. It's the same place as last time, in the CBS building on 6th Avenue, where I have no Internet access except for a few kiosks. At least the class is more educational and interesting this time around. We aren't getting any stupid questions, and everyone in the room understands the basics of AD, so we can focus on the class material instead of superhero tangents.

If you're looking for updated content, please check out Eric's account of his recent medical mission trip to Guatemala at Have Cipro, Will Travel. I especially enjoyed reading today's entry about Eric's bano issues while eating my dinner.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Saturday night's alright for opera

On Saturday night, Liz and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary a few weeks early by attending the Metropolitan Opera's performance of Faust by Charles Gounod. Neither of us had been to the Met before, so we were both awed and amazed by the hall and the performance. I'd see operas from the Met on TV, but the small screen doesn't do justice to what a staged opera really looks like. The hall is enormous, but the singers had no trouble filling it with the most wonderful music we'd heard in years. In particular, the actor singing the role of Mephistopheles (Rene Pape) was mesmerizing, and he received some of the loudest ovations. The other leads were equally spectacular, but the Devil had the best lines and some of the best scenes. We had seats near the front of the stage on the orchestra level, so we had excellent views of the stage as well as James Levine in the orchestra pit. I've been a fan of Levine's work for almost 20 years, so it was especially exciting to see him in person.

One of the interesting effects was in the set design. The entire opera was staged on risers set at about a 20 degree angle rising from the front of the stage to the rear. From our viewpoint down front, the whole opera looked tilted, but I assume the set was designed to look right from the upper balconies. It's a deep stage as well, and when the stage was filled with the chorus and backdrops, having a tilted set allows everyone to see the action. The sets themselves were just beautiful and some in the audience applauded each time the curtain opened for another act.

We had such a great time that we're already planning our next trip. In January the Met will stage Julie Taymor's version of Mozart's Die Zauberflote, and since neither of us has ever seen that particular opera, we'd love to see it here. I wish we could afford to subscribe to the opera, but I'll settle for once a year if we can manage it.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Colbert Report Lives!

Liz and I are addicted to "The Daily Show:" we watch it every night, we bought the book, and we've been to a show taping and a charity comedy event with Jon Stewart and Lewis Black. One of our favorite fake ads during the show was the promo for Stephen Colbert's own talk show, "The Colbert Réport" (tagline: "It's French, bitch!") The promo featured Colbert screaming at the camera, expressing wild opinions, and berating fake guests. Now Comedy Central is giving Colbert his own show, based on the fake promo. It will run after "The Daily Show" and will spoof talk shows with hosts like Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, and Sean Hannity. I can't wait to see it. The only sad part is that it means less Stephen Colbert on "The Daily Show," but that's a small price to pay to see more of Colbert four nights a week.

No cable TV and no Internet make Phil go crazy

Our digital cable box has been doing weird things for a few months now, but over the weekend it stopped showing us just about anything above the broadcast channels. About the same time, our cable Internet service went from 4 Mbs downstream to about 400 Kbs, a major, noticeable difference. By Monday it had gone out completely, like the cable TV. I've got a service call for Time Warner to come here tomorrow morning, but I'm really worried that the problem isn't in my apartment or building and is actually in some remote piece of hardware that won't be fixed for weeks. I've been leeching wireless Internet access from my neighbors' open access points for a few days, but some of them aren't working either -- they also have Internet service from Time Warner. I honestly don't know how I'll react if the guy who comes here tomorrow can't fix both problems. I'm fantasizing about cancelling the cable entirely, both TV and Internet, and just getting DSL from Speakeasy or Verizon instead. I'd have to rely on DVDs and Bittorrent to get all my favorite TV shows on demand, and I know Liz wouldn't like that solution at all. But she's right: we pay too much money each month for this cable system to be broken. The part that really bothers me is that it's completely out of my control. When something breaks at work, I either fix it myself or get someone I know and trust to help me fix it. But I don't trust Time Warner one damn bit, mostly because I'm just one consumer and they've got millions of subscribers just like me. Why should they give a damn about me? It's not like I can get cable TV from anyone else, thanks to the local monopoly. (I don't have line of sight to the southwest sky, so DirecTV isn't an option.) It's that helplessness that's driving me insane right now. If I could fix this problem myself, I'd do it already. Maybe it will be something stupid, like one of the cats chewing through the cable wires. But I've got this terrible feeling that the problem is going to require some heavy-duty repair crew work that can only be scheduled for two weeks from now, which becomes three weeks because I'll be on vacation in two weeks. Maybe I'll get a credit from Time Warner for the outage, but it still means I'm stuck downloading shows while I'm at work and trying to find the optimal location at home to pick up my neighbors' signals. And I hope that none of them figure out what I'm doing and lock down their APs. I'll promise this much: when I do get Internet access back, be it tomorrow or next month, I'll open my own access point for a while. Free Internet on my network when it's working.

Sorry for the rant. I'll try to post something better tomorrow.

Monday, May 02, 2005

there's a new guy at work

I've been in my current job for five years, so I've seen plenty of "newbies," especially the ones who have joined my group. We got another one today, the e-mail administrator for whom I gave up the cubicle I'd occupied for four years. It's always fun to see someone who's completely new to the organization. They don't know anyone or where anything is located or how the firm works. They're so gullible, I could tell them all about the secret swimming pool and wine cellar in the building and they'd believe me. Everything is new to them, so normally weird ideas and wacky comments are completely plausible. And, in our technical world, they're essentially useless for a week or two until they learn enough of the environment to do the job for which they were hired. I'm not trying to make fun of the new guy -- we've all been the new person at a job, and no matter what it is, there's always that awkward period while you and your co-workers adjust to the changes. But I've been here long enough that it's difficult to remember the times when I didn't know the people or the firm that well, so it's entertaining to watch someone new go through that experience. I need to remember not to confuse him too much or too often with crucial information and obscure jokes. OK, maybe with the jokes. It's that brief look on their face when they're not sure if you're serious or joking that makes it fun.