Happy New Year!
December 2015 was a particularly relaxing month for me, especially since I've been off of work since Friday the 11th. Because Thanksgiving was hectic with proposal stuff at work, I took an extended Christmas break to get under the "use or lose" cap on leave. Of course within my tech career, I have the first world problem of still having 3.75 weeks of leave in the bank as 2016 rolls in.
After kicking things off in high gear with a Holiday Potluck and a fun trip up to Rhode Island, I still had two weeks of leave left. The first week, I spent recovering from a Rhode Island bug, pre-writing most of my blog posts, and reading and viewing lots of decent-to-great books, movies, and shows.
On Christmas Eve, I picked up two growlers of a Belgian Specialty Ale from Old Ox Brewery and we toured the local, famous Christmas lights on Juniper Avenue. The experience was a little incongruous, as the temperature was up around 70 degrees (I wore short sleeves), and most people were opting for a drive-by experience with air conditioners operating at full force. We then did an annual watching of Love Actually (which is about the only Christmas movie I can tolerate anymore) and Rebecca made it two full hours in before falling asleep!
We had two Christmases, one with Rebecca's mom's family out in Linden, and the other on the following day with Rebecca's dad and stepmom in Falls Church. My parents were up north making their own pilgrimage to Rhode Island, so they missed out on our company and the small stack of presents still under our tree.
For the final week of my vacation, I did absolutely nothing beyond playing Fallout 4 and watching Better Call Saul. We rang in the New Year at a party thrown by one of Rebecca's yoga friends, Michelle, near Lake Anne and are now off to our favourite B&B in Sperryville for a quick overnight trip.
So all in all, it was a successful end to the year 2015. I am now at the point where I have lost most of my programming skills, although I did check work email three times and did two code reviews on GitHub. Of particular note, this is the first year in decades where I didn't have a single migraine headache -- though root causes are difficult to pinpoint, the main delta in my life is an increase in craft beer consumption since 2012.
A final batch of new photos have been added to the Life, 2015 album.
December's Final Grade: A
2015's Final Grade: B+
To kick off 2016, we took a trip out to Sperryville and Shenandoah National Park. On Friday night, we sampled new beers at the Hopkins Ale Works and found two smash hits -- a Belgian Trippel and a Winter Ale which were each good in a different way. We then ate a satisfying dinner at the Headmaster's Pub around the corner. Although it was just pub food, it was better than first impressions of the restaurant might indicate. We stayed in the "Thyme" room that night, and it was easily the warmest, winter-friendly room of the lot.
On Saturday, after a breakfast of Eggs Hopkins (eggs with fresh arugula on broiled toast), we did an 8.9 mile hike near Skyline Drive, starting from Panorama and going past Mary's Rock. The views were spectacular since all of the greenery was gone, but the temperature reached a high of just 43 F. It was cold enough that we had to make life-altering decisions at lunchtime as to whether we should eat our Subway sandwiches with frozen bare hands or get mayonnaise on our gloves.
On Sunday, Rebecca did some yoga things while I got ready to dive back into the world of software engineering. We did a few errands like exchanging an empty propane tank and buying me a new suit to replace the suit with giant gold buttons I've worn since high school, and then made fresh tacos for dinner.
Overall, it was a solid start to the new year. The jury is still out on whether frontloading your year with out-of-the-ordinary events is the right move -- either you keep raising the bar throughout the year as you seek the next high and have a fantastic year, or you eventually run out of things to do and start walking under the bar (or fall asleep at the bar).
Next weekend is my company party and, in a ridiculous race to top themselves each year, they have rented out an entire club in downtown DC. To maintain a linear increase in January weekend enjoyment, I'm going to need to win a self-driving car in a lottery I didn't enter on the third weekend, and discover a cache of pirate doubloons that allows me to permanently retire from work on the fourth.
How was your weekend?
January 6, 1996 was a musically enriched day in my senior year of high school. In the morning, Mike Stafford and I carpooled to West Potomac High School for All-District Band tryouts. For the uninformed, All-District Band is a three day weekend event where you sit in all-day rehearsals with area high school musicians who all think they deserve to play the solos, while a guest conductor trying to earn a little extra cash on the side of their meager symphony day job paycheck berates you for your mistakes and rants about how much better they are than you because their name is Gene Corcoran.
I was not big on All-District Band, even though it allowed me to skip a day of school. However, trying out for the band was just something everyone assumed you would do if you took private lessons, not unlike assuming that any given episode of LOST involving a submarine is bound to suck. My apathy at the audition led to these less-than-stellar scores, which were just high enough to get last chair:
(Going to any all-day band rehearsal as a last chair player is a special kind of pain, so I later conspired with winter to cancel the '96 District X All-District Band weekend with record snowfall).
Later that afternoon, I finished writing my 8th composition, Benality, a stupidly-titled concert band overture from the early days of composing when you think that modal lines are more fun than functional harmony.
The piece's primary fault is that it spends too much time adding flurries above a repeating rhythmic vamp and not enough time developing new ideas -- too much Swearingen and not enough swearing for my modern ears. I also apparently thought that it would be trivial to roll 6 or 7 separate timpani onstage, so it's probably good for percussionists that this piece was never performed.
Once I had forcefully expressed music out of every orifice that day, I met up with Jack Wilmer and saw 12 Monkeys in the theater at Bailey's Crossroad (long since replaced by a Target). Movie Night with Jack was a regular occurrence in high school, but I didn't make it to the theatre a single time in 2015. Perhaps I need an Alamo outing in the near future.
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Recreational Love by Bird and the Bee:
It's been five years since the last Bird and the Bee album, and this is a slick, catchy collection of new songs that are just as strong as anything previous. The songs feel a bit more mainstream here, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Jenny is a good representative of the rest of the album.
Final Grade: B+
Circus in the Sky by Bliss n Eso:
Continuing my tour of Australian hip-hop groups, Bliss n Eso is a Pandora-recommended group from my Hilltop Hoods station. There's a few really good songs on the album, balanced out for a few too many "transition" tracks that aren't actually songs. Reservoir Dogs and Act Your Age (neither of which are safe for work) are among my favourites.
Final Grade: B
How to Get Away With Murder, Season One:
This ABC show has a neat narrative structure, with simultaneous stories told on 3 separate timelines that ultimately tie together. There are some good twists, although a few are too clever for the sake of being clever (kind of like the first season of Damages). The show is held back by a bit too much reshowing of scenes already seen before, and the network "case of the week" structure really slows the pace down. These one-off cases are pointless and don't do anything to further the main mystery, but that mystery is just good enough to tolerate the downtime. Free on Netflix.
Final Grade: B-
John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid:
John Mulaney's latest stand-up special is very strong, in spite of an unnecessary scripted intro. He's one of the better story-based comedians out there today and seeing his physicality as he jokes is much better than just listening to a CD. Free on Netflix.
Final Grade: B
This weekend was the annual holiday party at work. Not content with taking over the American History museum last year, they rented out an entire night club this time around. Each floor was a different set of attractions, including a live band, a dance DJ, a casino floor, and door prizes (of which we won zero). Food was tapas style and plentiful, although the lack of many tables probably contributed to the fact that I didn't eat much.
There were also some flourishes of questionable fiscal responsibility, like the 3D animation of "typical Novetta engineers working in a night club" looping on TV screens, or the actors hired as Lady Gaga and George Clooney lookalikes. We had a good time overall, although the company is now large enough that I barely know a quarter of the people that showed up.
The venue started forcibly pushing us out the door around 10:45 to make room for the paying customers to follow. Rather than walk four blocks in the rain to an after party, we simply returned to the hotel across the street and crashed for the evening.
On Sunday morning, we had a quiet hotel breakfast that included a giant buffet bar of applewood bacon, and then returned to Sterling to feed hungry cats. I spent the rest of the day lying around with cats while Rebecca continued her yoga teacher training odyssey.
How was your weekend?
This photo was taken 26 years ago, in the spring of 1990. The T-shirt came from a promotional event where Arnold Schwarzenegger led local students in some calisthenics on the White House lawn.
I wasn't particularly fit (other than some impressive Sit N' Reach scores) but I was Asian, and that was good enough for the press. The stylish socks and British Knights were typical of that era, and I remembered that one sock in the pair always refused to stay up due to the cheap elastic around the top.
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Person of Interest, Season Four:
Person of Interest slipped heavily in quality after three stellar seasons. It felt like the creators were possessed by aliens who tried to continue creating the show but ended up creating a weird non-human facsimile of the show instead. The pacing is weird and the exposition is wooden. The introduction of The Brotherhood as a new crime organization is weak when compared to past bad guys and the main plot moves along in fits and spurts. The whole season feels emotionally flat, to the point where big plot twists and character changes just feel contrived. They try to hide the problems by covering the entire season with music, which becomes aurally irritating and unnecessary (like later seasons of LOST or anything by John Williams). I wanted to like it more, but now I'm just glad that the next season is probably the last.
Final Grade: C-
Our Own House by Misterwives:
Rebecca introduced me to this band that performs modern pop music with an 80s power ballad DNA. It's full of bubbly, catchy charts like the title track. I was almost certain that the lead singer was Whitton, based on the timbre, but it just happens to be another equally interesting voice.
Final Grade: B+
Better Call Saul, Season One:
I'm torn on this Breaking Bad spin-off. It's not strictly necessary and probably isn't as good if you haven't already watched the original show. However, the creator has put together a pretty decent standalone entity full of cinematographic camera angles and deeply thematic flourishes that TV buffs will probably interpret for hours. Like Breaking Bad, there are episodes where not much happens. The pace is pretty slow, but you can tell that the ultimate product (however many seasons away it is) will be worth it. If you're on the fence, just wait a few years so you can watch it all together.
Final Grade: B
Quality Control by Jurassic 5:
This is a decent hip-hop album that's now 16 years old. It has occasional gems, but most of the songs are just the 90s style of rapping over a beat vamp. It needs way more hooks, not unlike a bass championship tackle box.
Final Grade: C+
We've owned a treadmill for four years now, and it's my preferred and only form of exercise. I can get healthy in the comfort of my basement, and don't feel like I've wasted my life if I watch a TV show that turns out to be less than stellar. Here are some stats on how much I ran last year (compared to 2014).
There were no alpine hikes or red carpet parties this weekend, but we still managed to get away. On Saturday, we headed down to Fredericksburg to have lunch with the two Catherine Hickses (elder and junior). We ate at Capital Ale House, a Virginia-only chain that extended for an entire city block with a very narrow storefront, ensuring that their waiters would beat Mike Catania in any Fitbit challenge while walking from the kitchen in the back.
In the evening, we drove on to Colonial Beach. We arrived at the dregs end of a 1-year-old's birthday party and spent the evening with the Ahlbins and Spellerbergs. They had just received a new party game from Vu, Game for Fame, which was pretty fun and required Rebecca to gargle Christmas tunes like a drunk dove.
On Sunday morning, we had breakfast while enjoying the snow falling on the Potomac and then headed out. We stopped in Port Royal to catch a sermon by Catherine Hicks at a little Episcopal church barely large enough for one of my Halloween parties, and then had a surprisingly traffic-light trip back up I-95. Lunch consisted of hot Wawa sandwiches and a pint of pesto spilled down the front of Rebecca's jacket while she tried to drive one-handed.
We made grilled glazed salmon for dinner and watched about a half hour of the Democratic debate, during which it seemed that O'Malley had gotten more polite, Clinton had gotten more overconfident, and Sanders had gotten less angry since their previous outing.
Today is Martin Luther King Day, so I'll be in the office a bit in the morning catching up on work without distractions and then working from home for the rest of the day.
How was your weekend?
What future technologies excite you?
Nineteen years ago: Catching up with a high school friend in his freshman year at Cornell.
Look, I'm just sitting here eating my dinner, And as you know that can take awhile, I won't be here forever cause I have a 10:30pm intertube water polo game. Hell Yeah.
Seventeen years ago: Overachieving for marching band.
In preparation for next marching season, I have transcribed all three trumpet parts for the entire marching folio into MIDI files for use by incoming freshman. While doing so, I've come across several typos or notes that need clarification. I was wondering if you could answer the few questions below concerning the parts so I can make a note of the correct pitches, etc. Of course, there is plenty of time before next season; so please do not give this a high priority if you are currently busy.
Thirteen years ago: Teaching remedial sightsinging.
I have taken the liberty of removing you from the departmental Sightsinging II listserv. If you received an e-mail this morning from Dr. Shaftel discussing alternatives to Practica Musica, this e-mail does NOT apply to our class. If you continue to get e-mails and announcements from a class you're not in, please let me know.
Finally, Theresa and Jimin, you do not see to be registered on the Blackboard site. This is because you do not have a valid garnet e-mail account set up with the university. Please do this soon so you can do all of the fun homework that gets assigned.
Twelve years ago: Arranging for my dad to do a home inspection before placing a contract on a house.
Get on Rte 28 heading north past the airport. Cross Rte 606 where my job is. The next light is a T-intersection for Sterling Blvd. Turn right onto Sterling Blvd. About two miles up you will hit Beech Rd (no light). Turn right on Beech Rd. On Beech, pass Fillmore Rd and then take the next left onto Lillard Rd. Take the next left into the cul-de-sac at Hanford Ct. The house is vacant, so you can park in the driveway.
Also twelve years ago: Troubleshooting a bug on a dead-end project where updating a file upload occasionally replaced the file with 0 bytes.
Odd...I keep getting that overwrite problem. Sorry I wasn't able to try this earlier.
I'm using small text files, and when I add a new entry, I change most of the fields in the submission form, but try to add an existing file. And it keeps giving me that error and creating the 0kb file. Check out "Test 2 01202004" in the "Testing" category for an example.
Six years ago: Doing social things.
You are invited to "Super Bowl Party" by Kristy and Jack W
One year ago: Doing more social things.
Wanted to invite everyone over to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday February 1. Game starts at 6:30 but feel free to come around six or a little earlier. Not a huge party just a few couples but we'll have good food. Must root for team handsome aka Tom Brady's team. Let us know!
Sent from my iPhone
Fallout 4 is a highly entertaining game that provides a massive amount of addicting content held back by a frustrating user interface. It takes the emergent gameplay and open world engine of Skyrim (in which I invested over 300 hours and multiple playthroughs before it finally got tiresome) and pairs it with the responsive first-person shooter action and loot gathering of Borderlands 2 (over 100 hours), resulting in a satisfying exploration of what Boston might look like after nuclear war.
The appeal of "open world" games is that you can go anywhere and do anything without being constrained to an on-the-rails main storyline. And in fact, I've barely made any progress in the main story, opting instead to strike out in a random direction and take in the abundance of sidequests and self-contained mini-stories. There's never a lack of things to do, from questing, to exploring just for the heck of it, to building your own settlements in a lightweight SimCity-ish minigame.
Graphics are evocative, and the music is brooding and effective (though sometimes it sounds a little too much like Skyrim). The game captures suspense and creepiness quite well, especially when you're exploring an abandoned building and get overrun by (surprisingly nimble) ghouls. For players without great reflexes, the game's "VATS" system allows you to greatly slow down time during combat, almost to the point where it's turn-based. This system works to make combat a little more strategic, and I employ both real-time and VATS as I play.
There are a few minor issues. Load times are on the long side, but that's a given for any game in this age. One of the main voice actors (for the Preston Garvey character) is incredibly bad and phones in his (numerous) lines like he's a seventh grader in a class readthrough of a Shakespeare play. However, the biggest flaw in the game is the inconsistent and poorly-explained UI, which suffers from being a console port and having too many tacked on systems. Players seem to be in universal agreement that the UI is awful, and the context-sensitive overloading of certain keys will ensure that you spend a lot of time accidentally opening menus or cancelling actions.
There are also many features that just aren't properly explained, like the fact that you have a built-in flashlight that turns on by holding down the Tab key, or how to get the most out of the settlement building UI. The latter makes the system feel tacked on -- I enjoyed building settlements as a diversion but never felt like I could manage them properly. Late game, none of the settlements can take care of themselves without your intervention, so I ultimately scrapped them all and killed all the settlers so they would stop complaining about a lack of beds.
The exploration side of the game is definitely worth it if you can face the moderate learning curve of the interface (and many "Tips" articles on the web will fill in the gaps nicely). This is a game with tons of replayability (as a serial restarter, I've already theorycrafted, started, and abandoned three different characters). The game is at its best when you're traveling and randomly discover a hidden cave or a scripted event, so it's good to minimize your use of the "Fast Travel" option, which allows you to jump to previously visited sites immediately. I try to stick to self-made rules where I just fast travel to and from my own settlements, which helps immensely with immersion.
Final Grade: B in its current state, A- in a few months once mods and patches correct the worst flaws in the UI
With plenty of advance warning, we lived through the most recent blizzard (dubbed with the awful name, Snowzilla, which sounds like a white theme for Firefox) in relative luxury. On Friday, I worked from home on proposal stuff while Rebecca went to work on a pre-determined half day with a company party at Texas de Brazil at midday. Snow was already coming down by 2 PM here, and I had a big pot of 3-bean chili going in the slow cooker for dinner. We watched Empire Strikes Back and then devoured our chili.
On Saturday we did a preemptive shoveling attempt, but it had minimal effect. The picture above was taking around 3 PM, just before the storm amped up yet again to drop another foot. Saturday dinner was more chili, a giant batch of chocolate-walnut cookies we had baked, and the movie, The Martian which didn't suck.
By Sunday morning, we had gotten up to about 29 inches. We, and the rest of our neighborhood, dug out in the morning, although a portion of the cross street that we use to exit the court had been designated as a dumping ground for snow from the main road. We haven't seen a plow yet, although a neighbor further down the court did an obligatory drive through that barely helped. We chatted with our neighbors (annual effort) and learned that the house two doors down from us had become an addiction halfway house several months back, which is why we see an ambulance there every other week.
In the evening, we went for a walk around the neighborhood. Main streets within a quarter mile looked somewhat good, but getting there would be a huge problem. Luckily, Rebecca's job cancelled today, and my own can be done from anywhere with Wi-Fi (thanks, technology career!) We finished the night off with buffalo-infused meatballs, and Everest, which also did not suck.
Are you alive?
Twenty years ago today, on January 27, 1996, I was down at Virginia Tech for my music major audition. Here's my journal entry from that date:
The reason I didn't think I'd end up going there was the fact that it was such a long drive from home (in spite of the fact that my dad always insisted on doing the round-trip in a day to save on motel costs). Traveling to Tech from northern Virginia is like reaching into Mary Poppins' bag and finding more highways. At the time of writing, my plan was to go to William and Mary, a school that was just slightly closer, but ultimately turned out to have neither one of the programs I was interested in in any worthwhile capacity. Looking back, it turned out to be a good choice to end up at Tech taking lessons with "the trumpet guy".
Right around this time, as the snows were melting, my dad took this picture of me, for submission to the "New Students" yearbook of incoming freshman at various schools. I wore the anorak solely to look 100% more sporty than I actually was. Of course, the Tech yearbook cropped it so tightly that the black and white result just made me look like I worked on a race car pit crew.
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Zoom Cable Model Model 5370:
I picked up this modem after getting tired of Comcast bugging me about upgrading my "old" modem from less than 5 years ago. Instructions are clear and easy-to-follow, and the best part is that I didn't have to contact Comcast to get it registered on their network. Afterwards, my download speed consistently jumped from 25 to 28 MBps and my upload speed remained the same. Unfortunately, this didn't help in the blizzard when everyone in the neighbourhood was watching Netflix.
Final Grade: B+
Run, Season One:
This is a very well-acted but unrelentingly grim British show about people living in council estates. There are only four episodes, and all the stories are minimally tied together like a subdued version of Crash. It's a short commitment, but probably not worth watching unless you want to see some good performances and feel depressed about life. Free on Netflix.
Final Grade: B-
Werewolves and Lollipops by Patton Oswalt:
This older standup routine accompanied us on our Fredericksburg trip a couple weeks ago. It's sporadically laugh-worthy but mostly chuckles, and is probably better with video involved. We enjoyed his bit about growing up in Sterling, VA.
Final Grade: B-
The Martian (PG-13):
This isolation-driven movie about being stranded on Mars is better than Castaway and Gravity combined, probably because there are other characters to play off of, and the tone is allowed to remain light-hearted for the most part. Even Rebecca liked it (she fell asleep in the other two movies).
Final Grade: B+
New photos have been added to the Life, 2016 album.
January's Final Grade: B+, a relatively empty month punctuated by loud, flashy events and a nice blizzard.
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