Friday, December 25, 2009

A swift punch in the face

I woke up about three hours late for my flight to Nebraska on Tuesday, about thirty minutes before the arrival of the bus I planned to take to the airport.  Luckily, Jason woke me up and I hopped in the car, drove to work to park, and then hurried to the bus stop as quickly as I could.  I made it there a minute or two late, but the bus was picking up a large number of people so I managed to be the last one to board it before it left, tired, sweaty, and unshowered.

While waiting in the terminal for my flight, I started hearing this annoying dog whimpering sound.  It went on for several minutes, occasionally interrupted by yipping, and then back to more whimpering.  I thought to myself that if that dog was going to be on my flight it was going to get a swift punch in the face.  Then I started hearing the people around me talking about it—apparently it belonged to an elderly woman who was indeed heading to Minneapolis with me.  Great.

I heard from the other people that she was going to be on row 17.  How they knew this I'm not sure, but it turned out to be mostly accurate.  I passed by row 17 and didn't see anyone, but it didn't matter too much anyway since I was all the way back in row 44.  After ages of waiting for people to incorrectly and inefficiently stow their overhead luggage, I made it back to my seat to find it occupied.  A nearby flight attendant explained that they had moved me to... row 20.  Ugh.

So after another eon, I made it to my new seat at row 20, and the dog was indeed there right in front of me.  But no elderly woman.  The dog was still whimpering and yipping.  After five minutes of that I was strongly considering plan A of punching the dog in the face.  Finally a flight attendant turned to us and said "just a moment, folks" and left to first class.  He came back a minute later dragging an irritated and confused elderly woman, and he told her that she was now sitting in coach, and if the dog didn't stay quiet it was going in a closet.  There was a collective sigh of relief.

My mind still boggles at the idea of someone buying a first-class ticket for theirself and another coach ticket for their unattended dog.  The woman still received her first-class amenities in her new coach seat, and the dog received plenty of pretzels and water.  The vindictive part of me is pretty happy that this extremely inconsiderate person was downgraded in her seating, though all things considered, I'd have preferred just to have not had to hear that dog bark for an hour.

Friday, December 18, 2009


I've been tracking what browser plugins my site visitors have over the past few weeks. Overall, my numbers match up pretty well with the internet at large, with one exception—a lot fewer of my visitors have Silverlight than on the web at large. I'm thinking that this is mostly due to the fact that my site gets a disproportionate number of Mac users, since it's a product popular with teachers and schools still have a disproportionate number of Macs. (This is sort of sad since my product is Windows-only and therefore basically 100% of those Mac users are going to leave disappointed.) Silverlight is available for Mac OS, but it is significantly less popular than on Windows machines, at about half as many users.

Internet average97.7%78.0%73.3%


Java used to be on just about every browser; now it's down to less than three-fourths, which is below my threshold for considering it a viable technology for reaching a broad user base. Silverlight, being much newer, is pretty far behind it, but in the same category—enough users have it that it's an interesting possibility for some kind of side project, but too many people would need to download it (and probably wouldn't) for me to depend on people having it. The difference between 50% and 75% isn't actually all that large to me: something's either a niche technology that I can't depend on at all under 35%, or it's broad enough that I could base a product on it at 90%, and anything between there is all sort of the same in the "interesting" category.

Flash is certainly dependable, but I'm not really that excited about building anything with it. I've had too many poor experiences with it (even more than Java) to make me care anymore. It might be the best choice from a "business" perspective, but as much as I sometimes pretend that they are, my side projects are not a business; they're a way for me to be productive while having fun and keeping my skills sort of relevant. That makes Silverlight actually the most attractive option of the three for building cool new internet stuff, despite the fact that it's the least common: it's in the same category of rarity as Java, and from what I can tell so far, a lot more interesting to code for.

Of course, I say all this like I'm actually considering building some cool new thing in my spare time, when in reality I don't have nearly enough spare time to start something new. I can only handle a few side projects at once, and more than one of my current side projects are add-ons for World of Warcraft. Those are a pretty good "deal" for my time—they're mostly fun to write, give me an interesting new perspective on development, and I get to actually use what I create, unlike my crossword builder or stuff I make for work.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Vatican's MySpace page

The short version:
Basement Jaxx—Scars: 6/10
Zero 7—Yeah Ghost: 5/10
Muse—The Resistance: 8/10
Nelly Furtado—Mi Plan: 8/10

Several of my favorite artists have put out new albums recently, and I've been dutifully listening.  The first disappointment is the latest from the electronic dance wizards Basement Jaxx, Scars.  Their music can be a bit grating to listen to for a full hour (example: the intro and title track), and this album is certainly no exception, but generally they make up for it by creating really catchy tunes that make me want to get up and dance if it weren't for the paralyzing fear that someone could witness the horrors.  But this CD just doesn't do that to me.  The second track Raindrops is probably my favorite, but it's a bit generic, and listening to it I probably couldn't say "this is so good that it could only have come from Basement Jaxx," which I could say about many of the tracks on their last couple of discs.  Feelings Gone (featuring Sam Sparro) and My Turn (featuring Lightspeed Champion) are both pretty good too, but if this album had never been released I'd still have had a higher opinion of the band... and I wouldn't have heard Yoko Ono moaning orgasmically, either.

Up next was Yeah Ghost, the latest from Zero 7.  Apparently, without the influence of their emotional lead singer Sia Furler, they've rather ironically lost some of the soul of their music.  A lot of the songs here are pretty bland, and the fully instrumental tracks fit the weird title and theme of the album but don't add much.  The best Swing, Medicine Man, and Sleeper, but as was the case with Scars, these are a really poor substitute for Zero 7's awesome past work.  The fairly painful track Ghost Symbol is a great example of what's wrong with this disc.

The Resistance, the latest from Muse, took a while to grow on me, but I've come to like it.  It's also the only CD on here from which a track is featured on the playlist of hopeful pop songs on the Vatican's official MySpace Page.  (Wait, Muse is on the playlist of pop songs on the Vatican's MySpace?)  (Wait, the Vatican has a MySpace page?)  The song in question is Uprising, my second-favorite on the disc, behind the sexy and catchy Undisclosed Desires.  The "previously unpublished Queen song" United States of Eurasia is amusing, and the 13-minute closer Exogenesis Symphony is purdy.  There's a lot of variety in the sounds of this album just like there was in their last, and that's part of the reason that I've decided that I really like it after all.

Finally, Nelly Furtado's latest CD Mi Plan is all in Spanish, and it too is pretty good.  I don't know Spanish, which makes it hard to fully appreciate this, but Nelly sings well, and the songs are produced well.  Other than the change in language, it's in the style of her first two albums, not the recent Timbaland-produced one Loose, so if you found that transition distasteful, you should give her another chance.  Her music is full of conviction and emotion while still being catchy, and whatever she's singing about, she really seems to feel it.  The best songs on here are Manos al Aire (Hands in the Air), Suficiente Tiempo (Enough Time), and Silencio (Silence).

I'm also listening to the new OneRepublic album which is turning out to be better than I was expecting, and I'm looking forward to the latest from Shakira soon as well.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Less adorable than you might expect

Today on the way to work I waited for a short Indian woman who looked strikingly like an Ewok without the facial fur to hobble across the street.  She however looked angry at the world, and less adorable than you might expect.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Writing in parallel

As I was writing my return address on an envelope right now, I realized toward the end that I was reading it aloud in my head while writing it... but it wasn't synchronized.  I was thinking "Redmond, Wa..." right as I finished writing my zip code.  It was weird.

You'd think that would be distracting, not being in sync, sort of like when people start yelling out numbers when you're trying to concentrate on counting something.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Performance hall

I had a dream last night that seemed like it could be made into a depressing movie.  In fact, it seems pretty likely that a movie with a similar plot exists, and even possible that I've seen it and forgotten.  But anyway...

The dream centered on an elderly woman who was taking care of her husband with Alzheimer's as best she could.  She helped him remember peoples' names, assisted him with medication, took him out to do things, and the like.  She struggled to pay the expenses, but managed to get by.  She was the only thing keeping him out of a nursing home.  Their kids continually tried to get them to accept help, but she wanted the two of them to live by themselves, and her persistent care made that possible, she felt.  Her husband was less convinced, and agreed with their children.

One evening she had gone to a performance hall of some sort to see a show, and her husband was being more stubborn than usual.  He kept telling her that they shouldn't be there, and that he wanted to go home.  The woman was becoming increasingly agitated by this and yelled at her husband to stop making a scene.  A couple minutes later, the woman had a seizure.

When she came to, the people in the dream changed.  Her husband wasn't her husband at all; it was her son, helping her up.  They hadn't been seeing a performance; she had been at home alone, and her children were there, trying to move her to a facility where she could receive care around the clock.  She was very confused, and angrily asked for her husband, and her children kept telling her that he wasn't there, and hadn't been for a long time.  She hadn't been caring for her husband, or even herself—her children had been taking care of her, but didn't comprehend what was happening due to her own senility, and in her imagination, she had still been in control.  That's the depressing twist.  I woke up shortly after that revelation.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Howdy howdy

I greeted someone from my building (not native to this country) yesterday with the phrase "howdy howdy."  He looked at me quizzically and asked me what that meant.  I paused, and it occurred to me that moment how absurd that was—I had essentially said "how do you do how do you do," and even a single "how do you do" is already archaic enough.  After the pause I just said, "er... hello hello."  He replied with a slightly confused "Uh, hi."


Whenever I eat a salad I feel like I'm starving immediately.  It doesn't seem to matter what I put on it—even if I've got a half pound of meat on there (and I always do), something about a salad is just extremely unfulfilling.  I've never been able to figure out what it is.  If I have pasta with half a pound of meat I'll feel full.  If I replace that pasta with the same amount of spinach and vegetables I'll feel like I haven't eaten anything.

I'm thinking that it's one of a few things.  Perhaps it's a psychological barrier, and when I'm eating a salad I'm so disappointed in my meal that those feelings override whatever signals come from my stomach to tell me that there's actually a lot of food down there.  Or, maybe it's just the temperature.  I hate cold meals, and maybe my body has just decided to ignore things that are cold.

It could also just be that my salads are too healthy or something, and my body isn't fooled.  I generally use fat-free dressing and lean meat, and while there's plenty of protein in there, maybe the lack of fat and carbohydrates is making me still feel empty.  (If you're going to put those things on a salad, I just don't really see what the point is.  You might as well eat food that isn't absolutely horrible.)

But all I know is that I just finished a massive salad that probably weighed more than 12 ounces including half a pound of meat a few minutes ago, and I feel about as hungry as if I hadn't eaten a thing all day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Home bugs

The longer I stay on the homeowner's association board of directors, the more I feel that we need what would essentially be a bug-tracking database. We get reports of various issues that need to be resolved, and we talk about them every month, but we often don't have the history nearby and handy (so we have to rely on our memories of details), we often don't have all of the supporting documentation, and it's mostly just an unfocused mess that we make the best of. The president keeps an agenda of the things we need to talk about each month, at least, and without that we'd be totally lost.

I mean, we get by, and we don't exactly need anything fancy for 16 houses and condos and 1 rental unit, but it would make meetings and HOA stuff go much more smoothly. We could have a bug tracking database on a server somewhere, and we could scan bids and documents and store them with the bugs, and accumulate all of our emails and decisions there. It'd be a searchable set of records. Seeing as I work on that very product, it is kind of silly how long it took me to realize that SharePoint would actually be nearly perfect for something like this. I don't need integration with Visual Studio or source control or other sorts of things that software bug tracking systems use. I just need a fairly simple list with issues that can be assigned to people and can be marked "resolved" or "in progress." I could get it running pretty quickly. Probably for free on Office Live.

And then I'd use it for a month or two and it would languish and we'd forget about it. It would be a lot of work for one person to keep track of all those things, and that's exactly how many people would agree to keep things in there instead of their heads or scattered paper documents. Two of us on the board are technologically savvy, one is competent, and the other two can barely read their email. Realistically, we would not be collaborating. It would be one person trying to keep track of every document and thought and decision and bid. We actually have a guy doing that already, but in a technology-free way with stacks of papers and hand-written notes. If that guy ever decides to leave the board and we actually have to do all that crap ourselves, I'll definitely have to look into setting up a bug tracking website for our HOA.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Shoulderpads protect the shoulders

Just as fair warning, if you wear football shoulderpads on Halloween, you should be prepared to be punched... quite a bit. This includes being punched by people who simply do not realize that shoulderpads protect the shoulders and not the stomach.

Hot guy I don't know: (excitedly watching other people punching me in the shoulders) Can I punch you?
Me: Sure, just watch out: there's a little metal piece h—
Hot guy I don't know: (punches me in the stomach)

Luckily, my six years of childhood karate training adequately prepared me for this moment, as I had instinctively instantly reacted by tightening my muscles. I came out unharmed, just very surprised that (1) I had just been punched fairly hard in the stomach and (2) despite this I felt completely fine.

I declined hot guy's apologetic offer to let me punch him back. He was a UPS driver, and it's probably best to stay on a UPS driver's good side; otherwise, he could decide to start requiring signatures on delivery or something equally horrifying. (Had I only been thinking more quickly, I would have instead requested a staged photo to go along with this amusing anecdote.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

The least popular candy

Every year, parents bring their kids to the office to go door-to-door trick-or-treating.  This is basically the laziest form of trick-or-treating possible that still qualifies to use the name.  (Anything lazier would simply be "taking candy.")  The kids walk the least distance possible down the hallway from chair to chair, picking up candy and then moving to the next one.  Some of them stop to say "trick or treat" or "happy Halloween" (mostly only if their parents make them), and about two-thirds of the "what do you say?" nudges from parents are met with blank stares and followed up with nervous smiles on the part of the parents (that sort of say "I raised this ungrateful child!") instead of "thank you."

Almost my entire tray of candy was eliminated, but a few "choice" pieces of the least popular candy remained.  I was amused at what was left.

Hershey's Special Dark6
3 Musketeers3
Mr. Goodbar2
Hershey's Milk Chocolate1
Hershey's Kiss1
Loose, Unwrapped Skittle (?!)1

I'm actually surprised that Butterfinger and 3 Musketeers were left over.  Those seemed pretty popular when I was a kid. None of the Snickers, Milky Way, Starburst, Skittles, Baby Ruth, Kit Kat, or Blow Pops remained.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


I haven't been blogging a lot.  It wasn't a conscious decision; it's mostly just that I don't feel like I have much to say, or I don't have spare time, or I don't feel like blogging because I'm not alone, or... well, I don't actually know.

Jason moved in a couple weeks ago, and I've not found myself without someone to talk to in that time.  It's certainly true that over the past year since we met I've posted here quite a bit less.  I never really thought of blogging as something that I did when I felt like talking and didn't have someone to talk to, but perhaps that is actually the case after all.  I actually think that the reason is a combination of various things.  I don't like repeating myself (though I certainly do it from time to time), and when I use up all of my interesting stories in person, I don't usually feel like blogging them.

Or maybe I just haven't felt like writing very much.  Who knows.  Having a roommate has been good so far, though.  We certainly have overlapping interests, so at the very least I don't have someone around who would be annoyed if I played games into the wee hours of the night.  There's a pretty significant difference in our levels of organization and cleanliness—I'm quite a bit of a neat freak and, well, there are piles of papers and clothes and cords on the other side of this room now.  We'll see how that goes.

He also has to get up ridiculously early three days a week for an early class, as in three hours earlier than I want to, but for the most part I can sleep through him getting ready and closing doors and such.  So far, we seem to be managing just fine.

It's certainly a change.  I haven't had a roommate since college.  I liked living alone, but having someone around all the time is nice too.  (And, it's a very nice improvement to not have to drive to and from Seattle and pay to park to hang out with Jason... not that that is really a deciding factor.)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A stern talking-to

Today while on the toilet at the gym, I learned that when the attendant opens up the toilet paper dispenser in the stall next to you, you can see right through the wall. And so can he. He can watch you poop.

I would like to have a stern talking-to with the person who designed that toilet paper dispenser.

fig. 1—A picture is worth a thousand turds

Friday, October 16, 2009


It is a documented fact that I enjoy singing along to music on my way to and from work.  When I'm singing along, I usually try to mimic the way that the original artist is singing it, copying each soulful inflection, semierotic grunt, and tremor.  When the artist screams, I scream too—though that sort of mocking whisper-scream where you pretend to be screaming but really aren't making much noise at all.  I do this without even really thinking about it most of the time.  I know that I don't really even think about it that much because it wasn't until halfway through Kanye West's Love Lockdown today that I realized that I even mimic the distortions in his voice produced by a vocoder.  I found myself unaware that I was, in fact, singing in a robot voice.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I got my tickets for my Christmas trip to Nebraska last night, and I saved a couple hundred bucks over what I usually pay.  Bing Travel has a couple neat features that worked out pretty well for me: you can get an RSS feed of a particular itinerary and easily track when prices change, and it will predict whether prices are likely to go up or go down from where they are.  I hadn't realized how much the prices of flights fluctuate until a couple weeks ago.  A flight that I usually end up paying $600-700 for dipped down to the $500s a couple weeks ago, and for a moment last night dropped down to about $365.  By the time I was able to complete a purchase the price was up to the low $400s, but still, that's a pretty significant savings over what I usually pay.  In fact, it's roughly the price I was going to have to pay on top of using 35,000 reward points on my credit card, which are themselves worth about $300.

Now that I know how much prices can fluctuate, in the future I'll have to remember to be more patient and vigilant when buying flights.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

An "F" in back-to-school store organization

Jason and I stopped into Office Depot to pick up a few school supplies.  While we found some of the items we were looking for, try as best we could, we could not locate either notebook paper or regular Bic ball-point pens.  (We did, at least, find other brands of pens, and Bic pencils.)  If that's not an "F" in back-to-school store organization I don't know what is.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: advice

There's nothing particularly new in this post. I just thought it might be nice to summarize my car theft experiences and advice in a couple paragraphs for those who don't want to read my long-winded stories but still might be interested in knowing. Some of these things may be Washington-specific, but I imagine that most everything I'm saying here will be pretty universal.
First of all, having your car stolen sucks. It sucks a lot. If you think your car has been stolen, you'd better really make certain. Jason and I scoured the garage where my car was stolen for an hour before giving up, and had I realized just how much it was going to suck, I might have waited even longer. If your car is stolen, you'll need to call the police and file a report, and then you'll need to report it to your insurance company. Be prepared to fill out a lot of forms, and find a fax machine, because you're going to need one of those too. If you take a cab or rent a car or otherwise pay for things that you had to due to having your car stolen, save receipts.

Then the waiting comes. Once everyone gives up on ever finding your car, you'll start negotiating a price with your agent. Keep in mind that it's their job to pay you as little as possible, and it's your goal to be paid as much as is practical. Under Washington insurance codes, the insurance company is required to pay you the replacement cost of an equivalent vehicle, plus taxes and fees, less your deductible. In fact, if you can't find an equivalent vehicle for the amount they offer (plus your deductible) after looking for thirty days, they're required to buy one for you or make up the difference.

It's a negotiation. If the agent tells you otherwise, they are lying. While the law is non-negotiable, the definition of "equivalent vehicle" may differ wildly. In my case, the difference between my opinion and the agents' was about a thousand dollars. Your state's insurance commissioner can help you out here if there is any conflict between you and the agent, or you just need clarification on the law. (Washington's insurance codes are surprisingly easy to read and understand, but I imagine most states are not the same.) To negotiate effectively, you're going to need data: lots and lots of data. Besides all the details of your car, you're going to need to know how much local vehicles are going for. Check sites like Autotrader for a starting point. Don't bother restricting your search to only cars from dealers or only certified pre-owned cars, because your agent is not going to pay you for that. (Unless, I suppose, you just want to start off with a higher number and bargain them down. That seemed to work for me.) Pay attention to mileage and options, because a comparable vehicle will have the same mileage and options as yours did, and if you can't find enough similar local cars, you can make them similar through adjustments. See how much price premium an automatic transmission is bringing in in your area (take averages and subtract), and if you are looking at an otherwise similar car that's a manual, add in the price of an automatic transmission to make it similar. Find out how much mileage affects the selling price of a car. Kelley Blue Book may give you a starting point, but they aren't going to be using it, so don't put too much stock in it either. Armed with a spreadsheet full of this data, you can come up with a price, and with that you can start arguing with your agent.

After that, it's up to you how you want to negotiate. Be realistic in your expectations, but don't just take whatever the agent offers either. You can also ask for an initial payment of the undisputed amount that the agent originally offered—that should help you get a replacement car sooner, and it also reduces the tension of the negotations a bit: your agent can no longer string you out forever, waiting on you to finally give in and take their low bid. They don't have to give you an early payment, but they don't have a good reason not to, either. According to the person I talked to in the Washington insurance commissioner's office, it's standard practice to grant an early payment if the customer requests it, but not required.

Other than all that, good luck. It's an expensive situation that you didn't want to be in in the first place, but you don't have to be unprepared. After the theft you'll have plenty of time—a week or two—to be ready for the dealings with the agent, the purchase of a new car, and getting life back on track. Take advantage of it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


The short version:
Mute Math—Armistice: 7/10
Imogen Heap—Ellipse: 6/10
Bear McCreary—Battlestar Galactica season 4: 6/10
Lily Allen—Alright, Still: 6/10

The first in this line of disappointments is the sophomore album from Mute Math: Armistice, an interesting alternative rock band with a really fantastic drummer.  And while the percussion work here really shines, the album just isn't as interesting as the first one.  There aren't standout singles, memorable tracks, or catchy melodies, and even the energy that their previous album had.  This album's darker and more depressing, and while the CD isn't bad, it's not as good as the first one.  They don't pull off "brooding" as well as "energetic."  Some of the best stuff on here is when they're trying to match the energy of their first album: Backfire (which is admittedly pretty great), and The Nerve (a fun, fast song).  Pins and Needles is the best of the slower, more moody songs.

The biggest letdown of the batch is Ellipse from Imogen Heap.  Her last album, Speak for Yourself, was several years ago, and the most recent album that I'd consider a 10/10 masterpiece.  Ellipse doesn't even begin to do it justice.  Half of the tracks on this album I've already forgotten having heard, and the others aren't faring much better.  I heard the first single First Train Home before the rest of the album, and while it's a pretty enough song, I really hoped it wouldn't be the best on the disc... but it is.  It matches pretty well with her previous work.  Bad Body Double and Swoon are pretty good too, but despite being some of the better tracks, the instrumentation on those two still isn't up to par with other stuff Imogen has done.  Overall, the best from this disc are barely equal to the worst from Speak for Yourself, and that's just really depressing.

The soundtrack from the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica by Bear McCreary is also not as interesting as the previous three.  It worked well in the TV series, but as an album this one isn't quite as good as the previous ones.  From this album I rather like Farewell Apollo, and Assault on the Colony (a fifteen-minute percussion-fueled battle song).  The most memorable is probably Kara Remembers, but it's sort of cheating as it's just a rehash of the tune that was basically the theme to the end of the third season.  All that said, it's still pleasant to listen to, and it's a two-disc set with the second disc containing solely music from the last episode.

Finally, after liking her newest album so much I picked up Lily Allen's previous one, Alright, Still.  I'm not sure I'd have been inclined to buy both had I started with this one. It's got a few good songs, but it's nothing to write home about.  The opening track Smile is pretty catchy, and Nan You're a Window Shopper is amusing even though a few of the British references are lost on me.  Shame for You is decent too.  Basically, the album is a far less-refined version of the sound from her second album.

I've still got a pretty sizeable queue of music to get through.  I'm currently listening to the new Muse album The Resistance, and it's... intriguing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Grand Theft Auto, day 37

15 September 2009

Epilogue:  I left work a couple hours early and drove down to The Middle of Nowhere, WA to pick up my new 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid right before closing time.  The whole purchase process only took about half an hour; it was just about as smooth as possible.  I'm very glad that it's all over.

Monday, September 14, 2009

He likes to hum along

Out of all of the pretty songs in the world for me to randomly hum as I wander around the house, In Bloom by Nirvana seems to come up far too often.  I know not what it means.  The only times I've even listened to the song in the past five years were when people were playing Rock Band, and just now.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Grand Theft Auto, days 25-33

Thursday the 3rd through Friday the 11th of September 2009

A week after receiving my money from Progressive it became available for use in my checking account, due to the unnecessary-seeming delay imposed by the credit union.  I'd already settled on the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, and I'd already spent enough time picking out that one, so I decided I didn't really want to spend this "gift" of extra time reconsidering.  I was going to get a Fusion Hybrid, and that's that.  They're in short supply, and they've been selling quickly, often before they even reach the dealerships. So, nearly all of the ones that were available a week prior had already been sold, and most of my efforts spent searching for cars previously were in vain.

I started a new search once I actually had the money in my metaphorical hands, and after re-searching the state and making a slew of calls, I managed to find two dealers who would sell me a Fusion hybrid at the "X-plan" partner pricing that I qualify for as a Microsoft employee.  (It's optional whether or not a dealer accepts the plan, but Ford pays them a bigger bonus if they do.)  One was the far-off dealer in southeastern Washington many hours away with a green one, and one was in Issaquah less than half an hour away with a silver one.  Both were willing to sell to me at a discount only if I financed the car through them, since they would get a commission on that, and both were really disappointed to hear that I didn't have a trade-in.  (Out of the dozen or so other dealers, none of the others were interested in selling below MSRP.)

The fellow in Issaquah's offer was rather enticing, and he was wiling to pick me up to get the paperwork signed to put a deposit down on it.  But his car wasn't going to be available for another two and a half weeks.  That far-off dealer was initially no longer sure if he would be able to sell the car to me at a discount, and I was literally minutes away from scheduling a time with the Issaquah guy when the far-off guy emailed me and said that he'd indeed sell it to me for the price I wanted, and it was arriving ahead of schedule: he should have it at the beginning of next week, two weeks sooner.  That was too good to pass up, and I'm willing to drive a few hours to pick up a car if I get it in a better color two weeks sooner.  So I put a deposit down on that one instead.

I felt bad for the Issaquah dealer.  I mean, he's still technically a person, and I sort of feel like I used him to get the other dealer to give me what I wanted.  He was rather helpful, seemed quite honest about pricing (explaining why he needed me to finance the car through him and so forth), and was willing to go the extra mile (or dozen miles) to pick me up.  But it's just business.  The other dealer simply had the better offer, and it didn't make sense for me to buy from Issaquah two weeks later just because the guy was nice.

So finally, after more than a month since this all started, I'm almost totally done making calls and planning and faxing and emailing and searching.  It's been like a part-time job, eating up dozens of hours of my time.  Having your car stolen sucks way more than I ever would have naively expected, and that's part of the reason that I didn't get another Civic (and avoided most popular Japanese cars overall).  Now all I have to do is wait for the car to arrive at the dealership, and I'll be done with all this nonsense.  (That is, barring some sort of unscrupulous evil or clerical mishaps...)

Patience got me an extra thousand dollars dealing with the insurance company.  Patience will save me another twenty five hundred getting a new car.  But boy does patience suck.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Grand Theft Auto, day 24

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The agent "Sandra" left me a voicemail Wednesday morning.  She said that the extra money in my check was because she re-ran the mileage numbers.  B.S.  I don't buy it.  As far as I can tell, a $970 difference in a 2009 Civic is about 24,000 miles.  That story just doesn't check out—and it's awfully convenient that it happened to be almost precisely the same number that you get if you open the Excel spreadsheet I sent her, highlight the cell where I add in an adjustment for the condition of the vehicle, and press the Delete key.

But whatever, I don't care anymore.  According to, she had already closed the claim, without my permission and in contrast with her saying that she wasn't going to close it a day and a half earlier, so I called her up and said that I was fine with the claim being closed.  I was happy to be done with her.

I had several dealers to call from my previous night's exhaustive searching, and one by one they scoffed at the idea of selling me a car for less than sticker price.  All except one of the last dealers I called—a man running fleet sales at a dealership in Middle of Nowhere, Washington.  He had a car coming from Mexico in two and a half weeks that he would be willing to sell me at the Ford employee and partner pricing, which was about a $2,500 savings over what every other dealer was quoting me.  All I had to do was get there.

Grand Theft Auto, day 23

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

I had received my check from Progressive, and it was for almost a thousand dollars more than I was expecting.  I wasn't going to argue, and at that point it wasn't really worth even trying to get more from them.  I got what I asked for.

I went to the credit union to deposit my check, and even that was a hassle.  Since the check was from an insurance company and for more than $5,000, they put a 5-day hold on the money.  Ugh.  It was going to be another week until I had money for a car.  I could start shopping around, but without any actual money it was going to be hard to reserve anything or otherwise be a very interesting customer.  I looked around for hours that night, and I only found a few of the car model I was hoping for in the whole of Washington and Oregon (and parts of Montana and California), and far too many of them were white, which is the only color besides red that I simply will not accept.  What few there were left were far away, and the best of them were available for no less than MSRP.  Cash for Clunkers has obliterated the local stocks of desirable cars, and the dealers have no reason to sell popular cars for anything less.  One of the local Ford dealers was pricing the Fusion four thousand dollars above MSRP, and they'll probably still sell it at that price.

Grand Theft Auto, day 22

Monday, 31 August 2009

Having still not heard from my agent in five days, I called her again to see if she finally decided to show up for work.  Her voicemail message from Friday was still up.  So, I called her boss.  He couldn't be reached either.  I was just about to file a complaint with the insurance commissioner after all, but I decided that before that, I should call Progressive and ask for an early payment, and let them know that their agent was worthless.  I dialed their 800 number, typed in my claim number, and was connected with a real person really quickly.  I explained my story about how my agent was being completely unresponsive and generally making me rather unhappy.  She let me finish the story, and responded with "Oh, hi Travis.  This is Sandra*."

Grand Theft Auto, days 18-21

Thursday the 27th through Sunday the 30th of August 2009

The day after calling the Washington insurance commissioner's office I didn't even hear back from the agent, and I couldn't manage to reach her, so finally I left her voicemail.  I asked which laws she was referring to the previous day, and whether I could get an initial claim payment for the undisputed amount while we worked out the final numbers.  I didn't hear back that day, or the next, or the next, or the next.

She was starting to make me really angry.  I called her back again and her voicemail said that she wasn't in her office on Friday (which she hadn't informed me on Wednesday or Thursday), and she listed her boss's number in case of emergencies.  If I didn't reach her by Monday, I knew which number to call.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Grand Theft Auto, day 17

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The following day, I talked with the agent again.  When I suggested that the car was worth more than what she had offered, she scoffed and, with some mixture of indignance and bewilderment at my very suggestion informed me that "this was not a negotiation."  She explained that the very job of companies like Autosource, who are very good at what they do, is to determine the values of vehicles.  Her hands were tied—Washington state law prevented her from giving me any amount other than what the neutral third party decided was the value of the car, she said.

I frustratedly started to ask for some clarifications, and eventually she did admit that if I could fax her some proof of the original mileage on the car (6 miles), she could run some calculations to estimate the actual mileage at the time of the theft, and if her estimate came out less than the 5,000 I had originally stated was the actual approximate mileage, she might get different numbers back from Autosource.  She would also "follow up" and see why only two of the listed vehicles had automatic transmissions, but it wouldn't change the amount of money I would be getting.  I was not impressed, and no normal-driver estimation of mileage was going to say that a car that had been used as a primary vehicle for 11 months only had 5,000 miles; the average American drives more like 15,000 a year.

By then she had started to become frustrated as well, and finally said that if I didn't believe that I was getting a fair number, I'd have to pay for an independent appraiser, and then so would Progressive, and it wouldn't accomplish anything because they'd use the exact same process and come up with the same sort of number that she was already offering me.  And that was it.

After she hung up, I thought things over, and decided that she had gone too far.  Too many of the things that she said sounded untrue, and by making me wait a day between our conversations after having waited so long already it seemed likely that she was just trying to draw things out as long as possible so that I'd give up and accept her number.  So I called her bluff, gathered all of the emotional strength I could muster, and I looked up the number of the Washington State insurance commissioner.  I really didn't want to turn my financial battle into a legal one.

I was quickly transferred to an analyst who asked for my story, and I told it to her in fewer words than I'm using here.  She seemed very confused.  There was, of course, no such law that would prevent this agent from working out a mutually acceptable value for the car.  She strongly suggested that I immediately demand to know which specific law (by its Revised Code of Washington or Washington Administrative Code number) she was quoting, because she was surely either making it up, or interpreting it very strangely.  She admitted that hiring an appraiser would cost me several hundred dollars and thus not really be worth the time and effort, so my best hope was to threaten the agent with a formal complaint if she didn't "sharpen her pencil," which she would likely take seriously.  Any settlement I came to with Progressive would be legally binding, but there was a possibility that if a complaint were filed and they found the agent guilty of wrongdoing they would help me settle for more money, but it would take a month and I shouldn't count on anything.  Not having to file a complaint was still the best outcome, and that I could certainly agree with.

When the analyst told me all this, it filled me with a sort of righteous vengeance that I wasn't really expecting.  Before that moment, this agent was someone who was annoying me.  Now she was someone who had wronged me, and it certainly seemed like the law was on my side.  I started looking up Washington law on the topic—I've been consistently impressed with how well and easy-to-read the laws are written here—and found several things that seemed in direct contrast to what the agent had told me, and very little that seemed to support her point of view.  I was looking forward to hearing the agent backpedal the next morning.

(For the curious: the definition of a comparable vehicle; settlement requirements and adjustments.)

Grand Theft Auto, day 16

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The third Tuesday after the car was stolen was the day that things got really interesting.  By that time I'd utterly given up hope on seeing my car again, and had already moved on and picked out the car that I'd most like to buy to replace my Civic: a Ford Fusion Hybrid, which I'd already test driven and loved.  I was just waiting on Progressive to move on too, and that morning, they did.

The agent called me up and gave me an offer: $17,477.  This was quite a bit less than I was expecting, and far less than I was hoping.  This was even what I thought was a realistic hope, not a pie-in-the-sky lottery-winning hope.  The important thing is that it was considerably less than what I felt was a fair price for the car.  I had already come up with what I felt was a more accurate value for the car, and I told her that, but we didn't get into the specifics.  She didn't really want to discuss anything, but she did send me along the valuation report that she had procured from Autosource to come up with that number.

The process is not quite what a lot of people would expect; it's not just a matter of giving me the Blue Book price for my car or the original purchase price.  Instead, several local "comparable" vehicles for sale are adjusted and then averaged to come up with a price, and then taxes and fees are added.  Theoretically, it's the amount of money that I would need to spend to go to a local dealer and pick up a theoretically equivalent car on the day of the loss.  Washington State law and insurance codes are pretty specific on how comprehensive loss auto insurance works.  Where there's a lot of room to maneuver is in deciding what counts as a "comparable" vehicle.  There were three things that I saw that were wrong about the "comparable" vehicles chosen on that Autosource report, and those were the things that I would need to argue with her about to try to get a more reasonable amount of money from my policy.

The report listed fourteen vehicles, but only two of those had automatic transmissions.  The other twelve were manual, but in the column for adjustments in value between that car and mine was $0, every time.  That same report listed the value of an automatic transmission on my car as $800.  So, I felt that an appropriate adjustment would be $800 * (14 - 2) / 14, plus tax.  (You would get the same number if you added $800 to all of the manual cars and then re-averaged.)  It turned out later that Autosource used 34 local cars, not 14, but only 14 were listed.  The agent and I both missed that at first.

The second problem I saw is that the average mileage of the cars on the report was more than 10,000, but mine had 5,000.  I didn't have any proof of that number, since it was just getting time to have maintenance done but I hadn't done it yet, so there was no record of my mileage other than the 6 on the original purchase contract.  That difference in mileage worked out to be $215 by my calculations, based on how Kelley Blue Book values decreased by increasing mileage from 5,000 to 10,377.  (Again, we weren't using KBB, but it was the best source I had for how much a mile is worth: about 4¢.)

Finally, in my original estimate, I was looking at certified preowned (CPE) vehicles.  If I were to get a used Civic that's what I'd get, and I felt that they would most accurately reflect the condition of my car, which was excellent.  It still smelled new.  The difference in selling price of a CPE car and a regular used Civic in this area was $1,241.  But, since those vehicles also come with a comprehensive inspection along with their excellent condition, which mine did not have, I decided it wasn't fair to adjust the estimate by that full amount, so I thought I should get half that.  This was admittedly my most shaky request, and I didn't really expect to get any money in this area, but I needed something to "negotiate away" to reach a compromise between my numbers and hers.

Those three differences, with tax, came out to about $1,600.  So, I asked for her original value plus $1,600, or about $19,150.  That became my hopeful estimate.  If you remove half of that shaky $1,241 you get $18,467, and that became my more realistic expectation.  Armed with those numbers, which I felt had a pretty strong basis in reality and fact, I was ready to go to financial battle with the agent the next day.  It's her job to try to get me to settle the claim for as little money as possible, and if I wanted more than that—what I would consider a fair amount of money for my car—I was going to need to argue my case convincingly.

Grand Theft Auto, days 1-15

Monday the 10th through Monday the 24th of August 2009

The morning after my car was stolen, Progressive called and asked me more of those same questions, so that they could be really, really certain that my car had not been taken by a jilted lover or alimony-grabbing baby momma.  Since I bought my insurance from Progressive Direct and not an agent, I was paired up with a random local claims agent.  She was in charge of coordinating with the police, making sure that I was telling the truth, verifying my claim, and then eventually, deciding how much of a settlement the company should offer.  She explained that the process would take about two weeks if my car wasn't found by the police—usually claims were resolved in a couple days, but in the case of a missing vehicle it would take longer.  She called Jason while I was at work to verify my story, looked up information about my car based on the VIN, and tried to get surveillance video from the parking lot.  Beyond that, I don't think there was really any more investigation for her to do.  And, there wasn't much else for me to do, except wait.

I spent a couple hours Monday night filling out paperwork.  Every paper I filled out reminded me that insurance fraud was a felony, and that any error or missed space in filling out the paperwork could mean that my claim would be rejected.  (Not wanting to miss any spaces, I ended up writing my own full name and address a good twenty times or so on the forms.)  They wanted to know what items I had in the car, any damage to the car or scratches on the paint, how long I've lived at my current address, my exact annual salary, whether or not I bought floor mats from the dealer, if I'd ever offered to sell the car to anyone else, and a bevy of other questions in the tiniest of print.  In addition, they asked for how much I was claiming, which I hadn't expected for another week or two.  I came up with the best estimate I could and put that down—$20,759.  (I don't recall where that number came from; I think that was the dealer cost of a brand new 2008 Civic or something.)  It's more than I expected to get, but I figured it would be much worse to underestimate at this point.

The next day, on Tuesday, I had to mail out all of those forms, but first, I had to get them witnessed and notarized.  The credit union I go to luckily just opened up a branch on the Microsoft campus a few months prior, so we were able to get that done there.  That took quite a long time; the notary had to approve my documents and watch me sign, take records and notes, and all sorts of things beyond simply checking my ID and stamping them that I didn't really expect.  I doubt that any insurance company would have really made this process much easier, but all of this notarization and scary-form-filling-out really made me feel like the insurance company's enemy, not their customer, and overall left me feeling very drained.

After getting all that sent off, there wasn't much contact with the agent.  She called to let me know when she got my forms, and asked if I'd heard anything from the police, which I hadn't.  More waiting.  By the end of that week I figured that the statistical chances of getting a stolen Honda Civic back were exceptionally low, and I had given up on ever seeing my car again.  I started to plan out what replacement cars I was going to test drive.  Another Honda Civic was a possibility, but now I have a little higher budget than a year ago when I bought the Civic, and I also have a much better idea of what sorts of features I want in a car.  (My previous car was a $700 Isuzu I-Mark, which while fairly reliable and pleasant for such a low price, did not really put me in a position to make any demands from a future car.)  Not to mention, of course, perspective on just how much it sucks to have a car stolen.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Grand Theft Auto, day 0

Here's my first post of several about my experiences having my car stolen.
Sunday, 9 August 2009

Jason and I arrived at the parking garage from the pier after our weekend vacation to Victoria, British Columbia somewhere around 9:30 pm.  The garage had special pricing for passengers aboard the Victoria Clipper, so for Saturday and Sunday it was going to be only $20 instead of $36.  We went up the stairs with our bags, and noticed that the garage was rather empty.  They were closing in an hour or so, and all but one of the entrances were already locked down, so it wasn't very surprising.  We got to the spot where I had parked, and my car wasn't there.  We checked the length of that side of the garage and didn't see it.  Oh, it must be on the floor above, I thought, so we went up one more floor.  That floor was almost entirely empty, and you could immediately see that the car wasn't there either.  Hmm.

This was, of course, unsettling.  I thought that they must have towed my car.  I couldn't imagine why; I'd been very careful to follow all of the directions since I was parking overnight, and since it was going to be almost double the special rate if I didn't have proof that I was a ship passenger.  We kept looking, checking that whole side of the garage on every floor.  Still no car.  By the end of the night we had checked every little section of the garage, even in places that I was 100% certain I didn't park, and we probably checked the area where I expected my car to be half a dozen times or more.  After a good half an hour or more of searching, I called the towing company posted.  It was hard to hear the other person since trains kept going by, but eventually I confirmed that they did not tow my car—they hadn't towed any cars from that lot or any Civics anywhere recently.  They said that I should call 911 and ask for a non-emergency operator.

I was a little hesitant to call 911 since I still assumed at that point that the car had been improperly towed, not stolen, but that's what they told me to do so I did, and after saying it was a non-emergency they transferred me to a different operator.  She checked the Seattle towing records and confirmed that nobody had towed my car, also checking under various different permutations of my license plate and the information I gave her.  Let no one state that we did not do our due diligence.  She asked if I'd like to fill out a police report, so I begrudgingly accepted, and went through her long list of questions, questions that would soon become rather familiar to me.  She said she'd send an officer to the Bell Street Pier garage at 2323 Elliott, and asked where I'd meet the officers.  I said that I could meet them at the lowest-level entrance.

That was probably a bad idea, but I had no way of knowing seeing as I didn't exactly have a city or garage map in front of me.  That entrance was not, it turned out, the main entrance.  Jason and I waited about 45 minutes for the officers to show up.  At this point it's nearly midnight, and we're wandering back and forth, wondering if the officers are going to show up at the entrance that the 911 operator said they would, or the one at 2323 Elliott, which was two blocks away.  So, we switched entrances from time to time.  Of course, we finally saw them at the far-off entrance as we were approaching it from a block away, and they passed right by the entrance, not seeing anyone standing there.  I flailed my arms wildly at them but they didn't see me, and went on.  I continued running to that entrance, and Jason ran on, seeing if he could spot them.  Luckily, they looped around for one last check, and I was able to flag them down with their headlights pointed directly at me.

They asked me questions to verify that I was the person to file the report and that Jason was the other witness.  Then one of the officers had a few report forms for me to fill out, and offered to give me a seat in the police car.  At least I can now say that I've been in the back of a police car, but I'd really rather not have to again.  It's about as cramped and uncomfortable as possible, nothing like how it looks in TV and movies.

After filling out the forms he proceeded to ask me a series of questions, warning me in advance that several of the questions were rather silly.  Among many other things, they asked me if I had recently been through a breakup or had recently started seeing someone new, if I knew where all of the keys to the car were, if I'm absolutely certain that I actually drove the car and parked it there, if I had Lojack, and so on.  They're the same questions that the 911 operator asked, and the same ones that Progressive asked me twice.  When it was all over, I got a business card with an incident number, and an admission that the rate of finding stolen cars is fairly low though not unheard of, and that Civics were one of the cars I was least likely to ever see again.  They'd investigate my case, and call me if they ever found anything.  (Spoiler: they never found anything.)

At that point it was midnight and Jason had needed to go to the bathroom for quite some time, so we walked to the nearby Edgewater Hotel and used theirs, and called for a cab.  The cab ride back to my house cost $40.

When I got home, I reported the event to Progressive.  They had a handy online form for me to fill out that asked me all of those same sorts of questions, questions that they would ask me again the next morning over the phone.

All the way through Saturday evening I had been having a great time, relaxed and happy from being on vacation.  But upon finding my car missing all of that instantly ended.  I've become pretty good at keeping control of my emotions, and I didn't lose my cool, but Jason could tell by the time of the 911 call that I was pretty defeated.  My face was pretty blank for the rest of the night.  I felt very, very tired.

But at least I was insured.  The insurance company would take care of me...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


One of the most surprising things about having my car stolen is actually just how much I miss having a car.  I went more than four years here without having a car and never really felt like it was much of a burden, but now I feel very restrained, just a year after buying mine.  When I went to college I didn't take my car with me, and it was very rare that I missed it since everything I needed was within walking distance, but the area I'm in now just isn't as friendly to people without cars.  My old apartment wasn't so bad, as it was closer to Microsoft, and there were a ton of different bus lines available.  At my house, there's just one bus that only goes a couple places, slowly, and it only comes by once an hour and doesn't run on Sundays.

I'm sure that's part of it, but probably just as much as that is that I got quite used to having a car.  I'm less patient now.  Taking the Segway is still faster for a few things, such as commuting during rush hour, but it is not really a device built for pulse-pounding speed.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Expensive books

I dreamed last night that I had driven to Best Buy right before they closed to pick some things up at their book sale.  They weren't going to sell books anymore, so they had priced all their books really low.  I got a good deal on one particularly nice reference book—normally $60, I got it for $5.  Or I thought I did.  I got home, looked at my receipt, and saw that not only was I charged the full $60 for that book, but there were also plane tickets and other large items on my receipt.  My total was a few dollars short of $2,500, and they were already closed when I noticed.  (I had paid with a credit card and they never told me my total.)  I spent the rest of the dream listing all of the things that were wrong with my receipt and calculating what the total should have been.

And then I woke up and realized that I was actually dreaming about my car insurance settlement, because that's pretty much exactly what I've been doing for the past week.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Theft resolution

I've been pretty quiet on here for the last couple weeks. I promise that once I've settled my claim with my insurance company I'll have plenty to talk about, but in the meantime, I'm not going to get into too much detail here. I think that it will make an interesting story if you're curious what to expect if your car is ever stolen.

In the meantime, please enjoy this alternate version of the music video for the song Total Eclipse of the Heart where the performer sings what's actually happening in the video. (The original video was insane enough...)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sunk costs

Basically the only thing that I found relevant or interesting about my accounting class in college was the concept of sunk costs.  Put very simply, a sunk cost is money or resources that have already been spent and cannot be recovered.  You generally should not factor those costs into decision-making after they have spent, because they are rarely relevant, in stark contrast to what seems logical.

[Note: I may occasionally butcher economic terminology here, but the theory should be relatively sound.  Always listen to your professors.]

In my most recent example, my sunk cost is the amount of money I spent on my car—or rather what is now my previous car.  I specifically paid a premium on the car to get it brand new: it had only six miles on the odometer when I purchased it.  That premium was somewhat difficult to accept, and I thought quite a while about whether I'd want a new car or whether I would accept a used car for considerably less.  But eventually I decided it was worth it.  It seemed logical to me at first over this past week that since I have already paid this premium once, it would be crazy to do it again and buy another new car to replace it.  But what I paid for the first car is no longer relevant.  It's a sunk cost.  In fact, since I decided last time to purchase a new car instead of a used one, and I did not feel buyer's remorse after doing so, it makes more sense to buy a new car again this time around.  If I buy a new car again this month, the important thing for me to remember is that I'm not paying that premium twice; I'm just paying it once.  I should only consider the amount of money it adds to this car purchase, though I can then weigh that value against the amount of satisfaction I received a year ago from buying a new car, assuming I would receive that same satisfaction a second time.

It actually reminds me a lot of the common misconception that if you flip a fair coin nine times in a row, you have a much higher chance of getting tails the next time it is flipped.  It makes so much sense at first, but people who have taken a basic statistics class know quite well that the odds are still 50/50 on the tenth flip.

The money spent on that last car is only tangentially related to the decision of whether to buy a new car or a used car this time around.  It could have been five hundred bucks or half a million; it doesn't matter.  I could have bought nine new cars before this car purchase or none.  What matters is that in a week, unless some sort of miracle happens, I will have no car, a certain amount of money, and a desire to purchase a new car.  In almost every way, it is an entirely new decision, and the only way in which the previous car purchase impacts things is in the experience it gave me.

So in making my decisions about what kind of car I'm going to get to replace my beloved Civic, I am trying to be as rational as possible, and not let history unduly influence me.  In a week or two I will need to buy a car.  It will be almost exactly like the situation of a year ago, just with an ability to make a larger down payment.  How much money I "wasted" by getting a new car instead of a used one is only relevant in that it helps me decide if I will be happy doing the same thing again.  The amount that my last car depreciated over the course of a year is also not very relevant.  What matters is that I now know what the experience of buying a car from a dealership is like, what it's like to have a new car, what I liked from my Honda Civic (I heart the digital speedometer so much), what I like in the way a car feels, and those sorts of other non-finance facts.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Viva la Vida

The short version:
Coldplay—Viva la Vida: 8/10
Newsboys—In the Hands of God: 9/10
Bitter:Sweet—The Mating Game: 7/10
Fatboy Slim—Why Try Harder (hits): 5/10

I've finally been listening to the most recent Coldplay album, Viva la Vida, and it's considerably better than their previous albums.  The title single Viva la Vida is, as the world is quite aware, absolutely amazing with its strings (instruments which I am predisposed to like), and the preceding track Yes and following track Violet Hill are also both great.  The rest of the disc is fairly questionable.  There's more variance in the songs on this CD compared to the earlier ones I'd listened to, but besides those three, I'm not going to remember much else from this album when I put it away.  If that weren't the case, and the rest of the album were better, I'd happily give the album a 9, but as it stands, it's three excellent tracks, a couple good ones, and a bunch more that I don't care about.  That still makes it the best Coldplay album, though.

I've also been listening quite a bit to the latest from Newsboys, In the Hands of God.  Sad as it may or may not be, just about the greatest compliment you can pay to a Christian band is to say that they don't sound like one, and for the most part, that's the case here.  As always, they serve up excellent pop music that just happens to mention Jesus here and there.  The whole disc sounds great front-to-back, only dipping into cheesy stereotype territory for a couple tracks around the middle (such as the title track).  The best on here are the addictive Dance, the quirky The Upside, My Friend Jesus about being put on phone hold, and the darker No Grave with its unfortunate use of "yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah" multiple times in the lyrics.  This is a CD I can play through in its entirety more than once in a row without being bored at all.

I found out about Bitter:Sweet years ago after seeing one of their album covers in ads for the Zune.  I actually thought that they were a made-up band, sort of like the Contoso of music, but it turns out that they are an actual lounge/electronica group, and their CD The Mating Game is pretty decent, if a bit weird.  Dirty Laundry is the single that made me buy the disc, and it's sexy and sultry in that way that probably has a genre defined but I just associate with James Bond themes.  The opening track Don't Forget to Breathe is also fun, and Salty Air is good too.  The disc reminds me a lot of the music of the Brazilian Girls, even though it doesn't really sound all that similar.  I think that if you like that lounge/electronica sound, you'll like this disc.

I also picked up Why Try Harder, a hits compilation from Fatboy Slim.  It's pretty grating and repetitive, but you get a decent number of songs for your money.  It's hard for me to listen to it all at once; I just get sick of it.  A lot of these songs work well in commercials or TV or movies, especially when clipped down to fit a particular segment, but they're just not that pleasant to listen to for a whole hour.  Since it's a hits album, it also doesn't really have much of a flow either, and I imagine that a normal album would be a little less awkward.  That said, it's not bad: Weapon of Choice is a great song with a fun video, and Praise You and That Old Pair of Jeans sound good too.  I guess I just expected a little more from one of the more recognizable names in electronic music.

The final season of Battlestar Galactica's soundtrack is out and I've been listening to that a bit. I've got plenty of other stuff in the queue too.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

No News Is Not Good News

Well, this is a situation in which No News Is Not Good News. It's been a week since my car has been stolen, and neither the police nor Progressive have any news for me. It'll be another week or slightly longer before they give up, but at this point the chances of me recovering my car are very slim. It's a shame, too; I really liked the car and it was in nearly perfect shape. But, I'm going to need to start looking into more options. I could be happy with another Civic (lightning won't strike twice, right?), or there are a couple other cars I'm interested in as well. I don't think that I'll be happy with a used car, but perhaps. I got a new car in the first place because I really like the idea of owning a car for its whole lifetime, keeping it in excellent shape, and knowing its history. I don't like buying used things because few people seem to take care of things like I do. Maybe I'll find a used one that I like, but at least I'd completely paid off the one that was stolen, so taking out another car loan is (sigh) at least an option.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Jason and I had a great time in Victoria, British Columbia this weekend, even if it meant getting up at 6 AM on Saturday to catch the boat.  We wandered around, explored the city, relaxed, and checked out the plants and fireworks at Butchart Gardens.  The fireworks were particularly interesting, rather unlike any fireworks show I'd seen before.  The show featured a mix of strange ground displays and more standard aerial blasts, all set to music.  It's really hard to describe, and I didn't want to bother to take photos or videos, but it was definitely worth the visit.  I took some photos at the gardens and around Victoria, but having been there once before, I mainly wanted to focus on just enjoying our time there, and I did.  I broke my own rule by not scheduling at least a day of time off work before and after the vacation, and thus I'm rather exhausted today, but we only planned things a day and a half in advance of the trip so it worked out pretty well considering.

And then I got back to Seattle last night and my car was stolen from the parking garage.  After searching the garage over and over, reporting the loss, talking to the police, and getting a $40 cab ride home, the last two and a half hours of the vacation were not as pleasant as the rest.  If you plan on taking any vacations to Victoria in the near future, I strongly recommend not having your car stolen while you're away.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Ask a few dozen people who have the same job as me how they classify their job and you'll get a wide variety of answers: it's a science, it's an art, it's engineering, it's applied mathematics, and so on.  I've known this for a while, but what I've realized is that it's something that is probably nearly universal across careers.  People want to classify their job in a way that makes them feel more special, or that makes their job sound like something that they'd rather do than what they're actually doing.  Fast food cooks want to call themselves "burger artists" or something like that.  Secretaries want to call themselves "administrative professionals."  And depending on my mood, I want to call myself a "scientist" or an "engineer" or an "architect" or an "artist."

Certainly my career as a code monkey has aspects of all of those things.  I form hypotheses, prove and disprove them through experimentation, and work with theoretical subjects, so I'm a scientist.  I design things to be organized yet functional, so I'm an architect.  I design things to be beautiful and elegant, in that sort of way that only people of the same career path as you understand and everyone else thinks you're insane, like when a motorcycle enthusiast says how "beautiful" their bike's engine sounds, while everyone else plugs their ears.  So I'm an artist too.  Sometimes I get to be really creative, and I feel like an artist.  And sometimes I have to do tedious, methodical crap.  Really, I think that sometimes I'm just jealous of some of those people.

To me, it's easier to accept that artists are doing something I can't do.  Everyone knows how to draw.  Everyone has tried to draw.  Most people aren't good at it.  Many people are not that good at it even after a lot of practice.  There's an obvious element of talent, combined with a universal famliarity with the task, and that makes it easy for me to comprehend that pencil-and-pen graphic artists are people who have a very specific talent that I don't have.  My talents simply do not include creating beautiful things with a a pencil.  I don't feel that, even given unlimited time, I would be good enough at it.  In contrast, I often feel that given unlimited time, nearly anyone could learn to do what I do.  It might take them decades, and even after that time they might not be very fast at it and they might make more mistakes, but they could build software.  It wouldn't have that artistic touch and innate skill that I (like to think that I) have, but they could produce software that would basically do what they wanted.  I think that's the difference that sometimes irks me.  Poorly-produced software that took a very long time to build by someone who was not talented at it would still do roughly what it was meant to.  But visual artwork produced by someone without the talent doesn't serve its purposes to delight the senses and provoke the mind and soul.  As much artistry as there is in building software, there's still that utilitarian aspect of things that separates it from painting watercolors or sculpting statues.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Surprise nerd

While getting my mail today, after I answered a couple of his questions about Windows 7, one of the elderly men in my complex asked me if software engineers these days still knew how to write programs in assembly language.  I said that probably anyone with a four-year degree would, and most people with a two-year degree or none at all probably would have no experience with it, and that I hadn't used it since college.  He chuckled and said that he would hope not, and that he still remembers his nightmare experiences debugging assembly code that someone else had written for him in the 80s.

This shocked me a little.  I could hardly believe that I had just had a short conversation about assembly debugging with an elderly man I've known for more than two years, and I had no idea that he had experience with such things.  I think I could have only been more surprised if he asked me if I had opted in for the Starcraft II beta.

(Of course, that's not entirely true.  I'd have been even more surprised if he immediately transformed into a thirty-foot-tall robot in the form of a Catholic schoolgirl holding two machine guns.)

Monday, July 27, 2009


On the way home from work today I passed a sign on a preschool that said "BILINGUAL LEARNING," and it occurred to me that "bilingual" is a pretty useless word as words come. It means that someone speaks two languages, but which two? One can generally infer that one of the two languages is the most prevalent language of the area, though even that information is not guaranteed, and we assume that of everyone in an area anyway. Compare it with "bisexual"—unlike languages, there are only two well-defined genders, and if a person is attracted to two of them, that covers the bases pretty well. Even "bidirectional" one might think at first is vague since there are clearly more than two directions, but since the word is generally only applied in situations where there are only two relevant directions (such as west or east along a street), it's not vague.

But bilingual is useless. I can make guesses as to what that second language might be, but I can't be certain. It could be Spanish, though honestly there do not appear to be a lot of Spanish-speaking people in my area. It could be Mandarin. It could be Japanese. There is a heavy concentration of Indian people near me (and this school), so it could be an Indian language, but as I understand it there are a multitude of those, so the chances of the parents of the child and the teachers at this school speaking the same Indian language would be pretty slim. These ambiguities could have been avoided with a single sign to the effect of "Teaching in English and Klingon."

So, I have concluded that the sign is nearly useless, and the word "bilingual" is entirely useless except in the case of explaining to someone how international you are.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fact of the day

Last night I discovered that despite hard candy being made primarily of sugar, sugar-free hard candy only has slightly fewer calories than normal sugar candy.  This makes me wonder what else, exactly, is in it.  I always assumed that it would have no calories.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Short people

In my experience, it is surprisingly difficult for a tall person to position things within the reach of short people.  It just doesn't occur to me that something that is effortless for me to reach is not accessible to someone shorter than me.  I think that it would be much simpler for me to realize if I ever stored things in places that are inconvenient for me to reach, but I can grab basically anything at any height in my home other than my bedroom smoke detector.  If effort were required, I'd probably think to myself, "maybe a shorter person wouldn't be able to reach this at all," but that's not the case.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Lame request

I made a Facebook page for EclipseCrossword. If you don't mind helping me out, become a fan. The idea is to artificially increase the number of fans, in case people are wary of becoming a fan of a page that only has a couple existing fans. I don't mind if you defriend EclipseCrossword at a later date. :)


Ugh.  I haven't posted since my trip to Nebraska.  It's not that I don't love you; it's more just that I don't have anything that interesting to say right now.  Nothing of significance is really going on right now, and I'm not bored or desperate enough to break out my rainy-day blog topics just yet.  (That said, I do want to cover something more serious that will take multiple posts, but I've got too much else to do right now.)

I've mostly been working—working around the house, working at the office, writing a couple posts for the official SharePoint Designer blog (not finished yet), and writing another fairly large document that I've put off for far too long.  I did spend a couple hours and finish the quite short Penny Arcade RPG this past weekend, On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode One.  Overall it's decent.  The writing and humor and graphics are pretty good.  The gameplay is interesting at first but becomes tiresome after a short while, though.  The most annoying part is that advancing the story sometimes simply requires wandering around aimlessly until you find the next random batch of enemies to kill.  The enemies themselves are pretty entertaining—there isn't a huge variety, but I wouldn't really expect too much variety in a game not much longer than Portal.  There are mimes, whose attacks are things like "Pretend I Have a Machine Gun" and "Pretend I'm Throwing a Boulder," and can be trapped inside invisible boxes, clowns that bleed paint, sinister barbershop quartets, evil hobos, and, of course, a couple models of Fruit Fucker brand juicer robots.

It's things like the latter that are simultaneously refreshing—certainly many games include plenty of profanity, but usually to simply make someone sound tough rather than for comic effect—and disappointing: disappointing because they make it tough to recommend the game for someone like my dad, though he might otherwise enjoy it.

If you like the humor and style of Penny Arcade, you'll like the game; if you don't, you won't.  It's not that it's something that only fans would enjoy (though there are some fan service things here and there), but the writers and style are the same as the comic, and the game itself is basically secondary to the writing.  I don't think that liking RPGs or adventure games is really all that important to liking this game, because it's not really about the gameplay, which is rather strange I think for a comic strip whose primary subject is... games.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Blue Moon

Sitting here in the Denver airport waiting for my final flight back to Seattle, my Nebraska trip has come to an end. It will be good to sleep in my own bed once again. I'm taking tomorrow off to recuperate from the trip, and then I'll have a nice short two-day week starting Thursday.

Every time I head to Nebraska I take a new game to introduce to my parents. This time it was Blue Moon, an out-of-print dueling card game by Reiner Knizia, one of the most prolific game designers around. It's a neat little game that's probably best described as "Magic Lite," but to call it a derivative of Magic is not really fair. Only the basic theme of two powerful leaders battling each other with creatures is the same; the other mechanics are quite different. There's the same sense of back-and-forth escalating power—and suspense at whether your opponent is going to play something powerful, or whether you're going to pull this one off—as Magic. But each duel is over in a couple minutes. Everything's simpler and more streamlined, and while it doesn't have quite the same strategic depth as Magic, it does have a lot of the same concepts and fun in a much smaller game. You don't track creature hit points or life points or mana or other resources; at the end of each turn your current strength is summed up in two words that you say to your opponent, such as "3 fire" or "7 earth." There's no card collecting, other than the additional expansion decks of cards you can buy to freshen things up—the expansions each contain a full set of cards with no need to buy more than one.

Knizia's quite an expert at producing moderately strategic games for two players, and Blue Moon seems like a great game for people who like Magic but feel like something shorter and cheaper, or people who would otherwise probably enjoy Magic but would prefer something less complicated. My mom is the latter, and she enjoyed the game so much that I left my brand-new copy there for my parents to play. I was able to order a new one, but it's getting harder to find, and as far as I can tell it's no longer being produced. At only seven or eight years now I don't really have much in the way of hard-to-find out-of-print games yet, but hopefully someday in the future I'll be very glad that I was able to pick up a copy before it was too late.

Monday, July 6, 2009


I think that one of my parents' cats is a hardcore Republican. My dad has a copy of Newsweek with Obama on the cover, and the cat has peed on it multiple times.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


My mom has a Shiba Inu puppy, just a couple months old. It is rather adorable, and energetic even by puppy standards. It's just starting to get to the chewing stage; it finds socks and shoes and anything else it can carry around and runs around, violently shaking that object. I'm not much of a dog person, and I can only tolerate being around them with a dose of Claritin these days, but it's pretty much the cutest dog ever.

Update: photo 1, photo 2, video

Gazing at the heavens

On Saturday when I was shooting off fireworks with my family, I was gazing at the heavens for one particular item when suddenly a chunk of warm ash fell into my eye.  It was rather uncomfortable, though it didn't hurt any more than a mild stinging; it wasn't like the piece was still on fire or anything.  I was unable to get it out of my eye until I went inside, got a Q-Tip, wet it, and wiped the residue off the inside of my eyelid.  That eye was red for a couple hours.

This was an experience I do not really want to repeat.

Friday, July 3, 2009


I played Magic for the first time in many years tonight, versus my dad.  I won seven out of seven games.  He was... annoyed.

I sort of miss the game; it's still a great game, and I always loved the deckbuilding.  It just takes such a commitment to stay on top of things, and I think I can only really handle one game that requires that kind of focus and mental dedication at a time.  And, at about $14 a month, World of Warcraft isn't really any more expensive than Magic would be, and as difficult as it can be to find a group to play WoW with sometimes, it still must be easier than finding someone in person to play Magic with.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


One indulgence that I allow myself precisely two times a year is frozen yogurt. I used to get it a lot as a kid, but these days it's just whenever I'm in the Denver airport, as inevitably the path from my Seattle gate to the Lincoln or Omaha gate will go right by TCBY. Occasionally I try something different, but every time I do I’m very disappointed that I didn't just go for my decades-long favorite, plain vanilla yogurt with gummy bears on top.

And it is delicious.

Lighting money on fire

Well, I'm off for a week with the family in Nebraska. Should be interesting. And hot—oh so hot. But at least air conditioning is standard in every house in Nebraska. It never even occurred to me before I moved to the Seattle area that this was not the case everywhere. Every year it gets hot in the summer, and every year everyone seems very surprised that it's hot that summer.

I haven't been back in a year and a half now, and I'm fairly certain that Mom's going crazy with anticipation. (That's a lot of pressure, you know—the quality of this visit is the lynchpin of my mother's sanity.) If you recall, I had planned to return for Christmas last year but was stuck in Redmond due to a snowstorm. I chose a replacement flight over the July 4 weekend because I particularly miss setting off explosive and incendiary devices* in honor of our great nation's birth, and for the most part, fireworks are not legal here.

(* I am typing this post in the airport. Hopefully they do not read this post at the TSA security checkpoint.)

The Fourth was always one of my favorite holidays. Sure, fireworks are fun, but I think that there's more to it than that. It's a holiday that, in Lincoln at least, practically demands that the family get together for a collective fun activity: blowing things up. Everyone can participate if they want.

In contrast, Christmas is more about the gifts and the meal and spending time with long-lost relatives. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's an event designed around family togetherness. The Fourth of July brings family togetherness as sort of a bonus, but the real focus is on hot, bright, and shiny things that burn your hands. It's a collaborative amusement that you can't have any other time of the year. I think that those two aspects—the group activity part and the time restriction part—are what make the Fourth so special to me.

Or maybe I just like fire more than I'm willing to let on. Either way, tomorrow I get to "light my money on fire" as my skeptical mother always says, and it's been half a decade since the last time I did. I can't wait.

As a kid, my sources of income were quite limited, given that but I'd still manage to save up for months and months and have fifty bucks or so to spend on fireworks. My grandfather would usually chip in a twenty for each of my brother and me, which was always a really big deal. We'd budget things out and make sure that we got exactly what we wanted. The Fourth only came once a year, and there was no money to waste (unless you're like my mom and any money spent on fireworks is a waste).

The Fourth is one of my dad's favorite holidays too. I decided that a perfect Father's Day gift for him would be a fireworks shopping spree. Admittedly, it sounds more like I just forgot to get him something and I'm pulling something out of my butt a couple of weeks late, but in reality (I swear) I hand-picked this gift after weeks of thought, and I was sure to tell him that his present was coming with me this time. Hopefully he'll enjoy lighting someone else's money on fire just as much as his own.