The Hess Report

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Little House Is Back 

Growing up, I never watched Little House on the Prairie. I could tell by the way it looked and the brief seconds I would see as I cruised the channels that it was not for me. Every time it happened to be on the screen, the little girl was getting in trouble, or the dad was gazing gayly into the distance (yeah I know Michael Landon was a saint, etc., but come on, you know what I'm talking about), or the curly-haired boy was crying his eyes out. Not the sort of show that a future he-man like myself was attracted to.

Disney has remade Little House. Lots of people hate Disney. Lots of people can't stand that old Little House show, myself included, although sappy!Joy has some great nostalgic memories of watching it. It would follow that whatever Disney makes of it now will be complete crap.

Wrong. I don't know who slept with who or what to be able to make this, but I was shocked. Maddie likes the Little House early reader books, and has always been fascinated with the frontier lifestyle, so she wanted to watch it. tech!Joy set the DVR to grab it, and it did. Not knowing exactly what it would be like, and being the kinds of parents who don't let their kids watch just any old thing that comes on the tube, we sat down and watched it with her. At the first commercial, I turned to Joy and said, in surprise, "This is really good."

And it was. Now, I never read Wilder's original text, so I can't how closely what I saw followed it, but they certainly did not pull any punches. When the family leaves for Kansas, the writing and acting as the grandparents see them off is simply great. It was heartbreaking to watch, and gave you a real sense of how great and dangerous the distances were back then.

I was also shocked with the nice, historical portrayal of guns. Pa actually goes hunting with a gun, and comes back with animal carcasses that they show! His horse is snakebit, and he has to shoot it. Several times, the family is scared of noises in the night, and Pa hauls out the rifle. As he goes out one day, they conspicuously show him giving a revolved to Ma, so she can hold down the fort while he's away. Like I said, I was completely shocked.

Overall, the production values, writing, film quality, directing, etc. are first rate. I'm not admonishing you to watch it because there are probably eight hours left in the mini-series, but it this sort of thing interests you and you were scared off by either the Little House title or by the Disney logo, then it's worth it for you to take a look.

Can Clean Data Survive the Filthy Hand of Man? 

I just received word that the order placement/fulfillment/inventory system I designed and wrote isn't working. In fact, it hasn't been working for three months. I only interact with it when there is a problem, and no one made me aware of that there was, indeed, a problem.

It's set up so that our shipper gets a pile of barcoded packing slips. He pulls the appropriate items from inventory, boxes them, sits them on the UPS scale, then scans the barcode. The UPS computer uses that code to grab addressing and billing information from my system, then prints out a mailing label. At the end of the day, the customer who ordered the products receives an email with tracking info, costs, and some other stuff, all tagged with their order number.

But today, the customer was complaining, quite appropriately, that the inventory values they were seeing couldn't be correct, and a physical inspection confirmed this. What was going on? Well, the computer that the shipper uses to print out packing slips had crashed, and since then, it wasn't printing barcodes on the packing slips. So no barcode scanning on the UPS computer. Of course, that's what links everything together, and it's kind of important.

Did he tell me "Hey, I can't scan these. What's up with that?" No. He ignored it and proceeded to ship the packages anyway, typing in the addressing information by hand. Due to typos, some packages never reached their destination, and, due to the fact that he never scanned the barcodes, my inventory system never knew the stuff had been shipped. Now, I'm really easy to work with about stuff like this. I have made it abundantly clear to everyone involved with inventory/shipping that it's custom software, and as such, I can easily tweak it or fix it if something isn't working right. All they need to do is ask.

Of course, you would expect that the customer would have commented that they hadn't been receiving their tracking info emails for almost three months. Apparently, they never really look at those, so no one noticed. Just, wow.

I now get to sit through a meeting tomorrow to "figure out" what went wrong. I'll have to keep my mouth shut, though, because phrases like "crack-smoking felons" and "dumber than a ton of dirt" probably would not be appreciated in a professional environment.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Keep Yer Clothes On, Swabby! 

The girls (well, really present!Joy) got my Dad two toys sailboats for his birthday, and they gave them to him while we were there for Easter this weekend. The whole idea was that they could play sailboats with him (he's into sailing) whenever they visit. I start filling the tub with enough water so the keels (these are nice toys) won't scrape the bottom and the boats will actually float. I tell Lucy that she will not be getting a bath tonight, which is an issue, because she loves baths. The water is just for the boats. I go downstairs and send my let my Dad know that the water's running, and, if he wants to play sailboats, he should make his way to the bathroom.

Several minutes later, my Dad appears at the top of the stairs.

"Are they supposed to be getting a bath?" he asks.

Nope. Grr. Lucy. Trot trot, up the stairs.

"What are you guys doing?" I say.

The sailboats are floating happily in the tub. Maddie's in her underwear. Lucy is buck naked. My Dad is standing in the hallway, his Ha! grin fixed firmly on his face.

"Lucy-" is all I get to say now, before she starts to protest.

"Dad! Argh!" She makes a good show of seeming wronged and put-upon.

Maddie stands there looking guilty.

"Lucy, I said this was not a bath."

Lucy grips the air in front of herself and shakes her arms in the universal gesture of horrible frustration.

"Dad!" she yelps. "In case I fall in!"


"It's in case I fall in! I don't what to get my clothes wet!"

Maddie nods. I can feel my Dad laughing from behind me.

"Well at least put some underwear on," I say.

"But what if I fall in?"

If I were fresh, and not tired, I would have pointed out that she was probably planning to "fall in" on purpose, and that I knew it, etc. But, as we were near the end of a long day of traveling and visiting, I chose the way of expediency:

"We have extras."

End of discussion. Clothes back on. Sailboats were played with.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Happier Before 7 a.m. Than Most People Are All Day 

This morning, I was about ready to head out the door, getting a last-minute cup of coffee in the kitchen. It was about 6:30 a.m.

I hear footsteps shuffling down the hall, and Lucy, bleary-eyed, runny-nosed from a cold she's fighting, bundled up in Mitsy, Blankie and Stitch, comes around the corner. First thing in the morning, Lucy's pixie voice is a bit of a growl, but it's still as high and cute-sounding as ever, which makes it even more adorable.

"What are you doing here?" she asks me. She's never awake when I leave for work. Sometimes Maddie is, and she'll give me a hug and sit on the couch, watching, until I drive away. This may be the first time she's been up to see me.

"Getting ready to go to work."

"You have to work today?"



I knelt on the kitchen floor to give her a hug. She plopped herself onto my knee.

"Daddy, I loooooove you," she said. As she did, she closed her eyes, smiled the contented smile of one who can still take absolutely everything for granted, and pressed her cheek against mine.

I sent her off to fall back to sleep in bed with her mother.

Such happiness as I have is almost unbearable.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

School Safety, Guns and TV 

Today, I was involved in a discussion about school violence, etc. Two points were made.

1. What would make a school secure against drugs and deadly violence? My response was:

Every school in America should have the following:

A. A single entrance. All others locked to the outside (but obviously open for exit in case of emergency).

B. Metal detector around this entrance.

C. Armed guard with drug-sniffing dog at this entrance throughout the day. He's behind a barrier. You present proper ID,

D. Principal and VP should be allowed to be armed, if they so desire and are legally permitted to carry. Firearms to be kept locked in their desks.

Everyone who enters the school does so through this entrance. Of course, there are still risks. Talking specifically about wackos, be they student or not, who run into a school in the middle of day and start shooting, they could just as easily wait outside for the end of the day and start spraying bullets at the kids as they leave. But my suggestions eleminate both drugs in the schools as well as the sort of captive shootings that always happen inside the buildings, which seems to be the major problem. You have a bunch of people in lockdown, with nowhere to flee and no chance of defending themselves if confronted by an armed assailant. Frankly, I'm amazed that none of these kids ever got the idea to grab a high-powered rifle with a good scope, find a defensible covered location, and start picking people off as they leave for the day.

But I have the feeling that, at least in the cases of students who pull this kind of stuff, there are personal vendettas and feelings involved which make retribution from a distance less than satisfying, which brings me to the next point of the discussion.

2. Some people were wondering as to what exactly is different between now and twenty years ago. Why did bullying in the past result in nothing more than bruised egos, or a black eyes, but now results in someone going completely nuts and killing people? If anything, there is less bullying in the public schools now, as districts seem to be cracking down on overt inter-student conflict. It could just be that we were lucky for all those years. Maybe it was that no one had thought of the notion of resolving such conflicts in that way. The first time a school shooting became national news, the genie flew screaming from the bottle. But is that it? I don't think so. The pressures are much higher now. My response to the argument follows:

One big difference I see is what the perceived stakes are for these kids. Growing up, our world was basically our families and the neighborhood kids. You watched some cartoons on TV, and, if you're young enough, you may have even watched something like "Saved By The Bell".

Now, certain young teenagers and tweens are pretty much allowed by their parents to be inundated with a radically unrealistic set of images of what their high school experience should be like. Those are the stakes now. Everyone watches beautiful people on TV doing wild and/or cool things. I'm not saying that TV induces them to violence, but that in the case of kids and teenagers who are, quite simple, biologically irrational, it gives them a warped sense of expectations. An impossible standard. A feeling that they are falling behind, irrepairably. When you were picked on and put down twenty years ago, it was just a part of the neighborhood social pecking order. Now though, you've been cut off from the hyper-idealized teenage dream, and that's a rough thing to take.

Short of an actual psychotic break, it is only complete despair for one's future that can allow someone to do something like this. Why such despair? What's so different now than twenty years ago? I submit that it could be their notion that they have failed and have no future, at least by the standards that have been etched in their heads by uncaring parents and a mental diet of unattainable coolness and beauty. That their current social ostracism is a complete failure, one from which they will never recover.

If you have caring, involved parents, you will most likely be immune to this way of thinking. In their absence, though...

Friday, March 18, 2005

American Neighbors 

I'm sure you know it: Middle America Is Rotten. It's a message that's easy to get from movies, television, most journalists and most liberals. There is a powerful and consistent presentation of the notion the we're rotten to the core here in the suburbs. I've seen and heard people refer to the population of suburban America as "Sheeple" (Get it? Sheep-People? Ha! Those liberals are so clever!). We're nothing but a bunch of Burger King snarfing Survivor watching cell phone yammering paycheck collecting big car driving beer guzzling baby making drones, living in anonymous suburban sprawl and forever cut off from the high points of culture, socialization and enlightenment. We're basically worse than useless.

You're not going to believe this, but I disagree. I have lived in several different kinds of neighborhoods, ranging from dangerous urbanity (West Philadelphia running gunfights in the street outside the house), to depressed rural (burned out former coal town, four stop lights), to almost nowhere (pop. 500, 1 bank, 2 mechanics, 1 general store), to standard American suburbs here in Pittsburgh. I grew up in a small town, population around seven thousand, in Central Pennsylvania. I have to tell you that, in my opinion, small towns and suburbs are, despite what John Kerry would have had you think, the heart and soul of this country.

What makes it so? Your neighbors. Much fun has been made of the American style of being "HeyNeighbors", as in you know them well enough to say "hey" when you see them, but that's about it. In my experience, though, it has always been more than that. The relationship that I have seen between suburban neighbors is greater than the "Hey" stage, but less than that of bosom friends. It's almost like a relationship that develops from a shared sense of work and striving. We are, dare I say it, comrades. My one neighbor, Paul, has a nice slavic accent. I have no idea what country he is originally from. We haven't spent that much time together, and frankly, I don't really care. But you know what? When I was fruitlessly trying to saw the end off my Christmas tree trunk this year, he came out in the cold to offer me the right saw for the job. Thanks, man. When they went out of town for a week this past year, they gave me a key and asked if I would feed the cat. No problem. I think I've fixed everyone's computer in our cul-de-sac. I've borrowed tools or time from almost everyone, too. That's what American neighbors do for each other, and that is most certainly good.

It's time to move on then, to what got me thinking about this. A prime example of a good American neighbor: Norm Forest. Sadly, Norm passed away two nights ago, a victim of esophageal cancer at 54. He leaves behind a wife, several grown children, and a teenaged step daughter who is, despite the awful things you hear about teenagers these days, an excellent kid. I don't know a whole lot about Norm and his personal history. I know that until last year, he smoked. I know that he always referred to his wife as "my honey," even if there were only other guys around. He was always giving me useful tips when I was working on outdoor home improvement projects. And he was interesting. Even though I can watch 4th of July fireworks from my back yard, he invited us to watch them from his driveway because the view was better. He suggested every year that I build an observation deck on my roof so we could all see them better still, which wasn't a bad idea. When I would start some new project: my off-hill deck, the electrical work on my broken air conditioner, whatever, he would smile, shake his head and call me a "wildman". I never was able to figure out if he was being ironic, sincere, or both at once. Although his grown children deliberately had no contact with him until recently, I never knew to be anything less than polite, considerate and extremely generous. Norm was a good man, and a perfect example of an American neighbor. His death has put a hole in our small community of shared striving.

Norm, much as myself myself, liked Burger King, watched Survivor, drank beer, drove a big car and had kids. To refer to someone like Norm, or myself, or any of my good neighbors for that matter, as Sheeple or mindless drones or whatever the condescension du jour may be, is to hurl a grave and very personal insult our way. Although we are bound together in ways that may make us indistinguishable from outside observers, each of us in suburbia is indeed a unique individual, a fact to which I'm sure that Norm's grieving family would attest. There can be no replacement or substitution for his absence. That people on the outside of the culture so completely fail to understand this says far more about them than it does about us.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Glen Malcolm Theater 

I saw two plays last night at the Glen Malcolm Theater. The first one featured Maddie as the Fairy of Spring. I've watched and enjoyed the original Fairies play, still the best, and all of the sequels up through Fairies 5: The Day After Doom, which wasn't bad either. Unfortunately, last night's Fairies 6 was not up to her usual standards. There were no somber dirges or skippy summer melodies sung with the unselfconscious sincerity that only a seven year old girl can muster. There wasn't even a coherent plot. First she was a fairy, then a detective, then a fairy again, then a puppeteer using a stick horse for a puppet stand-in of the character she was just playing. Erk. I don't really know what happened. And it's not like she should have to produce a star spectacular for in-house consumption, but Maddie just wasn't adequately prepared. I think that if you are telling people you are going to put on a play, you'd better be putting on, like, a play or something. Not just farting around and saying or doing whatever pops into your head. Being three years old is a good excuse for that. Being seven is not.

On the other hand, Lucy's play was entertaining. So, if you don't count every other play she's ever put on, and only include last night's show and the previously reviewed "Cinderellow," she's batting 1.000! Last night's play was titled "Violet Twenty Thousand," even though the normal Violet character did not appear. Instead, she was Elliot (from E.T.), and Elliot was taking part in a number of different skits. There was a promised "Future (Feature) Presentation" that never happened. However, I was treated to a succession of mini-plays which turned out to be previews of upcoming attractions. Each little show was introduced by Lucy, in her best impression of the Movie Trailer Voice Guy, saying: "Coming soon to theaters and to own on DVD," which was more than worth the price of admission to hear. There was one about a guy pretending to be a bear who was really a guy. One about a magic sword that could make pink clouds appear. A couple of others. But each was brief enough that it didn't drag out, and each had some little creative touch that made me smile.

Lucy's play also ended without prompting or threats of an audience walk-out, which we usually have to do.

So today, the world is on it's head, as Shakespeare has written a crummy episode of "According to Jim" and Larry Flynt has apparently filmed a truly touching movie version of "Far From the Madding Crowd". Okay, it's not quite that extreme, but it's close. Maybe we've entered a new era in Glen Malcolm Theater productions.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

So That's Okay Now? 

I'm standing in line at the checkout at Shop 'N Save yesterday. They have installed LCD monitors to keep you less aggravated while you wait, featuring the same kind of content you see at the pre-previews at the movies. News of the day. Local ads. "Games". Games like Celebrity Scramble!



On the next screen, they put up the hint.



The name of Kirstie Alley's Showtime thing, right? But not everyone knows that. I don't even know how I knew it. I probably shouldn't have. But for everyone else who doesn't know it, and that could be, like, a whole lot of people, they think that Shop 'N Save TV just gave us the hint "fat actress" for Kirstie Alley. Maybe that helped some people solve the celebrity scramble. But that's okay to say out loud now, and put up on video screens in public places, just because it's the name of a TV show?

If the guy in front of me at the store seemed like he wanted to bail for a different line, would it be okay for me to point to the line on checkout five and say "Don't go over there buddy, there's a couple of fat shoppers in line, and they're probably buying a lot of food"?

I think not.

If 50 cent decided to make a show on BET called World's Most Damndest Nigga, would the celebrity scramble read:


Once again, not thinking that would be okay.

Monday, March 14, 2005

When She Was Good, She Was Very Very Good... 

Lucy is so very interesting.

On Sunday, she received an unexpected bag of Easter candy from her Sunday school teacher. Candy is possibly Lucy's favorite thing in the world, and she will go to great lengths to obtain it. The bag from her teacher had four different things: two bags of M&M's, a pink marshmallow Peep, and a small chocolate bunny. What did she do with it?

"Hey! There's four things of candy in here, and there are four of us! It's perfect!"

She proceeded to give me the Peep, Maddie a bag of M&M's, and Joy the bunny. I was astounded. She did it without a second thought.

Later that day, she decided to escalate an incident about putting toys away to the point of some fairly severe punishment. All she had to do was say "Putting away my own toys is the right thing to do." I understand the pride mechanics, etc., that were at work, but she was really pushing it, and over something that she knew should didn't have of winning on. She eventually relented, with tears, and was fine. Like I said, interesting.

Of course, in the last few days, she watched E.T. (Not scary at all Dad!), had to sit by while her sister barfed her guts out and intermittently cried in pain for hours (I don't care!), and saw a (freaky even to me) puppet show at the Children's Museum (It wasn't scary at all! I loved the trolls the best!). Through everything she does, she plays the tough guy. It seems like the last thing in the world she'll admit to is any form of weakness, and that's the way she's always been. I'm reminded of the scene in P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan movie where Peter, alone in his hideaway, dozes off. He wakes with a start, whacks his head on the ceiling, and blurts out "I wasn't sleeping!" to no one in particular.

Sometimes she reminds of a combination of Peter, Stitch and Mother Teresa.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Getting Older 

To me, the evidence is clear that we do not age at a set rate. It occurs in fits and starts, and mostly during rough times. That's why everyone in pictures from the 1930's looks like they're eighty years old even though they're still in grade school. Of course it could be that no one smiled for pictures back then, and everyone wore the modern equivalent of burlap sacks, but nah. I'm right. They had a hard time of it, and it shows on their faces.

The last couple of weeks at our house have been kind of tough: lots of people being sick, disasters at work, and really bad news around the neighborhood. On the sickness front, we're dealing with things that may end up being chronic illnesses, as well as stuff from the girls that gives you the shudders. One of the worst things a parent can experience, short of their child's death, is having to watch your child writhe in pain, crying, begging you for nothing more than a drink of water, and you can only tell them that No, they can't have water, it'll make it worse, and that all you can do is to wait until the pain stops, hours later. The only thing I can think of that's worse in an analogous way is having to do that and knowing that your kid will never get better but will in instead, die in that same pain.

Over the last two weeks, we read in the local news and heard from friends close to the case that an eight year old girl from one of the schools in our district contracted a rare and fatal form of viral pneumonia, possibly due to an overuse/misuse of antibiotics. One day she was fine. The next, viral pneumonia. Two weeks later, she was dead. Joy read her obituary in the paper last Friday. Now, that's not what was happening to Maddie the other night, but when you're sitting there, and she's moaning and crying, you can't help but think about that other family and the utter bafflement and dread they must have felt.

Now I know that there are lots of people who have it rougher than me. No shit. People with families who know they're about to be kicked out of their home. The people we see when we take Maddie to Children's Hospital for a checkup who push their poor, dying, children around in wheelchairs. Mothers in Rwanda who carried their babies on their backs as they fled two steps ahead of machete-wielding maniacs. The thousands of Iraqis who had to watch as Saddam's thugs tortured their children on the floors of their own living rooms. Yeah, I know that my life is easier, smoother and less painful than 99.99% of the people that have ever lived on this planet. Got it.

But when you hurt, you hurt. Period. That's why I won't denigrate anyone else's suffering, no matter how insignificant it may seem to me. To a certain extent, suffering is relative, and while some people are in need of a healthy dose of perspective, a personal disaster is a personal disaster, and it's not for me to judge the magnitude by my own scale.

Anyway, my point is that I feel about ten years older than I did last month. Thirty days from now, the sun will be out, it'll almost be tax day (or Buy-A-Gun day, in which we are encouraged to remind the government, by way of mass purchase of firearms, that their confiscation of our hard-earned resources had damn well better be for a good reason), everyone in our house will be relatively healthy, and things will look better. And I'll feel younger again, but not, I suspect, a full ten years younger. I have a feeling that one or two of those years I earned in the last few weeks are going to stick around.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Like Broadband to Dialup 

As broadband Internet access changes the whole way that you use the Internet, and quite possibly live your life, so does having a DVR change the way you deal with television. For those who don't know (and if you don't, then oh come on!) a DVR is a DigitalVideo Recorder. It's a little computer with a big hard drive that hooks up to your cable or satellite or however you get your TV signal, then records programs digitally, instead of on video tapes.

Advantages: you never have to look for a blank tape, or remember where on tape something is stored. It's all put up on your TV screen for you in a nice menu format. You tell it what you want to watch (Survivor, 24, etc.) and it will look for those shows and collect them for you when they're on. You can start watching something that's "taping" before it finished recording. So, if you're putting the kids to bed at 8:00 on a Wednesday and you'd like to watch Lost, it's not a problem. You bebop downstairs at 8:15, and start watching it from the beginning, while the rest of the show happily records onto the hard drive. You can blip past commercials in 30 second chunks, which means that if you start watching at around 8:12 or so, you will "catch up" to live TV by the end of the show. You just saved yourself twelve minutes! If you watch five one-hour programs a week and always start watching them "late" or after they are broadcast, you have collected one hour of your week back from the TV people. Cool.

Disadvantages: You can't loan your tape of a show to a friend who missed it. Of course, you can hook your VCR up a certain way so as to record onto a tape the show that's on your DVR, but you'd really have to like your friend because that sounds like a pain in the butt. Another disadvantage is that you watch more TV, because it's more convenient. Eh.

I know that a lot of people preach about Tivo, but that's not what we have. We are using the DVR system that comes for $5/month from Dish Network. I'm sorry, Tivo fans, but Tivo is toast. Who is going to pay $200 for a box, then $15/month for something you can get from your cable/satellite company for a third of the monthly cost with no upfront?

DVR's rule.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Symptomatic Diagnosis 

All I can say is that the person who finally figures out the relationship between and causes of the symptomatically diagnosed "diseases" of eczema, asthma, and allergies deserves to be made King of the World, at least for a couple of weeks.

As far as I've been able to determine, the current level of medical research just doesn't know what causes these problems to happen. Diagnosis is completely symptomatic. In other words, there is no blood test or definitive metric to say that you have these "diseases", other than the fact that a doctor looks at what's going on and says "yep, it's asthma" or "nope, that's not eczema." In the case of allergies, they can test you by applying the allergen and seeing if you react, but as for why you react to it, they're pretty much at a loss. These three things, eczema, asthma and allergies, are names given to a set of symptoms, and that is all.

If the medical community wants to impress me, they need to answer to following questions:

Why does an allergy develop? What goes wrong with the immune system, and how can we reverse it? All they can do right now is to mask the symptoms.

What causes asthma to develop, and what is the biological cascade that occurs during an attack? Biologically, what goes wrong with the body that it ceases to be able to perform one of its primary functions? I actually think they may be making some headway with this, as newer drugs attempt to stop the attacks from happening, as opposed to just pelting the patient with steroids and bronchiodialators.

What causes eczema to develop? Ditto all of the questions for allergies.

All of these problems strike (mostly) without regard to gender, race, or age. Genetic links and tendencies have been found. However, I read a great article last year discussing the fallacy of genetically-linked diseases, which to summarize said that no common medical condition is likely to be the result of genetic traits unless it also confers some sort of evolutionary advantage (eg. sickle-cell anemia provides immunity to malaria). The researchers suggestion was to look to viruses, or even smaller structures like the prions that cause CJD (Human Mad Cow). So, I am left to wonder if these problems are not caused by the immune system being attacked by an as-yet undiscovered pathogen. My guess is that all three of these problems have a common cause. The genetic linkage is not so much that you have a genetic predisposition to a certain allergy, but that people who don't get it have a better natural (genetic) immunity to whatever the pathogen is, just like some people are better at not catching colds.

This is all very personal for me, because we have all three of these floating around in our family. It truly be a load off of all of us if someone could just figure this thing out. Any physicians reading this, please feel free to point out where I'm wrong.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Restaurant Price Points 

I was involved with a broad range of restaurant price points this weekend.

On Friday, culture!Joy and I met some friends in the legal district for dinner, then headed to the Symphony. Beethoven and Brahms. For me, Beethoven is like the Internet and Pizza, in that I'll say, respectively, God Bless the Internet/Beethoven and There's No Such Thing As Bad Pizza/Beethoven. It was a piano concerto, played by a 24 year old guest because the featured pianist for the evening cancelled due to illness. From our seats, he seemed to be very tall and have enormous hands. The fact that he could play the piece at all puts him on a different level than 99.9999% of human beings, and the fact that he played it so well and obviously had fun doing so is just silly.

Anyway, back to restaurants. We ate at The Common Plea, as legal-themed Italian place. Not cheesy-themed as the popular chains are today with, say, Corben Bersen's jacket from LA Law hanging on the wall or an animatronic Lance Ito. More like the menu is written and looks like a summons; dark and woody inside like an ancient law office. The food was very good, but no more so than the Olive Garden's. The selection was a notch up from that, though, with a daily special of cajun sugar-crusted salmon with crab meat. Cost for a plate of pasta: $18. To me, that's the best indicator of a restaurant's price range. How much do they charge for a plate of pasta that cost them $0.50 in materials? I'm not complaining about the price, it's just my point of comparison. Overall, good food, excellent service (although I don't prefer the extreme deference and humility on display at places like this), and a very nice atmosphere. Total bill for four people, with one drink, before tip: $121.

Sunday, Maddie went to a birthday party at one of the local bowling/laser tag/arcade places, and slumming!Joy, Lucy and I hoofed it across the parking to Eat N Park, a diner chain. No need to describe the food beyond "filling" and "needs salt." Plate of pasta at EnP: $5. Total bill for three before tip: $17. One note here is that our service at this EnP was exceptionally good by their standards. The woman who waited on us should be waiting tables someone a lot nicer with better tips.

Also over the weekend, we saw my sister, who is a waitress at both Outback Steakhouse and a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. Apparently, a table of five at Ruth's Chris can drop $270 on a dinner. That's a lot of money. I don't even know what a plate of pasta costs there, but I should find out so I can do a true comparison. For purposes of being lazy, I'll assume that it's in the $25-30 range.

So, is Ruth's Chris food ten times better than Eat N Park's? Possibly it is, but I suspect that food yumminess is a diminishing returns kind of thing: once something is tasty enough, it's hard to make it taste even better. And at a certain point, you're not really enhancing the flavor at all. You're just pretending to. Was the service at The Common Plea significantly better than the service at EnP? Surprisingly not, although our EnP experience was unusually good this weekend.

My point? Basically this reinforces the notion that I touched on last year around this time in The Price of Luxury that certain places charge x times more not because it costs them proportionally more to deliver their goods or services, but because in a way, their price is also their product. There are people, plenty, and Thank-You-God-Bless-America, that are willing to pay more for something simply because it costs more. You are paying for a slightly better actual product, while guaranteeing for yourself that you will not have to encounter anyone on a peer level who cannot afford to pay for that product, as well as to avoid having any appearance that one may have consumed products of a lesser cost.

Some people will read that as a rip on people who do that, but the truth is that everyone does it. Why don't we take the kids downtown and eat at a soup kitchen for free? We generally try to avoid, on a peer level, the clientele that frequents soup kitchens, and the food there is probably on the lower end of the yum curve so it could actually be very very bad, and we happen to have the resources to avoid doing that. The odds are that if you're reading this, so have you. For once, I'm not value-judging here. I'm just saying. Would I like to have enough $ to pop a $300 bottle of wine at lunch a couple of times a week? Absolutely. Do I begrudge anyone else that can afford to do so? Of course not, and that's one of things I love about this country. We can walk into a crummy shack diner, a mid-size chain, a local Chinese place, or the joint where the DA and local politicos hold their weekend parties, and everywhere, the staff will smile, fill your water glass, and happily take your money. Okay, they might not smile at the shack diner, but they'll still take your money and bring you food.

Like the Internet, money is a great anonymizer; like a gun, it's a great equalizer. And I think that's pretty cool.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

$400 Just Isn't Worth It 

I stopped at the local GetGo (convenience store which is beginning to rival Sheetz! Blasphemy!) on my way to work to purchase a slug of Gatorade. The people behind the counter were chit-chatting about someone who had stolen $400 in a stupid manner. I couldn't tell from the snippet I heard if it was someone they new personally, or someone they had seen on one of the many Judge Hardass shows on TV. In either case, both employees agreed that $400 just wasn't worth it, especially with all the cameras around. I was glad to know that about them, but it made me wonder what their price would be? $1,000? $10,000? At what point would it be worth it?

I did some figuring and decided that for myself, there would be no amount of cash worth it to just straight out steal. The only circumstance under which I think such a thing would be acceptable would be if you were driving in the middle of nowhere and came across the grisly scene of a gang war/drug deal gone bad, in which various bodies are strewn about, drugs and machine guns too, and a big sack of cash is just sitting there amidst the carnage. In that type of situation and that type only would I feel it okay to make off with something that was not mine. Of course, in that sort of scenario, safety might be a relevant issue, too, so take care. Devote a bit of time to thinking about it tonight, though, because you never know when you're going to come across the bullet-riddled bodies of drug dealers and a satchel full of $100's, and when it happens, there will be no time for hesitation.

Of course, this also reminded me of my favorite dumb criminal story that took place in the hills of Cambria County, where hillbilly!Joy and I used to live. A lot of people who live "closer to the Earth", as someone I recently talked to put it, don't trust banks. It's either a long term psychological hangover from the Great Depression, or an irrational fear of the Feds (FDIC? Damned gub'mint!). Whatever the reason, there was this one gentleman who felt the need to avoid banks, but to construct a home-made vault in his own basement. He also kept track of each bill placed in the vault, sorting them into old yellow Penelec envlopes, with the serial number of each contained bill written on the outside of the envelope and then entered into a master registry. Clearly, there was something a little off about the guy, but, free country, you know? The best reckoning is that he had around $150,000 in cash in his basement Ft. Knox.

A couple of local boys got the bright idea that it would be easy to steal, and they were correct. But this is where things get fun. What did they do with the cash? If you're going to steal that much money, in my opinion it is time to relocate to a new state with a new identity. Clearly, $150K isn't enough to make it worth it for most people, but you have to know that if you stick around the hometown, someone's going to notice your sudden cash infusion. Especially if you march right down to the bank the next day and pay off the balance of your truck loan in cash. Which the one did. In marked, serialized, registered cash. It took the police several days to catch up with the two, which also says something about the local fuzz, and shows that no one comes out of this story looking good. They caught them upon their return from a Florida vacation. The thieves had blown all but around $40,000 of the money, and since it wasn't insured (damn the FDIC!) it was just plain gone. However, in their one and only classy move, in addition to paying off their pick-up loan and jetting to Florida, each of the perps had also purchased, with cash, a brand new double wide trailer home. Feel free to laugh at their idiocy, but at least they knew what they wanted out of life.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Only Good Things About Winter

Since winter's hanging around for a couple more days, I have to be honest and say that I really used to enjoy it. I liked the raw aspect of it; the thought that just by going outside unadorned, nature would wear you down and kill you in a matter of minutes without prejudice or passion; maybe it was that it reminded me "Dude - you're little."

I guess I don't need to be reminded of that anymore. I know it quite well. That said, I'm ready for winter to be done forever. If I never see snow again, that'll be fine with me. If it never dips below fifty degrees in my lifetime, well, great. There are, however, three, and only three things, that I like about winter that you can't get anywhere else.
  1. The quality of the silence in the country after a foot of snow has just fallen.

  2. Salting sidewalks that are covered with a plate of ice; the popping sound the ice makes as it starts to melt.

  3. Watching the girls play in the snow.

Okay, 3.5: skiing. I haven't skied in almost eight years, though, so it only gets half a point. Other than those three (and a half) things, winter can just stop. Or, we could move. Dad's hinted that they might move to a year-round warm water port city for sailing when they retire, so hmmm...


On Tuesday of last week I became very sick. By very sick I mean sick enough that I left work after an hour, went home and spent the rest of the day in bed. It wasn't until Monday that I had anything approaching an appetite. The day after I got so sick, I dragged myself to work thinking I could spend the day slouched in my nice chair and pecking away at a keyboard. It was not to be. The previous evening, a worm had invaded one of our main servers and all hell broke loose. It was the next day until I had production machines up and running. Then, Thursday brought the office back online. Friday saw the mail server working. This week, I'm cleaning up loose ends.

The good news is that our network is a little better designed and more secure now than it was before. That was our first intrusion incident in three years, so, I'm toooo down on myself for letting it happen.

Anyway, what that all meant was that I had zero time for writing or anything else for that matter. Now that we're back on track, and I can eat food without fear of nausea, I'll be trying to post something once a day again.

Thanks for waiting.