Tuesday, August 30, 2005

lots of catching up to do

Has it really been a week since I posted something? Oy vey, I've been busy. For the past two days at work I've been in a conference room with two Microsoft engineers reviewing our Active Directory environment. It was equal parts analysis, education, and quiz, and by the end of yesterday I felt like my head had been squeezed in a vise. Today wasn't as bad, as I rounded up a few other people from our office to answer questions. Now we have to fix the things they identified as broken or misconfigured, and wait for their final report in a few weeks.

On Sunday I rode the marshals' pre-ride for the NYC Century. I skipped the Bronx part of the route but still put 86 miles on the bike. The ride route is different from last year, as it goes out to the Rockaways for the first time that I know of. Despite some rain at the beginning and end of the ride I really enjoyed the course and I'm excited about riding it again on Sept. 11. I'm a little apprehensive about being a marshal but I think I can handle it. The only part that really worries me is whether I'll be able to finish the entire 100-mile course in 12 hours. Marshals are supposed to take it easy and ride slowly, and if I have to stop too many times or ride too slowly, I'll run the risk of not getting back to the Central Park start/finish line by 6 PM. But my worst century time was 13 hours, and that was three years ago when I wasn't as fit as I am now. In 2003 I managed the century in just under 11 hours, so I should be able to do the ride this year in 12 hours.

Finally, the cell phone saga is over. Last Wednesday I decided to take the plunge again and I bought another Nokia 6620 from eBay, from a vendor in Queens. The phone arrived on Friday evening and doesn't seem to have any problems with it. I bought a Bluetooth adapter yesterday and last night I was happily synching information between my phone and my home PC. My only real complaint is that the built-in ringtones suck ass. I'm using the "desk phone" ringtone right now because there isn't a decent musical one in there. Since the phone doesn't appear to accept MP3 ringtones, I'll either have to buy one (which I hate, as they cost more than songs on iTunes) or figure out how to make one on my computer. But otherwise, it's great. Now I can post my cameraphone photos to my blog again, something I haven't been able to do since I got rid of the Treo 600 in January.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

MD weekend report

Readers who check the Photos link obsessively might have noticed already that there are many new photos available now. I've posted pictures from the Pittsburgh trip a few weeks back as well as some photos from last weekend in Baltimore and Bowie. Read on for the details of my brief visit with my family.

I took the train to Baltimore on Saturday morning and my brother met me at the station. The plan was to go straight to the B&O Railroad Museum, but we were a bit early (or my father was running late) so we went to my brother's apartment first. He showed me some pictures from his two-day trip with my dad and our cousin Gibson (visiting from London) to Strasburg and Scranton, PA and filled me in on Gibson's eccentricities (i.e. "he's a complete nutter"). More on that later. Shortly thereafter we went to the museum and met up with my father and stepmother. Gibson, they said, was already exploring the museum's collection of locomotives and rolling stock, so I'd have to wait a while longer to meet him. (I guess I should have mentioned earlier that I'd never met Gibson before, despite three trips to London in the past five years.) We finally caught up with him in the roundhouse, which he was just passing through on his way to take pictures of the train cars outside the museum.

The B&O Museum consists of an old railroad roundhouse, several train platforms, a train car repair shop (closed for renovations and due to reopen next month), and a few hundred locomotives, train cars, and other assorted railroad equipment. The roundhouse's roof collapsed during the blizzard of February 2003, and the museum itself was closed for 22 months while the roof was repaired and some of the damaged exhibits were restored. The roundhouse holds about a dozen steam locomotives of various sizes and types, and several other old train cars used for baggage, passengers, mail, etc. Outside, on the platforms and in the parking lot, they have the more modern diesel-electric locomotives and newer examples of train cars. There's an excellent glassed-in HO scale model railroad in one of the old train cars. I got a few pictures of that where the glass didn't reflect too badly. Outside the museum, in the parking lot itself, sits one of the locomotives for the 1976 America's Freedom Train, which toured the lower 48 states as part of the bicentennial. It's hidden between two other rows of train cars and is in terrible shape. You can see the Great Seal and some graffiti written on it in a few of my pictures. Gibson was disappointed in the museum as a whole (not enough steam locomotives) and in particular by the condition of the Freedom Train. But I learned all sorts of things about steam trains during my visit and found out firsthand just how much of a freak my cousin is when it comes to trains.

Now a few words about Gibson. He's my father's first cousin; his mother and my grandfather were siblings. He's in his sixties and teaches music at a school in England. He's been a fanatic about trains for most of his life, and knows more than I could imagine anyone knowing about the subject. He'd never been to America before now, and he came with a list of things he wanted to see and do, nearly all of which were train-related. He and my father and either my stepmother or brother (depending on the trip) went as far south as Roanoke, VA and north to Scranton, PA to various train museums and exhibits. On these trips, he would disappear for up to an hour, photographing trains. He wanted my father to pull off the road at one point so he could get a picture of a tar-laying road work machine. When he got back to my dad's house, he buried his nose in my dad's collection of train books, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. Yes, he's a bit odd, but he's family, and quite pleasant if you don't mind all the train stuff.

Back to the weekend recap: We went back to Bowie for a steak dinner at my father's house. The steaks and vegetables were delicious, but we had to eat quickly because we had to get to a church in Glen Burnie for my brother's string orchestra concert. He's a member of several orchestras in the greater Baltimore area, and this one is a summer string orchestra comprised of members of various other groups. For a summer group having played only a dozen rehearsals, it was a good concert. They played a Mozart divertimento, a few string suites (including a piece that everyone recognizes as the DeBeers diamond commercial music), and a Vivaldi guitar concerto. Gibson is a music teacher and accomplished pianist and organist, and he loved the concert. Afterwards, he introduced himself to the conductor, the church organist, and a few of the performers. Somehow we were among the last to leave, and I'm sure that Gibson wouldn't have noticed if he'd been locked in the church accidentally.

On Sunday morning Gibson practiced the piano for about two hours, playing Bach, Chopin, Schumann (I think), and a few pieces of his own. The impromptu concert reminded me of my grandfather's practice sessions when we visited my grandparents in England in 1989, and the music was just wonderful to hear. Over lunch we shared stories of crazy conductors and performers we knew, like my old college music director Patricia and musicians in the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra back home. It was a quick trip, but completely worth the effort to meet Gibson and get to know him a little. Next time I'm in London I'll have to get in touch with Gibson and treat him to a good meal (ah, the privileges of business travel).

Best Engadget post EVER

Take a trip all the way back to 1985 with Engadget. My favorites items are the Commodore 128 (I still want one, 20 years later) and the Tapecast. I think I may have recorded some tapecasts back in the day. And maybe I should look on eBay for a Nokia Mobira Talkman to solve my cellphone problem. It only weighs 11 lbs!

Friday, August 19, 2005

cell phone saga update

I returned the defective phone for a refund. The seller was willing to send me another one but wasn't sure if he had any in stock. Rather than draw out this ordeal any further (at least with this vendor in LA) I opted to get all of my money back. Except for the $10 I spent to ship the bad phone to California, but I got back the cost of the phone and the shipping. So all is well on that front. Meanwhile, I'm back to square one. I did find another eBay vendor who has a store in Long Island City just across the river and has the same Nokia 6620 phones in stock. There are other stores in Manhattan that sell unlocked phones but their prices are $100-$200 more than I paid in this auction. So I guess it's still eBay or nothing. I'm going out of town for the weekend so it looks resolution will have to wait a few days more.

Monday, August 15, 2005

life update; weekend report

Work has kept me busy lately, so that accounts for the lack of posts. (Work is always a convenient excuse.) I've also had a few really crappy days lately, so I've avoided posting because no one wants to hear how pissed off I am at the forces arrayed against me. The eBay cell phone purchase is one such source of aggravation, and I'm hoping against hope that I'm not getting taken for a long, slow ride to the land of disputed purchases. The phone I received on Friday didn't ring, at least not audibly, and the speakerphone didn't work either. This afternoon I sent it back to the vendor for a replacement. However, there's a minor issue with the address I used for shipping, and the phone number he gave me for "customer service" is disconnected. All signs point to trouble ahead, but I'm giving this guy and his 99% feedback rating on eBay the benefit of the doubt. At least I still have a working phone (knocks on wood).

The boss is out in training this week, and so far things have been easier than expected, but I doubt that will keep up. I'm nominally in charge of my group this week, but all that means is that I'm the point man for any major issues that come up, like irate partners, major equipment failures, and rollout troubles. Lucky me.

Liz and I had a fantastic time on Saturday celebrating our 10th anniversary as a couple. We had a picnic in Carl Schurz Park near our apartment, with homemade chicken salad, cheese, fruit, and bread. It was fun despite the brutal heat -- at least we had a breeze where we were sitting. That evening we went to Morton's for steaks. I chose Morton's in part because it's one of our favorite fancy restaurants and we hadn't been there in at least a year. I also chose it because it was one of the first restaurants we went to after we had graduated from Georgetown and had the money to afford it (or the credit card to charge it). The Morton's in Georgetown looks mysterious, like a secret club, and it was a big deal for us to be able to eat there and feel like real adults. Unfortunately, we ate there on a Friday evening after work and before a National Symphony Orchestra concert. After eating bread, appetizers, steaks, and sides (I think we skipped dessert that time) we had a tough time staying awake through the concert. (It wasn't until a few years later that we figured out it made more sense to skip the huge fancy meal before a concert and just eat something sensible. That way, we were able to enjoy the concerts instead of counting the movements until the end.) But that first Morton's meal was amazing, and last Saturday's was no disappointment. Instead of my usual porterhouse, I tried their new Chicago-style ribeye, and it was as delicious as the porterhouse. The upside-down apple pie dessert was no slouch, either. That ought to hold us until our next visit, sometime in 2006 or 2007.

Yesterday we checked out the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Guggenheim, and we really enjoyed it. It's a juxtaposition of his photos and classical drawings of the human figure. If all you know of Mapplethorpe is his controversial works like the cruxifix in urine, this exhibit is worth seeing. Liz was upset that the museum has posted signs saying "Please be advised that this exhibit contains graphic nudity," arguing that no European museum would think it necessary to post such a notice. I tend to agree, but I don't think that Europe is as litigious a place as the U.S. Without the signs, I'm sure the museum would be subject to all sorts of lawsuits from idiots who were shocked (SHOCKED!) to find nudity in an art museum. Yes, we're a nation of dumbasses.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Pittsburgh trip review

We left for Pittsburgh on Thursday morning, August 4, around 9:30 in our rented Mazda. We had hoped to get as far as Harrisburg before stopping for lunch, but traffic and hunger dictated that we stop at the first Cracker Barrel we found in Pennsylvania. We had an even longer accident-related delay near Somerset, when a nasty multiple-car wreck stopped all westbound traffic on the PA turnpike for 45 minutes for us. We finally got to Pittsburgh about 7 PM and found our way to Todd and Kitten's apartment on the North Side of Pittsburgh, near PNC Park. They live in a great loft in the School House, an old middle school converted to apartments. We had dinner at a restaurant across the street from their building and Liz had the job of keeping all plates, silverware, and glasses out of the reach of their 15-month-old son Hunter.

On Friday we went to the Mattress Factory, Andy Warhol's one-time workspace and now a showcase for room-sized art environments. One exhibit was a funhouse mirror-like room in black light, another mirrored room had mannequins covered in large red dots, and the works by James Turrell were light- and darkness-based, exploring the boundary between what we see and what is real. Check out the descriptions on the site. That evening, we went to a seafood restaurant on Mount Washington, which overlooks the city from the hills to the south. We had a fantastic view of the downtown skyscrapers and new stadiums, and enjoyed some amazing fish. I had a blackened Cajun-style mako shark steak, which was like a firmer, moister salmon. Hunter was the hit of our section, and had several members of the wait staff fawning and cooing over him. He even tried to pick up the check at the end of the meal, but somehow had forgotten his wallet.

We drove out to Mount Lebanon to see the house Todd and Kitten are in the process of buying, and to check out their new neighborhood. On the way back we stopped at Primanti Brothers to pick up sandwiches for lunch. I hadn't enjoyed one of their creations for a few years, and eating the cheesesteak sandwich was like tasting a little bit of Heaven. I felt like a pig when I was done, but it was a glorious sensation. Partly because of the heat, and partly because of the torpor induced by so much meat and French fries, we decided to stay in for the rest of the afternoon. My mother arrived just in time for dinner, which was Todd's now-famous enchiladas and pico de gallo.

We went to a German pub for Sunday brunch. The buffet was an assortment of typical breakfast foods (sausage, bacon, eggs, pastries, etc.,) as well as some sort of German farmer's breakfast (eggs, three kinds of sausage, and German potato salad all in the same dish), beef stroganoff, chicken parmigiana, and potato latkes. The other notable aspect of the meal was the endless loop of German oom-pah music, which reminded me of some of my father-in-law's favorite cassettes and made me want to put on lederhosen and dance around like Clark Griswold in European Vacation.

The real highlight of Sunday was the Pirates-Dodgers game at PNC Park. I hadn't been to the new Pirates stadium before, so I was understandably excited all weekend at the idea. I wasn't disappointed. PNC Park lives up to its reputation as one of the best ballparks in baseball. The stadium faces the downtown skyline, so fans get to see the beauty of Pittsburgh's buildings and bridges just over the outfield fences. We had seats about 30 rows up from the Pirates dugout, just under the upper deck, so we were in the shade for the entire game. But the sightlines were excellent, and we didn't suffer at all for not sitting out in the open. We were just a few seats too far over to catch any foul balls, which was probably a good thing since I would have had to sacrifice my camera to snag one. The concourses are wide, the bathrooms plentiful, and the lines at the many concession stands blissfully short. I had to wait about 10 minutes for hot dogs during the 7th-inning stretch, but that was because everyone in front of me wanted ice cream and the soft-serve machine was slow. The game itself was a disappointment, though. The pitcher subbing for the injured Kip Wells gave up four or five hits in the top of the third inning, and the Dodgers may have batted around -- after the Pirates pulled him for Ryan Vogelsong I got up to get some drinks and missed the rest of the half inning. Down 6-0 in the bottom of the ninth, the Pirates did mount a brief comeback against the Dodgers closer (the forgettable Yhency Brazoban), but ultimately couldn't finish them off, and the game ended 6-4. But we did enjoy the pierogi race in the fifth inning, and I appreciated the lack of other loud between-innings music and entertainment. And I even liked the fans sitting around us, even the loudmouth drunk lady who kept shouting at her companions next to her. At least we didn't get any profanity like we've heard at games here in New York. Since Hunter is too young to appreciate it (or care), I got to take home the day's giveaway: a ceramic bobblehead doll of Cheese Chester, one of the participants in the pierogi race. It's now on my desk at work, next to my Chuck Tanner statuette.

We decided to try to get home earlier on the way back, so we left at 8 AM instead of the planned 9 AM departure. We had to drive through rain nearly the entire way back, but luckily there were no accidents or traffic delays. We dropped off the rental car around 3 PM and went home to three cats who were happy to see us.

I'll have pictures posted as soon as I get a free moment to get them online. There are a lot of game photos, so I'll have to pick out the best ones.

"PBS" goes classical

I loved Sunday's "Pearls Before Swine." One of my co-workers uses a Tchaikovsky waltz as her ringtone, and it's really gotten annoying. I'm sure my "Krusty the Clown" theme song/ringtone bothers people, but at least it's not classical.

Which reminds me: I've ordered my new cell phone. After reading more reviews of the Motorola V551, of which there were far more negative than positive, I decided to get a Nokia 6620 instead. I was bidding on a few phones on eBay over the weekend while we were in Pittsburgh (more on that trip in another post) and nearly won one, until I was outbid with one second left in the auction. After that stressful experience, I decided to spend a bit more and just get an new, unlocked 6620 from an eBay vendor using the "Buy It Now" option. My new phone has been shipped and should arrive at the end of the week or on Monday, depending on the vagaries of FedEx. I'll have to post a review when I get it.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

update on my Firefox book

I got my complimentary copy of Hacking Firefox from Wiley Publishing yesterday. My name isn't on the cover, but I am listed as a "Contributing Writer," along with the other writers who worked on the book, and my name appears at the beginning of each of the three chapters I wrote. I'm pleased with the way the book turned out. All of the symbols and screenshots look great, and my writing style seems to mesh with the styles of the other writers. I've only flipped through the other chapters, but it looks like a book I'd be glad to have in my collection even if I hadn't written part of it. Maybe I should go over to Barnes & Noble and autograph a few copies for them, you know, for posterity.

Monday, August 01, 2005

cell phone dilemma

I'm ready to buy a new cell phone. I've had my Nokia 3595 for two years, and I've never really liked its goofy keypad or its general boringness. For most of 2004 I used a Treo 600 that I got for free from my office, but gave it back after most of my conversations were drowned out by a loud buzzing noise audible on both ends of the connection. So after weeks of research, I was ready to buy a Motorola V551 from my local Cingular store. (I've been an AT&T Wireless customer for five years, but haven't made the official jump to a Cingular phone and plan.) I went to the Cingular store on 86th Street on Saturday evening, just after my ride. Unfortunately, my plans to walk out with a brand-new phone were derailed by the news that my contract prevents Cingular from selling me a new phone with a discount. I practically stormed out of the store and went home to call Cingular customer service, who confirmed that I'm stuck. Last year when I changed my calling plan from a regional to a nationwide plan, I locked myself into a contract that doesn't expire until July 2006. And there's some FCC regulation that won't allow Cingular to sell me a discounted phone with a new 2-year contract until next April, when my current contract has only 3 months left. It's complicated. Until then, I can get a new phone from Cingular, but I'd have to pay full price. I doubt my current phone will last another year: the 7 key doesn't work too well anymore, the battery life is about half what it used to be, and it doesn't find the network as quickly as it once did.

So here is my problem: I'm stuck with this old phone until next summer, or I can get an old AT&T phone or an unlocked GSM phone instead. Cingular customer service basically told me to get a phone from eBay if I can't wait until next year to upgrade. So I've spent the past few days on eBay looking at different new and unlocked varieties of the Motorola V551 and a few auctions for other used phones. I really want a clamshell/flip phone this time around, so I'm ruling out just about anything from Nokia (though I am intrigued by the candybar-style 6600 series, which a friend of a co-worker showed me last summer in London). I can get the Motorola I want from a business that sells its wares on eBay as "Buy It Now" items, meaning that I don't have to deal with the pressure of winning an auction. But I'm still hesitant to spend as much money as is involved on a phone from an online retailer without any kind of guarantee. I've looked at the cheaper phones from the same online vendor, but I've got my heart set on the V551. One more long-shot contender entered the fray today, in the form of the Treo 650. I haven't done any research on it, but now I'm thinking that might be the way to go. I haven't had a Palm organizer since I gave up the Treo 600, and while I'm getting along OK without a PDA, there's a part of me that wants one again. A Treo 650 would serve both purposes. But it's even more expensive than the Motorola, and it has even more features than I'll ever use. And if it had the buzzing problems my old Treo had, I think I'd kill someone.

Despite all my agonizing, I know how this saga is going to play out. I'm not going to be happy unless I get the Motorola phone. Buying anything else would just leave me pining for a super-cool flip phone. Over the weekend or next week I'll order it from the eBay vendor, have it shipped to my apartment (and fight with the USPS to get it delivered to me -- normally I ship things to my office, but because of Paypal, the phone will be shipped to my home instead, where USPS will leave me notes but no package), and pray that the phone works and never has a problem. I'll continue to get along without a PDA. Maybe I'll get a PAA (personal ANALOG assistant) instead, and write all my important numbers and addresses on a 3x5 index card, like my father does. I wonder if there's such a thing as Gadgets Anonymous. If my friends ever have an intervention for me and my gadget addiction, I hope there's a support group for technology junkies like me.