The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

December 4, 2012

Going for a Laser Guided Spin: My 2012 Ferris Wheel Christmas Ornaments

Filed under: Design, Holidays — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:57 am

https://i0.wp.com/img.photobucket.com/albums/v320/Vexorg/Sledgehammer/IMAG0595.jpg

As you may know, each year at Thanksgiving my family does an exchange of Christmas ornaments.  Coming from a family where a number of people seem to be big on arts and crafts (to the point that several of my aunts run a crafting business that focuses primarily on home decor items using vinyl lettering) it takes some work to keep up with the creativity, but I think I’ve managed to do a reasonably good job of this.  For the past couple of years, I have taken advantage of the laser cutter available at Metrix Create:Space on Capitol Hill in Seattle for creating my own custom-designed ornaments, and decided to take the same approach once again this year, and the result of this project is the ferris wheel ornament you see above.  Although all that work that may sound intimidating to some people, in reality it isn’t nearly as difficult to do as it sounds, and anyone with the right tools (which are freely available open source software) a reasonable amount of understanding of how to create vector graphics could do 75% of the work it takes to design something like this fairly quickly.  Of course, the devil is always in the details, and it turned out that the last 25% worth of fine tuning to get everything to fit together properly took at least 75% of the time I spent on this project.  After the jump, I will go through the process of creating these, and hopefully I can provide some useful tips to anyone who might try something like this.

My previous laser-cut ornament projects:

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November 26, 2012

Going Around the Table, 2012 Edition

Filed under: Everett, Holidays — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:52 am

Most of the important people in my life all together at once.  Photo by Holly Aprecio Photography.

As any longtime readers of this Blog (do I still have any of those?) may know, one of  the Vanderhoeven family traditions we have at Thanksgiving is that before everyone sits down to dinner, we take the time to go around the table, and each person takes a turn to discuss some of the things which they are thankful for.  It’s always an interesting experience to see just how blessed we are, and on several occasions people have used this occasion to announce things like pregnancies or other major life events.  This year’s Thanksgiving get-together was a little bit unusual in that owing to various circumstances, we opted for a more casual get-together than we usually have, meaning that the customary formal tables were replaced with couches and the latest Cowboys and Jets meltdowns on the TV.  Given the fact that it can be kind of hard to go around the table when there isn’t really a table to speak of, my Aunt Pam decided that in these circumstances it would be better to just have everyone write in a book (which will be maintained and updated from year to year.)   It’s a different way of doing things, but I think it should work out in the long run even if my handwriting is terrible.

In addition to this, I am continuing with my usual tradition of doing an annual “going around the table” Blog post here (this will be my fifth one) where I can write down some of my thoughts in a hopefully somewhat more readable format.  I’ve been doing this for several years now, and I’ve found that going back and looking at these posts from previous years is a good way to get a general idea of where I was at that point, and where things seemed to be going.  Some years have been pretty good, some years have been challenging, and some have been somewhere in between.  To be honest, it’s hard to say where this past year has been, but to me it seems that I’ve spent a lot it in something of a holding pattern.  There are quite a few things going on in my life right now where it seems that I could end up going in one direction or the other, and at times it seems like I might actually manage to pull some of these off, but at other times it feels like all of them are unattainable goals.   As it stands right now, the immediate to near-term future still seems to hold quite a bit of uncertainty, which is admittedly not my favorite thing.

Nonetheless, I know that one way or another, things always seem to find a way to work out, and as often seems to be the case, it happens a lot more often in the “or another” category.  In the meantime, I’m grateful that things have gone as well as they have.  I’m grateful that I’ve been able to remain employed, and even though the contract at Amazon that I’ve spent roughly nine months in is going to be ending shortly, there seem to be several good prospects for whatever will come next, and it’s been good experience in the meantime.  I’m also grateful (as always) that I come from such a great family, and that most of my family lives close enough that I get to see them on a regular basis.  As you can see above, a few days ago when we were able to get everyone together all at once, we used the occasion to take some new family portraits.  I’m also grateful to have some very good friends with whom I have shared several adventures and/or misadventures over the past year, and over the course of the several years that I have known them.  In particular, the Disneyland trip I was able to take with them in August was particularly memorable, even if it did leave me hanging out in a slightly sketchy grocery store near LAX at 1am while waiting for a thrice-delayed flight.  Then again, nobody ever seems to remember the trips where everything went exactly according to plan, right?

Of course, what’s past is past. What’s future is, as it always seems to be, looming somewhere off in the distance, never close enough to see more than vague hints of.  And while I do have a few good ideas of where I would like be in that future (well, being there in the first place is always a good start) I’ve also clearly got some work to do in order to get there. Even so, it does seem attainable, and I’ve got plenty of the right people around me to help get there.  And it is for that which I am most grateful.  I do admit that I have my faults every so often, and that I do still do dumb things on a shockingly regular basis, but at least I can keep most of those in the category of learning experiences. 

Anyway, once again I did make ornaments for our family’s ornament exchange this year, and once again I did the project with the laser cutter (which took up most of my time during the week prior to Thanksgiving, making this annual post just a little bit tardy this year.  You should be hearing more about this soon.

October 31, 2012

A House Too Far: A Halloween Short Story (Part 2)

Filed under: Holidays, Short Stories — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 11:47 pm

(Note:  If you haven’t read it yet, part 1 can be found here.)

As Old Johnson watched from his perch at the top of the ridge, he could see the shadowy figures beginning to converge on the Baker House below, flashlights in hand.  From the skies above, he also saw the occasional ghost float into the window.  As the skeptics have continued to grow in number over the years, the number of ghosts attempting to drive them away has gradually declined to the point that only a few brave souls even make the attempt anymore.  Old Johnson figured that most of them would be sticking to all the old tried and true methods of haunting.  Granted, when you’ve been hanging around in incorporeal form for the last fifty years or more, your options are a little bit limited.  Most new ghosts, once they managed to get past the initial stages of unbridled rage and swearing vengeance on whatever brought them to their fate, generally learned to manipulate very small objects without too much trouble, and gradually worked up to somewhat larger ones.  A dropped candlestick here, a rattling window there, maybe even something thrown across the room if you’re motivated enough.  In most cases that and a few eerie shrieks and moans would be plenty of skills to hold down a respectable haunted house, but not the Baker House.

At least that’s the way it seemed.  Although Old Johnson hadn’t been to the Baker House before, he had heard all the stories.  It didn’t matter what you did to the skeptics, they would immediately find an excuse and write it off.  Bangs, rattles and creaks were settling.  Ominous noises were the wind.  Vague senses of dread meant you probably left the oven on at home.  There’s just nothing you could do to these guys that they wouldn’t immediately dismiss as the work of some easily explained natural phenomenon.  An unsubstantiated rumor was floating around that one particularly vengeful (and thoroughly demented) spirit even tried a full-fledged fountain of blood coming from the chandeliers many years ago, and even that was quickly chalked up to some sort of plumbing malfunction.  What was even more shocking was the sheer speed with which the skeptics could come up with these “perfectly logical” explanations.

Eventually, the crowds outside began to wend their way into the house, and it appeared that the 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics would be getting underway shortly.  It was at this point that Old Johnson decided to make his entrance.  Even though he could float right through pretty much whatever he wanted, he still preferred to stick to the front door.  Completely unnecessary, but it seemed to be one of the few forces of habit that remained from his mortal existence.  Someone even conveniently left the door ajar, so with a small amount of exertion he was able to swing it wide open with a convincing slam.  One of the skeptics, sitting on a dilapidated old couch in the entry hallway, looked over, quickly made some offhand comment about the wind, and went back to his own thoughts.  Not that old Johnson expected anything else.

The entry hall opened up into a rather large foyer, where the main body of skeptics was gathering on a number of conveniently placed folding chairs.  As Old Johnson entered the room, he could see that a number of the spooks and spectres were already hard at work.  One swung slowly from a chandelier located above the  crowd (which was no easy feat for the average ghost, but given enough time it was possible to work up enough momentum to get the chandelier swinging pretty well.)  Another young lady spook was in the upper part of the room, inching a dusty old book out of its place on one of the shelves.  It was clear that she hadn’t had much experience with this, so this was likely to take her most of the evening to accomplish, and likely to be dismissed as a problem with the structural integrity of the bookshelf in seconds.  With various ghosts throughout the room straining at their various self-appointed tasks, the whole scene looked like something out of an amusement park haunted house, except for the part where none of the humans in the room could see any of it, and when the occasional physical manifestation showed up they were surprisingly quick to make up an excuse.  But in spite of his considerable talents in object manipulation, Old Johnson didn’t join in.  As he found himself a spot in a conveniently empty corner, someone came to the podium (or what passed for one, which at this point seemed to be some sort of end table with a dusty old bust with the face of some long dead tycoon on it)  and called the meeting to order.

“Gentlemen,” said an older man in a somewhat raspy voice, “We would now like to call this 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics to order.  Everyone please rise.”

Everyone in the room stood up, and began some sort of nonsensical chant about how everything had a logical explanation and that there was no such thing as a haunted house.  As they stood, one ghost hastily floated across the room and tried to push one of the chairs away from its occupant, but was barely able to move it a half an inch before the chant ended, and everyone sat down.  The leader of the society rose again to speak.

“Once again, I would like to welcome everybody to the 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics.  As you may know, the mission of our society is to prove irrefutably and incontrovertibly that there is no such thing as a haunted house, and that ghosts and other supernatural phenomena are nothing but figments of an overactive imagination.  As you may know-”

His speech was interrupted when a drinking glass full of water that had been placed on the table suddenly tipped over and spilled all over his suit.  Old Johnson could see that the glass had been given some assistance in this matter.

Pausing for just a second, the leader of the society continued, “Oh, I’m sorry, I suppose I must have a talk with my doctor about my hand-eye coordination.  Anyway, as I was saying…”

It was at about this time that Old Johnson tuned out the speech, which consisted mainly of shopworn claptrap about how only idiots believe in the supernatural and how skeptics would soon be the ones in charge of everything because everyone else was being too superstitious about things.  Instead, he turned his attention to the audience, looking for the most gullible person he could find.  Shockingly, this turned out to be a lot less difficult than it might seem at first, since there were clearly a lot of gullible people here trying desperately not to look gullible.  Having the advantage of being incorporeal and not having to worry about silly things like personal space or the laws of physics, Old Johnson was able to move at will through the crowd as they sat, seemingly enthralled by the drivel coming from the podium.  As he moved along, he noted that several people in the audience were reading from a small reference card of some sort.  A closer look revealed that it contained a list of some of the various symptoms of the other ghosts’ attempts at haunting, followed by an “explanation” of exactly what they “actually” were.  He didn’t have time to read the whole thing, but he did find an unattended one underneath a chair, and quietly began to “push” it underneath one of  the couches in the room to come back and read later.  One person actually noticed this, but after muttering something under his breath about how breezy it was in the room, and quickly turned his attention back to the front of the room.

Finally, after identifying 3 or 4 particularly gullible subjects within the room, he turned his attention back to the speech (or, the way it was being presented, more of a sermon really) at the front of the room.  As before, the ghosts throughout the room were busy with whatever endeavors they thought might manage to invoke a scare or two (but in reality, the whole “blood from a turnip” thing seemed more likely at this point.)  Occasionally something would rattle, fall, creak or sound ominous, but by now most people weren’t even paying attention.  As the leader droned on, Old Johnson moved over toward one of the targets he had identified earlier, moved his mouth toward the skeptic’s ear, and sat in wait as he listened to the speech from the front of the room.  Even by ghost standards this was nothing unusual; already Old Johnson had observed several other ghosts trying to make spooky noises in peoples’ ears, suggest to them that they’re getting really, really, REALLY creeped out right now and generally just trying to haunt people one at a time, but as with practically everything else going on around here, it was dismissed as something in the wind.  But Old Johnson had a different idea.

“And by now,” the leader droned on, “we should ALL know that there is NO POSSIBLE WAY for this house to be haunted!”

With this, Old Johnson spoke quietly into the skeptic’s ear, “There is no possible way for this house to be haunted.”  The voice, as perceived by the human that would be hearing it, would be very quiet, almost imperceptible.  Perhaps it would even take some time for it to register.  While this was happening, the leader continued.

“There is NO SUCH THING as a ghost!”

Old Johnson repeated into the skeptic’s ear a second later, “There is no such thing as a ghost.”  This evoked an almost imperceptible nod.

“You have NOTHING to fear in the Baker House, There is a perfectly logical explanation for EVERYTHING!”

Old Johnson continued quietly repeating the leader’s words into the ear of the skeptic.  “You have nothing to fear in the Baker House.  There is a perfectly logical explanation for everything.”  As he continued, it became clearer and clearer that he was reacting to what he was hearing.  After all, the voice in his head was telling him exactly what he wanted to hear, so why not?  He kept up the routine for several more minutes, until there was a brief lull in the leader’s speech.  Old Johnson used this lull to make his play:

“So what am I even doing here?”

The skeptic paused.  Perhaps for the first time all night, he thought for a moment.  He pulled the reference card out of his pocket and consulted it, but found nothing.  Sure, the card included the standard explanation for hearing unexplained voices, but in the skeptic’s mind, there was nothing unexplained.  The voice he heard was merely confirming to him exactly what he had already heard, and exactly what he wanted to hear.  For all intents and purpose, it was his own voice speaking to him.  Old Johnson knew that he was on to something, so he tried again.

“My bladder is starting to get full.”

With this, the skeptic began to twitch almost imperceptibly in his seat.

“I really need to go to the bathroom.”

While this was going on, the leader continued on with his incessant hectoring and lecturing, but the skeptic was distracted.  Whether or not it was actually true, he had started believing that he really needed to go.  It took Old Johnson a few more tries with this suggestion, but eventually the skeptic got up from his chair, and shuffled past several other people toward the center aisle.  Old Johnson followed close behind, but soon he realized he had a problem:  There were no fewer than six ghosts in the bathroom, just lying in wait for someone to try out their usual shopworn haunted clichés on.  Sure, the old self-unrolling toilet paper trick tended to be a hit at parties and in the right context could literally scare the pants off of someone (believe me, this actually isn’t a good thing,) but these were skeptics here, and such a party trick would likely serve only to put this man right back into skeptic mode, probably finding an explanation on that little card in his pocket.  Old Johnson knew that he would need to make his move now, and make it fast.  He quickly caught up to the skeptic, moved up to his ear, and whispered again:

“You know, this whole thing is really kind of silly.  I should really just go home.”

The skeptic stopped for a second, appearing indecisive.  Old Johnson took the opportunity to whisper again:

“Wait, I didn’t really need to go to the bathroom anyway.”

A quiet filled the air, interrupted only by the droning of the leader’s talk in the other room.  The skeptic stood motionless for a second.  Old Johnson made another suggestion:

“What am I even doing here?” 

The skeptic shifted his weight from one foot to the other and looked back.  Quietly he said, “What am I even doing here?”

“This is getting boring,” Old Johnson whispered again.

” This is getting boring,” the skeptic muttered just a second later.  He turned around again, looking toward the front door. 

“I should really just go home.”

Almost immediately, the skeptic spoke.  “I should really just go home.”

With that, he turned and headed for the front door of the Baker House, still wide open from Old Johnson’s earlier entrance.  In the other room, the other skeptics were all too busy listening to the speech, and none of them paid any attention to his departure.  A slam of the door briefly interrupted the talk coming from the other room, but naturally everyone just assumed it was the wind, as usual.

Eventually, the overly long speech came to an end, and as the skeptics milled about in the foyer and socialized, Old Johnson experimented a bit more with his methods on a couple of the other gullible people he had identified earlier.  Although he did manage to get one or two minor reactions, his results turned out to be decidedly mixed.  Eventually the night wore down to a close, and the rest of the skeptics dispersed.  None of the other haunts in the Baker House had paid much attention to Old Johnson that evening, and since the skeptic had not left the building screaming, few were inclined to treat it as anything special.  Eventually the ghosts too began to float slowly off into the distance, assuming that the skeptics had won the battle for another year.  Old Johnson quietly wandered back into the woods, made especially spooky by the ominous clouds overhead and a stiff breeze in the trees.  Perhaps he hadn’t gotten the screaming panic that ghosts everywhere seek to inflict on the Society of Skeptics, but that wasn’t what he had been aiming for.  What he had done was sow the seeds of doubt.  Perhaps if his efforts were effective enough, he could get a few more people to either leave next Halloween, or perhaps not even show up in the first place.  Then he could work on a few more people.  And then a few more.  Eventually, the numbers would dwindle, to the point that even the leaders of the Society might be left vulnerable.

Sure, it wouldn’t have the glamor of scaring the living daylights out of them, and it might take years or even decades to successfully pull this off, but that didn’t matter to Old Johnson.  After all, for better or for worse, he had all the time in the world.

July 8, 2012

Summer Always Arrives with a Bang

Filed under: Holidays — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 11:50 pm

(Note: Most of this post was written on Thursday while on a plane ride, but for the last few days I’ve been mostly offline with Internet access limited to my phone (which I am not crazy enough to try to type up an entire Blog post on,) hence the lateness of this post.  Gotta’ strike while the iron is hot, right?)

If you happen to be reading this right now, then it means that I managed to make it through another Fourth of July with all of my fingers intact, and may have even managed to keep an eyebrow or two. Given the mayhem that tends to ensue at the now customary Vanderhoeven Fourth of July get-together that my Aunt Pam and Uncle Mike host at their house down in Bonney Lake, this isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Even though we didn’t quite manage to fill the back of a truck with fireworks this year (although that was mostly due to the lack of a truck to employ for the purpose) we still managed to have way too much stuff. And as usual, I made plenty of contributions.

For my part, this year I went for the quality over quantity approach, spending most of my fireworks budget on a couple of boxes of Excalibur shells. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these, they’re just about the biggest aerial shells you can buy as a consumer, and it shows. I also threw in a few giant Slayer rockets for good measure, just to keep things interesting. Ultimately, I didn’t bring a whole lot of stuff (at least not compared to last year’s trunkful of chaos) but between my stuff and the stuff everyone else brought, we were still lighting stuff off for hours. Even lighting the things off 3 or 4 at a time, 48 Excalibur shells is still quite a bit of bang for the buck (and given the number of bucks involved, that is quite a lot of bang indeed.)

Even so, when compared to what the neighbors were setting off our fireworks haul looked pretty puny on comparison. They had a whole rack of mortar tubes set up, and we’re firing as many as 15 of the things off at a time, and throwing in the big 500 gram cakes in between for good measure. And even their stuff was dwarfed by what e people a few houses over across the main road were firing off. I don’t even want to know how much money some of these people are spending on this stuff. I have to figure that between all the different who bring fireworks for our party every year we have to be lighting off at least a few hundred bucks worth of stuff, but some of these people have to be spending well over a thousand bucks on their Fourth of July displays. Not that I’m complaining, it makes for quite the impressive show when I get a few seconds to watch in between lighting off my own stuff.

One of these years I would be tempted to jut let someone else take care of the lighting, find a nice comfy chair and just watch, but to me the lighting stuff is the fun part. It’s probably one of those things hardcoded into the Y chromosome that as to do with asserting dominance over fire and things like that, but there’s something that’s just primally satisfying about watching something go up and blow up and knowing that it’s your doing (or your fault if it ended up on the neighbors’ roof, but that’s another story) that you don’t quite get from merely watching. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy watching fireworks (I actually do when circumstances permit). The pros can put on some pretty impressive displays, including one in Downtown Bellevue that I understand can be quite good, but to me the Fourth of July is my one chance during the year to blow stuff up and (usually) not end up having awkward conversations with the police. And I don’t plan to let an opportunity like that go to waste if I can help it.

Even so, as I have participated in the big Vanderhoeven Fourth of July blowouts over the past few years, I’ve found that my approach to buying fireworks has changed. For example, as much fun as it is to have a bunch of stuff to light off, I do think that there’s a point where it gets to be too much. For example, the big bottle rocket packs give you plenty of stuff to light off, but at some point you’re going to find that you’ve already lit most of the big stuff, and you’ve still got a ton of the tiny little bottle rockets, and it would take far too long to light the things off.  Eventually the neighbors are going to be lighting off huge 500-gram cakes and big barrages of shells and you’re going to be trying to burn off all the dinky little bottle rockets, and probably feeling just a tad inadequate in the process.  In this case, it almost seems like a “less is more” situation, where we would be better off  with smaller quantities of bigger stuff, but at the same time, if I’m going to spend $50 or more on a single item at the fireworks stand, it better at least have more than one fuse.  On the other hand I would be seriously tempted to try out one of those huge 100o-shot Saturn Missile batteries or a 16,000 firecracker roll just for the sheer audacity of the whole thing  if the things weren’t so dang expensive (we actually did a couple of 300-shot batteries last year, and at least one this year.)  When it all boils down it’s basically a slightly fancier way of burning a $100 bill than, well, burning a $100 bill, but the neighborhood doesn’t usually applaud that one at the end.

Anyway, with the Fourth of July festivities out of the way, it’s time to get on with the business of enjoying the Summer, and there looks to be plenty on the schedule…

February 13, 2012

Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundup 2012: If You Love Them, Leave it on the Shelf

Filed under: Holidays — Brian Lutz @ 9:26 pm

Curses, foiled again.

For nearly as long as I’ve been writing this Blog now, I’ve been doing these Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundup posts.  They’re actually one of my favorite posts to write each year, owing mostly to the fact that far more than any other holiday, Valentine’s Day seems to inspire an endless stream of ill-advised merchandise that no sane person would give to any potential mate who they would wish to remain so after February 15th.  I’ve done a number of these posts for the other big overmerchandised holidays, but after a year or two of making fun of  Easter merchandise, you begin to realize that there just isn’t much change from year to year in that department.  In fact, aside from possibly Christmas and Halloween, Valentine’s Day seems to be the holiday with the largest quantity of merchandise created and sold specifically for it in any given year.  And a staggeringly large portion of that merchandise seems to be surprisingly ill-advised when you start getting into it…

This year, Valentine’s Day does seem to come with some minor complications for me, mostly in terms of the fact that I no longer have the luxury of just snarking at it for a few thousand words and then ignoring the rest like I usually do.  Somehow, through a set of circumstances that I have yet to fully comprehend, I find myself in the position of needing to not merely acknowledge the existence of Valentine’s Day this year, but to actively participate in the holiday, most likely in the presence of an actual lady (long story, I’m sure I’ll tell it at some point, but I’m saving that one for later.)  I suppose that relationships are one of those things that you have to mostly figure out as you go along, with plenty of opportunities to mess up along the way.  It seems to be best not to do too much messing up, since from what I’ve seen flowers tend to get a tad expensive after a while, and you start needing more and more of them as you go along.  I’ve also found that there’s an awful lot of advice on dating and relationships to be found out there, and most of it is completely and totally useless.  As I’ve noted before, I don’t think I’ve really had much reason to pay any attention to Valentine’s Day since, oh, somewhere around fourth or fifth grade, so what this means is that I’ve got a lot to learn here, and I’ve got to learn it in a hurry if I don’t want to find myself sleeping on the couch (which, given the fact I’m the only one who lives here, would mean that I messed something up pretty seriously.) 

Given the risk/reward factors involved here I’ll be happy if I can make it through the holiday without making any potentially life-ruining mistakes, but if nothing else, at least I’ve got a decent amount of experience in the “what not to do” category.  Not that it isn’t the type of thing that any reasonably sane person can figure out with minimal brainpower, but I guess we all have to start somewhere, right?  Anyway, without further ado, the 2012 Sledgehammer Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundup, found after the jump.

Previous  Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundups:

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December 24, 2011

The 2011 Sledgehammer Last-Minute Christmas Gift Guide: Good Things Don’t Come to Those Who Wait

Filed under: Holidays — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 12:38 am

Well, you waited until the last minute to do your Christmas shopping again, didn’t you?  Most people would learn their lesson on that one after the first five or six times they ruined Christmas with their novelty shaped waffle irons and dubiously colored sweaters, but year after year, some people continue to convince themselves that if they do their Christmas shopping in a blind panic at 2pm on Christmas Eve enough times, eventually it’ll all work out.  Here’s a hint for you:  It doesn’t.  As we’ve all learned from sad and repeated experience, waiting for the last minute generally results in a lot of sitting around in traffic just trying to get to the stores in the first place (and over the past couple of weeks I’ve witnessed quite a few fun little traffic jams pointed in the direction of Bellevue Square, which makes me really glad I don’t have to sit around in any of them,) lots of waiting for parking spots when you get there, and lots of wading through crowds of people who just happened to make the same mistakes.  In short, you really should have done all this weeks ago.

But in spite of your predicament, I’m here to help…  Sort of.  Once again, it’s time for the sort-of-annual Sledgehammer Last-Minute Christmas gift guide, chock full of gift-giving ideas that you should most likely consider not having if you can possibly help it.  As usual, you’re responsible for whatever consequences arise  if for some reason you happen to actually give any of the items on this list as a gift. If you try to blame me I’ll just deny everything.  You’ve been properly warned.  That said, you’ll find the complete list after the jump. 

Previous Gift Guides and Other Holiday Posts:

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December 12, 2011

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

Filed under: Holidays, Random Stuff — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:35 am

Early last week, I found myself in one of the occasional vaguely scrambled mental states I manage to get into every once in a while, which resulted in one of my (very) occasional late-night trips to Denny’s to sort things out. As I’ve discussed previously, I can’t explain just why it is that I only ever seem to end up at Denny’s when my brain isn’t quite firing on all of its proverbial cylinders, but there’s a certain quiet and largely distraction-free solitude to a nearly deserted restaurant late at night that seems to be conducive to sorting out these types of mental states. Granted, this doesn’t really happen all that often, but apparently it happens often enough that I’m starting to recognize some of the people who frequent the place at that time of night, including some guy in one of the booths behind the counter who seems to be often engaged in phone conversations that are, even by my standards, incredibly nerdy. There’s also several of the waiters and waitresses who I’ve begun to recognize from multiple late-night visits. This seems to be a remnant of the culture that developed over the years (but has now largely vanished around here, although some holdouts still remain, largely unchanged) within the various greasy spoon diners, but it’s a culture that I doubt I could embrace, although I certainly don’t put myself above making the occasional visit.

As would be expected of most places around this time of year, the place was decorated for the Holidays, and the speaker system was quietly playing a variety of assorted Christmas tunes, mostly of the traditional variety. It’s one of those things that most of the time you’d hear in the background in some store or at some party and not give more than a passing thought to (although I’m sure just about anyone would notice the stuff if someone was playing it in the middle of April or something like that, but that’s beside the point.) And in my case, most of the time that’s pretty much how it works. In this case, perhaps it was the fact that I was sitting quietly at the counter waiting for an order of chicken strips, or perhaps I was just trying to find something for my brain to latch onto besides its own static, but for some reason I started actually listening to the stuff. And when I did this, pretty quickly the stuff all started sounding incredibly cheesy.

Coincidentally, it was just about this time that one of the nearby waitresses (one who definitely fits the diner waitress archetype, who you could easily picture calling for the cook to flop two over easy with a couple of zeppelins and a moo juice at some place out on the side of Highway 23) was clearing off a table behind me, and made an offhand comment to nobody in particular that, to paraphrase a bit, she’d have to shoot herself in the head if she had to listen to this stuff for another month. This resulted in a brief conversation on the subject in which I largely agreed with the assertion (minus the shooting in the head part of course) and noted that if I had to listen to the same twenty syrupy Holiday songs on continuous loop for a month, I’d probably have to consider a similar course of action. Granted, the fact that I don’t have to listen to the same twenty songs on a continuous loop for a month does tend to mean that I probably have a bit more tolerance than that, but when you think about it, we’re long overdue for some new “classic” Christmas songs.

I mean this with no offense intended to the Bing Crosbys and Burl Ives of the world (or at least their estates and the presumably generous royalty checks they continue to get around this time each year,) but there’s only so many times you can hear Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Happy Holidays or any of the other vaguely generic holiday songs that seem to inhabit many a tinny overhead speaker in the grocery store around this time of the year before the whole thing just starts sounding incredibly cheesy. I mean, exactly when was it decided that the theme to the Charlie Brown cartoons counts as Christmas music? Sure, there’s the classic Charlie Brown Christmas special that shows up around this time of year, but there’s at least another 50 Charlie Brown TV specials that have been produced over the years (only a handful of which are Christmas-related,) making the connection tenuous at best. For that matter, you can count most of the stuff from the various “classic” Christmas specials to be thoroughly overplayed with the other Holiday stuff. Frosty the Snowman may be a perfectly fine song when you’re playing it in a Rankin-Bass special, but when you take that same song and insert into the background of a department store selling rather expensive clothing, it tends to feel a little bit out-of-place.

Again, I don’t have anything against the playing of Christmas or other Holiday music around this time of year (in fact, there’s quite a bit of it that I like, although most of that tends to be the more overtly religious stuff that might tend to be just a bit too politically incorrect for most public places), but I’m thinking it’s about time we as a society start seriously thinking about making some new “classic” Christmas music. It’s not like we need to make a big production out of it or anything, just come up with a few interchangeable baritones to do the lead vocals, put together a breathy chorus or two for backing vocals, add in a decent sized jazz band to fill in the instrumentals, and you’ve pretty much got all the ingredients. Throw together some bouncy lyrics about snowflakes, sledding, cozy fires, presents and falling in love (possibly even all at once,) and before you know it you’ll have some stuff that’ll find a place on grocery store PA systems and easy-listening radio stations for at least a good 50 years. Sure, there’s still plenty of established performers and bands out there cranking out a Holiday album or two on the side when they happen to need an extra swimming pool for Christmas, but most of that stuff seems to be surprisingly forgettable, and you hardly hear any of the “new” stuff that’s more than a year or two old. I suspect most of it will probably be finding its way to the Dustbin of Christmas Past long before we stop hearing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer being played unironically in public places.

Sure, even if we do manage to replace all the old and overplayed stuff with completely new and inevitably soon-to-be overplayed stuff, eventually we’ll be right back to the original problem of annoying the heck out of waitresses in all-night diners. At least by the time that happens, it’ll all be someone else’s problem to deal with, right?

November 22, 2011

Going Around the Table, 2011 Edition

Filed under: Holidays — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:50 am

(TODO: Take a new Thanksgiving table picture so I don’t have to keep recycling old ones over and over again.)

Every year around this time Thanksgiving rolls around, and for some odd reason, every year around this time I always seem to mention something here about how Thanksgiving just seemingly snuck up on us out of nowhere.  Naturally this is a rather absurd notion, as anyone who has been paying attention probably would have noticed Halloween popping up on the calendar a few weeks ago, and taken that as a clear sign of impending turkey.  Nonetheless, it is with anticipation that we look at the arrival of Thanksgiving, as it provides one of the few chances we get each year to have the whole entire family together at once.  And as it always does, Thanksgiving also provides an opportunity to look back and take stock of the past year to see where I have been, and what blessings I have received.

For those of you who may not have read one of these posts before, every year at our big family Thanksgiving get-together, we have a tradition where we all go around the table, and each person takes a little bit of time to speak of some of the things that they are thankful for.  For those of you who are familiar with Agile development, the whole thing’s basically like a Scrum meeting, only with a lot more people, and last time I checked people usually don’t bring donuts to Thanksgiving.  When I started writing this Blog over four years ago, I also started doing a “going around the table” Blog post around Thanksgiving time each year as well, with several other members of the family (depending on their varying degrees of motivation to actually maintain their Blogs) making their own posts as well.  The previous Going Around the Table posts can be found here (2008), here (2009) and here (2010).  So without further ado, here are some of the things that I am thankful for as we once again approach Thanksgiving.

For those of you who have been reading this Blog for a while, you are probably aware of some of the various interesting circumstances of the year that preceded Thanksgiving 2010, and the couple of months prior to Thanksgiving in particular.  This year has, thankfully, been a lot less tumultuous for me, and has allowed me a chance to settle down a bit.  In particular, I’ve finally had the opportunity to settle down into a good and reasonably stable job after years of working as a contractor that resulted in the need to frequently be searching for the next job at the end of each contract.  Although this was far from being an ideal situation, I found that I would always be able to find the things that I needed at the times that I needed them, and it is through that period that I came to a firm belief that if I am doing the right things, one way or another things would work out (and quite often I’ve found things to happen in the “Or Another” category.)  Granted, I don’t intend this to be a claim that I am doing the right things all the time (or even most of the time, for that matter) but through these years of wandering from contract to contract, I saw it happen enough times that I can’t believe it to be mere coincidence.

I wouldn’t exactly say that this past year was marked by any sort of profound change from previous years, but in many ways it’s provided a chance to settle down a bit.  For the first time since I worked in my first Tech Support job out of high school (I don’t really like to talk about that one much to be honest) I’ve spent more than a year consecutively in the same job.  Granted, even in that there’s been a bit of turmoil here and there, but all in all, I have to say that I’m grateful for where I am right now.  The job I am in has given me an opportunity to grow in a number of the skills I need to achieve my long-term career goals, I have good managers who I get along with very well, and who trust in me enough to mostly just stay out of the way and let me do what needs to be done, my daily commute is a ten-minute walk to the office, I managed to finally get my car paid off a few months ago, and I have actual vacation time, something I’ve lacked for quite a while.  Sure, it might be nice if my stock options weren’t so far underwater that I don’t think even Jacques Cousteau could find them at this point, but all in all, I’m pretty happy with where I am right now.  I know I can’t expect this to last forever (and in fact, I know I’ll have to take some steps toward making some changes myself in the not-too-distant future as I come to realize that now is the time to seek out my eternal companion,) but I’m grateful to have a bit of stability for the time being. 

I’m also grateful for the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to do some traveling this year, as I know that this is something that not a lot of people get to do.  It’s always good to get the chance to expand one’s horizons, and even though I begin to worry that I might b getting myself a bit stuck in a rut with this whole cruise thing, I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to take several of them this year, and to bring my brother who I don’t see much of these days along with me for one of them.  I’m also grateful that I got to take a trip to Disneyland back in September with several friends, which gives an entirely different perspective than I’d get from traveling alone.  I know that for quite a while during my twenties, I had a tendency at times to be a bit of a loner.  Sure, I’d get along with people just fine, I just didn’t place as much importance on the friendship of other people as I really should have (which probably has a lot more to do with how I ended up being still single at age 30 than I’d really like to admit.)  It’s easy to let this become one of those things you don’t really think you need until you finally find friends like that and begin to realize what you’re missing.

All in all, I realize that I have a lot to be grateful for this year, even if I’m not always as good as I should be about expressing that gratitude.  Now, for anyone else in the family who still happens to be blogging (I know of one or two, not so sure about the others), it’s your turn.

March 17, 2011

The Schlock of the Irish: St. Patrick’s Day Kitsch

Filed under: Holidays — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:14 am

As is the case with many of the holidays we celebrate, St. Patrick’s Day has its roots in religious observance.  The Saint Patrick from which the holiday gets its name (and at least traditionally, its purpose) was a Catholic missionary and bishop who has become the patron saint of Ireland, as well as a number of other places (most notably the cities of New York and Boston.)  St. Patrick’s Day is a feast day held on March 17th, which is generally believed to be the death date of Saint Patrick, and is recognized as an official holiday in Ireland, and is considered to be a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics in Ireland.  Outside of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has become a decidedly more secular affair, which serves mostly as a celebration of Irish heritage and culture, marked mostly by the traditional Wearing of the Green, parades in many cities (Seattle included) and lots and lots of drinking.  Surprisingly, there is actually some basis for the tradition of drinking on St. Patrick’s Day.  Over the years, the day has served as something of a one-day break during the traditional 4o-day period of Lent in which various vices are given up in preparation for Easter. 

Although St. Patrick’s Day is considered to be a minor holiday outside of Ireland, in recent years a fair bit of merchandise for the holiday has begun to make its way into the stores.  Granted, the quantity is still dwarfed by what you’d find on the shelves for Christmas, Easter, Halloween or Valentine’s Day, but the stuff that’s out there tends to make up what it lacks in quantity with quality (of the dubious sort, otherwise it wouldn’t merit much attention here.)   And as you might imagine from the various St. Patrick’s Day traditions, drinking figures heavily into the various merchandise you’ll find.  How much so?  Find out after the jump.

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February 13, 2011

Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundup 2011: Love Isn’t as Blind as You Think

Filed under: Holidays — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 1:39 am

Valentine’s Day is coming up once again, and as seems to be the case far too often, it looks like I’ll be spending it in annoyingly single fashion, same as I’ve spent pretty much every Valentine’s Day since, oh, about 1989 or so.  Most of it is, of course, my own fault (sometimes I wonder if I enjoy being single just a little bit too much,) but I figure as long as I haven’t got much else going on, I might as well at least snark a bit about the whole thing in what has now become customary fashion over the course of the 3 1/2 years I’ve been Blogging here.  It’s not that I have anything against Valentine’s Day, of course.  I’d be glad to join in the festivities in the event that someone else was interested in doing so, but it’s not like any of this stuff is going to help with that anyway.

I don’t make any pretense of being any sort of expert on the subject of Valentine’s Day gift-giving, but I will say that by now I think I have a pretty good idea of plenty of things NOT to do.  For those of you who might not be familiar with these posts, basically what I do is go out and find the oddest, tackiest and most ill-advised examples of Valentine’s day merchandise to be found on the shelves of the various stores around here, and put together a bit of a “Do not do this” list.  I suspect that the vast majority of people reading this will have enough common sense to figure this stuff out on their own, but  even though I haven’t ever made a thorough examination of the dumpsters behind the store at the conclusion of the after-Valentine’s Day closeouts, I suspect someone’s buying this stuff, otherwise they wouldn’t keep cranking it out at an alarming rate.  Then again, love has been known to make men act irrationally, which isn’t generally the best trait to have in situations where common sense is indicated, so who knows?  Anyway, whatever you choose to do on behalf of the lover in your life, be careful out there, and when you’re being chased out the door with a rolling pin, don’t blame me.  I’m just the messenger here, OK?

So, without further ado, the 2011 Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundup begins after the jump.

Previous  Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundups:

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