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It has been twenty years since my trip to England…

June 19, 2018, 12:50 PM

This week marks twenty years since my family went to England.  That trip, from June 14-21, 1998, was our last real family vacation, where we spent about a week doing all of the various touristy things, mostly in the greater London area.

Interestingly, this was a trip that I had been dreading for quite some time.  TWA Flight 800, which went down a few years prior due to what was determined to be a malfunction, was still fresh in my mind, and I was convinced that I was going to die on this flight.  Thus I didn’t want to go.  But they made me.  And as things turned out, I got there and back in one piece, but nonetheless, I still am not a fan of flying.  Every little bump, I’m wondering what’s going on.  I guess that I’m a bit of a white-knuckle flyer, though I wasn’t as a child.  In hindsight, I consider my concern to be rational enough, but I was forgetting that for every incident that makes the news, there are thousands of flights that take off and land uneventfully every day.  It also didn’t help that my last flight prior to that, from Dallas-Fort Worth to Fayetteville on American Eagle in 1992, was one where they had aborted the takeoff due to a mechanical issue.  After aborting the takeoff, they parked the plane somewhere to run a test to determine what was wrong.  The test involved the entire plane’s shaking violently on the tarmac.  After the shaking stopped, they announced that the problem “had corrected itself”.  That was not exactly reassuring.  I would have preferred that they had swapped the plane after that for one where they hadn’t told us of any issues.  I wanted off of that plane, but there was nothing that I could do about it.  Every single bump in that flight, I thought, we’re going to crash.  Not a good feeling.  I was so glad when we finally were on the ground again at the end of that flight.

In any case, we flew from Charlottesville to Philadelphia aboard US Airways Express, and then flew US Airways flight 98 from Philadelphia to London Gatwick.  The Tube was on strike the week that we were visiting, so we did much of our travel via London black cab.

The first day was basically a rest day.  We were jetlagged and knew it, and so we did a lot of sleeping that day, ate dinner at our hotel the Novotel Waterloo), and then took a walk around the area.

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Categories: Family, Vacations

Finding my old fifth grade teacher on Facebook…

June 4, 2018, 2:30 PM

Recently, a very familiar name came up in my friend suggestions: “Sharon Payne Bradley”.  In other words, this person:

Sharon Bradley in August 1991, posing with me on the first day of school

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Categories: Arkansas, School

I’m pretty sure that I now have the modern equivalent of TXL…

June 1, 2018, 3:50 PM

Over the last month or so, Elyse and I created a network of smart speakers in the house. Elyse has had a Google Home Mini since early January, and I expanded it, first to three, and then to seven speakers when I realized the capabilities of the devices. With speakers throughout the house, we can use the “broadcast” feature as something of a home intercom system, and we’ve also created speaker groups in order to play music on multiple speakers in various sections of the house, or throughout the entire house. I love these things, because I can, for instance, just ask the system what the weather is, or what time it is, and it will tell me. I can even make phone calls on them and control the lights, though I don’t typically use the phone feature because of audio quality issues, and I’m not willing to spend money on the lights at this point in time (but maybe in the future). Right now, I use them most often for music, and for the home intercom function. And then if I ever get various Nest products, I will be able to connect them to the system as well. Pretty neat.

All in all, I can do a lot of things that TXL could do on Today’s Special. I can talk to it and it gives me information back, I can place phone calls through it, and I can make it control various building systems. I still don’t know how to get it to play “Yo He Ho” at the most inopportune times, though one day I might figure out a way to make it do that. Only thing about this system that I’m not a fan of is that you have to activate it by saying, “Okay, Google,” or “Hey, Google.” If I could customize the phrases that it responds to, I would make it respond to “TXL”, to make it complete. Considering that it does a lot of things that TXL could do on Today’s Special, it seems rather fitting.

Those of you who have used the various smart speakers also know that Google has built some Easter eggs in them, like if you ask what the answer is to life, the universe, and everything, it will tell you that the answer is 42. Using custom routines, I built in a couple of Easter eggs of my own, related to Today’s Special. I wanted it to respond to “How many size 9 shoes are for sale in the store?” with “There are ten pairs of size 9 shoes for sale,” (from “Boxes and Boxes“) but for some reason, it couldn’t comprehend that one, try as I might.

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A walk down an abandoned road…

May 24, 2018, 5:40 AM

On May 17, 2018, I took a solo trip up to Centralia, Pennsylvania.  For those not familiar, Centralia is something of a modern ghost town, having gradually been abandoned due to a coal mine fire that’s been burning uncontrolled beneath the town since 1962, likely caused by deliberate burning of trash in the town’s landfill, which was on top of a former strip mine.  As of 2013, the town had only seven residents remaining, and when those remaining residents pass on or otherwise leave the town, their properties will be seized via eminent domain.

I had done some research about the site, but was a bit iffy on whether it was going to be good or not.  I was concerned about its being a bust, but it was still intriguing enough to make the trip.  And as it turned out, it was pretty cool.  The biggest “attraction” at Centralia is an abandoned section of road known as the “Graffiti Highway”.  That road came about when Pennsylvania Route 61 began having subsidence and visibility issues due to the coal mine fire.  The state built a new alignment for the route on more stable ground in 1993, and the old alignment was abandoned.  Since then, many people have come by and left graffiti tags on the road, which gave the road its nickname.  Besides the road, there are also several cemeteries in Centralia, as well as one remaining active church, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

When I went up, I wasn’t quite sure how it would work out.  Based on my research, as well as a little Google sightseeing, there were the roads of the former town surrounded by empty land and a few houses, and the possibility of seeing steam from the mine fire rising from the ground.  The Graffiti Highway was most intriguing.  I’d heard mixed reports about how accessible the Graffiti Highway was, though.  When it was still under state ownership, my understanding was that police tended to chase people away on a routine basis.  I didn’t want to travel that far just to get chased out.  But last fall, the state vacated their easement, i.e. they gave up the right of way, determining that it will never again be used for a road, and ownership of the land reverted back to adjacent property owners.  So I believe that the old road is now on privately owned land, and as such, the heavy enforcement went away now that the state no longer owns the land.  In any case, no one bothered me on my visit.

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Another room transformed…

May 19, 2018, 10:40 PM

A second room in my house meets the paintbrush.  As you may recall, I painted Elyse’s bathroom a few weeks ago, and now, while Elyse was out on a trip to Japan, I painted her bedroom.  This was a much-anticipated paint job, because the basement bedroom was, to put it nicely, the only weird room in the house.  While the rest of the house had white trim, the trim in the basement bedroom was a blue color.  That color, along with the wall color and the ugly chandelier, worked with the previous owner’s furniture, which involved muted colors.  With my furniture in it the color scheme doesn’t work.  So I fixed it.

The color that we chose was Behr “High Speed Access”, which is a medium gray color, in satin finish.  I strongly recommended that Elyse go with a neutral color for the walls, because she intended to put lots of different things on her walls, and that would avoid having colors on the wallhangings clash with the walls themselves.  And then the trim was getting painted white.  That part was non-negotiable.  The rest of the house had white trim, and Elyse’s room was getting that, too, to achieve a consistent design language.  I have a few other “design language” issues with the house that I want to correct as well, such as doorknobs and light switches, but this was a relatively easy one that I knew how to do.

I started the morning after Elyse left, getting “before” pix:

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Categories: House

When you just hate recognition that much…

May 15, 2018, 11:05 PM

People are always amazed when I tell them that I hate receiving recognition.  I just don’t like it.  I don’t find it enjoyable.  In fact, I find it incredibly awkward all around.  I don’t know what it is, but it just isn’t a fun thing.  This came to mind recently because of two discussions that I had with colleagues in the last few weeks.  One was about an operator competition that my employer was having, and another was about an employee of the month program that my specific division has.

In the case of the former, where train operators go out and demonstrate their skills for judges, I couldn’t see any way to get a satisfactory result for myself as a participant.  If I don’t place, I’m kicking myself for not doing better.  If I place, then I have to deal with a whole bunch of unwanted recognition.  Not participating at all seems to take care of both concerns, and I have no problem attending as a non-competitor and watching others compete.  I’ve done that before at a similar event for the bus, where I was there but didn’t compete, and I had a blast.  Besides, I have the most fun just being myself while operating the service.

In the case of the latter, a coworker brought up the idea of it, and how I would possibly be a good candidate for the employee of the month award.  I was honest about it: if I ever were to get the award, I believe that my response would be, “Thank you very much, but please give it to someone else.”  In other words, I would probably decline it.  I just want to do my job and call it a day, and a whole bunch of unnecessary attention just gets in the way of my being awesome.

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Categories: Birthdays, JMU, LPCM, Myself, Walmart, Work

Reliving the nineties, one adventure game at a time…

April 30, 2018, 2:25 PM

Lately, I’ve been reliving the computer games that I used to play in the nineties through the magic of YouTube.  I was a Sierra gamer for the most part back in the day, mostly playing in the Space Quest franchise.  I used to love exploring around the worlds that the game created, hoping to make some sort of breakthrough in the game to advance the plot.

Interestingly enough, my first introduction to Sierra was not through an adventure game.  I played Hoyle’s Official Book of Games, Volume 1, which consisted of six card games: Crazy Eights, Old Maid, Hearts, Gin Rummy, Cribbage, and Klondike solitaire.  The game introduced the player to various Sierra franchises, as well as some other folks, via the various characters that you could play against.  You could play against Princess Rosella and King Graham from King’s Quest, Roger Wilco from Space Quest, Sonny Bonds from Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry from the series of the same name.  There were also a few real people, such as Jerry Moore, who was one of the animators, and Warren Schwader, who programmed the game.  Jerry and Warren’s kids, Devin and Christina, respectively, were also in the game.  I learned a lot from that game.  I learned how to play several card games, plus I learned about a number of other Sierra franchises by playing cards with their characters.

At the same time as the Hoyle game, I also had King’s Quest IV, which featured Princess Rosella, whom I knew from playing cards.  I didn’t do too well with that game, though, because I didn’t know that it had a text parser interface – and who reads instructions?  I thought it was all point-and-click like Hoyle was.  So I would just wander around aimlessly and eventually either get bored with it or die, either by falling off one of the cliffs, or by getting caught by one of the trees.

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Categories: Video games

Two projects completed…

April 22, 2018, 1:44 PM

I always enjoy that feeling of accomplishment.  I recently had a vacation from work, and knocked out two home improvement projects: counter-height chairs for the kitchen, and painting Elyse’s bathroom.  Both of these were long in progress, and several days off of work meant that I could finally complete them.

The kitchen project probably had the most impact on me.  Since moving in, Elyse and I had been using chairs that were the wrong height:

Chairs of the wrong height in the kitchen

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Categories: House

They listed the color as black…

April 2, 2018, 2:23 PM

In the time since the Soul burned a little less than two months ago, Elyse and I had been wondering what happened to it afterward.  We knew that it had been taken to Terry’s Body Shop in Purcellville immediately after the fire, and then the insurance company moved it to a facility in Culpeper in order to do their investigation.  The sequence of events that I described and the photos of the fire itself pointed to a fuel fire, i.e. that fuel started leaking out near the engine, and then, presumably, once the leaked fuel hit the hot engine, it ignited, and the rest was history.  However, the results of the insurance company’s investigation were inconclusive, as the fire had burned everything so thoroughly that their experts were unable to formally determine a specific cause that triggered the whole sequence of events.

Elyse had wondered if the car would end up on one of those auto salvage auction sites, and went hunting online to see if she could find it.  Her search came up empty.  Then, a few weeks later, I put the Soul’s VIN into Google to see what came up.  I didn’t expect to find anything, so I was a bit surprised to hit pay dirt.  I found a page from Insurance Auto Auctions with photos of my former car.  The listing indicated that the damage was “total burn”, with a black exterior and a black interior.  The black interior was correct, though I imagine that they weren’t thinking of the one that I remembered, but rather the one that existed after the fire.  The description of the exterior color as “black” amused me, because most of the body was no longer green following the fire.  Considering that, it’s pretty hard to argue with that description of the color.

Right front view.  I imagine that this side, with its heavy smoke and fire damage, is what led the auction site to list the car's color as "black" instead of green.
Right front view.  I imagine that this side, with its heavy smoke and fire damage, is what led the auction site to list the car’s color as “black” instead of green.

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Categories: Kia Soul

Now working out on land…

March 25, 2018, 1:39 PM

My exercise regimen has, for the past year or so, been a matter of fits and starts.  I resumed going to the pool before work last July, and ended up discontinuing it in October.  Now, I’m going to Planet Fitness a few nights a week in order to regain my boyish figure.  So far, so good, though admittedly, I’m still trying to figure out my groove.

It’s a shame, though, that I’m hanging up my speedo, at least for the time being.  When I went back to the pool, I intended to go in, do my hour, and then get ready for work.  However, I think that it was a combination of factors that doomed it.  I work nights, and that meant that the time that I used to work out some years back was now spent at work.  With the pool’s closing at 9:00, that meant that if I wanted to go, I had to go in the morning.  It is hard to get up first thing in the morning to go exercise.  That also stuck me in with what I called the “Leisure World crowd”, which was typically an older set that swam slowly.  When those people reached a certain level to where we started swimming three to a lane, it directly impacted my ability to complete my own workout.  That becomes frustrating when it happens on a regular basis.  I also felt rushed through the whole process because of a hard timepoint, i.e. getting to work on time, right afterward.  Get in, swim, get out, go to work.  I don’t like rushing, because that just sucks the fun out of the whole endeavor.

Additionally, at Montgomery County swimming pools, as a lap swimmer, you quickly learn where you stand on the totem pole of swimmers.  You are right at the bottom, down where the dog lifts its leg.  Swim team is at the top of the heap, and then you have aqua aerobics classes, swim lessons, SWIMontgomery (the pre-swim team program), and even open recreational swim (i.e. kiddie playtime) that takes precedence over lap swimming.  The management has no problem giving a full lane to a swim lesson group of five preschoolers and one instructor that will never leave the shallow end, and which requires a special platform so that the kids can even touch bottom, while cramming eight or nine people into two lanes for lap swimming.  Good luck trying to get a good workout under those circumstances, with that many people stuffed into a lap lane.  Likewise, the management won’t return lanes if a class has low attendance.  I have seen many occasions where an aerobics class is given four lanes (i.e. half the pool) for about five participants, while the lap lanes are crowded.  It’s ridiculous.

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My old college bulletin boards, fifteen years later…

March 21, 2018, 10:45 PM

It has been nearly fifteen years since I lived in a dorm at James Madison University.  I lived on campus all four years, and worked as a “resident advisor” (RA) for two of those years, 2001-2002 and 2002-2003, in Potomac Hall.  Part of the duties as an RA involved creating bulletin boards for our sections, which were supposed to be educational and entertaining.  Fifteen years later, they are clearly the work of a much younger man, but they’re kind of cute.  It’s funny  to see what I found interesting back in those days, and how things have changed – and also how much they haven’t.

In Potomac Hall, due to the design of the building, we had to do two bulletin boards per floor, with one at each end of the hall.  The boards were about 4′ x 4′, and had a wooden accent panel behind them, offset to one side.  I would typically make one board more artful, while the other one would be more of a quick staple-up with facts and such.

This was the first dorm bulletin board that I ever did, August/September 2001.
This was the first dorm bulletin board that I ever did, August/September 2001.  This followed a building-wide theme that Mecca Marsh, our hall director, came up with: “SS Potomac“.  I believe that I took the theme most seriously out of all of them (passenger ships have been an interest of mine for some time), and used life rings and ship’s wheels for the resident nameplates to follow the theme.  My ship is in Cunard Line colors, i.e. red (orange) and black, with two stripes at even intervals along the funnels.  I think that I was trying to base it off of the RMS Queen Elizabeth.  But the hull is a little bit iffy when it comes to time periods.  The bow is supposed to be raked (angled), but curves upward to become straight, like I couldn’t decide whether to go with 1910s styling or 1930s styling.  Then the stern is a counter stern, which is clearly pre-World War I, whereas the Queen Elizabeth had a cruiser stern.

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Categories: JMU

No, I do not have the world’s deepest voice…

March 11, 2018, 9:32 PM

Sometimes, a comment on a post inspires me.  In this case, it inspired me to finally write what I believe will be an amusing entry that I had been compiling for a while about my not-so-deep voice.  It started with this post, made late at night on March 6:

"It's 2 AM and Elyse is criticizing my Marge Simpson voice."

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Categories: Myself

Looking back on ten years at Hewitt Gardens…

March 3, 2018, 4:54 PM

When I moved to Montgomery County in 2007, I never imagined that I’d stay in the same apartment for a decade.  But I did.  Hewitt Gardens Apartments, on Hewitt Avenue in Aspen Hill, was my home from May 10, 2007 to November 16, 2017, i.e. ten years and six months.  In the intervening decade, the apartment served its purpose, but I eventually outgrew it, and it eventually became very clear that it was time to move on.

I found Hewitt Gardens in a second round of apartment hunting, in May 2007.  I originally wasn’t supposed to live at Hewitt Gardens at all.  If things had gone as originally planned, I would have lived in Oakfield (now split into two properties, with the other called Glenmont Crossing), i.e. closer to Wheaton, across Shorefield Road from H-Mart.  But what happened is that after I filled out their pages-long application and sent in a deposit, I was informed that there were no one-bedroom apartments available, and that they could “upgrade” me to a more expensive unit with a den, and give me two months’ free rent, allegedly to compensate for the change.  However, even that would not be deliverable in the timeframe that I needed, plus what they tried to pull with me was a bait-and-switch, which is a really dishonest thing to do.  Nothing like starting a relationship with mistrust of the management’s business practices, right?  So Oakfield was out, I got my deposit back, and I conducted a new search.  In the new search, I had Hewitt Gardens, Peppertree Farm (off of Bel Pre Road), and Montgomery White Oak (off of Lockwood Drive) on my shortlist.  Hewitt Gardens was first, and it was perfect.  It had a lot of space, it was close to the Metro, it didn’t have a lot of unnecessary amenities, and at $920/month, the price was right.  Plus, unlike Oakfield they showed me my actual apartment, and not a model.  We ended up putting a deposit in with Hewitt Gardens on the spot, with the idea that no matter what else happened, I would have a place to live when my new job started in a couple of weeks.  Peppertree Farm was more money, and had a bunch of amenities that I didn’t need, and then Montgomery White Oak was a five-minute visit, since the apartment was just not very good, as well as more expensive than I would have liked.  So Hewitt Gardens it was.

It took Hewitt Gardens a few days to complete all of the processing on my application, and by Wednesday, May 9, 2007, they were ready to go.  I was up the next day to sign my lease and move in.  So far, everything was good.  I got my stuff moved in, I got the Internet turned on, I got my parking permit, etc.  Additionally, the new job, where I was an underappreciated office monkey at a nonprofit, was going well.

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Now I’m a Honda driver, but I’m still missing my Soul…

February 26, 2018, 1:56 AM

No one ever told me that losing a car would be so difficult.  The car itself is gone, and after about a week in a rental car (a Hyundai Accent), I am now the proud owner of a Honda HR-V, a crossover SUV:

My new car, a Honda HR-V

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Categories: Honda HR-V, Kia Soul

I guess that I can cross “escape from a burning car” off of my bucket list…

February 13, 2018, 2:40 PM

Sad to say, my 2012 Kia Soul is no more.  On the night of February 7, in Lucketts, Virginia, as Elyse and I were on the way back home from a trip around the area with friends, my car caught fire and was destroyed in the resulting inferno.  Thankfully, we both escaped without injury.

The day had gone pretty well.  We had gotten together with two friends, Trent and Jackson, and we went from Gaithersburg to Rockville to Silver Spring to DC to Alexandria to Annandale seeing various things, with a focus mostly on elevators, as Elyse, Trent, and Jackson are all elevator enthusiasts.  I have somewhat of an interest in them, but not nearly as strong as the other three.  At the end of our day, we dropped Trent off at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, and then took Jackson up to Dulles Airport to meet up with family members of his that were flying in from out of town.  After we left Jackson with his relatives, Elyse and I headed out.  We took the Dulles Greenway to Leesburg, and then headed north on Route 15, intending to go over the Point of Rocks Bridge, and then continuing to follow Route 15 until we reached Frederick, after which we would turn south to head home.

However, circumstances would dictate otherwise.  As we were going up Route 15, the car suddenly started losing accelerative power, getting it back, losing it again, and so on.  The end result was that I was rapidly losing speed.  Elyse thought that it was the transmission slipping, and with that in mind, I was trying to see if I could get the car to a safe location in order to stop and call AAA for a tow truck.  A transmission problem would be covered under the Kia 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, and so, like the engine replacement that I had a couple of months ago, I would take it to the dealer to get it fixed, and everything would be fine.

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Categories: Elyse, Friends, Kia Soul, Virginia