2008 'Dear Everyone' Letter

So, for those of you looking for it, here’s this year’s writeup. My audience probably includes those who were directed here by the stickers I put on the back of my Christmas cards:

For a generic ‘dear everyone’ type update, a year-end wrapup summary will be posted to http://bats22.blogspot.com/ after the holidays.

I figured that instead of printing a ‘dear everyone’ update, I decided to (a) save some trees, and (b) only inflict it on an audience who actually volunteered to look it up on the web. So… I made a summary of the past year by appending the basic journalistic who, what, where, when, why, and how to the word “doing”:

How (am I doing?)—huh… basically ok; no major life changes since last year. I’m back in the work force, and fully done with the grad school experience (and I got the ring to prove it this year).

What (am I doing?)- for work, I’m still at the same job—the building energy efficiency/investigation company in the Boston area (where I was before grad school). I’m still doing a mix of office work (writing reports and running simulations), and also getting out into the field, doing building investigations and educational demonstrations, as well as doing some speaking and teaching.

For fun, I end up seeing and visiting friends both in town and all over the country, as well as doing random building projects with on their houses.

Where (am I doing it?)- I’m living in a duplex in Arlington, splitting the place with JMD and her two cats. (Jean is doing all right, also—her nursing job is in the city, working late shifts).

Arlington is a great town—I’m right near Arlington Center, and there are a ridiculous number of good to great restaurants within walking distance, as well as the Capitol Theater (cheap second run place).

My office is located in Somerville (near Porter Square), so the commute is great. It’s either taking the bus (when the weather is nasty), or biking—it’s great to just work out some aggression at the end of a sucky day (“Yep, time to power up this hill until I hurl.”)

No, in case you were wondering, I haven’t bought a house yet… and given the state of the economy now, I’m glad I dodged that bullet. I wrote some reflections on why I made that choice, and what I am generally looking for in a place (someday…).. Let’s see where economy goes in 2009, and I’ll think about it.

When (am I doing it?)–Um, like, this past year, duh. For a more detailed timeline, see highlights of the year, summarized by quarter below.

Who (am I doing?)-hey, whoah, getting personal here, huh? I am staying with my core competencies and avoiding things that I’m terrible at. Therefore, I’ve remained pathologically single. But hey, I still have great friends that I take pains to see regularly, and who provide me wonderful hospitality when I come to visit.

Why (am I doing it?)-man, not just personal questions, but existential ones too? I can’t say that I have a really good answer to that one. I guess I’m approaching the right age to have a midlife crisis, eh? Well… stay tuned for next year’s update. Maybe I’ll have a poll on what direction it should take, if any.

You are now allowed to STOP READING HERE without any guilt whatsoever. The remainder is blather that I thought some of you might find amusing.

Overall Year Observations

But before getting into the 2008 timeline, there are a few topics that are worth a general mention.

Vacations: I looked at my timesheet summaries for this year, and I realized that I failed to take a real, week-long vacation at any time this year. Goddamn effing shit. I’ve managed to take two days off in a given week, usually in conjunction with business travel—typically spent exploring various cities, and seeing friends around the country. I’ve called this pattern “micro-vacations”—explanation here.

Doing cool stuff: Despite not taking a week off, there’s been no shortage of doing various cool, interesting things. For instance, I organized a trip to go see Avenue Q (the musical) when it came to Boston, saw a show or two at the American Repertory Theater, had a NYC trip that was jam packed with art and geekery, drove to New York to see modern opera at the Met and exhibits at MoMA, and went to the Institute for Contemporary Arts in Boston.

Visits up to Bird and Jen: Bird & Jen live up in a condo in Dover, NH (near Portsmouth), so it’s a fun day/overnight trip to go see them, and get the hell out of town for a while. I often end up helping them with their neverending renovation projects.

Trips to Providence: I made several trips to Providence this past year—one that was work related, another to see Gallery Night, and yet another to see friends. I have to say that it is a very nice (and foodie) town to hang out in—I hope I’ll be heading down there every once in a while.

Pants: As a completely inconsequential aside, I’ve been on a year-long quest to find pants that actually fit me—check here, here, and here.

Work-related geekery: Work ends up leaking into my life in all ways, so I end up blogging about work-related subjects ranging from water heaters, to LED lighting, to the LEED rating system, and playing with an infrared camera.

Anyway, some highlights from this past year:

2008 Q1

2008 Q2

2008 Q3

2008 Q4

Holy crap, you read down all this way?

Anyway, Happy New Year!


Another Fine New York Visit

Yet another jam-packed two day trip to New York City--got to catch up with Probe & Becca, had some great meals, saw a Sondheim musical, and explored some neat chunks of the City.

Probe was visiting his mom and sister in the New York area; we agreed to meet up in the city on Friday. So he, Becca, Becca's sister Daniella, Probe's architecture school friend Terri, and I all met up for lunch, and caught up for a while.

Probe's doing well--his architecture practice is a little slow given the economy, but he is doing all right teaching on the side. 'Becca's movie is going to be released in Japan early next year. (cool--checkit, yo, trailer on YouTube).

Probe, Terri, and I went to see an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, written up in the Times earlier this month: Broken Glass: Photographs of the South Bronx by Ray Mortenson.  Back in the 1980's, when the Bronx was about as scary and bombed-out as it got, he went out exploring with a big box camera, and took a series of very striking black and white photos of the buildings (inside and out) and the streetscapes, with nature starting to creep back in.  The Times article has an online slideshow showing a selection of his work.

As a sculptor and photographer, Mr. Mortenson began making these Bronx trips because he was interested in the purely physical and visual characteristics of a once dense, elegant urban landscape that had come to look like excavated Pompeii or Dresden after the firebombs.

He would walk through dozens of buildings that seemed to have been abandoned overnight, with coats still hanging on closet doors and furniture still in the living rooms. But the elements had begun to creep in through the broken windows, peeling the paint and causing ceiling plaster to rain down on the floors.

Mr. Mortenson, now 64, began shooting inconspicuously, wearing a beaten-up Army jacket, with a rolled-up New York Post under his arm and a 35-millimeter camera in his pocket. But as he began to learn the neighborhoods, spending sometimes 12 hours a day there during long summer days, he started to lug around a big, boxy view camera. He would set it up on the streets or inside abandoned apartments on a tripod to make exposures sometimes lasting as long as 10 minutes.

Occasionally he ran into other human beings. Once he was surrounded by drug dealers, who demanded his film, and in the darkness of some buildings he would almost stumble over scavengers ripping out copper wiring and pipes. “You really had a heart attack when that happened,” he said, “and I’m sure those guys were having a heart attack too.”

Afterwards, we spent some time catching up over a few beers near Lincoln Center, but they had to head back to the suburbs before it got too late; they were flying out the next day.

I set up my sister's new DVD player, described previously.

I caught dinner by myself at Shun Lee--a white tablecloth Chinese place in midtown, with some really classic decor. Pretty pricy, but tasty food, and nice ambiance... it feels like it could be a movie set... perhaps the setting of an odd dream sequence.

Wandering home, I hit a movie theater at just the right time to catch a showing of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. I found it to be an excellent film--Eastwood has half-century long film personna that's omnipresent with his character, and the story about the Hmong people was quite interesting. For those of you who don't know, the Hmong fought for the United States in the 'secret war' in Laos, and became political refugees after the pullout. Many have ended up in Midwest cities, and many in the younger generations are notorious for forming criminal gangs. Thus, the grim line that a character delivers: "Hmong girls to to college, Hmong boys go to jail." The production team actually recruited non-actors to play major parts in this film, from the local Hmong community.

I read a few reviews, and one thing rankled me--two top reviewers (Ebert, and Berardinelli) both mis-identify the weapon shown above as a shotgun. Ugh... it's an M1 Garand rifle--one of the most famous weapons of World War II ("the greatest implement of battle ever devised," according to Patton). Yes, yes, I know... they are film critics, why do you really expect them to know that much about guns? But it felt like a data point of, "Huh... no wonder Red America thinks we're a bunch of feebs"--about the same level as calling a minivan a pickup.

The next day, I got a late start after some coffee. Previously, I had heard about Steven Sondheim's new musical, Road Show at the Public/Joseph Papp Theater. The Amazon description of this show is:

Stephen Sondheim’s first musical since his 1994 Tony Award–winner Passion, is making its highly anticipated New York premiere this season at the Public Theater. The show—with the book by John Weidman, Sondheim’s collaborator from Pacific Overtures and Assassins—has been in development for several years with productions in Chicago and Washington, DC, and grew from an idea that germinated in Sondheim’s mind some fifty years ago. The show dramatizes the real-life Mizner brothers, following their fortunes from the 1890s Alaskan gold rush to the 1920s Florida land boom: Addison as an architect and Wilson as a con man, each brother seeking his own American dream.

However, when I checked online earlier in the week, they were sold out. And the show was closing that Sunday. Dammit!

I decided to try to get rush tickets for the matinee--for those of you not familiar with the concept, you stand in line a few hours before curtain, and they sell a few available seats for $20, cash only. I got there early enough to score a seat--win!

One reason why I was really wanted to see this production (besides--duh--Sondheim) was because it reunited some of the creative team from the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd that Perlick and I saw. The two lead characters (Wilson and Addison Mizner) were played by Michael Cerveris (Sweeney, in that production) and Alexander Gemignani (the Beadle); the show was directed by John Doyle (director of the previous Sweeney).

I'm not going to go into full-on theater review--check out the New York Times review if you're interested. My reaction though: I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would have gladly paid full price. But I sadly agree with one commenter on the review ("Great Production of Mediocre Show"):

Nothing about the piece itself is overwhelming. The script is a hodge podge series of snippets that only intermittantly and briefly allow you to connect with these two complex men. And while there are some brilliant musical flourishes throughout, even the score is mostly rote by Sondheim standards. The reason to see the show is the production. Cerveris continues to show you why he is one of the best singing actors in NY, and Gemigniani is a perfect understated and nuanced counterpart to his showy brother. The actors who play their parents are both terrific. And the production overall is sharply and fluidly directed (given the choppiness of the plot), staged and set. See it. You'll enjoy it. But you won't be overwhelmed.

My guess is that in the oeuvre, it will be classified as "minor Sondheim." But if they come out with a recording, I'd definitely buy it. And Gemigniani's performance was what drove the show--he is the most sympathetic and best-drawn character who provides an emotional core to the musical. And the set was (like in Sweeney) an integral part of the story--a "mountain" of furniture, drawers, boxes, brick-a-brack, and an old-style radio--all of which came into play. But I sympathize with the "rote" comment above--knowing Sondheim's work, there were plenty of 'licks' of "that sounds just like part of Assassins/Merrily/Sunday in the Park with George."

Huh... I guess I'm really not selling that "Bats is straight" idea here, am I? [grin]

The late afternoon was a wander around Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village, including a wander by the Jefferson Market Library (a strikingly beautiful 1870's brick former courthouse, with a four-sided clock tower).

I also did a wander through The Strand Bookstore (Hi Daniel!), which is a New York Institution that I've never managed to hit ("Eighteen miles of books!"). Wow.. what a neat place.

One reaction, though, walking through the huge stacks of books of all vintages and interests, was to become a bit depressed that there's such a huge volume of human knowledge, and I'll barely make a dent in that body in a lifetime. Then again, I can't say that I have any burning desire to read a book on the economic history of the Delaware watershed in the 1800s... (to give you the idea of the specificity of some of the books on the shelves).

The evening wrapped up with a dinner at Molyvos, a fancy white-table Greek restaurant in midtown (a block away from Carnegie Hall). I decided to have a pair of appetizers to get some variety--Sardeles Tiganites (Sauteed Sardine Fillets on Lagana Croutons with Eggplant salad) and Octapodi Skharas (Grilled Baby Octopus with Olives, Fennel, Lemon, Oregano). Both of them were fantastic--satisfying and fishy. Yum yum yum. A great way to wrap up the trip; took the train home that evening.


Mad Skillz [Sarcasm]

I'm currently wrapping up a trip to New York for the holidays--some time with the family, and a trip into NYC, which warrants an independent post. But this post is just about replacing the battery in the family car, my parents' reaction to it, and musing on my mechanical abilities. Plus audio-visual hackery.

When I came home, mom & dad told me that the new car (Honda Accord) wasn't starting--when you turned the key, it made some type of clicking noise.

So I did the following on Christmas Eve:
  • Tried starting the car. A brief bit of motor cranking, and then it started going "click-click-click-click-click" when I tried to start it.
  • A quick look on the web--huh, looks like that's consistent with a dead battery. Otherwise, it's probably something annoying like a starter solenoid, charging system, etc.
  • Pushed the car out of the garage, hooked up jumper cables to my car. VROOOOOM. Yep, guess it's the battery.
  • Unbolt the terminals and the battery hold-down
  • Go to the auto parts store. "I want one of these, except not dead." "Here ya go." "Thanks, buddy. Merry Christmas!"
  • Install the new battery. VROOOOOM. Done.

The only thing that slowed me down was that I only had a selection of tools with me on this trip--I brought my SAE (Imperialist) combination wrenches, but not metric. Grr! Undoing the battery clamp with a crescent wrench was annoying.

Anyway, I thought this was a completely unexceptional bit of car repair. But my parents were completely effusive with their praise for "fixing the car"--"Oh, we would have had to have it towed to the garage after the holidays, so they could take a look at it." Really? Wow.

Do people think it is rare to have a household where nobody (except for their visiting engineer son) could have done this repair? As a guess, I figure that the vast majority of my friends would be able to puzzle this out--perhaps not as quickly, but they wouldn't have to resort to getting the car towed. I admit that I have a fair amount of experience with dealing with dead cars (um, yeah, owned a 1970's Ford)--I've maybe replaced half a dozen car batteries, so the unmount/dismount was pretty quick. This might also be a blue collar vs. white collar thing--I can't imagine that there are many working class families who wouldn't have somebody who could do this--the whole car/macho thing. Or maybe I'm just projecting.

Or perhaps this is a demonstration of that once you learn something, you start to believe that everyone else in the world probably finds it obvious as well (i.e., devaluing the information you have gained)--is there a name for that effect?

One thing that makes me think that my family is a bunch of outliers was "fixing" the television remote at my sister's place. My dad said, "I replaced the battery, but it still didn't work." Huh, really? I don't know if I've heard of a remote just up and dying. Let's check it out.

New batteries + cleaning off the leaking battery cruft = back up and running. Huh.

Another amusing fixit story from this trip--I realized that I set up three (3) DVD players on this visit.

One was the Christmas present for mom and dad--an upsampling (1080p) DVD player to go with their new ridiculous LCD TV. The straight digital HDMI connection was nice--just one plug, with a cleaner signal. Also, that freed up an AV port--so I switched over the VCR from coaxial input to composite video (nope, no S-video out on this VCR). Yeah, enough jargon, thanks.

Second: taking the old DVD player, and connecting it to the upstairs TV.

Third: my sister's CD player stopped working, so she needed a replacement. A wander through Best Buy revealed that nobody really sells single-disc players anymore--they're all 5 or 100 disc changers, or ridiculous $400 audiophile/reference player models. But wait... I now have an unused DVD player, after getting myself a Blu-Ray. So my Christmas gift to her:

"Here's a DVD of the Metropolitan Opera's production of La Boheme--the Zeffirelli version."

"Um... that's nice... but I don't have a DVD player."

[Pulls out box]

"Nope! Now you do!"

Successfully set that up during my visit to the city; works both as a DVD and CD player. Not a bad AV-heavy Christmas visit.


Another Providence Trip

Another fun trip to Providence--albeit a lot more brief that the previous two trips. Dan flew to Boston for work, and was visiting friends M & A in Providence, so I drove down to see him (and give him a ride back up to Logan that evening).

M & A were great tour guides for my brief visit. Brunch was at Modern Diner--a 1940's-era diner that has survived to now--the first diner to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to that web page.

They had an amazing menu of specials, including cheese grits with pesto, and lobster Benedict. Mmmm... runny poached eggs.... hollandaise... lobster simmered in butter... oh, hurt me, baby.

Afterwards, we wandered over to the RISD Alumni Art Sale--many booths with a wide variety of arts--from clothing/hats to ceramics to furniture to metal sculpture to... oh, you get the idea. Everything from the sublime to the kitsch (including creepy dolls).

One interesting discovery at a booth--RISD has an offical class ring (part of a student's senior thesis, circa 1994). RISD had a generic-big-ring-company ring before then, until somebody said, "Wait, we're a what school, here?" and designed a ring. I gotta say, it's pretty cool and distinctive--check out this image. It looks like a cross between sculpture, jewlery, and a machine part.

Another great exhibitor was a furniture maker--Nojo Design--beds, tables, cabinets. His sample pieces had some gorgous figured woods (burls, birds eye maple). They are out of Easthampton MA--their studio is a former 1920's vaudeville theater that they painstakingly restored--check out this photo.

We were looking at his exhibit beds--take a headboard and footboard, and put a 3 foot long mattress in between, so it will fit in an exhibit space, while still showing off the work. The owner told us that he can gauge the caliber of people at an art show when he sees couples looking at it, thinking out loud, "So how could we use a bed that size?" (and completely failing to realize what it's for). The owner said they're typically really embarassed when he tells them.

On the walk back, we passed by the Lauderdale Building--an 1894 building, according to this PDF--terra cotta cladding, with a great big open first floor. Dan pointed the building out--once again, the golden hour makes my amateur hack snapshots look pretty.

I got Dan to the airport with plenty of time to spare. As always, wonderful to see him--however briefly. And also fun to re-acquaint myself with M (and meet A).

A quiet Saturday evening followed. And on Sunday, the first apple pie of the season. Yay pie!


Micro-Vacation: New Hampshire

Okay, not really that much of a micro-vacation--just Friday evening through Saturday night. I bailed out of work at a reasonable time on Friday, and hopped the Amtrak Downeaster up to Dover to visit Bird & Jen; I haven't visited them in a while, and getting out of town for a day seemed like a fine idea.

They recently got a pasta maker attachment to their Kitchen Aid mixer, so Jen tried it out. It's one of those extrusion dies that goes on the front of the meat grinder auger.

She made a recipe of pasta dough right from the Kitchen Aid instructions... they tell you to feed "walnut size" lumps of dough down the chute. It started out sounding strong (whir-whir-whir-whir) but then started to slow down (whoor-whoor-whoor-whoor) and then totally slog, as it was trying to push out the dough (whuuuuuur-whuuuuuur-whuuuuuur). The machine sounded seriously unhappy at that point ("Ease off on the throttle, Ripley. We've blown the trans-axle, you're just grinding metal.")

Jen disassembled the machine, and found the warm-to-the-touch-partially-cooked slug of pasta dough. Huh. Tried recipe iteration two... behaved about the same.

Yeah, it was pretty tough dough (also, for those noting how broken-ass English is as a language, examine the spelling/pronunciation of the last two words). High strength, though...

Anyway, in parallel, I was trying to make noodles out of dough the hard way--rolling pin plus pizza cutter. I made basically noddle-shaped items... but I decided a name that reflected the by-product nature of the pasta was appropriate.

Thus a dinner menu of salad, and slagliettele with cream sauce, peas, and ham. Turned out pretty yummy. An evening of apple pie, Port, lounging, laughing, and conversation followed (including discussions on how GM, of the Big Three, deserves to collapse).

The next day, all three of us lounged around, and wandered into Dover for an afternoon snack at the local coffee shop. I got to catch up with Tuxedo--the cat that Bird and I owned going back to... wow... the apartment near Central Square around 1995.

Dinner was at Black Trumpet in Portsmouth--a fun foodie evening, and a definite recommendation as a place to go if you're in the area.

I had their Celeriac and Lobster Bisque, and we split a great blue goat cheese plate (Verde Capra – Arnoldi, Valtaleggio, Italy – Blue-veined goat; tangy and gooey. Paired with persimmon-pumpkin chutney), served up on a blackboard.

I also had their "Pan-fried Sweetbreads with garlicky Brussels sprouts, figs and bacon in a lemon-caper veloute." We are a bunch who have no problem sharing dishes... always a fun part of a dinner. Yum.

Warm, happy, and filled with thymus gland, I hopped another train home that evening. Using Amtrak instead of driving is definitely slower--the train ride was 1:30 (vs. driving at "68.9 mi – about 1 hour 19 mins")--plus, you have to add waiting and the MBTA rides on the Boston end of the train ride. But I could plug in my computer and get some PowerPoint slides done on the ride up; on the way down, I wrote postcards, listened to music, and caught up on reading.

Unfortunately, today (Sunday) is more PowerPoint slides. Ugh. At least the holidays will be here soon.