Category Archives: Journal

Me. My Life. Stuff that happens.

What’s in it For Me?

I’m not sure if you noticed, but I spend a lot of time online. It’s partially my job, but I’m a pretty ‘net-connected type guy in just a general fashion. And this is nothing new. Part of my net presence has, for the last six years or so, been this site here, I cultivate it, I design it, I’ve made it my own over various iterations and levels of attention. To a certain extent, is me, when I’m online. If people want to know who ‘ironsoap’ is on an IRC channel or a forum, I put my web address in nearly every public-facing “profile” I can find.

It’s not like I’m trying to drive traffic to my site so they can click on ads and make me a bunch of money. I don’t run ads on ironSoap. I pay for the hosting and the domains from my own pocket and I create all the content here. The key reason why ill-fated efforts like Hyperbolic Avatars existed was because I didn’t care to have other people—even people I love and respect—putting themselves onto my site.

There is even a conscious effort to make the site intuitive: Wherever I use the name ironsoap (which is pretty much everywhere), I figure people could put that “word” into a search engine and come up with this site. What else is called “ironsoap” after all? Or, they could just try “” and they’ll come here. If they want to talk to me, works as you’d expect. So does I don’t advertise these addresses; they aren’t my official email address. But my official email address is listed and I like to it all the time without de-spamminating it: Yeah, I get a lot of junk mail and I have to do aggressive filtering on my inbox.

But I don’t mind. This is me. Me online. I have a presence, by design.

So help me out here. A lot of people I know are on Facebook. Or MySpace. Or whatever other social networking site. Orkut or whatever. I don’t know. For the longest time I’ve avoided them. I’ve done so on purpose, because to me they simply seemed like a new-wave version of Geocities. They appeared, from my observational vantage point high on my horse, to be nothing more than a simple way to create an online presence. And, of course, tie it into someone else’s system so they can serve you ads and adjust the Terms of Service as they see fit. So they can limit you to their design sensibilities and the limitations of their web engineering departments.

My stance on all these things has always been, “No thanks. I already have a web presence. I’ve had it since 2001.” Is it smug? You betcha. But is it also true? Absolutely.

I’ve heard people complaining to me that I’m not “hooked in” with their little circle of Facebookies or MySpacers and they grumble that it wouldn’t kill me to have a profile set up. And they’re right, I suppose it wouldn’t. But why should I? Why would I want to keep a separate account for all these sites that offer me no value whatsoever? I don’t create profiles on Motley Fool just in case some armchair investor wants to contact me. My thought process is this: I’m not hard to find, but if you can’t narrow a Google search enough to track me down, you probably don’t know me well enough for me to want to talk to you anyway.

I didn’t say I wasn’t an elitist jerk.

But it’s getting out of control. I have Facebook invites coming in from business contacts now. What gives? Has the whole world gone mad? Am I overlooking something pivotal about these sites? Tell me, dear readers, why should I bother?

Is there anything I could do on a social networking site that I can’t do on ironSoap? Anything that makes me the jerk for not joining up when I’ve been trying to drag people online since 1998 only to find that when they got here they started telling me how it’s “done”? Have I gotten old and set in my ways already, destined to be the cranky old coot on the Internet’s porch screaming at the dang kids to get off my LAN?

What, exactly, is in it for me?

Police Blotter Report, #1

Nik and I have been discussing the local police blotter via IM for the last couple of weeks. By “discussing” I do mean “making fun of” because our blotter is full of lunacy and prank calls and precious little of actual concern. Unless you’re concerned about getting your catalytic converter stolen.

I’m serious. Those things get swiped all the time in our town.

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to try to set up a podcast of us doing it live because it’s pretty funny sometimes (to us, at least) but until I get around to that I had to share part of today’s exchange. Some of the content has been altered slightly from the original, for legibility reasons.

(13:16:47) Nikki Hamilton: okay, so here are my three favorites from the police log today
(13:17:11) Nikki Hamilton: I can’t decide if i want to meet this guy or not…
(13:17:16) Nikki Hamilton: 12:20 a.m.: A man known as “Crazy Larry” was loitering at the am/pm gas station, 3425 N. Tracy Blvd.
(13:17:34) Paul Hamilton: Here’s the general rule:
(13:17:47) Paul Hamilton: If you have the word “Crazy” as part of your name, you’re cool
(13:18:05) Paul Hamilton: If you’re just “So-and-So…. who’s really crazy” then steer clear
(13:18:17) Paul Hamilton: So like Crazy Bob is probably a really cool guy
(13:18:33) Paul Hamilton: But “That guy Bob… that fool is crazy” is bad news
(13:18:45) Nikki Hamilton: heh
(13:18:58) Nikki Hamilton: okay, from the “That is so messed up File:”
(13:19:14) Nikki Hamilton: 7:34 a.m.: Someone in eastern Tracy reported that when she told her father she was pregnant, he handed her a .38 gun and “told her to end it.” According to police records, her dad and her boyfriend don’t get along.
(13:20:07) Paul Hamilton: Sounds like he’s lucky he didn’t hand the gun to the boyfriend and say the same thing
(13:20:29) Nikki Hamilton: yeah, i don’t think that would have ended how he intended it to
(13:20:35) Paul Hamilton: I wonder if that would count as suicide?
(13:21:02) Nikki Hamilton: assisted suicide, a la Dr. Kevorkian
(13:21:14) Paul Hamilton: I like how they threw in the history of the dad and the boyfriend, as if that explained it
(13:21:33) Paul Hamilton: “Ah, I see. He was a total jerk to her because he hates her boyfriend”
(13:21:41) Paul Hamilton: “It all makes sense now.”
(13:21:53) Nikki Hamilton: and last, but not least
(13:22:07) Nikki Hamilton: from the “What kind of gun even holds that many rounds? File:”
(13:22:20) Nikki Hamilton: 12:48 a.m.: A caller reportedly heard 10 gunshots on the 1700 block of Renown Court.
(13:22:30) Nikki Hamilton: unless, of course, it was multiple guns
(13:22:41) Nikki Hamilton: but, what is this, 4th of july?
(13:22:43) Nikki Hamilton: new year’s eve?
(13:22:59) Paul Hamilton: should I be the one to tell you that a lot of sidearms hold 15 in the clip?
(13:23:11) Nikki Hamilton: seriously?
(13:23:15) Paul Hamilton: oh yeah
(13:23:18) Nikki Hamilton: why did i think most guns hold six?
(13:23:33) Paul Hamilton: revolvers hold six
(13:23:43) Paul Hamilton: but most guns aren’t revolvers anymore
(13:23:58) Paul Hamilton: they have a clip you slap into the bottom of the handle
(13:24:05) Paul Hamilton: and they hold a lot more bullets
(13:24:21) Paul Hamilton: Disclaimer: Everything I know about guns I learned from playing Counter-Strike
(13:24:28) Nikki Hamilton: so now people have 15 chances to kill you rather than 6?
(13:24:46) Paul Hamilton: well you really only need the one chance
(13:25:19) Nikki Hamilton: yes, but your odds are much better when a gun holds only 6 rounds, especially if you’re ninja like or the person is a bad shot
(13:25:23) Nikki Hamilton: with 15 you’re screwed
(13:25:28) Nikki Hamilton: no one’s that lucky
(13:25:41) Paul Hamilton: I think ninjas don’t really care how many chances the other guy has
(13:25:48) Paul Hamilton: that’s why they’re ninjas
(13:25:54) Nikki Hamilton: I should train to be a ninja
(13:26:01) Nikki Hamilton: then I would feel so much safer
(13:26:02) Paul Hamilton: you would make a great ninja
(13:26:12) Nikki Hamilton: i’m not so stealthy
(13:26:24) Paul Hamilton: plus, I would LOVE to be able to say “Oh, yeah. I’m married to a ninja.”
(13:26:34) Paul Hamilton: Those cowls are hot
(13:26:38) Nikki Hamilton: more so than a pirate?
(13:26:50) Paul Hamilton: You can’t marry a pirate
(13:26:54) Paul Hamilton: everyone knows this
(13:26:59) Nikki Hamilton: oh. I did not.
(13:27:22) Paul Hamilton: obviously you need to check out
(13:27:32) Nikki Hamilton: shut. up.
(13:27:35) Nikki Hamilton: seriously?
(13:27:38) Nikki Hamilton: there’s a website?

It Begins to Burn

Eventually my brain is bound to expire. It’s like milk that way, only in my case the date was not set far in the future the way most folks prefer, very different from the serendipity they will dig through cartons toward the mysterious world beyond the dairy case to obtain. Mine is like the lone quart left in a gas station snack shop, ink stamp smudged almost beyond legibility: Did that say ’09’ or ’06’? If you’re desperate, you’ll buy it anyway and hope for the best.

Whatever you do, you don’t leave it on the front seat of your car in August, practically begging for some sort of souring process to accelerate, perhaps leading to solidification. Likewise, I have little enough facilities to draw upon as it is and here I am lighting them afire with reckless abandon: Write for this site here! Contribute to that forum there! Maintain a similarly themed site of your own! Avoid neglecting your long-standing outlet! Then I arrive at my actual job and I’m expected to maintain a rapport with various co-workers via—guess what—written communications and then I recall that I have solicited people to contact me via email and IM so I must meet or exceed their expectations lest my future solicitations go unheeded. Further I am chastised by my like-minded acquaintances for not being hip to the game when I fail to maintain my Twitter profile and resort to archaic communication methods like phone calls rather than text messaging…

It is as though my phalanges and have begun to crust into crude claws and my vocal cords have withered like grapes on a vine or are mutating outward from my throat into hideous mandibles. Meanwhile, as mentioned, my mind has slipped into a state that is undoubtedly dangerous where the surface wrinkles contract and smooth over. The result will be either the development of telepathic powers or, more probably, the reduction of higher function leaving me in a state of reactionary instinct.

Essentially, I am becoming an insect.

Fortunately, even insects can fashion bullet points, of a sort.

  • I managed to screw up rather badly at work. My job can be boiled down to its hot molten core as such: Detect problems before they manifest to our customers. Suffice to say that when a customer then contacts me to inform that there is a serious problem on our platform, I’ve basically failed in some key fashion. There were, as you might expect, certain extenuating circumstances. But those are probably merely enough to save my job, but certainly not my face.
  • My commute is actually lengthening with each passing day. I leave a little bit earlier each morning and yet I arrive at work a little later. At this point I believe I’m up to two and a half hours in the morning. My nighttime commute is a steady hour and fifteen minutes, but I keep hoping there will come a point when there are literally no more humans left to stand between me and my destination. I did not anticipate that humanity is apparently reproducing at a rate that exceeds my car’s maximum speed.
  • Nik is currently between jobs and being understandably choosy about what she decides to take on next. This has given her ample time to serve as a sort of post modern housewife for the last few weeks. At first she was timid, and approached her role as “fabricator of the evening meal” with trepidation. Steadily, though, her confidence has grown and last night she cooked a pork tenderloin whose equal I had not previously encountered. This is significant because while Nik has always been competent in the kitchen she has rarely ventured into a territory I found literally delectable and—this is most significant—experimental. Not only was the dinner last night scrumptious but it was unfamiliar to the extent that it almost felt illicit.
  • An interesting bit of trivia: If you take a job that requires you to sit for ten solid hours and you interpret this missive literally, then marry that activity with an increased appetite for Kettle brand potato chips and Keebler Fudge Stripe cookies, you will gain weight. I discovered this through several clinical trials and now must reset in order to begin the control testing. My method for this is the same as it ever was: Regular exercise and a greater attention to what I eat. Part of my exercise routine involves comical-looking machines that I consider to be my arch nemeses; the other part involves playing an innocent looking sport called racquetball. There is not so much innocence there as you would assume. It doesn’t help if you’re a 5′ 7″ water buffalo on the court, however. I managed to run directly into a concrete wall playing this game last week and I got, for my efforts, a goose egg on my knee which turned into the most colorful bruise you’re likely to see. I suspect it’s all in the nearly perfect eggshell white of the canvas. I don’t go out much.
  • Nik bought the DVD set of The Office, Season Three. I caught a few episodes here and there last year but wasn’t that impressed. My expectation was low because of this as I entered, but I came out the other side with my faith in the show’s writers renewed. You know how most shows have a central relationship that is in turmoil or question and you are supposed to root for the characters involved to work it out? Often to prolong the drama the writers will introduce a third party, another character, to stand in the way. Nearly every time this third character is abhorrent and so obviously written as a foil to the relationship that the whole exercise feels false. In the Office they did something similar but in a stroke of brilliance the foil is not demonstrably more or less likable than the central figures which generates something that feels authentic. Recall, for a moment, that I’m referring to a sitcom.

I’d Say It’s Better

I don’t know if there is a gland that secretes some sort of hormone that facilitates writing. My grades in high school Anatomy were barely passing, partially because a huge chunk of our score was based on—I’m not making this up—coloring. It was presented under the guise of education and we were instructed to use colored pencils instead of crayons as a nod to our maturity, but you can slice it however you like, it was still coloring.

Anyway, I don’t ever remember coloring in a “writer’s gland,” but then I didn’t really color in a lot of those stupid sheets. I could have missed a few.

Assuming there is a gland, mine is running fairly dry these days. Whatever that hormone is, literasium or something, I’m kinda tapped out at the moment. Here’s why: I responded to a Craigslist posting that was asking for video game writers. Anyone who has read ironSoap can attest that I write, at length, about a lot of things but very high on that list of subjects is video games. I’ve recently dedicated an entire site to that pursuit in an effort to spare you all the dissections of my game sessions.

By the way, you are welcome.

So I saw the listing and thought, “Yeah, okay.” They gave me a chance to do a two-week trial run based on, I’m only speculating here, the fact that I was the only response they received. I went ahead and worked on the site through the next couple of weeks and it seemed to go pretty well. As promised, they invited me to come on board full time and become a regular contributor.

I don’t have all the details just yet, but the long and short of it is that I contribute 15 articles per week (mostly video game-related news, but I’ve also posted a couple features). They have said they do pay, just not much; the loose wording of the original email was “about enough to cover a broadband internet connection” which I guess means anywhere from $25 to $50 a month.

This really isn’t about making stacks of cash, though. Instead it is a matter of presenting my writing in a more public forum and following the ancient adage of “write what you know.” It turns out I know video games pretty well. I can wait while you recover from the shock. I can’t say at this point what, if anything, will come of this. I do know that having a schedule of how much I need to write each day has been an adjustment. It’s not difficult necessarily; I have written far more than I’m required to often enough for my own various projects. But those are writings born from desire to express, not mandated by responsibility. I’m curious if this transition of writing from pastime to necessity will affect my view of it. So far it hasn’t become a chore, only tapped my reserves a bit, which is why my personal writing locations have fallen relatively silent.

I am picking back up some of the pace, but I have to be cautious and preserve my literasium supplies.

tail -n 4 /brain/var/log/messages

  • Nik and I were discussing our summer movie experiences the other day. We saw some pretty good ones including Stardust which has a very strong Princess Bride vibe (read that as a major compliment) and Ratatouille which Nik said was her favorite Pixar movie to date. We also just caught Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix in IMAX 3D. I hadn’t seen an IMAX or a 3D movie since some weird thing they were showing at the local amusement park (Great America, for those keeping track) back when I was probably 12, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was very good and did an admirable job with what must have been a beast of a scriptwriting task. The 3D stuff was pretty impressive for the most part, but I actually thought the sound system in the IMAX theater was the star of the show.
  • My co-worker kicked the power cord for my workstation the other day. It occurred to me as my laptop stayed on and was the only thing that wasn’t at risk of losing any unsaved work that there is no reason PC manufacturers can’t include a small 10-minute battery in every power supply. I know there are products that do this but for the most part they are aimed at server administrators, not consumers. I ask, why?
  • It’s wickedly hot here in California, which is normally not so bad since most places I frequent are air-conditioned, as my pale, nearly translucent skin will attest. The exception, naturally, is the room in I work within which contains too little space and far too many heat-generating electronic components. Many of my co-workers wear shorts to work to combat the problem, but as ragtag as I typically appear, I can’t bring myself to eschew actual pants when I arrive somewhere expecting compensation.
  • Perhaps I’ve discussed my Zuma addition previously, I can’t recall. The days when that game consumed my soul are dark and grim and my mind does not revisit them readily. As a defense mechanism this localized amnesia is then somewhat flawed because it allowed me to download the version on Xbox Live Arcade which is half price this weekend only via a special promotion. My thoughts weren’t even filled with pathetic delusional justifications like, “What could one time hurt?” or “I can quit anytime I like.” I simply did it, fool that I am, casting the shreds of my dignity back into that nameless void. The sale went into effect at midnight last night and the dark circles under my eyes today are a shameful testament to just how strong my will can be against this foe.

That’s How You Know

So I was a little bummed yesterday because a game I’ve been looking forward to came out (BioShock) and I had decided I shouldn’t spend the money on it until I get paid on Friday. It was only going to be a few days but still kind of a bummer. But I was happy because I got a copy of Silent Hill 2 in the mail from Goozex which I could play (this will be my third attempt at the game: I’m determined to like it because every other SH game has been excellent but I have yet to find a way to get into this and many, many people claim it is the best of the whole series).

But then, because my wife rocks, she surprised me with a copy of BioShock when I got home.

Yet somewhere late in my work day I had started feeling a little under the weather. Then I started feeling a lot under the weather on the drive home and by the time I got in the house and ate dinner I was feeling pretty rough. It was so bad in fact that after dinner I watched a couple of episodes of Lingo with Nik, as is our custom, and then decided to completely ignore both new games in favor of going to bed early.

It’s pretty telling, I think.

I still didn’t feel that hot this morning but since I’m about to take some time off and they just changed the schedule around to accommodate my preferences, I felt it would be pretty rude to call in sick. So I decided to try and tough it out. Fortunately I’m feeling a little better than I was this morning but I still have that nagging “I’m on the verge of a flu” sensation which I think is mostly being held back by the seven or eight Motrin I popped on my way out the door.

I tease, of course. I took half of one and fell asleep almost instantly in the entryway of our home.

Totally Unrelated

This has nothing to do with anything, but I thought it was really cool.

And Then Things Got Weird

I hang out in an IRC channel for work. Mostly the chatter is work-related, but sometimes it gets… sidetracked. Observe:

17:55:52 Crystal C: phamilton,
18:02:09 phamilton: yes>
18:02:53 Crystal C: phamilton, nevermind, agent was complaining about recent call page not updating…
18:03:06 Crystal C: they had logged out and back in..
18:03:12 Crystal C: the last update was at 1348
18:03:21 Crystal C: but now they all appeared miraculously
18:03:33 phamilton: I have been known to work miracles
18:03:38 phamilton: Occasionally
18:03:43 George S_: lol
18:04:15 Crystal C: phamilton, through osmosis of course :)
18:04:26 phamilton: Ew, gross.
18:04:45 phamilton: That’s not how I roll
18:05:04 phamilton needs dictionary
18:05:18 Crystal C: lol :P
18:06:21 phamilton:
18:06:31 phamilton: No, you’re right
18:06:40 phamilton: That’s *totally* how I roll
18:07:24 Crystal C: Note: Informally, “osmosis” is the process by which information or concepts come to a person without conscious effort: “Living in Paris, he learned French slang by osmosis.”
18:07:25 phamilton: Passing through semipermeable membranes is like my favorite pastime
18:08:14 George S_: say what
18:08:17 George S_: lol
18:08:17 Crystal C: phamilton, ok if you wish work magic the slimy way, thats fine too
18:09:32 phamilton: Slimy Magic… isn’t that a funk band?
18:09:44 phamilton: If not, it should be.
18:09:58 Cathy B__: phamilton i will splain that to them
18:10:05 Crystal C: LOL :D
18:10:56 phamilton: Someone is going to have to splain it to me, I’m not even sure what I’m talking about anymore.
18:11:02 Cathy B__: lol

Now, for the record, I do know what osmosis means in that context, I was only pulling her leg. I just didn’t expect it to get all weird. Also, my use of the tired cliche ‘how I roll’ was completely ironic. Completely, you understand? And yes, my co-workers abuse the ‘LOL’ privilege.

What? You didn’t know it was a privilege? It is.

One that can be revoked.

Behold! Hannah!

Hannah HamiltonMy niece, Hannah is really cute. I realize this picture doesn’t exactly capture the whole truth of that statement, but I love it so much none of the other “classic” baby pictures would suffice once I saw it. I can’t wait to meet her, although I hear she’s got a weirder schedule than I do. I think that means her and I should hang out.

In this picture, I imagine she’s thinking, “What, are you some special kind of stupid? Did you actually go to a stupid university to get that dumb? It’s like you’re a doctor of idiots.”

Just that expression alone makes me feel like her and I, we’re going to get along just fine.

Gaming Weekend

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, it’s probably because you’re not reading Tunnels of Doom, my gaming website. I can’t really fault you if you aren’t reading because you don’t like games, but since most of my time lately has been spent either working—which has involved a significant, if temporary, lifestyle adjustment; and trying to recover from working—which I’ve mostly accomplished by playing and writing about games. Actually, there may be some additional news in that vein coming soon, but I can’t say anything at the moment… mostly for fear of jinxing things.

Anyway, I’ve just posted my most recent game journal which is my weekly wrapup of the games I’m playing and my thoughts on related subjects that I call the Gaming Weekend. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s no secret that I’ve been coveting an HD TV for a couple of years now. But lately it’s starting to become more like a consuming obsession as it has seeped into my dreams and caused thoughts of a dark and sinister nature. A few months back my wife and I were talking about it and I came up with a perfectly reasonable plan which involved paying off an existing debt (which should happen by January) and using the money we’re accustomed to paying toward that debt to save for an HD TV, instead of applying that money back into our general fund. She agreed and it was a perfectly reasonable plan. It was really beyond reasonable: It was—and is—a very good plan. Responsible. Practical. Mature.

But also entirely unbearable. I’ve noted with pained powerlessness that is selling the exact model of HD TV I crave (the Samsung LN-T4661F for those keeping track) for a reasonable $2,000 with free shipping. I can do nothing, as it is not part of the plan to take advantage of fabulous short-term deals. I’ve taken stock of our savings account which contains sufficient funds for not only a new TV but also an HD-capable A/V reciever, speakers and probably a PS3 as well (for the Blu-Ray, obviously). Yet those savings are for the ephemeral “future” and not part of the plan. No matter how I slice it, there is no loophole in the plan, and the plan’s only flaw is that it requires discipline and patience which, normally I have an ample supply of but when matters of superhot technology are concerned, I draw from a pool so dry it cannot even be classified as a desert, they must invent a new type of landscape whose definition consists of “a place where moisture is only an abstract, theoretical concept.”

My only approach now is to try as hard as I can to convince myself that I have done everything there is to do: I’ve exhausted all avenues, I’ve searched for any chink in the armor of the plan and found it impregnable. This can only indicate that the plan is good and foolproof and should be adhered to fastidiously and without reservation.

I didn’t say it was a good approach, I said it was my only approach. It is either that or madness, and I’ve already spent that token, long ago, when the Earth was young.

Commence Curmudgeon

It’s been an exceptionally trying several months. I’ll spare you the long version; if curiosity overwhelms you I can be coaxed to reveal the Cliff’s Notes version via email. But as is often the case, more mundane matters have remained active in my frontal lobes and these are the kinds of pointless and uninteresting things that fabricate the cornerstones of our virtual communication.

It occurs to me that I owe you an apology.

  • I’ve come across a glut of “geek shame” lately, manifest in faux book covers for the upcoming Harry Potter book, eye-rolling disdain from video gamers when confronted with the reality of some new downloadable games based on German-style classics like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, that sort of thing. What always strikes me as ironic about all of this is that we have people who are posting on Internet forums whose primary topics are video games, Linux operating systems, iPod hacking, HDTV specifications and the like. Judging others or fearing being judged at this stage in the game? Really? You don’t think it’s a little late in the game for that particular concern to be crossing your mind, forum-monkey?
  • The Mac mini that functions as our primary household computer is starting to really annoy me. I can’t quite figure out what the issue is but it runs at a glacial pace with frequent beach-ball pauses. It’s especially apparent when trying to deal with iTunes which happens to be one of the primary apps the machine was intended to run. In terms of clock speed the mini far outpaces my aging iBook but I’ve gone to great lengths to upgrade the RAM in the iBook as high as it will allow and it doesn’t have nearly the same level of problems, even running multiple memory-hungry apps simultaneously. I know people are going to start to wonder about me after my last iPhone rant and now this, but it frustrates me that Apple’s base configurations for new computers are comically lacking in RAM. I mean, a new 1.66 GHz mini with 512 MB of RAM? What are we, neanderthals? And it costs like $250 to upgrade to a reasonable (but still not what I’d call “upgrade level”) amount of 2GB. Comparable Dell machines come standard with 1GB and allow upgrades to 2GB for $100. Listen, I get the whole “Macs cost more” meme, I really do, but this is RAM we’re talking about here. You can find 256MB sticks lying discarded on most sidewalks, so I really don’t think getting a normal amount of it should cost half as much as my system… especially when minis really aren’t supposed to be upgraded by the consumer.
  • I happened to catch an episode of the World Series of Pop Culture yesterday and one of the categories involved the bad-movie awards show The Razzies. The very next category involved the film The Breakfast Club. The announcer, after having the contestants do really well with both remarked, “It seems you know your bad movies and your good ones.” Call me a heretic, but can someone explain to me the appeal of The Breakfast Club? Or John Hughes movies in general? Look, I missed out on those during the 80s when they were I guess influencing everyone else from my generation but I’ve since been subjected to nearly all of them and I just don’t get it. They aren’t that funny, they don’t really touch some chord that strikes at the inner workings of high school life (at least not any high school I ever saw) and they all feature really whiney characters that I want to slap rather than root for. Did I just have to be there at the time or what?
  • Which reminds me: The Goonies is a terrible movie. Sorry folks, it just is, and I think it’s time we acknowledged that fact. Listen, it’s cool: I used to think that Flight of the Navigator was totally radical but I came to my senses eventually. I’m not even saying you can’t still watch it and think about how good you used to believe it was, but stop trying to convince people that there was some cinematic magic going on there. I guarantee you that at some point in the future some kid is going to post on the Internet v4.5 a dissertation on how incredible and influential The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D was back in the halcyon days of 2005. I swear to you, that’s exactly how you sound right now.
  • It’s been like National Bad Service Month for Nik and I lately. Yesterday’s gems included a pair of Target employees who couldn’t answer the yes or no question of, “Do you guys have an Arts & Crafts section?” The reason? They were out (which I can only assume means off their shift or on a break) and, instead of answering, choose instead to take the time to explain that we needed to ask someone from Home and Garden. Also at a sandwich shop I tried to order a Diet Pepsi and had the girl who was manning the register grunt and gesture as she tried to decipher my incredibly complex order because, apparently, she had never before heard or heard of the English language. At one point she mentioned something about bananas. I drank what she gave me but I was very wary of it, fearing some sort of tropical fruit-related cola incident.

The Spree

Other than a few decorative items and some replacement stuff for things that were left behind or tossed due to age and function issues, the spending spree that accompanied our move to the new condo seems to be over. In the end we essentially re-furnished our place keeping only our mattress, a bookcase (which was less than a year old), the entertainment stand (also under a year) and several tables (coffee, kitchen). We also got a new computer monitor, a digital SLR camera (Nikon D70s, yet to arrive, in case you’re curious) and a replacement TiVo that has twice the disk capacity and dual tuners so it can record two different shows at the same time.


For those who wonder how that can be, one need only understand that we did all that without really adjusting our budget at all. For once, Uncle Sam was very kind; but also we did some pretty smart shopping. The TiVo, for instance, was only $50. Ikea’s reduced prices allowed us to get as much furniture as we did without breaking the bank, that kind of thing. Put it this way: We did all that and still upped our savings account to 2.5x it’s previous balance.

I understand that there is a certain inherent problem with having that much money come back in tax returns. That essentially means that we’re letting the government earn interest on a huge sum of money all year that frankly we should be earning interest on. The problem is mostly one of overcompensation because we’ve owed for about three years prior—progressively less each year—and I guess I finally fixed that problem but I went too far and ended up shorting us some monthly cash that could go to a better cause during the year. So there’s still some adjustments to make.

But it’s far too late to do anything about last year except take advantage of the quick cash infusion and to be fair, a lot of these purchases were long overdue. I mean, the couch alone (which we also found on sale) should have probably been a 2005 purchase at least, but we lagged on it.

Anyway, when I say the end of the spree is nigh I say that because at this point aside from a small stash of money that came from a deposit return on the old apartment and maybe some cash from a recycling run and change rolling, any further purchases will have to come out of our regular budget. The deposit money is pretty much already marked for some curtains in the living room (the blinds don’t block the light completely which makes TV watching during the day a bit of a challenge) and some stools for the counter. But that is not the extent of the items that remain to be acquired so we’ll have to pick away at it over the next couple of months.

I also finally got us at least moved in and unpacked to the point where we can, by and large, live in the place without every moment involving some sort of house-wide search for a missing or obscurely packed item. I mean, the obstacle course that threatened our very health is no longer in effect so that right there is significant progress. The remaining hurdle is really the garage which has several key items still stored away and needs to be re-arranged in its own right to accommodate my gaming stuff and Nik’s car. That hurdle has its own obstacle though because we still haven’t quite determined how to store both food and dishes in the kitchen simultaneously. There is no pantry and there are fewer cupboards than the apartment had so we’re debating various other options and for now using the dishwasher as our primary storage location. It’s tough to get those last few items out of the garage and into the kitchen when you already know there is no place to put them.

But so far I’m loving the new place. It feels very inviting the way the space is used so that I don’t often feel like I’m in a “condo” or “apartment” style home, but it doesn’t drift into that marble-in-a-tin-can area of having too much void to fill. I like that Nik can sleep peacefully upstairs while I do my thing on the ground level and now that our couch is no longer a physical assault on comfort I can get a bit of mid-day rest while still leaving Nik free to hang out and not have to worry much about waking me.

On a sort of arbitrary side note, I have a weird thing about couches: I love sleeping on them. I have no idea why. When I lived in Texas with Dr. Mac as my roommate for a short time, I had my own room and my own bed but I only slept there maybe 20% of the time. I spent nearly every night (well, early morning; I also worked the grave shift there) sleeping on this gnarly couch that I believe we rescued from the dumpster. Even with the green monstrosity that had to be draped with a folded-over blanket to prevent (I’m not making this up) serious skin abrasions, I spent more than a few nights sleeping there in lieu of my far more comfortable bed. Maybe part of it is that I dislike sleeping in a bed during the day and since I’ve had a lot of times where I don’t work a normal 9-to-5 job, the couch becomes a place that feels more “normal” to sleep while the sun is out. Like I’m just taking a casual Sunday afternoon nap or something.

But back to the purchases, the one I haven’t talked all that much about is the camera. We just placed the order on Friday and I’m quite excited about it. Dr. Mac tried to talk me out of the particular model I went with but after a lot of research which included two separate trips to actual camera stores to physically handle several models I kept going back to a) Nikons, which feel far more solid than the runner-up Canons and b) the D70s, which has a lot of features I liked from the comparable Canons plus had a series of good deals on eBay that made the price more attractive and less overall compromises.

The bad part is that the D70s has actually been replaced by the D80 which makes the D70s harder to find. But the D80 is both more expensive and has some downward-adjusted features (like shutter speed) that were designed to differentiate the “pro-sumer” D80 line from the full on professional D200 line more distinctly. Another option was the D50 which is kind of a stepping stone line into digital SLRs, but those have been replaced by the D40 line which—also for differentiation purposes—have been feature-stripped somewhat from the earlier models and have the unacceptable flaw of only utilizing D40-specific lenses. Also I found the D50 to be a little harder to find in competitive price ranges or with decent kit lenses.

Granted, some manufacturers I dismissed almost out of hand: Sony, for example, who makes our point-and-shoot digital camera, was not a great option because despite the general acceptability of the camera I’ve used a ton, I don’t know that I’d re-purchase it due to some battery life problems, clunky menus and the cursed memory stick format. It’s not that I’ve had a bad experience with Sony cameras, but I felt I deserved to give someone else a chance. Even with that, I must have read a million reviews and talked to several people at length. I’m sure that in some way or another the model I went with will have a few “if only it did…” quirks, but usually stuff I research this thoroughly I end up pretty happy with when the dust settles.

No matter what else, I’m still really excited to get a chance to sit down and take some pictures with it. And to a certain extent I’m just glad to have made some decision. It helps that Nik seems pretty amped about it, too.

Anyhow, I guess things are going back to normal now so no more pretending that I’m Uncle Moneybags when we all know that ain’t true. But I guess it was fun while it lasted.

We Know Everything Was Built to Expire

Engage random mode.

  • I’m not entirely sure what Buccigross is babbling about for much of his column, but the Mailbag section has a “Jeremy” from “Dallas” complaining about the dark jerseys being worn in NHL home games. Buccigross says Reebok’s new uniforms next year will reinstate the light home jerseys. Noo! I’d much rather see the superior dark jerseys when I get a chance to go to a game. In fact, I think all sports should have dark unis at home, light on the road.
  • Speaking of hockey, the Sharks went up 2-1 with a fitting 2-1 victory on Monday. They looked a little better. Not a lot better, but a little. I still think we should be winning these games by two or more goals and not from empty-netters, either. Detroit just ain’t that good. Buccigross has a point when he says the Sharks need to play with more fire because the talent is there, I’m just a little worried about how much they want it.
  • Last hockey notes regarding other series this round: The Ducks pulled off the comeback upset to go up 3-1; I didn’t see the comeback but the Sharks had better learn from Vancouver’s mistakes here because I see a lot of similarities between Vancouver and San Jose… the Sharks just have a little better luck. That will run out eventually. Luongo is really good but he can’t win alone and the Canucks have to figure out how to make the Ducks pay when they take penalties or there will be no reason for Chris “Cheap Shot” Pronger to not play his miserable brand of hockey all day long. Meanwhile, the Rangers tied up the series with another controversial video replay. I totally think the right call was made from the replay but I would have liked to see a better call on the ice and is it just me or did that whole sequence show that the overhead cameras above the goals need to be of much better quality? Two more frames in there or a better center-ice camera zoom and that’s a goal. It’s gotta be frustrating as heck to essentially lose a game due to technological limitations. At least the Sabres are heading back to home ice. I really want them to advance: They play hard and that ought to be rewarded.
  • Dr. Mac turned me on to Goozex, which has the dumbest name in history but is a really cool video game trading service.
  • On one hand, I felt like the time travel episode of Heroes did all the things I hate about SciFi time travel stories: Had no internal consistency, overlooked obvious paradoxes, muddled the story unnecessarily and introduced scenarios that had no logical explanation. On the other hand, the intent of the device was so compelling and—mind-bending anti-logic aside—so well executed that for once I found myself not really caring. One thing that Heroes has done better than any show I can think of is really make me trust the writers to come up with something awesome. I watched and do watch other serialized shows with a lot of apprehension that at some point they’ll drop the ball and just go off on a really dumb tangent (I fought this fear with the X-Files for six seasons before it became clear that the mythology had done exactly that; I continue to fight with Lost on this matter) forcing me to lose interest. There are three episodes of Heroes left and I have no doubt that they’ll be awesome. I’m even done questioning Niki because so far even things that are slower to develop (like Future Hiro) turn out to be really cool. </fanboy>
  • I watched The Last King of Scotland thinking it would be really good because I like Forest Whitaker as an actor and a lot of critics I tend to agree with really loved it. Whitaker’s performance was good but the movie itself was stupid. I think part of it was that I had no sympathy for the main character (who is not the Forest Whitaker character) and sort of wished he would go away. It’s hard to be repulsed by a villainous character when the protagonist is reprehensible himself: There is no contrast. Also, it gets really graphically violent at the end but is handled in a sort of schlocky, gratuitous manner. Dumb.
  • On the flip side, Nik and I went and saw Hot Fuzz, which was great. Even better than Shaun of the Dead, I thought, and I really liked Shaun. Word of warning though: Hot Fuzz is also over-the-top graphically violent (but the schlock works here because the whole movie is silly/serious like that) so don’t be surprised like Nik was.
  • I’m totally digging the new Modest Mouse album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Most people would probably listen to it and go, “uh, what?” But I love it. Brilliantly weird.
  • We have actual cable-box-based Comcast now (versus the straight-from-the-wall boxless variety) and cable internet instead of DSL. For one thing, I know it may be anecdotal but I’ve always had much, much better speeds from cable than DSL. So it’s nice to have our broadband actually feel like broadband again. But since it’s been three years since we had a cable box, there are a couple of really cool things they have going now. One is the serial cable from the TiVo actually works now so I don’t have to use the stupid flaky IR solution which basically makes the TiVo have to try to change the channel as if it were pressing buttons on a remote control. Predictably it failed a number of times when we had to do it before, usually right before key programs like season finales were about to air. The other is Comcast’s On Demand service which I was skeptical about but I find to be very cool. I make the analogy that it’s kind of like watching someone else’s TiVo. You don’t necessarily have exactly what you want, but there is probably something in there worth your while. I just wish I didn’t have to pay $14.99 if I want to get FSN Plus. True, it doesn’t matter much now because all the NHL games are either on the main channel or nationally broadcast, but during the regular season I found it exceptionally annoying that a game was televised but I couldn’t watch it because I didn’t get the stupid channel.

A Final Story

I’ve got only two computers any longer: My trusty iBook G4 which is sadly having some display issues but still runs like a champ for the most part and a first generation Mac Mini which serves as our “household” computer and is shared by Nik and I. The Mini has all our iTunes stuff and we use it for general web surfing, email and pretty much anything that doesn’t get too geeky.

Since we purchased the Mini, it has been connected to an old 17″ Viewsonic CRT that was probably on its last legs a year before I hooked it to the Mini and has a horrible lack of brightness and a gargantuan footprint. When we moved to the new place we bought a new desk to replace the monstrosity I bought back when I had about twelve computers running at any given point in time (and another half dozen in various states of disuse or disrepair). The old desk was an official computer desk with all kinds of nooks and cubby holes for software, instruction manuals, CPU towers and so forth. It was, with the introduction of the Mini and the consolidation of the operating computers, grossly overwrought for its intended function.

So we got a nice, normal desk and put the beast in the garage to serve as a workbench. Of course the problem with the new desk was that without all the extraneous compartments we really needed a monitor that didn’t monopolize the whole thing. So I found a great deal online for a 19″ widescreen LCD monitor from Staples: $150 including shipping for a brand-name model. That was, I found, a good $25 cheaper than any other comparable deal—before tax and shipping. Sold. I got my order confirmation from Staples a few hours after I placed the order and was happy to know it would be delivered the next day so I could get it set up right away. After all, we’d been sharing my flaky-screened iBook for a week or more and it was about time to get things set up again.

The day of the delivery I used UPS’s website to track the order. It said it was scanned into the shipping center in Sacramento sometime Tuesday morning (the 24th) and would be shipped sometime that day. I got home from work around 11 in the morning and waited around for the guy to show. Sometime around four thirty I started to get concerned so I called UPS directly and asked what would happen if they didn’t get it to me by five o’clock. The operator told me their business day ended at 7:30 pm, so there was actually plenty of time left for it to arrive. I accepted that and went back to waiting.

7:30 on Tuesday came and went and eventually I got some sleep and woke up later that evening to go to work. I didn’t get a lot of sleep so I dragged through Wednesday morning’s shift and came home hoping to see a “Sorry we missed you!” note on the door. It wasn’t there, but I was too tired to care. I collapsed into bed and slept until Nik got home. Still no monitor. There wasn’t much to do about it at that point so I put it out of my mind and decided to worry about it the next day.

The next morning I woke up fairly early with a list of things to do. I started unpacking some of the millions of boxes that were still around from the move while I listened for the doorbell that would indicate the monitor had finally arrived. By one in the afternoon my unpacking was making progress, but my patience was wearing thin. I checked the UPS website for tracking again and noted with some confusion that a new entry was listed: Sometime the day before the package was scanned into the distribution center in Las Vegas, Nevada. I picked up the phone and talked to an operator who was less than helpful. She offered to send a message to the Las Vegas center and have someone there call me back within an hour. I told her that their promises to do something within a certain timeframe was in question so I didn’t want to hang up and waste another hour. Was there someone else I could talk to? The Las Vegas rep, for example.

I was told that UPS uses a messaging-based system and could not directly transfer the call to Las Vegas. I suggested they might want to consider upgrading their system beyond that of the Pony Express and she offered to let me talk to a manager. I agreed.

The manager, Amy, was like most customer service managers: Practiced in her courtesy but nothing remotely resembling sincere. She apologized and I told her I didn’t really care if she was sorry, I only cared if she could get me my monitor. She said there was nothing more she could do but if I hung in there, it would arrive the following day for sure. She also offered to reimburse the shipping fees. I sighed and thanked her for her help, but I asked for and got her direct phone number. Just in case.

When I hung up I called Staples. I knew they had done their part, but I wanted to know how much the shipping fees had cost. The nice lady at Staples told me that the cost to me for shipping was nothing: All orders for more than $50 came with complimentary next-day shipping paid for by Staples out of their UPS account. I verified that when UPS refunded the cash, it would go to Staples and not me. I was told this was correct. For her part she offered me a coupon even though her company was blameless in the whole thing, and I thanked her. She told me if I continued to have problems to call back and they would see what they could do to help.

The next day I waited somewhat less patiently until sometime before noon, than I called again. I was quickly run up the chain until I spoke to some supervisor (not Amy) who told me that they weren’t, in fact, sure what had happened or even where my package was at the moment. I asked with some confusion how they were going to get me the monitor that day if they didn’t know where it was. The supervisor then told me there was no way it would come to me Friday. The best I could do was to contact the shipper (Staples) and have them institute a “trace” which was a formal investigation into the whereabouts of a lost package. I asked what that would do for me and was told it “might find my package.” I indicated that was not acceptable.

She said she understood my frustration and I—well, I didn’t exactly lose it but any calm, understanding demeanor I might have had vanished. I told her my frustration was not to be understood, it was to be expected at that point and I demanded to know what she planned to do to make good on their blunder. She said, “Nothing.” I informed her that it hadn’t even been close to pleasure doing business with her and hung up. I had nothing more to say. If she wasn’t going to help me, then I didn’t care. I called Staples.

For their part, Staples was exemplary in the whole mess. As soon as I explained what had just happened, they offered to ship me a new monitor at no charge. When I hung up and realized after talking to Nik that it would be much smarter to have it delivered to her work instead of our home, I called back and they cheerfully updated my shipping information. The only unfortunate part was that they don’t ship on the weekends so it wouldn’t be until Monday when the replacement order got out of the warehouse.

I never heard from UPS again.

Yesterday, nine days since my “next day” package was supposed to arrive, I picked up the monitor from Nik’s office.

On the up side, the monitor is beautiful and has a tiny, insignificant footprint which makes for lots of extra room on the desk. I brought the old CRT from the apartment, just in case, and it’s sitting in the garage. When I do my next round of unpacking I’ll toss it away. Good riddance.

On the down side I feel like UPS has really got a racket going on. The problem is that my default threat of taking my business elsewhere isn’t practical with UPS because so often when you order something to be shipped to you, you don’t have the choice of how that shipment takes place., for instance, will continue to use UPS whether I want to pay for UPS service or not. My alternative is to simply not take advantage of online shopping and that’s almost more of a punishment for me than it would be for UPS, not to mention the small online stores I would in turn be refusing to support.

I wonder what the correct way to handle this is? Let it go? Better Business Bureau? Buy FedEx stock? It’s annoying how callous UPS can not only have the audacity to be but can afford to be. What is their motivation for trying to make me happy? It’s not like they will realistically lose my business nor would it matter to them if they did. As far as they’re concerned they ate the cost of the shipping so their conscience is clear, but that leaves me stranded either trying to get additional restitution from a company that did no wrong (Staples) or forced to simply eat crow.

By the by, I hate crow.

So the best I can do is say any time you have a choice, I encourage you to use someone other than UPS. Trust me, it’s not worth the hassle.

Phase I Complete

We have officially relinquished our keys to the old apartment managers which means we’re now out of the old and in to the new.

But as anyone who has moved can attest, that is only half the battle. The ceaseless work continues as we attempt to coordinate some kind of system that results in us not beginning every single conversation with the phrase, “Have you seen…?”

Not that progress hasn’t been made: The Ikea blitz has yielded plenty of usable furniture and our bedroom is more or less furnished and probably 95% unpacked (it was mostly clothes anyway which are sort of hard to go without for very long unless you belong to some sort of commune). I also was—finally—able to get the Internets piped into the new place and the important stuff like the TV, TiVo and XBox hooked up. It wasn’t easy.

Basically it required me to spend the entire afternoon yesterday on the phone with one tech support group or another, the net result of which was heightened agitation and nothing that really qualifies as “assistance.” The calls were all variations on the following theme:

Tech: Can I get your phone number to verify your account?
Me: <gives number>
Tech: That’s not pulling up your account.
Me: Can you look it up a different way?
Tech: Not really.
Me: Oh? Not even with my name and zip code? How many ‘Paul Hamiltons’ can there be in this town?
Tech: (sighing) Okay I’ll try it.
Me: <provides information>
Tech: That still doesn’t work. While I’m trying to access your account, what seems to be the problem?
Me: I’ve followed all the instructions carefully, checked my connections and read through your support docs. Can you give me some suggestions as to what I may be doing wrong?
Tech: Did you make sure the device was plugged in?
Me: Don’t start with me.
Tech: Try power cycling.
Me: What is this? Windows?
Tech: Did you power cycle the device?
Me: (sighing) Fine. Yes, I’ve power cycled it. Still nothing.
Tech: Did you try running through the automated configuration utility?
Me: Your automated configuration utility was developed by orangutans.
Tech: You may need to try running it a few times.
Me: That’s… that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.
Tech: It’s step two in the troubleshooting process.
Me: Your processes were developed by plankton.
Tech: Are you running the utility now?
Me: (lying) Oh yeah. (tries something completely different involving manual configuration)
Tech: Did that work out for you?
Me: You know what? Nevermind. I just figured it out for myself.
Tech: I’m glad to have been of assistance!

Anyway, as with all my technical accomplishments, everything worked out in the end, but I literally have no idea what I did to get any of them to work. Which usually means that it will be fine… for now. Eventually I’ll need or want to make some kind of adjustment which will asplode the whole thing and I’ll go through the dance again until I blindly stumble on the correct combination of voodoo chants and animal sacrifices that make everything all better. Although, come to think of it, perhaps the self-inflicted misery of calling tech support is the trick, it just works differently than I expect. Perhaps I only need to suffer through the indignity of the calls in order to coax cooperation from my devices. Once they see the level of pain I’m willing to subject myself to in order for them to work, they relent. “He must really mean it,” they probably say in their cruel binary tongue.

But now that the technical work is (almost) out of the way, it’s time to get down with the real unpacking so this weekend should be fun long.

Slow Transition

I know I haven’t been too forthcoming with the posts; my time has been monopolized by our month-long move from the old apartment to the new condo. Or townhouse. The consensus seems to be a bit fuzzy on what the classification of the new place should actually be. Regardless, we’ve had some stuff to do.

Friday Nik and I made the hour-and-a-half trek to the nearest Ikea to spend the smaller of our two tax return checks on some new stuff. We picked out a bedframe, nightstands, a sofa and matching chair, a dresser and a new desk for the computer room. Of course when we got to the warehouse the sofa wasn’t in stock and we were told they would be getting three more in the next morning on a first come, first served basis. Also a pivotal piece for the bedframe was also temporarily out of stock so we got everything else and I steeled myself for an early Saturday morning.

For once in my life I was actually on time and I arrived at Ikea expecting a parents-at-Christmas style rush for the three available sofas, possibly involving fisticuffs or at the very least, a few German suplexes. Instead I was the only person in the warehouse since the rest of the earlybird shoppers hadn’t been there marking their shopping cards with Aisle and Bin numbers twelve hours prior.

Somehow I managed to muscle the couch into my truck on my own and since it decided to rain on what I had been hoping would be the Ultimate Moving Day in this lengthy process, I had to cover it with several tarps. Actually the couch transition went down pretty smoothly, but they still didn’t have the part of the bed we needed so I’m planning one last trip today after work in hopes that I can get all this money spending out of the way.

The couch is kind of a deep plumb color that looks brown in most artificial light, a fact that I think dismays Nik a little because she was hoping for more with the brown and less with the red. Personally I think they look pretty cool either way. Compared to the green/nasty-yellow-stuffing colored horror show we call a sitting device now, it’s practically a work of art.

We did come to one key determination with all this Ikea assembly work in our present and future: Electric screwdrivers or drills are mandatory. The angry red blisters on my hands are evidence enough, and those came from putting half the desk together. We tried to cheap out on the mechanical assistance with a little $5 battery-operated number, but it scarcely has enough torque to put a hole in drywall, much less offer the kind of power necessary to put a load-bearing bolt in place. If I wasn’t so cheap and resistant to buying things I don’t actively desire, I’d just go buy a real electric drill. Now that I have a garage you’d think these kinds of things might leap closer to the top of my list, but no.

In any case, most of what remains is little stuff like a few dining room chairs and some computer equipment plus everything that we’re getting ready to throw away. Besides that there are a couple of items I can’t physically handle by myself like the TV and the desk that used to hold the computer but will now be out in the garage serving as my workbench, plus our mattress which we can’t really move until we get the bedframe.

Well, technically we could move it and complete our living transition to the new place, but Nik is reluctant to sleep in the new condo alone so I’ll probably wait until Wednesday afternoon to drag that over. Ideally that will give me time to put the frame together anyway so we don’t have to sleep on the mattress just lying on the floor.

I have to say that despite it feeling at times very epic or unending, the slow move has been one of the least overall stressful that I’ve ever undertaken. Having the month overlap has given us a very welcome ability to select the pace and also allowed me to get as much as possible done without having to request anyone else’s help. Considering that Nik has well chronicled back issues and now HB is having severe back problems probably stemming from a recent car accident, that has been a big relief from my mind. I do have Doza stopping by on Friday to give me a hand with those few items I mentioned, but I’m hoping his role won’t have to last more than an hour or two.

Quick Playoff Note

I did get a chance to catch the first two Sharks playoff games in Nashville and I wanted to make a couple of comments. First, the Sharks broadcasters were pretty riled up about Nashville’s apparent game plan to take key Sharks personnel out of the equation by any means necessary. Granted, Nashville has been pretty cheap in a lot of their shots but for all the hubub, I gotta say, I don’t think that’s their problem.

The problem is that they just haven’t played that well in either game. That they came out of Nashville with a split is pretty miraculous—they looked like they were trying very hard during the game one overtime to lose that match. The second game they pretty much got what they deserved and the fight at the end was not a make-up for their uninspired play throughout. Look, when you get a five minute major power play and then a 5-on-3 and you give up a shorthanded goal and don’t score you deserve to lose. And it mostly comes back to the same things that have plagued the team during every one of their slumps and losses all season: They don’t clear the zone when they have the chance to, they can’t hold the offensive zone when they start getting a rhythm down and they try to be too cute with the passing instead of shooting the stupid puck. I concede that they’ve been playing reasonably physical hockey, but Nashville is out there playing insanely physical hockey that borders on dirty, which is exactly what Edmonton did to them last year.

The second thing is that the Sharks need to stop messing around with these guys. There is absolutely no reason why they can’t mop the floor with the Predators. They’re plainly a better team, even with Forsberg playing for Nashville. But they need to act like they’re actually in the playoffs and that means Nabby or whomever has to stop every lame little shot, the D needs to stop scrambling and trying those loathed backhand clear attempts and the offense has to pepper Vokoun with 50 shots per game and prove that they deserved the title of 2nd best power play in the NHL. We’ll see how they far at home tonight, but it had better be a dominating performance or I don’t see them making it past the second round, if they can even get that far.

The Great Stereo Catastrophe

Back in October, for Nik’s birthday, I bought some car audio equipment from an online retailer who shall remain nameless, except for the sake of the tale we’ll provide them with the pseudonym “Dutchfield.” At the time the gear I bought, a head unit from Pioneer plus a box to enable Sirius satellite radio and an iPod adapter, was good and available for a good price. HB offered his expertise and copious car-related tools to help get it installed and the end result was quite satisfactory.

It was due to this success that when December rolled around and Christmas loomed that I went back to the retailer to acquire additional components for Nik’s car. In this case she was asking for additional “oomph” to the sound so after doing several days worth of research I felt confident in buying an amplifier and a subwoofer. The amp was a relatively inexpensive model but well-reviewed on the site and the bass speakers came in a box with two ten inch subs. Plenty of bass goodness seemed available and my thought was that eventually the amp could be connected to a new set of aftermarket speakers to complete the package. But speakers can run pretty pricey for a complete set of four (they are almost always sold in pairs and Nik’s Civic has two front door speakers and two rear deck speakers that require upgrading).

The piecemeal approach seemed to fit both my budget and the requirements Nik had for her system.

Initially I thought about imploring HB to help again, but when I researched amp installations a bit it became obvious that installing an amp cleanly often requires either removing parts of the car that I didn’t feel comfortable ripping out or trying to install into places that aren’t terribly convenient. To avoid the hassle and potential damage to the car, I made a few calls to some local car audio installers to get pricing.

The first thing I noticed during these calls was that each person I spoke to asked similar questions—not about the locations of the installed components as was my expectation but much more so about the type and brand of the equipment. Eventually someone said they would take a look at everything but it sounded to them like the amp I had would not work with the subwoofer.

This confused me so I immediately called Dutchfield and asked to speak to one of their product advisors. I spoke to a very nice fellow who evaluated my order and confirmed that yes, what I had was at best unusual and at worst not what I was hoping for. He suggested that two ten inch, powered subwoofers paired with stock speakers powered by nothing but the head unit would result in thundering, window-rattling, richter scale-moving bass… and very little else. He performed a small demonstration of what this might mean.

Dutchfield representative: “So you know how normally a song like ‘Smoke on the Water’ goes: duhn dhun duuuun, duhn duhn da-nuuuhn! Duhn duhn duuuun, duh-nuuuuuhn!”
Me: “Yes.”
Dutchfield representative: “If you put in that sub, it would sound like: Booom. Booom, boooom. Boooom boom buh-booooom!”
Me: “That’s not what I want.”

We spoke for another hour or more debating the relative merits of other equipment options. He was very considerate and patient and in the end I felt more comfortable with my understanding of car stereo components and told him I just needed to check with my wife to confirm what she wanted and I’d contact him directly to set up the order.

When I spoke to Nik, whe was mildly annoyed that the delay meant her stereo would not be ready for a bit longer, but she agreed that the thundering bass-only sound was not what she had in mind. So I arranged to have the subwoofer sent back for a refund and implored Nik to look over some of the aftermarket speaker options the rep had suggested and pick which ones she liked best. The rep had been very specific and said that the Civic had something called component speakers in the front which separate the highs from the rest of the signal with a small secondary cone called a tweeter which sits higher up on the door panel than the rest. Component speakers are pricier than regular speakers and are also more difficult to install since they typically don’t fit the stock tweeter panel holes right out of the box.

The only problem with this was that I couldn’t find the tweeters in the Civic. I know I have them in my truck, I can see them clearly. But I figured they must be hidden in the Civic in some clever Japanese tweeter-camouflage location. My recourse was to simply call the Honda dealership and ask politely where they were hidden in my car.

But sadly the call to Honda introduced more confusion into the mix. When I called them they checked my model number and the available stock parts list again and again, trying to prove that they and I weren’t crazy. To no avail: It turns out that our particular model of Civic does not come with component speakers of any kind. There are certain higher end Civic models that do, but not ours. So I tried to call the rep back with this information to clear the problem up. I got voicemail. I got voicemail a lot. I tried weekly for three or four weeks to get hold of my guy at Dutchfield, but each time I left a message requesting a call back and got nothing. Finally Nik was getting frustrated and demanded that I make some progress on the Christmas present which was now threatening to be more akin to a Valentine’s Day present, so I gave up on the direct extention and called the main number to talk to whomever might answer the phone.

The representative I spoke with indicated that contrary to my operating theory, the earlier guy had not been fired. He, of course, was not working that day, but the new rep would be happy to assist me in any way he could. I calmly explained that something must be wrong with their database because they seemed to think that all Civics had the same type of stock speakers and that was not the case. I also explained that I needed to order some speakers that would work in my car and I needed them sent out pronto.

There were two sets of speakers that I was waffling between when it came time to make the actual order: One set was a pricey pair of Blaupunkt speakers and the other was a cheaper (but still not what I would call “cheap”) pair of Polk Audio speakers on special. Both were rated and reviewed well and were supposed to be compatible with the car and the amp I had purchased previously. Initially the Dutchfield rep talked me into the more expensive Blaupunkts but realized at the last minute that they were too deep to fit into the door wells, they only worked on the back deck. It seemed like that would actually work because the Polks fit into the doors so I got one set of each: Blaupunkt for the back and Polk for the doors. Done and done. They also indicated that I’d need lots of wiring harnesses, speaker wire and other peripherals to make the installation happen, a fact that had been confirmed previously by the installation places I’d called. So I had them add all that to the now remarkably significant bill and ship it. I figured the somewhat elevated cost would maybe make up for the time it was taking to get Nik’s Christmas present fixed up.

It didn’t take long for the stuff to arrive from Dutchfield, but of course once it did I procrastinated for a week or so before Nik got grouchy and sort of kicked me into gear. I called a bunch of the same installers and told them I needed an updated quote because I was no longer doing the subwoofer, but was instead interested in getting four speakers and an amp installed. Yes, I had all the wires and everything I’d need. Today, if possible.

Eventually I kind of arbitrarily settled on a local place, also nameless except the indecipherable code name “Dustom Audio Sounds” who got the business because another place (a slightly cheaper place) bumped my appointment to make room for a friend.

When I entered Dustom, the first thing I noticed was the manager’s distracted demeanor. He had a plasma TV mounted on the wall opposite the front desk and every time I spoke with him he seemed to be far more interested in whatever bullriding tournament or BET reality show was on than in actually assisting customers. But, I figured, it hardly mattered. What I was asking for must be so common, so typical that they refer to it via shorthand, something like “Hey, this guy wants a #3.” Like ordering a value meal. Replace speakers, add an amp: Cake. Right?

I spent that afternoon wandering around downtown, amusing myself as best I could considering I had no transportation other than my own two legs and there isn’t much to actually do downtown unless you’re really into getting your hair cut. Our downtown features the following attractions: One Subway chain restaurant; one coffee shop that closes at 3:00 pm every day; One deli that closes at 4:00 pm every day except weekends when it closes at 1:00 pm; one music store staffed by angsty-looking teenagers who respond to questions like “Do you have guitar strings” with blank stares as though they were really employees of the coffee shop next door but had simply gotten lost and put on the wrong name tag; and 4,623 hair salons, barbershops, day spas and manicure/pedicure specialty salons.

When I got back to the shop they took my money and showed me the car. It sounded sublime: Clear and very loud. I allowed myself a satisfied sigh: Maybe I was a couple of months late, and maybe I even missed Valentine’s Day (not that I stiffed Nik out of a V-Day present, I just didn’t get this overdue gift squared away in time for that, either), but by gum it was done. Mission accomplished.

I drove the ten minutes home enjoying the fruits of my labor. When Nik arrived home shortly after I excitedly ushered her downstairs to check out the new gear. She listened with a grin on her face for a few minutes, nodding along to the tune. Suddenly her smile faltered. “What’s that noise?” she asked. I listened closely.

“I don’t hear anything.”

“You don’t hear that little popping sound?” she insisted.

“No,” I said. She let it drop.

A few hours later we piled into the car to go somewhere and turned on the radio. Suddenly there was an unmistakable pop and suddenly the music cut out, replaced by an electronic hum. The hum changed pitch when the accelerator was pressed. I groaned. Nik fumed. I promised to get it looked at as soon as possible.

It turned out that as soon as possible was a couple of days later and I went back to Dustom Audio to find out what the problem was. I politely explained the situation and asked that they take a look. I watched as a technician crawled around in the trunk, fiddling with this or that wire on the amp, pulling off the door panel, popping out the head unit mounting bracket. Finally he called me over and pulled out the driver’s side speaker. “This is blown,” he said dryly. I asked how that could happen and he said, “These speakers are no good. I’ve never had anything but problems with them, they’re really cheap.”

You have to understand that while those speakers weren’t top of the line (not like the ones I’d purchased for the rear deck), they weren’t by any stretch of my imagination “cheap.” Shoddy, perhaps, but not cheap. I asked what the tech recommend I do and he said he’d get some better speakers in there. He just happened to have a couple of pairs in the shop that he recommended. Naturally.

I got on the phone with Dutchfield right away. I tried to remain calm, but I was pretty steamed. I explained that I had gone over and over the configuration with the previous product tech and I had been assured that the speakers would not be in danger of being blown. The customer service rep danced around the issue, alternating his story from “that shouldn’t have happened unless they were installed wrong” to “you have to break in a pair of speakers connected to an amp by leaving the gain down low and gradually increasing it over the course of a few weeks.” I told him that it had been professionally installed, so he stuck with the break-in period line for the rest of the call. Eventually I asked if I could get a refund since they’d sent me crummy merchandise. He said he guessed he could do that.

At that point I had to decide what to do with the current configuration. As it was the driver’s side front speaker had blown and was already removed from the car. In order to send them back I had to pay the installer to remove the other front speaker. I called Nik and tried to explain. She was agitated and indicated that it didn’t matter, I just needed to fix it. I told the installer to simply disconnect the front speakers while I tried to figure out what to do. I drove home with only the back speakers working, which sounds more or less like listening to the radio from someone else’s car while you’re driving.

The speakers stayed this way for almost two weeks. Finally Nik was flat angry. She demanded that I stop messing around with her now almost St. Patrick’s Day gift and get it working. I decided to pay one more visit to Dustom Audio and see what the story was. They had offered to sell me those two good speakers, right? I’d just buy those to replace the bogus Polks. So I dropped off the car and Nik and I went to have lunch. When we got back the manager informed me—eyes never leaving the plasma screen showing NASCAR reruns—that the real problem was not just the speakers but the amp as well, which had since my last visit blown up one of the rear speakers. How did I want to proceed?

Completely frustrated, I called Dutchfield and told them I wanted to send it all back. Every bit of it. They expressed regret, and they provided me with a return order. I asked Dustom Audio how much it would cost for them to pull all the Dutchfield gear out of the car. They said they’d do it for $40. I was all set to have them go for it when Nik indicated that there was no way she was going to be completely without speakers for any length of time. Lacking any real options beyond that, I simply went and picked up the car, now operating with a single rear speaker. Nik was hostile.

We tolerated the single speaker for a solid week. During this time Nik related her tale of woe to HB, who suggested that instead of dealing with some nobodies I found in the phonebook that I should go to the place he had worked with on his truck, Car Audio Depot. So on my first day off last weekend I called them up and told them the nutshell version of my story. They said, “bring it in, we’ll take a look.”

Here is what I learned from my visit to Car Audio Depot:

  • The amp was not a good match for what I was trying to accomplish. This had been suggested in not so many words by Dustom Audio, but never fully explained. Dutchfield had assured me the amp was fine.
  • The speakers were both brand name and shouldn’t have blown. This had been Dutchfield’s position, disputed by Dustom Audio.
  • The initial installation of the amp and speakers was horrendous. It was so bad some of the cables were shorting and could have posed a fire hazard if left unchecked.
  • To fully replace everything that Dutchfield and Dustom Audio had done with new equipment and new installation would cost almost twice as much as what I had already paid.
  • Even just returning to a stock configuration (no amp, re-install the stock speakers) would cost almost as much as the speakers themselves.
  • Reputable car audio suppliers are hard to find. Car Audio Depot says that something like 25% of their business comes from fixing things that other people screwed up.

So. Needless to day, I was a touch displeased. I ended up having Car Audio Depot pull all the Dutchfield stuff out, undoing the miserable work Dustom Audio had done. I had CAD install four new speakers but no amp. The sound quality is better than with the stock speakers, and louder, but not exactly as mighty as I was originally hoping for.

Everything I ordered from Dutchfield is going back. Everything. I’m getting a refund. Dustom Audio is getting the lowest possible recommendation and is getting the negative review treatment to everyone I meet who might possibly consider employing their services. I already had one friend mention that he needed to get some work done on the sound system in his new boat and I warned him away from Dustom with the harshest possible prophecy of doom and despair should my advice go unheeded. They will never get another dime nor another good word from me.

Perhaps when the refund has been applied to my account I will return to Car Audio Depot (assuming their work holds up, because I’m that pessimistic about the whole industry at this point) to get some of the other components added. It may depend on how fresh the wounds still are when that time comes. But one thing is for sure, unequivocally.

Next year, I’m buying Nikki jewelery.