Satan’s Hairy Armpit is upon us, with temperatures in the mid 100’s, and all of our air conditioners are cranking. Jen asked me to haul them all outside and clean them out earlier in the summer, and I’m glad she did; they were all disgusting inside, full of black yuck and gunk in the bottom. I disassembled each, sprayed them with mildew killer, hosed them out, and sat them to dry in the sunlight. Now they’re keeping us cool without spraying our lungs full of tuberculosis as we sleep.
I’m considering taking out a home equity line of credit before the election, as I don’t think the new bathroom will be completed without it. We can’t seem to get any traction going in there, and now that I’m not freelancing as much as I used to, I don’t have extra cash appearing magically to throw at it. I have no idea what the markets will do if either candidate wins (but I can guess what will happen if Trump is elected) so I think it’s time to get a fixed APR locked in before everything goes in the shitter.
Having upgraded all of our WRI work laptops to current models, I’m phasing out our older machines. This means I’m able to buy them for a nominal fee. Last week I grabbed a 15″ MBP for Finley, who has been using a tablet at school and borrowing my laptop to do schoolwork during snow days. I spent some time flattening a spare drive and installing El Capitan (I fell prey to a somewhat common bug with all of the USB installers I’d created before I got one to work) and creating a user account for her. I’m now in the process of locking it down as tightly as possible. The parental controls in OS X are a new adventure for me, but with a little research and some experimentation, I think I can make it kid-friendly and lock out all but the G-rated sites we’ll allow her to browse.
At the same time, I’ve got to rebuild my work laptop from scratch. About a month ago I had a dumb travel accident with my coffee thermos and soaked the lower half of the case, which prompted a trip to the Apple store and an emergency rebuild. They left the hard drive but replaced the lower case, display, motherboard, and several other components. When I got the machine back it booted up into an older version of my user account, but it’s been acting funky. Playing video from the internet sometimes blows up wireless connectivity and/or crashes the browser, and the Microsoft Office suite goes up and down randomly.
I grabbed a spare drive from my stash at work and cloned the drive. Over this next weekend I’m going to do a full reinstall of the OS and build it clean from the ground up.
Meanwhile, Jen’s laptop, which is newer than mine, decided it was time to throw a tantrum and blinked off. It’s doing something I’ve never seen before: the startup sequence drops out about 2/3 of the way through and blinks to a dead gray screen. Booting into Recovery Mode, the Hardware Test, or from an external recovery drive has the same result. I’m stumped, so I pulled her drive and transplanted it into Finn’s computer until I can diagnose the hardware problem. Great!
Another repair in the works is our balky plumbing system. Last fall, when I was in Abu Dhabi, our new toilet stopped flushing. Jen had plumbers come in to diagnose it, and they replaced the toilet after snaking the lines. Soon after that, the basement flooded, and they snaked the line again. That was when we found the pipe was clogged under the magnolia tree, and we dug a very expensive trench in the yard to replace it.
After Christmas, to celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus, the toilet clogged again.
The plumbers put a camera down in the line and diagnosed a problem with the cast iron pipe that links the second bathroom with the main waste line; when the original plumbers installed it, they didn’t add any downward angle to the last length of pipe, which runs about 2/3 of the width of the basement. This means the waste didn’t have any help moving to the main sewer line, and sat in the flat section of pipe, where it hardened and clogged. So, they replaced that entire length of iron with PVC at a proper angle on Thursday. It was expensive but if and when the upstairs bathroom ever comes into use, it’s necessary for keeping things flowing smoothly.
Friday morning, we woke to a cold house.
The boiler decided it didn’t want to stay lit, which meant we needed to call the plumbers out. Again. This time, the diagnosis is a bad spark unit, which is a module about the size of a sandwich. Unfortunately, the boiler itself dates back to Jimmy Carter’s term in office, so the part isn’t normally in stock anywhere. My plumber couldn’t source it today because his supplier is doing inventory all afternoon, so I’d have to wait until Monday. So we’re going to find a couple of space heaters, close off the outside rooms of the house, and hunker down tonight.
I made a few calls and found a different guy in town who can get the part for me by tomorrow morning; I’m going to take a $160 non-refundable chance and put it in myself (it’s three wires and two screws). If that fails, I’ll have to keep the plumbers of the world in business myself. I don’t have the money, after paying for a fancy new toilet, a trench in the front yard, two more visits to unclog the lines, and a new waste pipe, to put in a new boiler, so I really hope this works.
This is unscientific, because the Idiot forgot to set the same ISO on each camera. So we’ll call this “Round 1”. What you’re seeing is two cameras with three lenses shooting on the same focus point. These images are unedited other than bumping up the D90’s exposure to match the D7000, but I’ll fix that in the next round. The first two lenses are manual and the third is a modern AI at the same focal length.
When I was in the third grade, I was diagnosed as nearsighted. My teacher noticed me squinting to see what she was writing on the blackboard. I didn’t notice anything wrong; all I had to do was squinch them up a little bit and everything was fine. But, I was issued glasses. My eyesight got worse until it leveled out somewhere in high school, and I haven’t had a change in my prescription since then.
1980 was also the height of Star Wars mania. It was the barren time between the first two movies, when we didn’t know much about what would happen and the modern PR machine didn’t exist, so everything we heard was third-hand rumor. Boba Fett was whispered about like a boogeyman. Millennials don’t really understand the cultural impact of the franchise on my generation; I heard someone claim The Matrix was bigger, but I just laughed in their face. Star Wars was EVERYWHERE. We loved it; our parents loved it. We all lived and breathed the trilogy and were sad to see it come to a close.
Jen and I have been debating on when to expose Finn to the series, and how to handle things. We decided early on that we would show her the movies we saw at roughly the same age we did; we agreed to leave the prequels out completely, because fuck that. On Saturday we screened Star Wars at home, and Finn loved it. Sunday was Empire, and Monday we saw Jedi. Each night we fielded 20 new insightful questions before putting her to bed. We’ve got the 2004 DVD series, which means they’ve been “enhanced,” and while we cringed at the cutesy CGI additions, Finn loved them. Gauging her response after Jedi, we debated taking her to The Force Awakens (we’d been planning on getting a babysitter and going ourselves) but ultimately decided she’d be fine.
We all loved it. Jen and I have been studiously avoiding any kind of spoilers for weeks now (I will avoid them here) so everything was fresh for us, and it was a treat. The main beats of the movie hit really well. The character and story arcs are written skillfully; there’s more character development in this single movie than in all three of the prequels. Each character had a clear sense of purpose, direction and emotion, thank god. I like the new characters they’ve introduced, and it was great to see our old friends joking, smiling, and kicking ass!
Finally, the movie looked like a Star Wars movie in a way that the prequels simply did not. Practical effects, real sets, real props, a return to the original lighting direction and a cautious use of CGI go a long way. The Millenium Falcon is a real set. It exists somewhere, and the characters can touch it.
Gripes? Just a few. It’s JJ Abrams, so things are paced a little quicker than I’d like. It’s quite derivative in terms of plot. I wanted to spend just a little more time with some of the characters and the places they visited. But if I squint just a little bit, it’s 1980 again, and I’m happy to be back in that world, if only for an hour and a half. I can’t wait for the next one.
Christmas has come and gone, and we are enjoying a quiet day of doing nothing in our pajamas. the house is quiet after an eight-day visit with my sister in law and her son Scott, who is a cute and very active two-year-old. It was challenging to fit the two of them into our daily schedule, host my folks last weekend (hooray!), host three cats, and prepare for Christmas, but now that everyone is gone I think we’re all quite depressed. The house is silent and we haven’t bothered to pick anything up.
Christmas itself was great. We hosted the Lockards here (there was a slight chance Rob might have joined us Christmas eve but his flight out of Philadelphia took off on time) and Jen outdid herself with milk-braised pork, brussel sprouts, potatoes, and arugula salad. Finley came downstairs to a new bicycle from Santa, as well as a bunch of excellent new books, educational toys, and, most surprising of all, a 3′ Crystle Carrington doll from Dynasty–yes, Dynasty (don’t ask.)
Santa was good enough to bring me an iPad Air two Christmases ago, when I settled into my commute to DC and needed something portable to read and write email. It was great, and I enjoyed using it on a (mostly) daily basis. It has a combination of excellent battery life, portability, and convenience that made my first year on the train an easy one.
When I started teaching, things got more difficult. This past semester, I found myself carrying a ton of extra stuff for each class. I bring a pad of paper to class, along with an attendance sheet that doubles as a notepad. Then I was humping design books, Pantone swatchbooks, paper samples, and other bulky items to show the students each day. Adding all this to a 13″ MacBook Pro, a camera, a Moleskine, and about 5 pounds of other stuff meant that the iPad got left on my desk more often than not. Santa brought me a medium sized Timbuk2 messenger bag, but as I’ve found, the bigger the bag, the more crap you want to cram in it, and the heavier it gets. My intention is to pare the things I carry down to the bare minimum.
- MacBook Pro 13″
- Leatherman Skeletool
- Cree Ultrafire LED flashlight
- Fuji X-E1/18-50mm or Nikon D7000/35mm
- Ray-Ban 4115 sunglasses
- Pilot Precise V7 pens
- MARC monthly ticket
On Black Friday I saw that Amazon had discounted the Kindle Fire to a price I couldn’t pass up, so I bought two of them. One for Jen, to complement her phone as an entertainment device, and one to replace my iPad.
I’m impressed with it so far. It’s less than a half the size and weight of my iPad, and it has the main features I was using my iPad for–watching Netflix movies and reading eBooks on the train. It takes time to get used to a non-Apple interface, but overall they’ve done a decent job of laying things out and letting me get to my stuff. I could do without the ads on my home screen, but I didn’t pay extra for that. The browser is responsive and small, but it’s good to have something to check smaller screens with. As with our earlier Kindle (thanks, Linda!) I can dump books on it with Calibre, the ugliest OS X application I’ve used in 20 years.
Meanwhile, my Mom has been using a white MacBook for email and websurfing since we got it for her in 2008. It’s getting very long in the tooth, and even though it’s still working, things have been getting funky with it; the browser chrome is blinking out, and the fan cycles up to “tornado” regularly. It’s running 10.7.4 which is the latest version the processor will support, so she’s way behind the times in terms of security. It only made sense to give her my iPad. During their visit, I wiped it and we got her set up with email, her browser settings, an Apple Store account, and found apps to replace the ones she’d been using on her laptop. She’s thrilled and I’m happy it’s going to a great home.
I’ve been using the Fuji X-E1 for about six months now, and I’m finding its limitations a bit frustrating. My primary complaint is that the shutter lag is maddening. Waiting for it to find focus is irritating, having been spoiled by years of lightning-fast DSLRs. It’s pretty useless in low light even with ISO cranked to the ceiling because the camera can’t find anything to settle on. I’ve been going back and forth on whether or not to purchase a used 27mm fixed lens for it to slim it down or to sell it and look for a better camera.
While my sister-in-law and her son were here, I made a conscious effort to use the Fuji as much as I could, which meant daylight and quieter situations to avoid movement and low light. It works great in those environments. However, I needed something that could keep up with an active 2-year-old and his mercurial facial expressions–which led me back to the D7000.
I’ve been noticing that the shots I’ve been taking lately aren’t as crisp as I want them to be. It could be the new 35mm lens I bought isn’t sharp, or that the camera is out of alignment, or that I’m just not using it correctly. Something I’ve got planned for this coming week is to set up a tripod and shoot comparisons of the AI 35mm and 50mm lenses I have as well as both non-AI lenses with both the D7000 and Jen’s D90 to see if I can nail down what’s going on.
Jen and I attended a silent auction in the spring, and one of the things we bid on and won was a night at a hotel in Baltimore and a dinner for two, something we were really excited about. We planned a month in advance to have Finn stay at the neighbors’ house and made reservations for both places.
Last weekend, we got churched up, checked into the hotel, dropped our bags, and then drove to the restaurant, which is on the far side of my old neighborhood. Pulling into the valet lane, we were dismayed to learn there was a private party that evening, and that our reservation was no good. Let me be clear here: We made a reservation a month in advance, and the restaurant fucked it up. After the shock wore off, we pulled around the corner, got on our phones, and found another local restaurant with a 45 minute wait and a bar.
The Fork and Wrench was exactly right for us, and the man at the front desk seated us almost immediately at a lovely table upstairs. We proceeded to have an outstanding meal, starting with cocktails and a roasted pork belly in beer-adobo glaze over mashed yucca. Things only got better from there. What could easily have been a horrible evening was saved by excellent service, delicious food, and, of course, the company of my lovely wife.
The hotel was nice, but the room we were booked in was downmarket compared to the pictures on the website. We joked that they put us on the gift certificate floor, but really we didn’t care: we were by ourselves and away from the house for an evening.
Postscript: I called the restaurant who fucked up our reservation (they made it for the day Jen called, not the day she asked for), talked to the manager, and got nothing resembling an apology. Now, I’ve tried to control my temper in the last 20 years; time was when I’d just fly off the handle and either start swearing or go throw something. Not one of my finer traits. Perhaps I’ve swung back the other way too far, or maybe I just don’t like making waves, but I got off the phone without any resolution from the guy at all. Thinking it over for a few minutes, and talking with Jen about it, I called back a few minutes later and got the manager back on the phone.
At this point you might ask what I was expecting the guy to do. Comp me a meal? Pay for my hotel? Actually, no. I just wanted an apology for their booking mistake. What I got from the guy was a bunch of fumbling, repeated insistence that he didn’t know who was at fault, and, at one point, he told me my call was breaking up. I don’t know if this is a common scam or something, but how hard is that to do? Realizing he wasn’t going to make any effort, I got fed up and hung up on him, something I rarely do with anybody, and decided we were going to skip the meal we’d already paid for and sell the stupid gift card on Craigslist for 75% of its face value.
When I worked in food service, I learned how to deal with unhappy customers; there were always times when things got messed up and it was our fault. My manager (the owner of the restaurant) taught me it costs little to apologize and comp a bottle of wine, a burrito, or a soda to customers who have already committed to walking in the door. Keep them happy, and they’ll return. This guy? I don’t know where he learned his business, but I’m not happy. Fuck him and his restaurant.
Two tech notes for this week. First is the rebirth of an old lens: the Nikon 1.4 manual lens I bought this summer came back after only a few days away for an upgrade. A nice man in Michigan filed part of the barrel down so that I can mount it safely on my D7000, and holy shit, it’s sharper than a knife. Some quick test shots show it’s got a razor-thin depth of field, and the glass is in great shape. I’ve fallen into my usual pattern of shooting less in the fall, but I’m going to put it on the D7000 and carry it with me for a week.
Secondly, my neighbor and I got to talking about our AV setups over brewing beer, and I explained to him what I was facing: the need for a $400 head unit that switches HDMI signal so that I could get all of the components up on the shelf and away from the TV, as well as feeding audio through the speakers on the floor instead of the tiny ones on the TV.
He shook his head and told me all I needed was a $15 HDMI switcher and a couple of patch cables, and sent me Amazon links, which I purchased the following morning. Because Prime, they were at the house the next day, and I hooked everything up last night. Sure enough, he was right: the AppleTV is now sitting atop my cable box, and both go into the splitter, which sends the signal out to the TV. I get cinema audio via an optical cable to the head unit. The splitter is smart enough to know it’s got two viable inputs (out of a possible five) and only switches between what’s plugged in.
He also told me about HDMI over Ethernet, which piques my interest, because I don’t want to lease another FIOS box for our bedroom. I ran at least two data cables to each bedroom, so I could split the signal out of the downstairs box, send it up to the TV, and use a wireless remote to change channels on both floors.
This week I had the opportunity to attend An Event Apart, a top-level design conference for people who work on the web. The founders are two people I still look up to after almost 20 years in the business, Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer. The speakers talked on a wide range of topics. Zeldman did the keynote, which was an overview of and advice about working in the business. There were speakers on accessibility, site testing, new tools and techniques, and design philosophies. (It’s somewhat heartening to see that nobody has yet been able to figure out how to move away from the 3-designs-5-sizes-and-a-million-comps model two years after I left the biz).
Monday night we were treated to craft beer at Caboose, a new microbrewery featuring the former brewmaster from Heavy Seas, courtesy of Facebook. Somewhat apprehensive about mingling, I drove to the venue and found my way inside, and after dropping my name in a hat and grabbing a beer (a delicious IPA), I found some folks to talk to and wound up having a very good time. Here’s to getting out of the comfort zone. And it just so happened that I won my very first door prize after 20 years: a set of very nice brush pens, a calligraphy set, and a book.
I told Jen it was the kind of focused experience I really could have used in 2011 or so to re-energize; One speaker alone shared knowledge about current features of HTML5 to alter the way I approach design and building, and another shared 5 new tools for building and testing I might never have known about. Overall, there was enough knowledge to make the conference more than worthwhile even though I’m not directly involved in the business anymore; my job demands that I stay current, and this was a good way to check back in.
I’m about 4 days behind at work (a combination of the conference and one of my designers being on vacation) so it’s hard not to feel some guilt for going, but I’m very grateful for the experience, and conferences like this are something I’ll be pushing for in future years for my staff and I.