Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Today’s News in an Instant

Consumer Confidence Down More Than Expected:
The Consumer Confidence Index dropped from January to February. The CCI is an index designed to measure how consumers feel the economy is doing. I’m not going to provide the data (if you’re interested, use your computer and Google the data yourself), but I will tell you that consumers are a schizophrenic bunch. We’re slightly optimistic about how things are, but less so than last month, which doesn’t make sense, considering that January was when we had to start paying down that Christmas credit card debt. We think things are okay now, but are downright pessimistic about the next six months or so. This tells me that most people who took the CCI survey have a job now, but expect to be in the unemployment line by August.

Bush Job Approval Rating falls to an All-Time Low:
It seems that people are catching on… George W. Bush is doing a crappy job. According to the latest CBS News Poll, the President’s approval rating dropped eight points in a month, down to 34 percent. This means that approximately one in three people still don’t understand how poorly our Commander in Chief is performing. Of course, when I say “our,” I really mean “your,” because I certainly didn’t vote for him. (For anyone thinking of flaming me or sending me hate mail, save your breath. I’m not a tree-hugging liberal either.)

Connecticut Approves Venezuelan Heating Oil:
The state of Connecticut has given their social services department authorization to supply low-income residents with discounted oil from Venezuela, whose energy aid program has really rankled pissed off the Bush administration. Let’s see here… The Bush family is an oil family. Oil prices are at an all-time high, and when someone offers to help out the poor folks, the President gets offended. Could it be that the President’s profits are more important than his constituents? Yeah, yeah, I know that Hugo Chavez is pro-Castro, and a huge critic of the Bush administration. But guess who looks like the idiot in this situation. You guessed it, the same guy with the abysmal approval ratings.

White House Rejects Special Counsel:
The White House rejected a call by more than a dozen Dumbocrats for a special counsel to investigate the Bush administration's eavesdropping program. Ummmm…. Duh…. What did they expect? “Well, if you guys think we might have broken the law, then I guess we’ll investigate ourselves. And don’t worry; we will leave no aspect uninvestigated. In fact, let’s just save our country some time and money. I’m a criminal, I broke the law. You can just censure me now, because God knows you won’t do anything worse than that, or I’ll tell your mom what you did.”

Dubai Ports Agrees to a 45-Day Security Review of its Contract:
But guess who’s doing most of the security review… Yep, the White House. In other words, the company agreed to “allow” an administration which has already approved this purchase to re-review things. And our idiots in the House and Senate appear to be okay with this. “We were really pissed that they didn’t include us in the original decision,” an anonymous Congressman said at an unspecified time, “but now that we know, we’re going to be okay with them looking at things again – or not – and telling us that it’s still okay. The big issue is whether or not we get the kickbacks and campaign contributions.”

Friday, February 24, 2006

We Can't Get Our Taxes Right, But We'd Love to do Yours

Shares of H&R Block Inc. sank Friday after the nation's largest tax preparer said it was having problems with its own taxes and would have to restate earnings going back to 2004. "It's a little embarrassing if you think about it," an anonymous seasonal tax preparer said. "Here I am, working for a tax company that can't get its own taxes right."

H&R Block also said the costs of settling a number of class-action lawsuits and slower-than-expected business in its tax and mortgage arms caused its third-quarter profit to drop 68 percent and forced the company to lower annual revenue estimates. The company reported its earnings after financial markets closed on Thursday. H&R Block said it will restate earnings for fiscal years 2004 and 2005, as well as the first two quarters of fiscal 2006, to correct accounting errors it said led to the company understating its income tax liability last year by $32 million. "I sure hope that we bought our own 'Peace of Mind' option," a mid-level executive quipped. "That way if we messed up, we won't have to pay... oh wait, yes we will. I guess we're screwed," he said as he packed his personal belongings from his cubicle.

H&R Block announced Dec. 21 that it had agreed to pay $62.5 million to settle four class-action suits filed in West Virginia, Ohio, Alabama and Maryland, as well as to resolve claims pending in 22 other states and the District of Columbia. All the cases involved loans that allow customers to borrow against expected tax refunds. Consumer advocates say the loans take advantage of low-income customers who don't understand the steep fees charged for the service or their alternatives. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer last week filed another lawsuit against Block's loan program, with similar claims, and the company is scheduled to defend the program from federal racketeering charges in May. "Yeah, I guess those poor yokels were a little less dumb than we thought they were," stated a Block board member. "Oh well, I'm glad that I sold all of my stock last year. I'm rich bee-atch!"

The company's tax business saw quarterly revenues increase 3.2 percent to $548.5 million. But H&R Block said its retail offices have seen 4.1 percent fewer clients through the first month-and-a-half of the U.S. tax season, eking out a slight increase in revenue from a 6.1 percent increase in average fees per client. Company chairman and chief executive Mark Ernst said software problems during the first half of January likely prevented the company from serving an estimated 250,000 clients. "Yeah, not only are our books messed up, our computers aren't working right either. If I were you, I'd sell my stock in Block. I know I did," the well-tanned, Hawaiian-shirt wearing Ernst said as he boarded a plane to Rio.

"While we have recovered from these problems and have since then seen performance in line with our expectations for the year, those early weeks really sucked," he said, estimating it will reduce client traffic for the year by 2 percent. "That's a whole lot of clients that we won't be able to overcharge this year," he continued. "Not only that, but we can't sucker them with our shady 'Refund Anticipation Loans.'"

H&R Block, trying to ward off competitors such as Jackson Hewitt Tax Service and Liberty Tax Service, this year expanded the number of retail offices and department store kiosks by 9 percent to 12,165. Unless you live in Montana, you can't throw a rock without hitting a Block kiosk or office.

The company's mortgage business saw quarterly revenues decline 4 percent to $296.5 million, as rising interest rates have cut into margins. Ernst said the company has consolidated branch offices and regional call centers for its Option One subsidiary and will cut its work force by 600 positions, actions that will require a fourth-quarter charge of between $10 million and $12 million. "We'd rather not screw our workforce like this, but it was either lay off a few hundred measly employees, or shave a percent off of my annual bonus. I really didn't have a choice."

"The changes we're making will help ensure the long-term competitiveness of our mortgage businesses, and a beautiful retirement package for me," Ernst said in a written statement.

For the second time in six months, H&R Block said it will have to restate past earnings because of accounting problems. In the latest case, the company said it plans to reduce fiscal year 2005 earnings by 7 cents per share and reduce 2004 earnings by 2 cents. Officials said the mistakes had to do with estimating the company's state effective income tax rate. "That's right, we realized that we screwed up about six months ago, so we went back to fix things and we still didn't get it right. I wonder how many more times we can mess this up before our idiots -- ummm, I mean customers -- catch on that we really don't know what we're doing.

Chief Financial Officer Bill Trubeck said the company will likely request an extension to file its quarterly report with securities officials to give it more time to determine the full impact of restating earnings. "That way we'll have a little more time to sell off the company's few remaining assets before leaving the country for good."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"My Friends Said We Wouldn't Get Caught"

President Bush was unaware of the pending sale of shipping operations at six major U.S. seaports to a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates until the deal already had been approved by his administration, the White House said Wednesday.

Defending the deal anew, the administration also said that it should have briefed Congress sooner about the transaction. "That way, Congress could have received some of the graft that the White House received," an anonymous White House staffer stated, following up with "Oops, did I say that out loud? Oh well, I guess the cat's out of the bag."

Bush on Tuesday brushed aside objections by leaders in the Senate and House that the $6.8 billion sale could raise risks of terrorism at American ports. In a forceful defense of his administration's earlier approval of the deal, the President pledged to veto any bill Congress might approve to block the agreement involving the sale of a British company to the Arab firm. "I don't care if the Arabs do blow up the ports, this deal will make me and my cronies a lot of money after I'm out of the White House."

Dubai Port's top American executive (loosely translated as bribery-guy), chief operating officer Edward H. Bilkey, said the company will do whatever the administration asks to ensure the sale goes through. Bilkey said Wednesday he will work in Washington to persuade skeptical lawmakers they should endorse the deal. "Oh yeah, we'll do whatever we have to.... trips to Aruba, political contributions, new houses for distant relatives," Bilkey told The Associated Press in an interview. "We're going to do our best to persuade them that they jumped the gun. The UAE is a very solid friend, as President Bush has said. And by 'friend,' I mean someone that will line their pockets with lots and lots of dough."

Bush faces a rebellion from leaders of his own party, as well as from Democrats, about the deal that would put Dubai Ports in charge of major shipping operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia. The main challenge stems from the fact that the White House got lots of bribes, without Congress getting in on the action.

While Bush has adamantly defended the deal, the White House acknowledged that he did not know about it until recently. "He became aware of it over the last several days. He was really pissed that he didn't get in on the action earlier," McClellan said. Asked if Bush did not know about it until it was a done deal, McClellan said, "That's correct." He said the bribes did not immediately rise to the presidential level, but went through a congressionally-mandated process. "The president made sure to check with all the Cabinet secretaries that are part of this process, or whose agencies or departments are part of this process," the spokesman said. "He asked Vice President Cheney. The Vice-President paused for an unusually long time and said, 'Ummmm, yeah, I guess so.' And every one of the Cabinet secretaries expressed that they were comfortable with the money they were getting as a result of this transaction being approved," he said.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, told the AP in an interview: "Look, the Arabs are not in charge of security. We are not going to let them blow our shit up. We're just taking a little coin on the side in return for turning our heads when they smuggle tobacco, porn, booze and stuff like that from the U.S. to the Middle East. Everybody wins."

Treasury Secretary John Snow said failure to complete the transaction would send the wrong message overseas. "The implications of failing to approve this would be to tell the world that bribes in the United States from certain parts of the world aren't welcome," Snow told reporters Wednesday following a speech in Connecticut to a fuel cell manufacturer. "That sends a terrible message."

The sale's harshest critics were not appeased. "I will fight harder than ever for this legislation, and if it is vetoed I will fight as hard as I can to override it," said Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "If they'd have let me in on the coin earlier on, I'd have kept my mouth shut. But the White House's action is telling me that I'm not worth bribing. King and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said they will introduce emergency legislation to suspend the ports deal.

McClellan dismissed any connection between the deal and David Sanborn of Virginia, a former senior DP World executive whom the White House appointed last month to be the new administrator of the Maritime Administration of the Transportation Department. Sanborn worked as DP World's director of operations for Europe and Latin America. "My understanding is that he has assured us that he was not involved in the negotiations to purchase this British company," McClellan added. "He even said 'Cross my heart and hope to die.' I'll take his word, because I couldn't see whether or not he had his fingers crossed behind his back." Of course nobody with half a brain believed what McClellan said.

Earlier, several lawmakers determined to capsize the pending sale said they would not be deterred by Bush's veto threat. (A reporter said 'capsize.' Lawmakers aren't witty enough to come up with such a cool play on words.) Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said the bipartisan opposition to the deal indicated "a lack of confidence in the administration" on both sides. "Sure, we have to link up with our Arab friends but ... we want to see that those in Congress get in on some of the action too," Biden said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Bush's veto threat sought to quiet a political storm that has united Republican governors and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee with liberal Democrats, including New York Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Schumer. But it didn't work, it only pissed them off more.

To assuage concerns, the administration shared a token amount of the money it 'negotiated' with Dubai Ports. The administration also said that they're requiring Dubai to participate in U.S. security programs to stop *cough* *incoming* *cough* smuggling and detect illegal shipments of nuclear materials. "We had to do something to make it look like it's not about lining our pockets," an anonymous bribe-taker admitted.

Frist said Tuesday, before Bush's comments, that he would introduce legislation to put the sale on hold if the White House did not "share the wealth" with Congress. He said the deal raised "serious questions regarding the integrity of our congressional bribery system."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., asked the president for a moratorium on the sale until he could open a Swiss bank account.

Lawmakers from both parties have noted that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers used the United Arab Emirates as an operational and financial base. In addition, critics contend the UAE was an important transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components sent to Iran, North Korea and Libya by a Pakistani scientist. "That doesn't matter," the White House retorted. "The average taxpayer can't even IMAGINE the amount of money that we're -- and I mean us personally, not the United States -- making off of this deal."

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Worse Than Reality TV

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to another episode of "What the fuck is President Bush thinking!?!" In today's installment, the White House has given the United Arab Emirates the green light to take over six major U.S. sea ports. Call me a little suspicious, but I think that putting any Arab company (or country in this case) in charge of just one of our major sea ports is a huge mistake. While it isn't necessarily like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, or giving the government control of a huge portion of our money and freedoms (oh wait, we've already done that), it seems to me that it would be akin to implementing Swiss banking rules in the U.S. while simultaneously trying to bust money laundering rings. Let's see here, the President, in his infinite wisdom, distrusts his people and government so much that he wants to do warrantless wiretapping on his own citizens, but he trusts a government with several dubious ties to the 9/11 hijackers.

Some of the politicians in Washington content that they don't object to foreign ownership. I do. It's a mistake to outsource ownership of anything that's critical to our security and economic livelihood. It's a colossal error of judgment to hand over something as important as a major seaport to any foreign company. Of course I'm sure the President will say that he has thought it over, and I'm equally convinced that he'll say "Trust me, I know what I'm doing." Sorry Mr. President, your historical decisions have proven that I can't trust you.

Oh yeah, I'm sure that I'll get some hate mail from the pacifists saying that I can't group all Arabs together. Save your breath. This isn't about racism. This is about using common sense. The Arab world has proven themselves violent, radical and Anti-American. (Allow me to cite the worldwide violent protests over a stupid cartoon as the latest instance in a long string of examples.) Once they change their consistently proven behavior, I will re-evaluate my position. Once they give me reason to believe that they can be trusted, I will reconsider my opinion.

Herding Cats -- A Ramble About Raising Children

I've heard it before, and I'll say it again... raising children is like herding cats. It's not something that you control, you can only coax and guide. It's frustrating as hell, and sometimes you can only laugh at the absurdity of the whole affair. Between sick kids, issues at school and the inevitable parent-child conflicts at home, it's no small wonder that parents go gray (or bald) earlier than adults without kids. A couple of examples...

My older daughter is sick today. If it was me that was sick, I'd still be going to work, but she's got no tolerance for any sort of physical discomfort; when she's even the slightest bit sick, she's down for the count. I've tried in the past to have her suck it up and go to school, but in the end I always get a call from the school and end up at home anyway. Additionally, my ex-wife never seems to be able to take the time off of work when the kids are sick, so it's always me that ends up taking care of the kids when they're not feeling well. Fortunately, I have a job that allows me to effectively work from home, and an employer who understands my situation. Part of me enjoys the opportunity to work from home occasionally, but part of me feels guilty too.

Last night we had a parent-teacher conference for my younger daughter. I've come to the conclusion that I really don't like her teacher. My little girl is a good kid. She's kind, considerate, good in math, and a budding musician; but she has a hard time with reading. My wife reads with her every night before bed, and she is getting some additional help from the school, but she still struggles a bit. She seems to be catching up with her peers, and fortunately she enjoys reading, so in the end, I think she'll be fine. But I don't think the teacher is giving little 'un what she needs as a student. Last night my wife asked whether the kid's slow reading is only when she's reading aloud, or also when she reads silently. The teacher didn't know. I asked the teacher to measure this, and she looked at me like I was an alien (as in outer space, not another country). Additionally, the teacher seems very rigid and is incredibly over-zealous about charts, graphs and statistics on performance. Data is a good way to give an overview of a kid's performance -- both on an absolute level and as a measure against peers -- but my daughter is a person, not a number. Throughout the course of the school year, I have seen my daughter's love of learning decline significantly. And considering that she's never had any doubts about school before, I can't help but think it's because of the teacher. I only hope that her teacher hasn't permanently killed her love of learning.

And finally, while we were at the teacher conference, my older daughter decided to stay home and play with some friends. While we were gone, they trashed my house. Toys strung throughout the house... clothes thrown around everywhere... clean clothes mixed with dirty ones... half-full glasses of juice and pop all over the house... general mayhem. My wife and I are both neat freaks by nature. We understand that our kids aren't naturally tidy, so we tolerate a certain amount of clutter and disarray, but the fact is, when we look forward to coming home and are greeted with a trashed house, we want to just turn around and leave again. We've tried everything to get the kids to help us out... allowance, family cleaning time, rewards after cleaning, grounding them when they don't do what's expected... nothing works. It's an ongoing battle, and my wife and I are once again frustrated to the point where I'm almost ready to declare all-out war against my childrens' piggish ways. At the same time though, I need to make sure that this is a battle that I really want to fight. After all, cats are inherently hard to herd, and my little kittens are no different. I need to make sure that the battles I pick are the ones that really matter... school, staying away from drugs, safety on the Internet... In the grand scheme of things, how important is a clean house?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Life in the Projects Ain't Easy

In a post from last month, I admitted that I'm a projectaholic. If I'm not planning, starting, in the middle of, or finishing at least one project, something's wrong with me. Luckily, none of my projects to date have required me to spend large sums of money, and I haven't yet had to call in the professionals because I messed something up too bad to continue. But I'm digressing. Today, I am happy to announce that I have finished my latest project.

The project started out simple enough. I had a section of drywall (shown in this "before" picture) that kept rotting out due to water damage. I had already repaired it once using plaster, but alas, that too rotted out because I had not addressed the root issue. Having addressed the issue of the water leak, I felt it was time to also fix this eyesore once and for all. Simple enough, right? Wrong.

The project officially commenced with me ripping out rotten plaster. But as I got to the point where the plaster met the shower surround, I was greeted with a nasty surprise. The shower surround was no longer adhering to the drywall, which could only mean that the drywall behind the shower surround was rotted. I could have stuck with my original plan of simply repairing the small section next to the bathtub. No I couldn't. I had already patched this section twice before. I was tired or revisiting this task, I had found and fixed the source of the water leak, and determined that it was time to truly do this whole thing right, once and for all.

So I tore the front two sections of the shower surround off, and discovered an area of serveral square feet that had become a rotted, mold-covered mess.

I grabbed a filter mask, ripped out the mold-covered drywall and took it outside, and then scrubbed the framing lumber with bleach. The mold was dead. This picture shows how much drywall I had to cut out.

After removing all of the rotten drywall, I could almost feel the mold breeding in my lungs, despite wearing safety gear. It wasn't enough to make me sick, but I certainly could feel the effects of cleaning a mold-infested area. That was enough to make me vow that I'd never again have to deal with mold in this room. I decided to over-engineer everything that I possibly could. I began by coating everything that previously had mold on it with a layer of epoxy. That way there would be no danger of water damage, thus preventing future mold outbreaks.

Instead of using drywall again, I replaced the rotted area with cement board. I was so determined to NOT need to re-do any of this, that I decided to over-engineer every aspect of this project that I possibly could.

The only problem here was that the cement board is slightly thinner than drywall. I compensated by placing a shim between the frame pieces and the cement board. Paint stirring sticks were the perfect thickness, and if you look back at the previous picture, you will see them nailed to the frame.

My next over-engineered step was to fill all of the gaps with epoxy that was thickened with wood flour. Before applying the epoxy, I coated everything that may possibly need to be removed in the future (the tub and the plumbing) with plastic. That way, if I do remodel in the future, I won't have to destroy what I worked so diligently to repair. I also masked everything off, so I had perfectly straight lines.

In this picture, you should note the area directly to the left of the tub. That's the area that I originally planned to fix. It's now made of epoxy. A tornado could destroy the rest of my house, and this small section would remain standing in defiance of mother nature's fury.

Every now and then, I got a little help. Here's a pic of my younger daughter helping dad mix epoxy.

The hard part was over. Now it was time to make it all pretty again. Slapping this coat of paint on the wall was one of the easiest parts of the project, and a firm indication that I was on the home stretch.

Another easy, but time-consuming and precise step. The base-coat is covered with a glaze to give an underwater feel to the walls. This step is time-consuming because I used two colors of glaze to get the effect I wanted, and matching it to the portions of the wall that I didn't have to repaint took a lot of patience. In the end though, I'm very happy with the result.

Re-mounting the shower surround was another time-consuming step, mainly because I needed to sand the walls and the back sides of the shower surround pieces in order to remove all of the old adhesive, paint and so forth. That sanding was done earlier in the rebuilding process.

And here's the finished result. I'm totally satisfied with the final product, but I can't help laughing at the knowledge that the only aspect of the project that people will actually see is the small section of wall next to the tub. Go ahead, see for yourself. Compare my "before" picture with this one. Virtually all of the work I did will never be seen.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to clean the tub so my family can use it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I'm not a Mindreader

Sometimes kids are really frustrating. Okay, not necessarily kids, just life in general. Now that I think about it again, it's the kids...

For those of you who don't know, I belong to a NASCAR Sim Racing league, and I've been racing with them on Tuesday nights for almost four years. This has never been a problem because on Tuesdays the kids are with their mom, so I've got the night to myself. Every now and then -- like when a holiday comes up -- we race on a different night. Because of Valentine's day falling on Tuesday this year, the league decided to race last night.

Since I have the kids on Mondays, I was prepared to skip last night's race. I went home and asked them whether or not they minded if I raced, and specifically said that I'd skip the race if they wanted me to. Both of them said it was okay to race.

While I was running practice, my wife and older daughter went out for some one-on-one time, leaving my younger and me at the house alone. My younger daughter started playing her guitar, dancing, singing and generally occupying herself, but occasionally asking for my attention. When she'd ask, I'd stop, remind her that I was practicing but would watch her anyway, and said that once the race started she couldn't interrupt me -- unless she asked me to not race, which I was still prepared to do.

When race time arrived, I told her that I was starting, and reminded her that I wanted to be left alone to race. I didn't figure it'd be a big deal, because my wife and older daughter got home at that time. Cool. The young 'un would be occupied.

The race commenced, and I began to concentrate. The outside world disappeared as I focused on the track. With my headphones on, it was difficult to hear what was happening in the world, but every now and then, I'd hear kids squealing, laughter, music and whatnot... just enough to distract me.

Eventually, the distraction got the better of me and I slammed into the wall. I was going to try to continue hobbling around the track for points, but still being distracted, I hit a wrong key on the keyboard and dropped myself from the race. I figured that was God's way of telling me to hang out with the kids. The second that I was out of my chair, my wife informed me that I was needed in my younger daughter's bedroom. I walked in, saw her on the bed with the guitar, noticed that she was upset and sat down beside her.

"What's wrong, kid?"

"I don't want to say. I'm afraid that you'll get mad." I figured that she was going to tell me that she wanted to quit guitar, and mentally prepared myself for it. "I feel like the race was more important to you than I was," she continued. I wasn't quite prepared for that. I explained that her perception wasn't how I felt, and reminded her that I had given her sister and her the choice of whether or not I raced. "I knew that you wanted to do it, and I didn't want you to be mad or feel bad."

Okay, it was beginning to look like I had a woman-in-training. I gave her the choice. She made the choice that it was okay to race, and then somehow I was supposed to miraculously read her mind and know what she was thinking, despite the fact that it directly contradicted her words. In all honesty, I was pissed, but I didn't want to make matters worse, so I ate the anger and didn't say anything. Instead I told her that I understood how she felt, and that next time this happens, she should be willing to tell me what she wants. Feeling satisfied that I did the best I could in this situation, I went to the kitchen and started cooking dinner.

That was when my older daughter told me she had a queasy tummy and asked for a salad, instead of what I was preparing -- one of her favorite meals. I subconsciously rolled my eyes, knowing that the drama bug had magically passed from my younger daughter to my older daughter. My older daughter never even had a chance to miss me, because my wife was keeping her occupied, yet somehow she too felt slighted that I was playing my game. I was even more pissed, but again chose to eat the anger rather than escalate things. So I spent the next little while interacting with the kids while I was cooking. By dinnertime, my younger daughter was once again happy, and my older daughter's appetite magically reappeared.

My mission of keeping them happy was accomplished, but it would have been so much easier if they'd just told me up front that they wanted me to play with them instead of race. And oh yeah, to complicate matters more, I later found out from my wife that the little 'un was never really pissed at me about the race. She'd had a hard day at school. Apparently her boyfriend was dissin' her, so she dumped him, and she was upset about that.

This is my 9-year-old, by the way... and it's a boyfriend that I don't officially know about. Apparently she's not ready to tell me that she's got a boyfriend. I was a little relieved that she wasn't pissed at me about the racing, but I was also a little irritated that she took the whole boyfriend thing out on me... espeically considering that I don't officially even know that she's got a boyfriend. After all, I'm not a mindreader.

Monday, February 13, 2006

In Saturday's post, I discussed how some of my wo-workers and I put in some marathon overtime in order to replicate our Microsoft Exchange calendars on a division-wide basis, and talked about how, despite all of the work we put in, it wasn't good enough for Napoleon.

Despite the fact that Mr. Bonaparte still has nothing positive to say about our endeavor, I have heard back from a few of the staff. There were a couple of hiccups here and there, and a few follow-up questions, but in the end, I heard two words more frequently than anything else. Good job. Our efforts may not have been sufficient for Napoleon, but it's good to know that others appreciated the results.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

It’s Never Enough…

Yesterday and today, three of my co-workers and I inter-connected our exchange mail systems so that we could share our calendars in outlook. It may sound easy, but it was no small feat. While it wasn’t exactly rocket science, it did require weeks of preparation and schedule coordination, and several hours of research.

Knowing that our project would take a while, we decided to do the work over the weekend, so that our users would have as little downtime as possible. We sent out the announcement to everyone - several days ahead of time - saying that we’d be starting promptly at 5:00 Friday, that we’d be down all night Friday, and that we’d be continuing this work through the weekend. We clarified that we planned to have basic functionality restored by midnight Friday, but that certain aspects, such as distribution lists, might be down until Monday morning.

The first complication hit before our project even started. At 4:30, the point where I had planned on doing final preparation for the project, one of my other servers crashed. I spent the next 25 minutes getting that server up and running again, which only left me five minutes for my last-second prep work. Forty-five minutes later – almost a full hour after our announced start time – one of my co-workers told me that she had numerous workers still using email. She ran around frantically reminding them of our planned work, which set us back further.

Finally, after about an hour, we began our work in earnest. Old connections were deleted, new connections were made, the most efficient methods of communication were recalculated, and we waited… and waited… and waited. Two of the three connections weren’t working. After an hour or so on the phone with my guru at corporate headquarters, we finally figured out the problem, reconfigured the non-functional connections, and waited some more. In short order, the basic functionality was restored, so I sent out an email saying that people could use basic email again, and that we’d continue work in the morning. I went to bed around midnight, after a 16 hour day.

My co-workers and I had planned on picking up the work at around 9:00, but my boss called me at about 8:45 and told me there were problems. I verified the issue and immediately started working on a solution. At 9:00 one of the VPs (I’ll call him Napoleon, because he’s a little man who wields a large corporate sword), emailed my boss and me, screaming because his email didn’t work, telling us that this was unacceptable, and demanding to know when it would be fixed. Never mind the fact that he was trying to use an advanced function of email; forget about the fact that I had explained that we still had issues; disregard the fact that every moment I spend answering his demanding emails is another moment that I am prevented from working on the issue at hand. The only thing that mattered was that Napoleon was inconvenienced.

After a couple of hours of troubleshooting, the problem was isolated and fixed… only to create yet another problem. I felt like I was playing dominoes. Yet again, notifications trickled in that there were problems… nobody though, was as abrupt or demanding as Napoleon. Fortunately, I was able to quickly identify this follow-up problem, and I could fix the problem for individuals who were immediately impacted, and then go back and fix everyone else programmatically. I finally solved that last problem at about 3:30, and we all had the project finished up by 4:30 or so, allowing me to send out a communication to everyone at about 5:00 formally announcing that we were done.

Between Friday evening and now, I put in roughly 14 hours… my co-workers put in roughly 8 to 12 hours each. We planned for weeks and still encountered two major issues that even in retrospect couldn’t have been foreseen and avoided based on our level of expertise, yet we solved each problem quickly, based on that same measurement of expertise. We missed aspects of our deadline by a bit, but we busted ass and did a great job, finishing the entire project early. In spite of that, what sticks out in my mind is Napoleon’s email saying that our work was unacceptable…

No matter how good you do, no matter how hard you try, it’s never enough.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Rumor Has It...

My younger daughter came home the other night with quite the story to tell. It seems that there were two boys in her class who claimed to have had sex with her. The boys are eight and my daughter is nine, and they're already spreading rumors about who's had sex! I remember in high school the constant rumors about who was a slut, who was a prude and who was a tease, but notice I said that I remembered this stuff from high school, not third grade.

My daughter did the right thing. She went and told the principal, who took matters seriously. He took no immediate action other than giving them a "stern talking-to," but part of the talk was a promise that if they ever did this again -- from now until they're out of elementary school -- that he'd suspend them.

She said that she was nervous about talking to me... partially because she was afraid that I'd go ballistic on the boys, and partially because she was embarrassed talking about... you know... sex. Since this was a sensitive issue for her, I let her talk for a while before saying anything, and when she slowed down, I asked follow-up questions, designed primarily to keep her talking to me, so she would feel less uneasy with the prospect of talking to dad about sex.

She told me how she found out, about calling the boys on their lies, about going to the principal's office, and how the principal handled the situation. After all of that, I told my girl that she was brave for going to the principal, and for coming to me. I told her that she did the right thing, explaining that if she hadn't gone to an adult, nobody could have helped her make it stop, and I told her that she'll probably need to do something like that again in the future.

I told her that she had done nothing wrong, but she might feel like she did. I explained that some friends would believe her and think the boys were poopie-heads (she giggled a lot when I said poopie-heads, so I used the term a lot after initially introducing it), but others would believe the boys and think that she was a fartknocker. (She giggled at that one too, so I kept using it as well.) Fortunately, everyone seems to believe her, and the boys have been completely ostricized from their peer group. Hopefully it will teach them a valuable lesson.

Despite the fact that it was my little girl that was the target of these rumors, I'm not angry. What the boys did was uncool, but I remember being a little boy and doing things that weren't cool. Additionally, I don't think this was an issue of "boys will be boys." I think this was an issue of "kids will be kids," and I think that the adults involved did a good job of addressing the situation appropriately. Of course the only thing that will prove or disprove my thoughts is whether or not the boys try anything like this again. Overall, it was an unpleasant situation that couldn't have been handled any better.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

The Long Road to see Nickelback

Last night my wife and I saw the Nickelback concert in Des Moines. It's the first rock concert we've been to in almost two years, and definitely an experience to remember.

My brother lives in Ankeny, about 30 minutes away from the arena, so the wife and I hung out with him before going to the concert. We chatted about everything and nothing for a few hours -- time that went by amazingly fast -- and then we were off to the concert.

The arena was amazingly easy to find, and there was little traffic to impede our quest. The only traffic hassle we had was that the event parking was right off of the freeway exit, and I blew by it before I even knew what it was. As I drove by the parking lot, I wondered how I'd get back there, but in the end it didn't matter. We ended up in a parking ramp that had a skywalk connection to the arena. We ended up walking a little further, but it was all indoors, we didn't have to pay the $6.00 for event parking, and we didn't have to deal with the traffic congestion before and after the concert.

The biggest downside to our experience was that we ended up in the nosebleed section, but that was okay too... I'm turning in to an old fart, and I no longer feel the need to be constantly on my feet, jumping up and down and screaming until my voice is shattered. Sitting in the nosebleed section allowed me to sit and quietly enjoy the music. For the record though, when I get good tickets, I'm screaming and jumping up and down with the best of them... I just need my oxygen tank immediately before and after the show.

Of course, no concert is complete without the funny stories about the stupid drunk people. We ended up sitting next to a couple of women that I affectionately dubbed the she-mullets. The she-mullets were a pair of women in their late thirties who were apparently trying to relive their glory days... of course, judging by their fantastically awful mullets, it may have been more accurate to say that they had never left their wild-n-crazy glory days... maybe because nobody was kind enough to tell them that they were too old to continue acting like teenagers, and they were too cronked to figure it out for themselves.

When I refer to these women as the she-mullets, it only paints a partial picture... maybe this will help you more fully understand just how white trash these chicks were... When they showed up, they had a beer in each hand and were already staggering drunk, both were dressed in clothing that was about a size too small for their frame, and then to top it off there was a he-mullet in the row behind us that was hitting on them. It would have been truly comical to watch if we had been another row or two away from them. As it was, every time they walked by, I nearly gagged from the particularly noxious combination of cheap perfume, tobacco smoke (despite the fact that the place was no-smoking), spilled beer and hair spray.

The guy that was hitting on them did so by swapping stories about concerts that they'd been to... after overhearing one or two of the concerts they'd attended, I leaned over to my wife and informed that I could probably shut them up very quickly and efficiently by out-cheezing their concert stories with my "just average" concert stories, but I had become too much of a yuppie snob to bother. We both got a kick out of my ability to admit that I'm a cheezy snob. But hey, the she-mullets were so obnoxious that even the young couple a couple seats down were laughing at them.

During one particular beer run, when the she-mullets staggered back to their seats with two more fists of beer (this would have been their fourth trip or so), one of the she-mullets left her purse in the aisle... the aforementioned young couple came over to me and the wife and wryly said that they must have left the purse in the aisle so the crack pipe could cool off. A few minutes later, the she-mullet went to retrieve her crack-pipe carrier, but was so drunk that she kept dropping it. After she was finally able to pick it up and crawl back to her seat, I looked at the young couple and mimed the process of picking up a hot crack-pipe carrier.

The most spectacular she-mullet moment came during the concert, when they started banging their aged heads to the music. The she-mullets were fantastic in their headbanging pseudo-mating ritual. The hair spread from their skulls as if they were peacocks during the mating season. The nostalgia came flooding back as I saw the she-mullets perform their mating ritual in their natural environment.

Yes, the she-mullets provided us with hours of annoyance and entertainment, but we went there to see Nickelback, and I suspect you're more than a little curious how the concert went. Well, I'll tell you, it was phenomenal - and I don't use that term lightly. I've been to over 30 concerts.... I've seen the best of them... Metallica, Ozzy, Rush, Queensryche, LIVE, I've seen the cheeziest of them... Europe, Jackyl... I've seen country, opera, you name it. I will say that Nickelback is one of the tightest musical groups I've ever seen. They did a great job of working the crowd, their technical skills were top-notch, the musical set was superb, and they did an awesome job of using pyrotechnics without detracting from the music. (By the way, Nickelback, if you're ever looking for a guy to burn and blow shit up for you, I'm available.)

In my experience, seeing musicians perform live is the ultimate litmus test of how good they really are. Anyone can take and re-take a track until it's perfect. It requires a lot more skill to come together in a live setting - especially when you have tens of thousands of screaming fans. I've been a fan of Nickelback since their Silver Side up CD came out. I've been looking forward to this concert for months. I'm pleased to say that not only did Nickelback provide me with a great musical experience, they blew away my expectations and in the process created a hard core fan of their live music.