The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

July 30, 2013

To Get Away From it All, Don’t You Have to Get Away First?

Filed under: Random Stuff, travel — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 11:31 pm

(Note:  This post started out as a message board post, so I apologize in advance for any unexplained jargon that may creep in.)

I’m not saying that my job has been overly stressful lately, but if nothing else, there’s certainly been plenty of it to go around.  My timecard at work for the past couple of weeks ended up being in excess of 100 hours, including spending most of a Saturday at work a couple of weekends ago (as well as the Saturday before that.)  Without getting into too many details, it seems to be one of those situations where it basically just ends up being one thing after another, and where things never seem to quite have time to settle down before something flares up again.  In theory, I still have a cubicle that nominally belongs to me at the office, but I’m there so rarely these days that on the rare occasions when I make it down there, mysterious piles of snacks have started randomly showing up when I’m not looking. This odd behavior leads me to wonder some sort of cargo cult has sprung up around my cubicle in my absence (John Frum, as always, could not be reached for comment.)  As I’ve mentioned before, even with all the time I ended up taking off work back in April and May, with all the overtime I’ve been working it has eventually managed to even out, and I think at this point I’m even actually several days “ahead” for the year.  After spending months dealing with a project like this, the thought of just getting away from it all for a while and taking a nice long trip starts to sound really appealing.  And come this December, I intend to do just that.

As usual, since I seem to be stuck in a pretty serious rut when it comes to my vacation plans, I’ll be spending my upcoming vacation at sea, taking a nice long (by my standards anyway) 10-day Caribbean cruise in early December along with one of my friends, and throwing in a couple of extra days in Florida before and after the cruise to make it (almost) a nice even two weeks.  This will actually be the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to do a cruise of more than 7-days, (so far, I’ve done three 7-day Caribbean cruises, but most of the cruises I’ve been on so far have been various shorter ones than that up and down the Pacific Coast of between one and five days). For many years I’ve found myself mostly in one of two situations when it comes to time off from work:  Either I have plenty of time and no money to do much of anything with it (typically known as “being unemployed”,) or I have had plenty of money on hand but no time to do much of anything (typically known as “being employed and single.”)  Although I’ve been able to sneak a few cruises in here and there (mostly joining my parents and other family on some of their various cruises) I just haven’t really had the luxury of being able to take more than a week or so off work at a time. In fact, this time around my original plan was to find a 7-day cruise of some sort in December (there was some talk last year of doing some sort of a family cruise over Christmas this year that never materialized) and I had made plans to book an Eastern Caribbean sailing on the Crown Princess sometime in June. When it came time to actually put down a deposit though, it turned out that for roughly the price of a balcony on the 7-day cruise I was looking at, I could get an interior cabin on a 10-day Southern Caribbean cruise instead getting a much more interesting itinerary out of the deal (not to mention free gratuities thrown in thanks to a promo Princess was running.)  Given the choices, I would much rather take three extra days (and three ports I haven’t been to before) even if I have to sail in an interior cabin to do it.

Of course, in many ways booking the trip is the easy part.  It’s easy enough to pick out a cruise and put down a deposit on a cabin, but figuring out the logistics of actually getting there and back can be far more tricky indeed.  Even though I’m only spending three more days at sea compared to what I had originally planned, the way the schedule works out on this basically requires taking two whole weeks off work, which certainly complicates things. With a 7-day itinerary, one can generally rely on having their embarkation day on a Saturday or Sunday, and if they can finagle convenient flights they can manage to do that while using just five days of vacation time, or if they want a little extra wiggle room they can throw in an extra day or two before boarding. For example, if I’m on a 7-day sailing with a Sunday departure date, I might take a redeye flight on Friday night and arrive early Saturday, spend a night in a hotel (following a day of sleep deprived fun, but that’s another story)  and then board the ship the following day, catching a flight back on the afternoon after disembarkation a week later to be back in the office on Monday.   A Saturday departure is a bit trickier without either taking an extra day off work to fly in some time on either Thursday night or during the day on Friday, or daring to flaunt the First Rule of Cruising (which, as you quickly learn if you spend any time on the Cruise Critic message boards, is that you should never fly in on the day of the cruise lest you put yourself at risk of missing the boat if anything at all goes wrong with your flights) and take a Friday night redeye flight.  Either way, it takes a bit of planning to figure out (and to be perfectly honest I’m not a big fan of cross-country redeye flights anyway if I can help it) but it is doable.

When you add three days to that and start looking at 10-day itineraries or longer, your embarkation day could be basically any day of the week, which pretty much throws all that logic out the window. In this case, I’m fortunate to have one of the “easier” scenarios to deal with, since the cruise I will be on departs on a Monday and comes back the following Thursday.  On one hand, the way this is scheduled means that even though the cruise is only ten days long I basically have to take two whole weeks off work to do it.  On the other hand, it does allow the “luxury” of a convenient weekend to fly in (without having to do a redeye, something that I certainly approve of) and have an extra day in Fort Lauderdale  before boarding the ship, plus another day and a half (or so) to spend after the disembarking before flying out on Friday afternoon (in theory I could fly back on Thursday, but a) the flight schedules really didn’t work out, and b) why bother?)  In theory I could even tack on a couple more days to the end of that and fly back on Sunday, but given the fact that the return flights are getting rather close to the Christmas rush, it quickly gets to be too expensive to do that  And that’s not even getting into the various hotel, rental car and other arrangements that might need to be made along the way.

For something that’s supposed to be a nice relaxing getaway, it sure doesn’t seem that way while you’re in the process of trying to get it all sorted out, but by the time you get through all of it, make the trip and walk up the gangway to board the ship, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll have completely forgotten about all of that within ten minutes.  And really, when it comes down to it, isn’t that the point?

July 25, 2013

Of All The Things I’m Trying to Lose, I’ll Miss My Mind the Most.

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 12:28 am

Image credit: Flickr user vividBreeze (Creative Commons)

Over the years, much has been made of the fact that America (among other countries) is getting fatter.  These days, it seems like just about everywhere you look you see one hand-wringing story after another about the obesity epidemic, followed by a gaggle of self-righteous comments by those who (allegedly) know better than you do what you should and shouldn’t be eating.  Most of it feels like it’s little more than a convenient excuse for certain people to heckle anonymously from the shadows of the Internet, but if I have to be perfectly honest, I think some of them might have a bit of a point here.  There are plenty of people out there who could stand to lose a few pounds, and I’m pretty sure I’m one of them.  Between all the time I’ve been spending at work lately and ongoing less-than-stellar eating habits, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve put on a bit of extra weight, and could really use to drop some of it.

In theory, it should be simple to lose weight.  I mean, all you should really need to do is eat healthier and exercise more, and you might not lose weight particularly fast, but at least you should manage to lose something.  The problem is that when you start looking into the subject it gets to be a lot more complicated than that.  To put it bluntly, if I ever tried to follow all of the various diet and exercise advice I’ve found on the Internet, I’m pretty sure I’d end up anorexic within a week.  Basically what it all boils down to is that pretty much everything you eat is bad for you, and pretty much all the exercises you might do are accomplishing practically nothing unless you’re doing the right type of exercises (which all seem to be the most mind-numbingly boring types) and doing them for extended periods of time daily.  On the flip side of the coin, there’s no shortage of snake-oil peddlers out there trying to promote quick-fix diets and questionable weight loss methods which, naturally, involve simple tricks that doctors and/or nutritionists (and/or the people who have to wade through half a zillion popup ads a day) allegedly hate.  In this case, I think the doctors and nutritionists have a point.  Sure, the stuff they’re peddling might do something at some point, but on most of these plans I suspect that just about the only way you’re going to ever lose fifty pounds by doing that kind of thing is if you happen to be buying it with British currency.

Fortunately I do have access to good exercise equipment and a swimming pool in the building where I live, and there seems to be a number of personal trainers that reside in the building here as well should I be so inclined (although the current conditions at work mean that I have to get most of my exercise in at odd hours right now, which would likely preclude that for the time being)  If I was so inclined there’s even a hot yoga studio down in the atrium of the building (given my odd tendency to think it’s too hot when it’s 75 degrees outside I suspect 106 degrees and high humidity isn’t exactly going to agree with me) or a really trendy and presumably really overpriced gym next door over in the Bravern, which I am sure is perfectly suited for people far trendier than myself.  It occurs to me that in spite of the fact that one’s health and fitness is the type of problem that can’t exactly be solved by throwing money at it, that doesn’t mean there isn’t ample opportunity to do so anyway.

Somehow, I suspect that the “right” way to approach the problem here is somewhere in between all of the “Don’t eat anything bad and do hours of exercise a day” health nut plans (it’s rarely a good sign when there’s a clinical disorder for dangerous preoccupation with one’s diet) and the “Lose weight ridiculously fast!!!!111” pill pushers, and a regimen that will work great for one person doesn’t do a blasted thing for someone else.  Although I do have a pretty good idea of what I’m supposed to do, the best way to actually do it seems to be something that’s probably going to require some degree of trial and error.  Perhaps the trickiest part of the whole process is finding some form of exercise that is reasonably effective at burning calories while being interesting enough to keep me engaged at the same time.  As with many other things in my life, perhaps the biggest challenge in establishing a good regimen for me is trying to keep myself from getting bored with it.  If I had to single someone or something out as being my personal arch-nemesis, I think boredom would have to be it.  So far I’ve been alternating between doing sessions several times a week on the elliptical trainers in the exercise room and swimming (which isn’t nearly as difficult as I remember it being back when took some “real” swim lessons many years ago, but is still challenging for me)  but have a hard time keeping myself from getting too bored with this.  Having some music handy when on the exercise machines helps some (I can also get an Internet connection in the exercise room and use it to watch stuff off of Amazon Prime video, but find that I get too distracted by other things to pay attention to it.)    I suppose there’s also the option to go out running too,  but it’s never really interested me much.  My sisters seem to do quite a bit of it (in fact, one of my sisters just participated on a team in the Ragnar Northwest Passage relay last weekend) but I’d say that the vast majority of my recent running experience involves catching buses.  The fact that I have a knee that doesn’t particularly agree with the idea of running as a recreational activity certainly isn’t helping here either.

Ultimately, I think it all comes down to trial and error (which in my experience leans heavily toward the latter.)  I suppose if I am looking for long-term results I’ll ultimately need to focus both on diet and exercise , but for now I’m mostly just trying to get into the habit of exercising on a consistent basis.  I suppose we all have to start somewhere, right?

July 10, 2013

It Feels Cooler in Here Already

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:44 am

Not long ago, I opted to renew the lease on my apartment again.  I was pretty sure when I moved into a Downtown Bellevue highrise (well technically a midrise, but that’s just nitpicking really) three years ago that it would be something I’d get a chance to do once during a relatively small window of opportunity, then I’d have to go find somewhere a little more sensible to live.  Apparently things didn’t quite work out that way, and somehow I’m still here.  Not that I mind too much.  Sure it’s expensive as heck to live here and things to tend to get a bit crowded with various stuff every once in a while, but the commute into Seattle where I’m working is just about as easy as I’m going to find without actually living in Seattle (given the fact that my housing search criteria tends to start with “It’s not in Seattle”, I can’t say I’m a big fan of living there) and the amenities are quite nice.  I’ve been making some efforts to get myself into better shape recently (or at least counteract some of the extra sitting around and staring at a computer that’s come with my job lately,) and having health club quality exercise equipment and an indoor pool at my disposal certainly helps with that, and even if I find myself with less time these days to enjoy it, I still enjoy the view I’ve got here.  Eventually I would like to move toward buying a house, but I think I need to get some personal things in order before I make that kind of commitment.  Nonetheless, it’s definitely something that’s started to show up on the radar.

One thing I found when I filled out my lease renewal this time around is that occasionally they’ll throw in various add-ons for a few extra bucks a month.  In the past, these have mostly been pointless things like $6 a month for eco-friendly light bulbs to be installed or things like that.  This time around when the renewal came up, a new option was added:  Installation of a Nest Thermostat in my apartment for $12 a month.  On one hand, if I go back and look at it from a practical perspective, there really isn’t a whole lot of point to something like this.  After all, it’s not like my electrical bills have ever been particularly high here.  Even with running the AC in the Summer I don’t think I’ve ever had an electric bill of much more than $60 or so, and the east-facing windows here let in enough heat during the Winter that I hardly need to run the heater at all.  On the other hand, as an inveterate gadget junkie I’m pretty sure I couldn’t click the checkbox to get the thing installed fast enough.  Today I arrived home from work to find that it had been installed in place of the old thermostat while I was away.

I haven’t had too much chance to mess with it yet (as a learning thermostat, it takes some time to learn your patterns and tweak itself accordingly)  but compared to what it replaced the thing is ridiculously high-tech.  The original thermostat I’ve had in this apartment during the time I’ve lived here was a relatively basic model that is theoretically supposed to be programmable, but in reality the procedure to do so is so convoluted that I suspect at least 90% of the people who own the things don’t ever bother even trying to do so.  This, on the other hand, is connected to the Internet, allowing it to retrieve local weather data and adjust itself accordingly, and also to be remotely controllable through a website or a Smartphone app (which would have been handy a few weeks ago when I forgot to turn the thermostat up before one of my recent weekend trips.)  It also has sensors that can sense when someone is in the area and use that data to learn when people are or are not home, adjusting accordingly.  Eventually, it’s supposed to be able to collect energy usage data and tell you how much of a wasteful energy hog you are, but I don’t think I’ve gotten to that point yet.

Of course, even with all the cool features, the big question remains:  Is it actually worth it?  In my case, it’s hard to really tell at this point since I don’t really have all that much energy usage here in the first place, even with the old-and-kind-of-primitive thermostat I used to have here.  One thing I’m quickly learning is that the temperatures that the old thermostat reported had little to do with actual reality, and it’s taking a bit of learning to figure out what the “proper” temperature range to keep the apartment reasonable is supposed to be again.  In some informal experimentation with the old thermostat I figured out that it generally reported temperatures 2-3 degrees lower than they actually were (for example, a 68 on the thermostat seems to have meant an actual temperature of around 71-72) which was a bit of an annoying quirk, but one I just dealt with.  Now that I have a thermostat that accurately reports temperature (and humidity) I’m having to figure out the proper temperature range again.  Sure it’s a smart thermostat, but apparently it requires some learning on my part too.

It’s too soon to tell just what kind of impact (aside from looking really cool on the wall) the new Nest Thermostat is going to have on my electric bills or the overall comfort level of the apartment, but it’s certainly interesting to see what kind of things we get when people start throwing large amounts of technology at problems we didn’t even know we had.  I’m sure if there’s anything interesting to report here and/or I run short on Blog material I’ll update on some of what I’ve found here, but in the meantime, I guess I’ll have to see if I manage to get my twelve bucks a month worth of usefulness out of it.  Of course, given the fact that it costs $250 to buy one, I’m actually getting a pretty decent deal here (at least until I move out, buy a house, and have to buy another one for there.)

July 3, 2013

Random Thoughts: A Sampling of Recently Accumulated Crud

Filed under: Random Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 12:43 am

I know I should probably come up with something better than excuses and complaints to start my Blog posts with, but once again I apologize for the shortage of posts.  Once again, I find myself stretched a little thin these days, and even more so than usual.  Over the course of the last week or so, work has gone from incredibly busy to ridiculously busy, and we’ve been told to prepare for roughly 4-6 weeks of crunch mode, which means long hours at the office pretty much daily, and possible weekend work.  Given the fact that I’m generally not making it home from work much before 8 on any given day lately, that isn’t leaving a whole lot of time for Blogging.  I’ve been fortunate that throughout most of my professional career I’ve managed to avoid having to deal with a true crunch mode situation, so this is definitely taking a bit of getting used to.  Then again, it seems like you’re frequently hearing stories of people working sixteen-hour days for months at a time only to find a pink slip waiting at the finish line (see also: why I don’t test video games.) so if we’re going by that standard I really don’t have much to complain about.

On the plus side, I do still get paid by the hour, so a lot of extra hours means a lot of overtime.  Of course, with all the time I tend to spend traveling lately it does all seem to even out eventually.  Me and my friend have those Disneyland annual passes burning holes in our pockets (well not literally, but I’m sure the Imagineers are working on it)  so we should be making it down to California at least a couple more times this year, and thanks to some really good prices for the weeks before Christmas, we’re also looking to take a nice long two-week vacation, including a 10-day Caribbean cruise that would visit several islands I haven’t been to before.  There’s still a few logistical challenges I need to work out on that, but considering the fact that I haven’t had the opportunity to take a nice long vacation like that in, well, ever, the prospect of being able to do so is definitely appealing.

Meanwhile back in the real world, it’s Summertime now, and The Fourth of July is just a couple of days away now.  As I believe I’ve mentioned previously, I ended up picking up a few fireworks for a relatively modest show and/or causing an Apocalypse or two.  Admittedly, I might have had just a little bit of trouble fitting everything into the trunk (this isn’t even all of it) and spent just a little more than I had planned on, but it should all be worth it when it all gets burned off in spectacular fashion over the course of around 45 minutes or so, leaving a smoldering pile of cardboard in its wake, right?  In the meantime I’ve been driving carefully, trying to make sure something like this doesn’t happen:

(Actually, I offloaded most of this shortly before I got it, so my car should be (mostly) safe.  Just don’t rear-end me unless you’ve got a good reason for it OK?)

In the meantime, the latest addition to my growing collection of Disney art arrived a couple of weeks ago.  This one is entitled “Donald’s Better Self”, and is a print of two different paintings by Pop artist Allison Lefcort based on a 1938 Donald Duck cartoon of the same name which features Donald’s conscience and anti-conscience contending with each other to steer Donald toward doing good or bad (you should be able to find it on YouTube without too much trouble.)  I actually bought it from the art auction on the cruise back in May, and even though it contributed heavily to my spending a lot more on that cruise than I had planned, I thought the piece was just too cool to pass up.  It goes well with my character sketch of Donald flipping out (link goes to a slightly old and dusty photo) and looks pretty cool by itself as well.  I suppose by now I should know better than to buy artwork off of cruise ships, but I thought this one was just too cool to pass up.

Speaking of character sketches, I’m not sure if I posted this one or not, but here is the latest one I added to my collection on my Disneyland trip back in April.  This one features the three hitchhiking ghosts (named Phineas, Ezra and Gus) that follow you home from your visit to the Haunted Mansion  to make sure you come back once you’ve become slightly less mortal.  This brings my total for these up to five now, representing four visits to Disneyland (I used to get one on every visit, but buy them slightly less often since I started getting Annual Passes) and one visit to Walt Disney World.  I’m starting to run out of spots to hang them up in the bedroom, so I might need to start moving some of these out into the living room.  Which would probably give me a good excuse to move Cruella De Vil somewhere a little less creepy.  Seriously, what was I thinking hanging that one directly above my bed anyway?

Other recent acquisitions of functionally useless but interesting stuff include these two pieces.  The one on the left was purchased in a shop of Chinese art and knickknacks in Vancouver’s Chinatown following the cruise in May, and really doesn’t have much to do with anything aside from being really colorful and looking nice.  The big brass ship was an impromptu birthday gift from my girlfriend after it was spotted in a thrift shop.  Surprisingly, I recognized it pretty quickly as it appears to be a piece made by Dan Zunterstein, a local metal artist whose work I recognize from several appearances at the 6th Street Fair during Bellevue’s Art Fair weekend (which happens to be coming up in just a few weeks again.)  I actually considered buying a significantly smaller one of these last year at the fair for quite a bit more than this one cost,  so I’d say I lucked out on this one.  Again, not particularly practical, but I like the way it looks.  And yes, I probably need to dust off that shelf…

Anyway, that is a sampling of some of the various crud I have accumulated recently.  Given the fact that I’m going to be living in my relatively small apartment for at least another year, and that I spend enough time complaining about not having space for things as is, I probably need to stop doing so much of this.  Oh well, that’s what I get for being easily distracted by bright shiny objects,  I suppose.

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