Serious birthday dining

Today is Diane’s birthday, and so, as usual, we’ve invited some friends over for dinner and New Year’s Eve TV-watching.

Diane does most of the cooking (somehow, this seems unfair, but no one ever said life was fair); she made “Michelle’s Chicken” (from the IBM Research cookbook), Butternut Squash with Ginger, and Amaretto Carrots, all of which were delicious.

I made dessert; at Alwin’s recommendation, I made the “Simple Chocolate Sheet Cake” from America’s Test Kitchen. But, rather than make the Creamy Milk Chocolate Frosting that went with it, I chose Hershey’s “Especially Dark” frosting on the theory that a dark chocolate cake deserves dark chocolate frosting (that, and the fact that I’d’ve had to buy a whole bottle of Karo Syrup for two spoonfuls if I wanted to do the milk chocolate frosting). The consensus at the table was that this was a good decision — even Sam, who’s not a chocolate person, had a slice (though he didn’t have seconds, so I failed to convert him). I inadvertently modified the frosting recipe by omitting the vanilla (the phone was ringing a lot as I was making the frosting), but no one seemed to mind.

The diet starts tomorrow.

Happy New Year!

Game On!

The Tech Museum usually has a special exhibit; currently, it’s Game On, which was actually mounted by the Barbican Museum in London. But it’s very appropriate for Silicon Valley, since it’s an interactive history of the video game, both arcade and home versions. I knew I wanted to see it, but hadn’t gotten around to suggesting it until today (partially motivated by realizing that the exhibit closes Monday). So we spent the afternoon at the Tech.

Well, Jeff and I did. Diane got tired of the exhibit pretty quickly and went across the street to the San Jose Museum of Art, while Jeff and I enjoyed the exhibit. Especially playing the old games, like Pong and Spacewar and Space Invaders. I remember losing many quarters to those during college, but here, they were free. And I was able to compete with him moderately well, unlike the case with newer games (they had plenty of those, too, but they all blur together in my mind).

After an hour or so, we’d played all of the interesting games, so we joined Diane at the art museum. We took a quick look at the downstairs exhibition, Visual Politics, and then caught up with her on a small docent-led tour, just as they were starting on the Selections from the Permanent Collection. Touring with a docent was a definite improvement over wandering around independently — she asked us questions and forced us to interact with the works on display, instead of just looking at them (or, worse, reading the descriptions adjacent to the works and not really looking at the art itself, which I’ve been known to do). After the tour, Diane went to the museum shop and Jeff and I visited Sandow Birk’s Divine Comedy, which is a retelling of The Divine Comedy in images set in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. Well worth viewing.

From there, it was a quick walk to Ben and Jerry’s, and then home. Not a bad way to spend what was, effectively, the last day of vacation (we have Monday off, but Jeff doesn’t, so we’ll be getting up at a ridiculous hour to get him to school on time. *sigh*).

Shabbat Shalom!

The movies are too popular for me

I had hoped to see several movies during this break. So far, the grand total is zero. We actually tried to go see either King Kong or Harry Potter 4 yesterday, but by the time we got to the theater, the first available showing was a couple of hours away. And, while we did need to be out of the house for a few hours, we didn’t need to be gone quite that long. So we went to Barnes and Noble instead, where I did some research for an upcoming trip to Finland (brrr!) and read a book which I’d seen while we were in England this summer: A Year in the Merde. Time magazine’s review sums it up well. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m glad I didn’t actually buy it.

Today, after working out at the JCC, I’ve spent far too much of the day dealing with financial records and catching up on my Quicken duty.

What I haven’t done today is write a single line of code. I’m waiting for Userland to set up the CNAME so that dss.editthispage.com gets you to this blog. Then I’ll look at the 404 log and see if there’s any traffic worth redirecting programatically; I also plan to create a custom 404 page as suggested by the Sacramento Web Developers SIG, which will point people to the popular places on the site.

But that’s all for tomorrow; for tonight, it’s time to write those last minute tax-deductible checks….

Migrated, with minimal breakage

I’ve just finally transferred most of the content of my old blog, Defenestration Corner, to this blog. I wound up writing a bunch of bad Python code to do much of the work, but still had to do quite a bit of manual cleanup (and someday, I may yet get around to categorizing the posts I transferred). I lost all the comments to the blog in the process; there are few enough (and many of them were spam, anyway) that I’ll look at them by hand rather than bother to try to write yet more single-purpose code.

One of the areas which caused me the most trouble was my use, in the early days, of a non-empty posting to hold a picture. I finally decided that those few comments were not worth the effort and tossed them, changing the link to the picture itself instead of the posting.

I also learned, yet again, to Keep It Simple, Stupid. My original plans, months ago, involved writing wonderfully clever code to go through the old site, grabbing each posting, examining it to see if it had any references which needed changing, and, if so, finding the target posting and updating it. This would have involved a stack, worrying about circular references, and many other perils. I eventually (months later) took a simpler path; I made a first pass over all of the articles, capturing essential information about them, such as the date as rendered by Manila (rather than trying to figure it out from the UTC date, sometimes badly-formed, passed back through the Manila SOAP interface into Python) and the title of the article. I used the date and title to create a slug for WordPress; I probably didn’t use the same algorithm WordPress would have used, but it didn’t matter.

After that, it was fairly easy to go through the rendered, content-only version of each article (thereby letting Manila resolve its internal “shortcuts”), find all the internal references, convert them to the new version (or, for images, just go to the underlying image), and use the MySQLdb Python module to directly insert the articles into the database on readthisblog.net.

I ran into a few problems where Manila did, ummm, odd things; rather than program around them, I just manually fixed up the results. And I’ll probably be doing more manual fixups later.

I still have to arrange for a redirect from dss.editthispage.com to this site, and I still will have to convert from the Manila forms (like /discuss/msgReader$nn) to the renamed postings here, but that’s fairly simple. I hope.

GTD and GMail

Tessa Lau wrote a comment to my posting on the joys of an empty inbox, asking whether Gmail and Getting Things Done might not be incompatible, since Gmail discourages filing, while GTD discourages leaving things in one’s inbox (physical, computer, or metaphorical).

I don’t think they’re incompatible. I archive things in GMail to get them out of my inbox (and therefore, out of my face) unless I expect to deal with them almost immediately. The only filing I do in GMail is to automatically move some mailing lists into their own folders, never letting them into the inbox at all — and to be honest, I’m not sure that’s really a good idea for most of them, because then I’m tempted to let them sit. For everything else, I rely on search.

That’s actually fairly similar to the way I work in Lotus Notes, too; I have a few folders I use for active projects or obviously-related things (all of my electronic paystubs get filed in their own folder, for example), but most of my stuff gets “filed” in “Miscellaneous” (which could just as well be named “not the inbox”) and I rely on search to find anything I need. Keeping my Notes inbox empty is a harder task than my GMail inbox; I haven’t looked at it since I left for vacation nearly two weeks ago, and I dread what I’ll find when I do look.

Thank you, Fry’s ad!

Fry’s had a couple of DVDs that we wanted in their “one day sale” ad in today’s Murky Nooz: Serenity and Battlestar Galactica Season 2.0. (“We” is defined as “at least Jeff”, by the way.) But, after my recent experience, I didn’t want to go to Fry’s if I could possibly avoid it (by the way, I still haven’t gotten a response to the letter I sent Randy Fry).

Instead, I went to Circuit City to test their price matching policy.

The first cashier I dealt with was at a temporary register, and he said he couldn’t do a price match, but he sent me to one of his colleagues at a permanent register. He couldn’t help me either, and sent me to the returns/exchanges/customer service line. We were first in line. It still took several minutes for someone to help us, and I had to show him the price on both items in the Fry’s ad, but there was no problem in meeting it — in fact, he didn’t even bother to phone Fry’s to make sure they still had the DVDs in stock.

But then I threw a wrench into the proceedings; there was a coupon on the DVDs, good for $10 if you bought both Serenity and BSG 2.0 together. He wasn’t sure if he could honor the coupon and do a price match, so he vanished into the back room for a few minutes. Then he came out and rang up the lowered price (in fact, now that I think of it, he saved us an extra 8 cents by reducing the price of BSG by $10 instead of entering a $10 coupon).

I can’t call this a “no-hassle” experience, but it was enormously easier than getting a price match at Fry’s was. I intend to continue to avoid Fry’s whenever I expect to be able to pick up the same merchandise elsewhere.

Don’t omit the commit

I’m slowly making progress at converting my old blog from Manila to WordPress; it looks like the simplest approach is to write a bunch of Python scripts to read the “content-only” version of the blog, resolve intra-blog references, and then directly insert the result into the underlying MySQL database using MySQLdb.

In testing this approach, I was trying to create a posting from scratch in a copy of WordPress running on my machine; I based the program on the examples I found here and here. But, even though the program seemed to work, and I could read the changes while the program was executing, but after the program finished, the database never reflected the changes — except that the ID for new entries kept increasing every time I ran the program.

It took me a long time to figure out what was wrong, but I eventually guessed it: I had to do an explicit “COMMIT” to have the changes I made from Python stick. I don’t know why the examples don’t show this, but it sure makes a difference.

More to come, I hope.

Rather broad, but generally satisfactory

We just got home from San Jose Rep‘s production of Pride and Prejudice. I thought it could have been tightened up some (the play ran 2:40 with intermission, which is pretty long for an 8pm show), and they played it more for laughs than I thought the book called for, but in general, I enjoyed the show. I wouldn’t mind seeing the movie (either the current movie or the classic BBC production) to compare.

Pre-burning calories

We used to go to the movies on Christmas Day — we’d have the place nearly to ourselves, and it was wonderful. Maybe not for the theater owners, but we liked it. But over time, more and more people decided that Christmas was a good day for the movies, and the theaters became fairly crowded. And then Hollywood caught on and started releasing movies on Christmas, and we stopped going.

Today, we took advantage of the JCC being open on Christmas (at least in the morning). I think this was the most crowded I’d ever seen the exercise room. But we were able to get our workouts in, and now we’re ready to consume vast quantities of calories this evening.

Happy Newtonmas!

I’m sitting here early on Sunday morning, with a chocolate peppermint pecan pie baking in the oven for our usual Christmas dinner at the Drakes (this year, we’ll be bringing our menorah over to light the first candle of Chanukah, too).

Jeff’s up, so I’ve already lost custody of the paper, though I hope to retrieve it before we go to the JCC to work out (wonder if they’ll have turned off the music, since it’s almost certainly going to have a high Christmas content). With nothing handy to read, I turned to the computer and got caught up on my Gmail and RSS feeds (boy, does that ever feel good!), and discovered from Hal that today is Newtonmas, too.

I wish I’d known that yesterday, while we were talking to the people moving in to Diane’s dad’s house. I knew that they were Palestinian, but I didn’t know if they were Christian, Muslim, or something else, and so, as we were finishing our conversation, I ended with “Happy Holiday,” to which she replied “Tomorrow isn’t a holiday for us, but Happy Chanukah to you”. I felt awkward, and said, “well, enjoy New Year’s”. If only I could have wished her a Happy Newtonmas!

Even if they did celebrate Christmas, I’m sure she would be busy cleaning the house today anyway — they’re moving in on the 29th, and there’s 50 years of stuff in the house for them to go through. She’s putting anything which seems like it requires a decision in a storage area in the attic; we’ve told her it’s OK to do anything she wants with the furniture, but there’s still a ton (probably literally) of papers in various places in the house. I’m not sure when Diane or her brother will be able to make a trip to Valley Stream and sort, but I’m sure it’s going to be a busy trip when it happens.

An empty inbox is a happy inbox

One of the books which made an impression on me this year was David Allen‘s Getting Things Done.

I can’t say that I’ve completely internalized the GTD system, but a lot of it makes sense. One item which resonates very strongly with me is the need to keep one’s inbox clear — rather than reading a piece of mail, then leaving it in the inbox, it’s better to move it to an “actions pending” file if it can’t be dealt with immediately. That way, the inbox is “new news”, and you don’t have to keep touching old stuff over and over again.

But even though having a clear inbox is a goal, it’s also very difficult for me to do. And once I fall off the wagon, so to speak, it’s very difficult to get clear again. But I managed to clear my work inbox before I left a week ago (I’m sure it’s loaded now, but I haven’t looked at it, so that doesn’t count). And I spent most of today clearing my Gmail inbox, which was even harder work.

Most of what I’d left in my Gmail inbox came from one of two sources: The Union for Reform Judaism‘s weekly Torat Chayim and daily Ten Minutes of Torah mailings accounted for the biggest share, along with Kolel’s weekly commentary. I’d fallen behind while travelling some time during the summer, and every time I thought about catching up, the size of the task discouraged me. And so I fell behind further every week. But today seemed like a good opportunity to make a dent in the backlog, and once I got started, I got into a rhythm. I did take a few breaks, but I finally caught up.

Of course, there’ll be new mailings next week (as well as the other stuff which arrives in the mail), but at least for tonight, I feel that I’ve accomplished something, just in time for Chanukah.

Costco strikes again

We just finished the last of a bottle of Kirkland Select 2004 Oregon Pinot Noir, purchased on a whim on a recent trip to Costco. I hope I bought more than one (I haven’t checked), because it was very pleasant, and, if memory serves, reasonably priced. Of course, now that the shopping season is over, it’s safe to go back to Costco again — but since only 7000 cases were made, they may not have any left anyway.

I could tell that shopping fever had cooled when we went to lunch at the Tony and Alba’s near Valley Fair; unlike our trip there a month ago, it was easy to find parking, and when we drove past Valley Fair, there were a few empty parking spaces visible there. Even though we needed to pick up a couple of small last-minute gifts, we decided to skip the mall; instead, we took advantage of the wonderful weather to walk to Starbucks, where I was pretty sure we could find some chocolate — and I was right, though the selection wasn’t as broad as it usually is.

Awfully close to 45mpg

For years, I’ve kept track of the mileage I get at every fill-up, with the thought that if it changes significantly, it might mean problems with the car. But I’ve never bothered to look at the mileage closely, until today.

I was curious about the mileage I got on the trip to Tucson, and whether it was significantly different than the mileage I get in normal driving. So I brought in my logbook and started entering data; when I finished, I’d discovered that my cumulative average mileage had been very close to 45mpg since my second fill-up, even though the individual fill-ups gave me very irregular results (especially the one where the automatic shutoff on the pump didn’t work and I pumped 11 gallons, some of which went outside the car instead of in the tank!).

The average mileage for the Tucson trip, 45.9 mpg, was slightly higher than my long-term average of 45.0 mpg, but not by a lot. On the other hand, my average speed on the Tucson trip was undoubtedly significantly higher than my normal speed — most of the distance was on roads with 70 or 75 mph limits, and we spent a lot of time at or above 80 mph (just keeping up with traffic, of course). Around here, the limit is 65, and traffic usually moves about 70.

Diane’s car gets somewhat lower mileage (currently 44.3 mpg long-term), but it’s going up with almost every fill-up.

Naturally, neither of these numbers comes close to the EPA figure of 60 city, 51 highway, 55 combined, but they are much better than the 20mpg or so I was getting from the Saab most of the time!

Home again!

We had a long and mostly uneventful drive home from Palm Desert today; I had expected us to arrive home at 6, but we made it just after 5:30, greatly surprising our housesitters, who didn’t expect us until tomorrow. I guess communicating via blog is not the most reliable method possible.

One reason we got home early is that we decided not to have lunch at a restaurant; instead, we stopped at Trader Joe’s in Monrovia and picked up some sandwiches and salads, which we ate at the Tejon Pass Rest Area. This saved us at least half-an-hour and $20, as well as probably saving us from a pile of calories we didn’t need.

But while we were at Trader Joe’s, I was surprised to hear my phone ring; it was Diane’s dad, with the news that he’d gotten an offer on his house. This was a real surprise, since he hadn’t put it on the market yet — the offer came from a neighbor who knew he was planning to sell. I guess the market there is hot!

It was a good trip, but it’s good to be home. Tomorrow, I look forward to having the DirecTV guy show up (there was an automated message from them waiting for us on the answering machine, confirming the appointment) and fix whatever’s wrong with the system.

Two out of three isn’t bad

As planned, we had breakfast with Diane’s Dad and SO at The Good Egg on Grant. I had the Veggie Delicious again, and left happy.

We didn’t hit the road until nearly 11; XM traffic claimed that Phoenix had a “jam factor” of Green, so we took I-10 through the city instead of taking the bypass. And this time, all was well; we had an average speed of at least 70 through town, which is impressive considering the speed limit was 55 much of the way.

We thought it best to get through Phoenix before stopping for lunch, and so we wound up going back to Bamboo Inn in Goodyear for another pleasant meal. Then it was back on the road, this time with Diane at the wheel, while I juggled the AAA book, the map, the Entertainment book, and a random travel guide I’d picked up at a rest area to find a hotel for the evening. None of the hotels in the random travel guide appealed, and the Entertainment book didn’t seem much more promising, so I decided to go with a familiar name and called the Embassy Suites Palm Desert, who had a room available; we rolled in about 4:30pm Pacific Time (it’s always strange to have to reset my watch when I’m not flying!).

“Desert” clearly has a different meaning here than it did in Tucson. Everything is lush and green, and there are fountains everywhere (I trust that they recirculate the water). Even the humidity is fairly high, about 40% (versus 15% in Tucson).

We looked at the hotel restaurant, but nothing was terribly appealing (later, we found their Early Bird Special menu, which would have been perfect; oh, well), so we decided to walk around the area. We’d seen a shopping area at the intersection of Cook Street and CA 111, so we went there. There were a few restaurants to choose from, and we decided on Cafe Italia, based on their listing of a grilled salmon salad on the chalkboard outside. But when we got inside, that wasn’t one of the specials they listed; it turns out that it was a lunch special. They did, however, agree to make it for Diane anyway, and Jeff was eager to order the pasta. I didn’t know what I wanted and finally decided on the chicken picata. I should have had something else — the chicken came out swimming in sauce, and the potatoes were soggy. Diane and Jeff liked their orders, though, and I do have to say that the soup and salad were OK.

What was very definitely not OK was the restaurant’s gimmick — the waiters sing. We were treated to two songs; the first one was sung badly. The second one was sung better, but it was a stupid Christmas song. And during the rest of the meal, the piped-in Christmas music was quite loud (though not as loud as the live singing). Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the decor in the men’s room: although the main dining room looked very nice, with tablecloths and nice furniture, the men’s room was decorated in Truck Stop Classic, complete with a slightly censored version of this sign as well as this classic. I wouldn’t go back, and neither would Chef JoAnna, whose review I wish I’d read before dinner!

After dinner, we strolled around some more, then returned to our hotel in time to have a little fruit at the Manager’s Reception.

Tomorrow, we hope to make it all the way home; it’ll be a long drive (but shorter than the drive from Las Vegas), and we’re motivated. DirecTV is supposed to fix our satellite dish on Friday morning, and our housesitter just wrote me and said she’d hurt her ankle and the only doctor’s appointment she can get is for Friday morning, so if we’re not home, we’ll have to postpone the appointment. And that would be a shame, because there are probably some shows worth watching (or at least worth TiVoing) next week. Even if The Daily Show is in reruns.

Oh, and for those of you who are reading this trip report on a day-by-day basis, go back to yesterday; I’ve added some photos from our trip to the Desert Museum.

A lovely day for the desert, but check your search results!

We had to pick up our laundry this morning, and chose to combine that trip with a breakfast expedition to The Good Egg on Speedway. We succeeded on both counts.

After that, we were ready to go to the Desert Museum; I punched the name into the GPS and took the first hit of three listings. I wondered why the icon looked like the Mona Lisa, but I figured it was just the gift shop. And off we went, into the non-wilds of Northwest Tucson. As we drove, I started to get suspicious, because all of the information we had for the museum warned about the curvy road for the last few miles, and we were on straight, mostly four-lane, roads. Finally, we arrived at our destination: a shopping center, where one of the storefronts housed the Oro Valley Art Studio, part of the Art Institute of the Desert Museum.

So I went back to the GPS and tried again, this time verifying that the location I picked was on Kinney Road. 22 miles later, we were at the Desert Museum itself, right at the stroke of noon.

The weather was beautiful for a day at the Desert Museum — sunny but not hot. And we spent the rest of the afternoon there, leaving just at closing time.

A docent was kind enough to take a picture of all three of us near the beginning of the trail:

Of course, we saw plenty of saguro cacti:

The Museum houses animals as well as plants:

although not all of them are fierce:

I prefer the plants to the animals, though:

We didn’t quite see all of the exhibits today, but we came close. And I’d go back cheerfully.

But not on this trip; tomorrow morning, we leave on the first leg of our trip home. After breakfast with Diane’s dad and SO for breakfast at 8am, at the Good Egg on Grant. I really don’t want to face a long drive with only hotel coffee to go on.

A taste of Tucson

We started the day with the complimentary hotel breakfast; it was OK, but the coffee was insipid. So I suggested a walk to the nearest Starbucks afterwards, which turned into about a one-mile each way exploration of East Grant Avenue. We didn’t actually discover much that we hadn’t seen from the car (about the only thing that was new to us was the Fry’s supermarket), but it was nice to be able to stretch our legs.

After that walk, we moved Diane’s dad’s luggage to our room to wait until they could check in across the street, and then we went exploring. We went east first, out towards Fellowship Square to see what banks would be convenient (and, not incidentally, to find a service laundry for our stuff), and then we drove downtown to check out the historic districts and have lunch. The Tucson Visitor Center was very helpful, giving us several brochures (and giving us a huge “newcomer’s packet” for Diane’s dad). We explored the area around the original Presidio of Tucson, including a delicious lunch at El Charro Cafe and a long browse through the Old Town Artisans, especially the Old Town Pot Shop. I was amused by the Mexican-themed Judaica of Julie Szerina Stein, but not quite enough to buy any (though the Seder plates were tempting).

After that, we helped Diane’s dad and SO move into their temporary home-while-waiting-for-home, including a shopping trip to the aforementioned Fry’s and Trader Joe’s to stock their fridge. I am afraid they’ll be counting the days until they can move into their apartment — but in the meantime, they will be visiting relatives in the Mountain Time Zone as often as they can. Tomorrow, they were invited to go on an expedition to a local casino; we plan to visit the Desert Museum instead.

Dinner tonight was at China Thai on Tanque Verde. The food and service were fine, but unlike lunch, there was no sense of place — we could have been anywhere.

Moving is one detail after another

We spent much of today helping Diane’s father and his SO find a place to stay until their permanent apartment becomes available on February 1st. First, we went through the phonebook and did some Internet searching to find a short list of possible locations. Then, we phoned what looked like a promising short-term apartment, only to get an answering machine. So we drove over there; there was a note on the door claiming that the manager was “on the property” but could be paged by pushing a button. We pushed the button; it’s a good thing the weather was pleasant, because we waited an awfully long time before giving up.

After that, we took a tour of their new home, Fellowship Square, and then had lunch at Dragon Palace (chosen by using the car’s GPS to find nearby restaurants and then guessing), which was quite pleasant.

Then we visited the Extended Stay Tucson, conveniently located across the street from the Sheraton, in hopes that it might fit the bill. And it did.

So with a place to stay taken care of, it was time to continue celebrating; back to B’nai B’rith Covenant House for the second half of the birthday celebration. We were the last ones to leave, I think — and I think Diane’s dad is going to enjoy being in the same town as his sister.

We finished the day by getting a cellphone for Diane’s dad; this was more of a problem than it might otherwise have been because he uses hearing aids. The nice folks at the Cingular kiosk in Park Place Mall let us try many phones, taking them outside, and eventually he found an LG which works pretty well for him. We will have to call Cingular tomorrow and turn off all the junk services that come on “free trial”, like the Roadside Assistance plan, but other than that, I think he’s set.

Fortunately, we’d munched a lot at the party, because it was 8pm before we were finished with the phone. None of us were very hungry, so we got a pizza from Magpie’s at Shaw and Speedway. The pizza was quite good, and I wish I’d gotten a bigger pie. Maybe another night or another visit….

My first ninetieth birthday party

We only had 260 miles or so to drive today, so I didn’t think we’d need to wake up particularly early. And we didn’t. But I had forgotten that Arizona was on Mountain Time, so that meant we were an hour behind schedule even before we left the hotel.

The first part of the trip went very smoothly — the speed limit was 75mph, and traffic generally hovered around that figure. So when I saw the sign offering a bypass of Phoenix, I didn’t even consider it. I should have; soon after passing the sign, we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic going about 15 mph, with another 40 miles of Phoenix to go.

So we did the intelligent thing: we got off the road and had lunch at the Bamboo Inn in Goodyear. I wouldn’t make a special trip to Goodyear to eat there, but it was better than our original plan: Arby’s. And by the time we finished and were back on the road, the traffic was moving again, and we got to the hotel about 4.

Diane’s family was in the lobby, so we started catching up immediately; then we went to our room. Suite, actually, with lots of living space and a teeny-tiny bathroom. It could use a bit more sound insulation from the street, but it’s otherwise quite nice — nice enough that I decided to see whether the hotel would be more reasonable in extending our stay than the reservations agent had been. They were willing to give us two more nights at the same $79 rate, so, barring surprises, we’ll be here till we leave town.

I was wrong, though; the party wasn’t here. It was where Diane’s aunt lives, in the multipurpose room of B’nai B’rith Covenant House, a five-minute drive away. About fifty of her friends and family gathered and celebrated — and there’ll be more tomorrow.

We had wanted to bring a ninetieth birthday card, but we didn’t find any we liked. They all talked about “as you look back”, and Diane’s aunt is not ready to stop and look back! So we got her a 40th and a 50th instead. And, as it turns out, we were not alone — her son bought her three 30th cards for the same reason. I think Hallmark is missing a bet here.

Blythe spirit or something like it

As planned, we’re spending tonight at the Hampton Inn in Blythe, California. The drive from Harris Ranch was uneventful; Diane took the morning shift, driving through a fog-shrouded (but not fog-obscured) valley, until the sun broke through just as we got near the top of the Grapevine. From there on, it was a much brighter trip; we decided to ignore the directions from our car’s GPS and from AAA and got off I-5 at 210, rather than continuing to I-10 (the car) or CA 134 (AAA). The road was lightly travelled, so I think we made a good decision.

We took a break right at noon and had lunch at Dominick’s in La Crescenta, chosen rather randomly. It was a good choice — Diane and I split a pizza, and Jeff had spaghetti. We all cleaned our plates, too! The ice tea could have been better (it was Lipton from a dispenser), but that’s my only complaint.

After that, it was my turn to drive; we went back to letting the car tell us where to go, so it was 210 to 57 to 10 to Blythe, almost non-stop. I turned on the radio soon after taking the wheel, and we listened to the 60’s on 6 tribute to WLCY until we neared Palm Springs. Then I thought it would be appropriate to switch to Frank’s Place, and we stayed with that for about an hour; it was more enjoyable than I’d expected. We finished the trip to Blythe listening to the Beethoven’s Birthday Special on XM Classics, arriving a little before 5pm.

We asked the desk clerk where to eat, and the best bet seemed to be the Townes Square Cafe, a five-minute walk from the hotel. The food was OK, and the waitress was very friendly and efficient; I’d go back.

This hotel has one advantage over our house — a wide variety of TV channels. The friends who are staying at our house e-mailed us and said that the TiVos are complaining that they can’t get a satellite signal, so I guess I’ll have to call DirecTV and find out what can be done about it (preferably before we get home!). I suspect the dish or the multiswitch is acting up. *sigh*

Shabbat Shalom

The adventure begins

Diane’s aunt is celebrating her 90th birthday this weekend, and we’re on our way to join the party.

The timing was almost perfect; both Diane and I have to use up our vacation this year, and this afternoon marked the point at which we were going to run out of year if we didn’t start taking it. But Jeff still has a day of school left; fortunately, it’s a day when he only has three classes, so missing it won’t be a disaster (and he’s going to phone in for one of the classes to participate in some sort of role-play). It was a shame to ruin his perfect attendance record at Kehillah, though — it’s been nice to be at a school which closes for all the Jewish holidays!

We left our house right at 5pm; traffic on 85 was moderately heavy for the first few miles, but then it opened up, and we were able to drive as fast as we wanted until we reached Gilroy and Pacheco Pass Road. I had thought about driving down 101 a bit further and taking 25 through Hollister to avoid Pacheco Pass, but XM traffic said there’d been an accident and traffic was slow. Traffic on Pacheco Pass was slow until we got past the shopping centers (I remember when there was nothing there!), and then it moved at about 45 through the nasty part of the road. And there was no backup at 152 and 156 (that probably won’t be the case tomorrow afternoon!), so we reached Casa de Fruta in just about an hour from the time we left the house.

We made our usual quick stop there, then got back on the road for what I expected would be the easier part of tonight’s journey. There were a couple of patches of fog — nothing really bad, but startling nonetheless. But that was the only thing which slowed us down, and we reached Harris Ranch at 7:30, having enjoyed XM Classics as we zipped down I-5.

Dinner was excellent, as always; now we’re ensconced in our suite (well, that’s what they call it) for the evening. My laptop sees WiFi, but I wasn’t able to get an IP address, so I guess it’s not for guests — I had to fall back to the slow Verizon wide-area service. Good thing I’m not trying to upload any pictures tonight.

Tomorrow is going to have to be an early day, because we have a long drive ahead of us. Including a trip through the LA area on a getaway day. Oy!

A couple of nice red wines

This afternoon was the annual Almaden Holiday Party (this year featuring the song stylings of The Gumbas and Gumbet). As always, there were good things to munch, and this year, there were also good things to drink. I had a little bit of the 2000 Valley of the Moon Cabernet Sauvignon; unfortunately, I didn’t win a bottle (or anything else!) in the raffle.

At home, we’ve been drinking the 2003 7 Deadly Zins, and have quite enjoyed it. I discovered this wine at Almaden, too, when it was served at the 2005 Almaden Institute.

I remember the old days, when alcohol was strictly forbidden at IBM. It’s still fairly unusual to have it served during the day (and you’re not supposed to go back and do work after quaffing), but it’s nice to be less rigid. And, of course, the cafeteria at the IBM HQ location in Paris serves wine every day — but that is a different culture.

A 60’s flashback

When Jeff and I got into the car this morning and turned the radio to 60’s on 6, they were near the end of the Richard Harris version of “MacArthur Park“. The first lyrics we heard were the dramatic conclusion, as Harris sang:

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again

And all I could think was, “why couldn’t he Google the recipe?”

As Bob Dylan put it, the times, they are a-changing.

How to lose a sale

I joined several of my colleagues for lunch at Chili’s this afternoon. Afterwards, I stopped in Cost Plus along with a fellow Prius owner who was going to ride back with me to admire my Prius XM installation.

We were going to buy a couple of things and got into line. The cashier finished with the person at the front of the line, or so we thought. The next person wasn’t actually there to buy anything — she had left her wallet at the store earlier and hoped it had been found (at least that’s what I think had happened; she wasn’t very clear). But then it was our turn — except that the cashier said that he had to help the first person pick up her merchandise and he vanished.

There were two other cashiers open, but while we were waiting patiently for the first guy, they’d built up long lines. So we put our merchandise down on a nearby counter and left empty-handed.

Later in the afternoon, I called the Sheraton in Tucson, where I already had a reservation for a forthcoming weekend. I wanted to extend our stay a couple of days, and I was hoping to get the same rate ($79/night). The reservation agent first quoted me $300/night, then offered to check for special rates and found a mere $200/night (or $119 for a smaller room). In the meantime, I’d checked the hotel’s website and found a $99/night offer for the two nights I wanted; the agent claimed that that was a non-refundable rate and kept pressuring me to take the rate she was offering. I decided against taking her kind offer; instead, I checked the Embassy Suites and found a $69 rate offered to IBMers. Guess which one I took?

I thought about moving the entire stay to the Embassy Suites, but there will be a party at the Sheraton, and I’d rather not have to drive afterwards. But I came close….

A happy drive to work

I had a smile on my face while I was driving to work this morning. Not because it was Monday, and not because I was coming back to the office from a week away, but because I was enjoying listening to my newly installed XM tuner.

In particular, I spent most of the drive listening to 60’s on 6; it was just like being back in high school, listening to WLEE/1480, except that the music sounded better (stereo…what an innovation!), and there were no commercials.

Definitely a blast from the past.

And work was quiet, so I was able to do a lot of catching up; my inbox is down to 22 items. Time to Get Things Done and empty it!

Not exactly easy, but quite doable

I spent this morning at the winter Congregational Meeting at Shir Hadash. I probably didn’t pay as much attention to the meeting as I might have, because I kept looking at my watch and thinking, “I should be installing my XM radio while it’s still daylight”. Eventually, the meeting ended, and, after a fairly quick lunch, I was home and ready to begin.

A friend had volunteered to help me, but I decided not to wait for him to arrive; I started the project at about 1:30. By the time he arrived, I had gotten through the initial disassembly in the simpler procedure I’d found on PriusChat, but I still hadn’t had to use a tool other than my own hands. And I hadn’t done anything which felt dangerous.

That didn’t last long; the next step in the procedure called for unscrewing a junction box — one with a bunch of wires and connectors coming into it. But it wasn’t very difficult, and in just a few more minutes, I’d plugged the XM tuner into the radio and had the preview channel up and running. Unfortunately, the tuner and antenna were sitting on the driveway, which would have prevented me from taking the car anywhere, so I had to continue, this time from the Prius XM instructions and DVD.

The rest of the steps involved running a cable under doorsills to the back of the car, moving some carpets, and running the antenna cables through the hatch opening and mounting the antenna on the roof. None of the steps were really very difficult, though it was very good to have another set of eyes involved, and, at times, an extra hand (especially when fishing cables to the back of the car). And pulling weatherstripping out of the way bothered me a bit, but only a bit.

We finished before 4:30 and I called XM to activate the radio and, as long as I was at it, turn off the XM PCR I hadn’t used for a few months (time to list it on eBay!). By 4:45, the radio was activated, and I was finished. And there were still a few minutes of daylight left.

The DVD was invaluable — especially when there were spots where the printed instructions weren’t quite clear enough, or when things didn’t seem to fit together quite correctly or come apart easily, watching someone go through the steps was enormously reassuring. It is, however, startling to see how much of the car is held together by clips and friction!

Thanks, Sam, for helping; your turn next!

Home again

I have very little to write about today, but since I want to keep my string alive, I won’t let that stop me.

I’d ordered an XM radio for my Prius before Thanksgiving and had had it delivered to my office. I had hoped it would arrive before I left for my trip, but it didn’t (I shouldn’t have cheaped out with ground shipping), and so if I wanted to work on it this weekend (and I do), I had to make a trip to the office to pick it up. So that’s how I started my day.

Torah Study was a pleasure, as always, and even though the service was the “teaching service” for families of upcoming B’nai Mitzvah students, I enjoyed it.

After lunch, I watched the DVD that came with the Prius XM kit. Taking apart my car is a scary prospect, but the DVD makes it seem less scary. And this post on Priuschat suggests a way to do the job without taking the whole dash apart. Actually dealing with the radio will be tomorrow’s project.

Snow Day in Somers

The weather forecast was mostly right this time around; they were predicting between 3 and 10 inches of snow for Westchester County, starting around 4am and going into the afternoon. I had an 8:30am meeting in Somers, so I went to bed with a feeling of unease.

The alarm went off at 6, and I turned on the TV. Naturally, the weather was the top story — Channel 4 kept showing the situation in Mt. Kisco, about halfway from my hotel to Somers, and it was not encouraging. Snow was falling at about an inch an hour and visibility was limited.

After breakfast, I checked with my colleagues to make sure that the meeting was still on; it was, and I set out from the hotel at 7:30 for what would usually be a 25 minute drive.

Of course, I forgot that I’d have to clean off the car. So by the time I actually got behind the wheel, it was 7:45.

It was snowing hard; most of the traffic on I-684 was going the other way. Very slowly. There were a few other cars going North with me — some were driving much more slowly than conditions warranted, and so I had to pass them. With no lanes really clear, that was tricky, but every so often, there were stretches with two of the three lanes passable, so I was able to pass safely. And I entered the building right at 8:30, along with one of my local colleagues.

All but one person actually made it to the meeting in person, including the executive to whom we were presenting. We were among the few IBMers who were in the building — most people chose to stay home and telecommute. Of course, the cafeteria people had had to come in, so coffee was available. But there were, perhaps, 50 cars in the parking lot for Building 4 instead of the usual 400 or so.

The meeting went well, but I was somewhat distracted at times looking out the window. Normally, I could see three other Somers buildings from that conference room, but there were times today when I could barely see one.

The meeting ended a few minutes after 10, and then some of us stayed for a postmortem and weather discussion (three of us were hopeful of flying home; one from Newark to Frankfurt, one from LaGuardia to Tallahassee, and me from JFK to San Jose). As we talked, the snow slowed. We finally broke for lunch at 11:45. There was no line in the cafeteria, needless to say.

By the time we finished lunch, the sun was out! So I walked out to my car, removed the snow, and headed to the airport. There was a lot of snow on the roads until I got into the Bronx — after that, all I had to worry about was wet pavement and a messy windshield. And as I was merging from the Cross-Island onto the Belt, I was passed by an idiot driving 80; the world was back to normal.

I’ve been sitting in the JetBlue terminal for nearly two hours already. All indications have my flight home operating on time, but it’s Friday at JFK, so my optimism is tempered. It’s been a good trip, but I’m definitely ready for the weekend!

Shabbat Shalom!

A tale of two hotels

Yesterday, I mentioned that I was staying at Tarrytown House. I had expected to be there again tonight, but I’m not, for several reasons.

One is the weather — the Tarrytown House is on a rather hilly road, and I didn’t really want to have to drive down it if the snow that’s predicted materializes.

But the more important reason is that I didn’t find the Tarrytown House to be particularly suited for me. During the week, it mostly caters to conferences; during the weekend, it describes itself as a romantic B&B. And I probably would have enjoyed it if I were there for either of those purposes. But as a lone transient business traveller, I found the hotel to be a bad match.

Last night, I had four choices for dinner. Drive a mile or more off-property to the nearest restaurant; have a cold sandwich in the bar ($10 or so, plus a drink); have a hot sandwich or meal through Room Service ($18 and up, plus a $5 delivery charge and a 20% service charge); or have the dinner buffet ($45, probably plus a service charge). I chose the sandwich in the bar and got away for just under $20.

But I thought I’d be OK this morning, since IBM’s hotel guide claimed that breakfast was included. I got to their restaurant just before they closed at 9am, grabbed some fruit and cereal from the buffet, and sat down. After the waitress had poured my coffee, she asked for my room number and came back with the news that breakfast was not included; it was $15. But when the bill came, I found that there was another mandatory 20% service charge, so, with tax, I was on the hook for $19.33. For cereal and fruit and coffee.

I was not happy, to say the least. And I went back to the room, packed, lugged my suitcase up five flights of stairs (did I mention that the hotel doesn’t have many elevators and it’s built on a hillside?), and checked out. But I did ask to speak to the manager.

He was very courteous, told me that the problem was with the IBM hotel guide, and, eventually, agreed to credit me the cost of breakfast (though I’d already closed out my bill, so I’ll have to wait and see if the credit appears). He did offer to upgrade me on a future stay, “perhaps with your wife” — and if I were going to be in the area with Diane on a pleasure trip, I might consider taking him up on the offer. But I don’t have any plans to stay there again for business.

Tonight, I’m at the Summerfield Suites in White Plains, a short hop from I-684. Breakfast is included; so was a social hour with wine and beer, salad, and cookies. The fitness center is pretty good; and domestic phone calls are free (versus $2 for the first minute for local and 800 calls and $6 for the first minute for long distance). And I’ve got lots of space.

I’m still not happy about probably having to fight the snow tomorrow morning (and I took advantage of the laundry facilities here, just in case….), but the only fix for that would have been for IBM to have built headquarters in a decent climate. And there are some battles that even I know are futile to even think of fighting.

The best three days of my life? Sorry, Dan….

I’ve spent the last three days serving as an observer/coach at the pilot session of IBM’s TechGen Global Development Center. This is a development program for rising technical talent — the goal is to help them improve their technical leadership abilities by putting them into various scenarios which will stretch them. The observers this time around were Distinguished Engineers, and our purpose was to watch what they did and, later, evaluate it and give them coaching and advice. And, of course, the other reason we were there was to help the participants extend their networks.

But the program wasn’t one-sided; I can’t speak for the other observers, but I certainly gained insight into myself during the program (and especially in some discussions afterwards with the HR folks in charge). And adding the participants to my network was a gain, too!

Dan, the HR person who invited me to be an observer, wanted me to say that this was the best three days of my life, but I can’t oblige. But it was a very enjoyable (and intense) three days, and I’d happily do it again.

As I’ve said in earlier posts this week, the food at the Learning Center is amazingly good — and there’s a lot of it, too. And because they kept us so busy (last night, we were comparing notes and outlining the reports for the participants until after midnight — and the only reason we quit then was that one of our number had to drive back to Connecticut to sleep), I wasn’t ever able to get to the fitness center to work any of it off.

So when I arrived at my new hotel, the Tarrytown House, this evening, the first thing I wanted to do was go to their fitness center. It’s not as nice as the one at the Learning Center, but it has the wonderful advantage of being under the same roof as my room. And with the frigid weather tonight, that’s quite an advantage.

And the other advantage I have tonight is that I have no late night meetings, and my first meeting tomorrow isn’t until 10am. So I have hopes of catching up some on my sleep. Zzzzz……

Let it snow!

The IBM Learning Center is a weird place. It’s built in campus style, with all of the buildings widely separated — not the way I would have designed a training center in snow country. The rooms are rather spartan, but serviceable. And the Fitness Center is absolutely wonderful…except that it’s a long cold walk away from the dorms…err, hotel buildings…and it has rather limited hours (6am-9pm, with gaps during meeting times).

My meeting didn’t end last night until 8:30, so I couldn’t go to the Fitness Center then. And the weather forecast for today was snow, so I didn’t even bother setting my alarm early enough to go this morning. But the snow was very light and had ended by the time I went for breakfast at 7am; oh, well.

And I really need to get to the Fitness Center, because one thing that the Learning Center does well is feed people. This meeting includes three buffet meals a day, as well as continuously-available snacks and drinks — and it’s all tasty. But today isn’t likely to be a Fitness Center day either, because I’ll be in my meeting till 11pm. I see lots of caffeine in my future….

More perspective

I got to the IBM Learning Center a bit after midnight, and, foolishly, checked my e-mail before going to bed. I found a note from a colleague asking me if I could help out with something we were working on, because he was going to be out for a while, burying his son, who had fallen on ice while doing volunteer work, hit his head, and died.

And then this evening, I got the call I was expecting, telling me that the friend who I’d written about on Saturday had died.

May both of their memories be blessings.

They really might like their customers!

I’m sitting at San Jose Airport waiting to board a JetBlue flight to New York for a week of fun, sun (well, snow), and excitement in Armonk and Somers. The weather in New York earlier today was not good, so the incoming flight was delayed, and therefore, my outbound flight was also delayed by about 90 minutes.

I took advantage of the delay to have lunch at home instead of bringing it for the plane (of course, that means I’ll be bringing dinner for the plane instead of eating it at JFK — I think I come out ahead anyway).

Clearing security today was no hassle (unlike two weeks ago, when it took about 45 minutes). And when I got to the gate, I was very surprised to see baskets full of snacks and drinks available for the taking — I’d never had an airline do that for a mere 90-minute delay. Especially a weather-related delay, which really was out of their control. I was impressed.

I’m beginning to think that JetBlue’s slogan, “we like you, too,” isn’t entirely puffery!

No, it’s not

A few days ago, Garrett pointed to one of Al‘s old blog entries titled “Suicide is Painless-Not!”

I read it, and went about my business.

Today at the end of Torah Study, Rabbi Aron said that [name] was in the ICU at Kaiser Santa Teresa and that the prognosis was negative, and that his husband, [name2], would welcome visitors. She went on to say that [name2] didn’t want any misconceptions about what had happened: [name] was suffering from depression, and had attempted suicide.

After services, we ran into mutual friends in the parking lot who said that Rabbi Aron was going over to the hospital to talk with [name2], who was ready to sign a DNR order for [name] — so if we were planning to visit, now was the time.

So we rearranged our tickets for Pride and Prejudice and went to the hospital to do what we could to support [name2]. We had no problems finding the ICU, and other friends were going in at the same time, so we went directly to [name]’s room. He was lying on the bed, with a ventilator breathing for him, hooked up to various monitors which kept beeping ominiously from time to time. [name2] was in the hallway behind the room, with yet more friends (I’m sure we were well over the hospital’s visitor limit). He greeted us and said that he was waiting for the neurolgist’s report, but that all signs indicated that all that was left was to say “goodbye” to [name].

I don’t know if [name] felt any pain. I do know that [name2] did.

[Name2] said that the reason he hadn’t tried to “protect” [name] by telling people that there’d been an accident was that he thought that if people knew what had happened — that [name] had attempted to kill himself because of depression — that it might help someone else. And especially that it might convince someone who saw that someone else was talking about suicide (or was just depressed) to get that person some help.

And that’s why I’m relating their story. At this point, it’s the most useful thing I can do for either of them.