Monday, September 26, 2005

weekend report: Wiyos, Scarface, and the Cyclone

After work on Friday, Liz and I met at Junior's in Brooklyn for dinner. She'd never been there before, so of course we had to have a slice of cheesecake for dessert. Then we went out to Park Slope, to Barbes, a little acoustic music club on the ground floor of an apartment building. We were there to hear The Wiyos, a vaudeville blues/hillbilly swing/old-time country band we've both gotten into after hearing them on Dave Raven's Raven & the Blues podcast. They weren't supposed to start until 10, and the band from the early show was still playing when we arrived around 9:30. When they finished up, we squeezed into the performance hall space in the club (the bar took up the rest of the club) and managed to find one seat, which I gave to Liz. The band started playing around 10:15 and performed for over two hours, playing some of their "hits" from their first CD and many new songs they're about to record for their second album. Most of the crowd were fans of the band and knew the songs, so sometimes it was a singalong. The best part of the show was seeing just how they create some of the unusual sounds in their songs. The lead singer plays the harmonica, kazoo, washboard (with a variety of horns and bells attached to it), and occasionally sings through a megaphone to recreate the sound of an old Victrola record player. Nearly every song features some vaudeville-style theatrics from the bass player and the singer, most notably one song where the bass and singer had a bit of a duel with their instruments. It was an immensely entertaining evening and we're already excited about seeing them again in November.

On Saturday night I finally saw Brian De Palma's 1983 remake of Scarface, with Al Pacino. It was a good movie, though not Pacino's or De Palma's best work, but thoroughly entertaining. I particularly enjoyed Pacino's reading of "cockroach;" it sounds more like "cock-a-roach" and made me laugh every time he said it. Liz and I also got a kick out of the movie's title song, "Scarface (Push It To The Limit)," which sounded like the template for every '80s movie montage song. It has to be heard to be believed. You could substitute the words "you gotta have a montage" for "push it to the limit" and it wouldn't be any more ridiculous.

We met some friends and went out to Coney Island on Sunday afternoon. We saw the freak show on its last day for the summer season, complete with the guy with the iron hand, the guy who lays on a bed of nails, the girl who walks on swords, the girl who eats fire, the electric girl, and even the mummy. I wasn't sure I'd like it, but it was a good show. Five bucks gets you ten unusual and sometimes amazing acts, and the best part was that the freaks look just like people I've seen in the East Village or on the subway. Assuming they're covered in tattoos, that is. After lunch at Nathan's, we went on the Ferris wheel and wandered through the other rides until Liz and I were ready for the Cyclone. The Cyclone is an ancient wooden roller coaster. It's been a part of Coney Island for about 80 years. It wasn't the scariest roller coaster I've ever ridden, but it did give me a few moments of near-panic. The drops are steeper than they look from outside the coaster, and the thing is so old that you feel every bolt and nail in the frame. It was quite a bumpy ride, and we both loved it. After we rode the Cyclone and we were walking past it, the cars swooped by us and I could see the wooden frame shaking from the stress. I'm glad I went on it, but I don't think I'll be going on it again. There are talks these days of renovating Coney Island and updating it to make it more of a tourist destination. I'm not sure that's a good idea. Part of the appeal of Coney Island is that it's outdated and rundown. You can't see a freak show or ride old roller coasters like the Cyclone anymore. There's a charm to the place that would likely be lost if the old amusements were replaced with modern games and restaurants. Any effort to update Coney Island would have to carefully preserve the old look and feel of the place, and I don't think that would be possible. I say keep it as it is, warts and all. There has to be some part of old New York that people can still visit, to relive how things used to be.

my "new" cubicle

On Friday I packed up all the stuff in my "office," and over the weekend it was moved across the hall to my department's new (to us) office space. The help desk moved downstairs a few weeks ago, and after some renovations, their old space was ready for us to move in. The cubicles are the same ones that were here before, and I'm not sure the work crew did anything other than wipe them down. When my boss gave us the chance to pick our cubicles, I took the one in the back corner so that once again I'd have a wall behind me instead of another cubicle. I hadn't seen the actual cubicle until this morning when I got to work, so I was slightly upset to see that the shelf unit is tilted. I can't put any books on it before someone fixes it, so my crate of tech books will stay packed up until that happens. There are a few other cosmetic issues, but it's in good shape. By midafternoon I had all of my computers and accessories hooked up the way I like and most of my desktop tchotckes unpacked. There are a few things about the new cubicle that I really like. One is that I have a metal divider between my cube and the one across from me, so my neighbor and I can hear each other but we don't have to see each other. There's a fabric board and a whiteboard on the other cube wall. And we all got new Aeron chairs to go with our new desks. The springs in my old office chair were completely shot, so when I sat down I felt like I was a little kid at the grown-ups' table. The Aeron chair is brand-new with all the adjustments you could ask for. We've all coveted the lawyers' Aeron chairs for years, and now we've got them. Of course, I joked with my boss that since the firm was good enough to buy us the new chairs, they'd have to take away one of our benefits. He said that they're not going to pay for chiropractors any more.

I took a few pictures of my new cube, and I'll see if I can post them later tonight when I get home.

Friday, September 23, 2005

computer woes

I was going to write about my busy days at work this week, but I've got computer troubles on my mind. On Monday, I had to re-install Windows on my work laptop, so I lost all of the applications but none of the data I had there. The laptop is working again but it's not quite the same yet as it was. In the process I did get a replacement T41, so at least the hardware I'm using is new, if not state-of-the-art. Then today, the hardware group at work took away my office desktop PC and this evening replaced it with a Windows XP test system for our BIG project. Tomorrow morning I'll have a brand-new system on my desk that I won't be able to do much with since I won't have admin rights. But that's why I have the laptop.
Here's the big problem, and the reason I'm writing this entry on Liz's laptop instead of my desktop PC. Tonight, my desktop came down with some sort of evil virus, Trojan horse, or other vile ailment that forced me to reinstall Windows to get rid of it. System Restore didn't run. A repair installation of Windows crapped out. At least I was able to save a few files out of My Documents, like my Grand Theft Auto save games (so I shouldn't have to play the entire game again). I have recent backups of my digital photos, and my music collection lives on my iRiver player primarily, with the PC as backup. So in the end, all I've lost is some junk I've been carrying around on my various PCs for about seven years, most of which I haven't looked at in at least four or five years. I guess that's why when it came time to reformat the hard disk, I wasn't that upset. It's a cleansing feeling to get rid of all that old data. Tomorrow morning I'll start putting some things back on it, and I'll continue that work tomorrow night and over the weekend. By Monday, it should be back to something resembling normal, albeit with much more free disk space than there was before.

Earlier tonight, Liz and I went to the San Gennaro festival in Little Italy. We had dinner at one of the many fine restaurants there, and then we enjoyed dessert from one of the vending stalls. We had a funnel cake and something else that I didn't think existed. In fact, it's something of a food abomination. Eating it made me feel so guilty that I thought I needed to go to confession. I present: fried Oreos. Six cookies, dipped in funnel cake batter, deep-fried, then tossed in a paper bag with powdered sugar. Such a treat is not normal, and upsets the fabric of space-time. But Einstein himself would have been powerless before the mighty fried Oreo. My God, they were delicious. The cookie softens in the fryer, so the entire treat is a soft, sweet taste that man was not meant to experience. This is a concoction from the devil himself. In fact, it occurs to me now that my home computer troubles are directly related to my excessive consumption of fried Oreos (I had five, Liz had one). I committed a sin against cuisine, and now I suffer the consequences. Woe is me! Oy vey! I repent! I won't do it again! Nevermore!
(At least not until next year's festival.)

Friday, September 16, 2005

the Nokia 6620

At long last, here are my thoughts on the Nokia 6620.

First of all, the phone sound quality is about the same as my old 3595. I think that's the function of the cell towers near my apartment. I've had some long conversations on it and they sound fine to me. No one has complained about the sound at the other end, unlike my old Treo 600, so I think it's a winner there. After all, if it doesn't work well as a phone, it doesn't look good for the device's other features. Also, the speakerphone is convenient, although it's a little tinny. But it's fine for listening to a conference call or enduring hold music.

I love the 6620's camera. I realize the cell phone cameras are a goofy toy, and that the quality of the photos leaves much to be desired, but it's fun to take quick pictures with it. I'm not ditching my digital camera (in fact, I'm about to buy a new camera) but it's cool to have this one along as well for quick photos on the spur of the moment. I will have to remember to bring along my old phone anytime I'm going somewhere where I can't bring a cameraphone.

The other major function I use is the PDA one: storing my contacts, notes, and maybe calendar items. I exported my old contact list from the Palm Desktop, imported it into Outlook on my home PC, then installed the Nokia PC Suite and used a Bluetooth adapter to synch my contacts with the phone. It's a bit unwieldy to scroll through 150 contacts when I'm looking for a number, so I've been using the keypad to narrow it down. I have to list people first name first, otherwise contacts look like "Smith John" instead of "John Smith." That makes it harder to scroll through the list to find someone.

I've sent a few text messages with the phone, but my fingers don't like the shortcomings of typing text on a numeric keypad.
I'm really used to the Blackberry thumb keyboard when typing on a mobile device. Even though it's possible to send and receive e-mail on the 6620, I'm not going to ditch my Blackberry anytime soon. The phone is capable of web surfing, but I haven't tried it since I don't have a data plan from Cingular right now. Maybe when I get out of my contract next year I'll add data in a new plan.

I like the little joystick for navigating the menus and scrolling through text. Newer versions of the phone have a rocker pad which is probably easier on the thumb over the long term, but the joystick will do.

I don't like the ringtones on this phone. In fact, they suck. The only musical one is the "Nokia tune," also known as that dinky waltz that every Nokia phone plays. The rest are sound effects or beeps. I've set mine to "desk phone" which is about as boring an actual ring as the phone has, but it's better than anything else on it. I'd like to get a better ringtone, but I'm philosophically and financially opposed to paying $2 for a 15-second song clip from Cingular, when I could get a complete song on iTunes for $1. I'm disappointed the phone doesn't play MP3 ringtones, as I'd love to rock out with "Inna Gadda Davidda" every time someone calls me. I also don't like that the phone comes with trial versions of all of its games. You can only play them twice and then you have to buy a license to keep playing. Most of them are dumb, but the graphics are cool. I downloaded a free version of Tetris for Nokia phones but it nearly crashed the phone so I deleted it. It's probably for the best that I don't have any decent games on this phone. I'm already tempting fate on the subway by carrying my MP3 player in my hand instead of my bag and reading e-mails on my Blackberry. If I whipped out the Nokia and started playing games I think I'd definitely get mugged, even at rush hour.

Last, the look and feel of the phone is great. It's a little shorter and wider than the 3595, and maybe a little heavier. But it doesn't feel any bigger in my pocket than the 3595 does. The color screen is just beautiful, and my cameraphone shots look fine on it. I don't notice the quality dropoff until I look at the pictures on my PC. I'm a little worried about scratching the camera lens in my pocket but considering the overall photo quality it wouldn't make much difference.

So for what I paid, I have a phone that looks like a phone, sounds good, and keeps track of my contacts. I'm happy with it and it should get me through to next summer when I can figure out my next cell phone move.

another try at the seared steak

On Wednesday night, I made another attempt at cooking seared steaks in my cast iron skillet. This time, I used better beef, and I used canola oil instead of olive oil. Liz's steak was a little thinner than the one I had, so hers came out medium well, but mine was perfectly medium. It was much better than the first time I made the steak. The baked potatoes weren't bad either. We had the steaks with the rest of a bottle of pinot noir I bought last week and all in all it was an excellent dinner.

I've been so busy lately I keep forgetting to post this. I'm still planning a quick review of my new phone, if I can remember to write it when I have the time. I'm working a late shift at work tonight, and hoping (but not expecting) that I'll have some free time. Maybe I'll be able to at least get something written.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Marshaling the Century

Sunday's NYC Century bike tour was my sixth time on the ride but my first as a marshal. Last year, after seeing a few "bad" marshals who rode past cyclists with bike problems or who appeared lost or led riders the wrong way, we decided that we had to step up and volunteer for this year's ride. Also, to avoid the problem we had last year where James didn't get to the Central Park start until almost 7 AM (thus preventing us from completing the century and forcing us to do the 75-mile route instead), James stayed over at our apartment on Saturday night.

Even though I jumped out of bed at 4:40 AM when the alarm went off, somehow we were still late getting to the start and arrived right at 6 AM instead of 5:45. We signed in, got our bright orange marshal vests and our packets of first aid supplies and injury forms, and barely had time to stow everything before they called our start time of 6:15. I hadn't even stretched when James said he was leaving and he wasn't waiting for me. So my warmup was the first 10 miles of riding in Manhattan. Because the NYPD wouldn't let the bike tour use Fifth Avenue this year to get to the Brooklyn Bridge, the ride route went north out of Central Park and west to Columbia University, down Riverside Drive to 72nd Street, then south on Ninth Avenue to Broadway at 14th Street. After that it was the usual route to Brooklyn and Prospect Park. The Krispy Kreme donuts were back this year at the rest stop, so of course I had one (along with some real food).

The next rest stop was Floyd Bennett Field near the Rockaways, once one of New York's main airports. It's been closed for years and exists now as a minor tourist attraction. I was disappointed that we couldn't ride on the old runways, but we did leave the rest stop via an old runway or taxiway as we headed for the major new point of interest for this year's tour: the Rockaways. Previous tours have taken the Brooklyn waterfront to Canarsie Pier and then north into Queens, but this year's tour took us to the boardwalk in the Rockaways and along a long stretch of near-beachfront property before going into Queens proper. Since the next rest stop was thirty miles from Floyd Bennett Field, James and I stopped about halfway along and took a short break in Forest Park. We rode a lap around the Unisphere in Corona Park and rode to the Kissena Park Velodrome. Unfortunately we couldn't ride a lap around the velodrome itself (as I did on the pre-ride) because there were actual bike races going on. But I'll be back to ride some laps another time. Maybe it was the experience of the pre-ride two weeks ago, but the long rolling hills getting to the Alley Pond Park rest stop weren't as bad as I thought they would be. Normally the Alley Pond rest stop is roughly 50 miles into the ride, but with the Rockaways and the extra miles in Manhattan it was at the 62-mile mark.

The route from Alley Pond to Astoria Park and the next rest stop was only 18 miles, but there was, as always, a nasty hill about a mile out of the rest stop that forces most riders into their "granny" gear. Despite our plan to try and stay close together, James and I got separated at a stoplight and the next thing I knew, he was about 20 minutes ahead of me. I rolled into Astoria Park (the 81-mile mark) at about 3 PM and took about 20 minutes myself to refuel and relax before going to the Bronx.

To get to the Bronx you have to take the Triboro Bridge, which has a narrow bike path and concrete stairs you have to climb to get to the path. It's always a choke point and this year was no exception. But everyone was in good spirits and didn't mind waiting their turn to hike up the stairs and inch along the path. On Randall's Island and the 75-mile/100-mile split we didn't hesitate and immediately took the 100-mile turn for the Bronx. The Bronx itself was largely unmemorable. About half the route doubles the Tour de Bronx route and goes through some bland residential neighborhoods. The good and bad part about the Bronx on this tour is that only the most experienced riders go there, so you get some extremely good riders, but there aren't many of them. Once again I got separated from James and got to the Van Cortlandt Park rest stop (98-mile mark) about 10 minutes after he did, around 5:10 PM. He was anxious to leave and get back to Manhattan by 6 PM, and even though it was only 9 miles away I needed a few minutes to rest my sore ass and tired legs. Around 5:30 we left the rest stop and met up with about 30 other riders at an intersection at the edge of the park. The direction arrow on the ground indicated that we were supposed to ride up the hill in front of us, so we all slogged up the hill, many of us in "granny" gear. When we got to an intersection near the top, I saw the entire group of cyclists looking lost. Another marshal looked at the cue sheet and figured out we were supposed to turn left at the bottom of the hill instead of riding up it. So we all coasted back down the hill and took the correct turn. I felt particularly stupid, as I could tell from the cue sheet that we weren't supposed to go up the hill, but I saw the arrow and followed everyone else knowing that we weren't getting any closer to the Broadway Bridge and Manhattan by going up the hill. But the rest of the ride back to Central Park was easy, and I pulled into Central Park at 6:20 PM, 12 hours and 5 minutes after we left. We turned in our vests and injury reports (nothing to report, thankfully), got our free t-shirts and water bottles, and went home. It wasn't my best time on a century, and I felt worse when I got home than I have after previous rides, but after 8 hours of sleep last night I'm feeling a little better. My quads and butt are still killing me, so it will be a few more days before I get back on the bike. Just walking up stairs right now is painful.

As for the actual marshaling of the ride, I didn't have too much to do. I answered questions from other riders, most wanting to know how far it was to the next rest stop and how long the entire ride was. One group of riders wanted to know how to skip about 20 miles of the ride and I told them to cut across Corona Park. Another guy had a problem with his back wheel and needed directions to the subway. James supplied his bike pump to a few riders with flats and gave another guy his spare inner tube. We both stopped at a few intersections to point out the turns to other riders, but most of the time we just rode and tried to look like we knew what we were doing. We had a good time as marshals, so we'll probably be back next year to do it again.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

new junk for my desk

We had a "kickoff" meeting for "The BIG Project," the worldwide upgrade to Windows XP and Active Directory (along with a host of other systems) that my firm is starting this fall. There was the usual PowerPoint presentation and a continental breakfast. At the end of the meeting management sent us off with what they called "toys." We each got a 30-oz ceramic coffee mug, a computer-shaped foam stress reliever, and the biggest novelty pen I've ever seen, each item emblazoned with the "BIG Project" logo. I guess they're serious about the "big" theme. The pen is at least 12 inches long, about 3 inches around, and it's so large it's utterly impossible to write with it. I can't wait to bring it to a meeting with the project managers. The coffee mug is a good try, but someone else pointed out that your coffee would get cold long before you could finish it. I'll stick to my Novell mug, even though I dropped it in the office kitchen yesterday, breaking off the handle and cracking the plastic exterior. At least it has a lid.

Here's a picture of my new acquisitions:

I should have included a normal pen in the picture, because I don't think you can accurately gauge the size of the novelty one without it. I'll have to get some oversize sunglasses for the project meetings to go with my pen.

By the way, I hate the name "The BIG Project." I realize that to refer to it by any of its component items (the XP rollout, the Active Directory deployment, the switch to Microsoft SMS, etc.) doesn't reflect that each item depends on the others, but couldn't anyone come up with a better name? And what happens when we have another massive group of projects all coming together at the same time? Will that be "The BIG Project II?" "The BIG Project Strikes Back?" "Revenge of the BIG Project?" I've got a million of 'em, folks. Every one a Maserati.

Yes, you can play with the New York Philharmonic!

I got out my viola for the first time in two years last week. I surprised myself by sounding better on the instrument than I thought I would. Now comes word that the New York Philharmonic will let anyone perform with them. I've always wanted to play Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, and now I'll have that chance. Thanks, NYPhil! I'll start practicing, and I'll see you in November!

Friday, September 02, 2005

Two opinions of New Orleans

Bill Simmons' column today is a reflection on his visit to New Orleans three years ago for the Super Bowl. I liked his idea for another column that New Orleans had overtaken Las Vegas as the party headquarters for America. I've been to both places, and I'd have to agree that pre-Katrina NO was more fun than Vegas. But just by a hair. LV has its own charms.

And because I feel like re-running it, here's my recap of our New Year's Eve trip to New Orleans from nine months ago. Liz and I had such a good time and we were looking forward to going back. I'll say it right now: we WILL go back once they've gotten back on their feet down there. I can't wait to have another muffaletta from Central Grocery and some coffee and beignets from Cafe du Monde again.

Katrina's aftermath and the thoughts of WonkDad

There's nothing I can say about the situation in New Orleans and Mississippi that hasn't already been said. I can't look at any more pictures of the disaster or read any more stories with bad news. The government needs to get some help to those people NOW. The "Today" show showed footage of the NO convention center and the cameraman who got the video said he was there with Harry Connick, Jr. If Harry Connick can get there, why can't relief workers get food and water to those people?

Wonkette's father (WonkDad) posted this bit of commentary that sounds about right. Why is the president talking about helping people when he could just land his helicopter at the Superdome or the airport and actually pitch in for a photo op? As I recall, he visited Ground Zero just a day or two after the 9/11 attacks despite security concerns. And his approval rating after his impromptu speech to relief workers was sky-high -- even I sort of liked the guy after that. I realize things on the ground in New Orleans are much more volatile then New York was back then, but even so it's a Republican opportunity for major political gain that they're missing completely.