29 November 2006

Crazy Gadgets Dept.

Holy hell, I love finding stuff like this. Manscaping gone mad! How'd you like to get one of these for Christmas? And remember, gifts say as much about the giver as they do about the recipient...

28 November 2006

And We're Back...

...after a brief holiday break filled with food, folks, and fun (is it copyright infringement if they're no longer using it?).

It was great to see everyone at my godson's third birthday party on Saturday. The battery in our camera was dead and we lamely couldn't get our act together to get a new one in time for the party, so the only pictures I have are in my phone. Since my provider intentionally cripples the Bluetooth in its phones, I can't send them wirelessly to my computer, and I'm not going to give them the satisfaction of paying to email them to myself, so sorry, no pix. But if you were there, you know how cute he is.

Regular programming will resume shortly...

22 November 2006

Black Friday Blackout

With my evident enthusiasm for shopping, you might assume I'd be one of those people lining up somewhere in the predawn chill this Friday, aching to get my hands on a "doorbuster."

Not a chance.

When I was young, like in my teens, I would indeed venture to the mall the day after Thanksgiving to start my Christmas shopping. But I never got out of bed before the sun was up to do it. (Actually, back then the stores didn't open early like they do now.) And I'm not about to start now. Why not? Numerous reasons: I don't like crowds. It's probably going to be cold. I like sleeping. I don't have kids, and toys are often the items that are offered at special prices for those few precious hours. But probably the most important reason: there's nothing I need badly enough to make me haul my ass out of bed in the dark and cold, the morning after stuffing myself into oblivion, on a day I don't have to get up for work, to queue up to worship at the altar of commerce.

(By the way, if you are into this sort of thing, this web site might be useful.)

I don't understand why people do this. I don't understand a lot of things people do: I don't understand why people would travel all the way to Italy to stand outside a hotel hoping to get a distant glimpse of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. I don't understand why people flat-out worship Oprah. I don't understand why people shop at Wal-Mart, or eat at Olive Garden, or watch Ghost Whisperer. And because I don't understand the reasons, I reflexively look down on those
people and assume they are losers who need a life. Does that make me a cynic and a curmudgeon? Yup. A Northeast, liberal, elitist snob? I sure hope so, because that means I'm automatically disqualified from participating in the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy.

What I might do on Friday is go check out the Tower Records liquidation sale, which has finally reached discount levels that make it worth a look. Late in the afternoon, though, or at night, when things have died down a little.

And to everyone out there, especially my friends: Happy Thanksgiving. For real, no cynicism.

21 November 2006

Vile Media Whore Dept.

I didn't have any intention of mentioning this subject, but I just read this bit in Gregg Easterbrook's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" column on ESPN.com and thought it was a very apt take on the situation:

"And in sad, nauseating news, O.J. Simpson has confessed. There is no way on God's green Earth an innocent man, falsely accused, could put his name on a book in which he 'imagines' what it 'would' have been like to cut a helpless woman's throat. His acquittal might protect Simpson from jail, but it no longer protects his honor; Simpson himself has voided that by doing something that only a guilty man would even contemplate. Maybe at this point Simpson belongs in a treatment facility for the criminally insane--but he does not belong in the Hall of Fame or on the wall at Ralph Wilson Stadium. His bust must immediately be removed from Canton and his name pulled down from that place of respect. Take a crowbar to them today. The fact that Fox and its publishing subsidiary just canceled the book and associated television show does not create any excuse for the National Football League. Any other course other than the removal of Simpson's bust from the Hall and his name from the stadium wall will put the NFL in a state of disgrace. Once the bust and the name are gone, sandblast the areas to get the filth off."

Will it happen? Probably not. But it's nice to contemplate.

Premature Turkulation?

So I just went to get lunch, and I was thinking--is it weird to want turkey so close to T-day? (Yeah, my mind is on food a lot this week--so what?) I typically get a turkey sandwich about once a week. Of course, most places don't serve actual turkey that's been carved off a bird, but rather some processed lunch meat-type stuff, but it still originates from a bird so it should still count as turkey. But eating this sandwich won't dull my enthusiasm; come Thursday I'll be digging into the white meat and all the goodies that go with it. (And yes, I do like the cranberry sauce that comes in a can--so what?)

It's not like it's one of those disgusting sandwiches some places offer with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and even cranberry sauce, either on bread or in a wrap. I'm not making this up; I've seen this abomination recently, I just can't remember where. If you've seen this sandwich, which I think is usually called a "Gobbler," help me out.

19 November 2006

Monsters of Moo

One excellent perk that goes along with shopping for furniture at the Jordan's Furniture location in Reading, MA is that the store has a satellite location of Richardson's Ice Cream. Richardson's has been a Massachusetts favorite for decades and part of a family dairy farming heritage that goes back over three centuries. They raise the cows that make the milk that makes the ice cream. At any given time they have around 50 flavors at the main location in Middleton, MA (some are seasonal, like pumpkin and apple crisp for fall), while the Jordan's location has about 40.

Over the course of our furniture-buying odyssey, we made several visits to Jordan's, and each time we topped it off with ice cream. My current favorite is Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Twirl. The peanut butter tastes homemade to me; I should have asked if it is. The Mrs. keeps getting Toll House, which is vanilla ice cream with pieces of baked chocolate chip cookies. We're now at the point where we wil drive to the store just to get ice cream; it's that good. Fortunately the folks at Richardson's are smart enough to package their ice cream in quarts and half-gallons, so we don't have to keep going back. But we probably will anyway.

18 November 2006

Drawer Space

My wife's interest in a new dresser came out of the blue, as she hadn't said anything about it. In fact, it wasn't until a couple of days after we'd been to the furniture store that she mentioned it. We hadn't even looked in the bedroom section. But to be fair, the dresser she was using had been mine, and long before that it had been my father's, so she was overdue for an upgrade. I suggested we go back to the store.

I was a little surprised when she started looking at pieces that were not even close to our existing bedroom furniture in style or finish. She explained that her primary interest was getting the greatest possible amount of drawer space, and appearance was secondary. I should have anticipated this, because it's how her mind works in general. She spent an hour with a tape measure and a piece of paper, roughing out capacities in cubic inches, while I just sort of stood around, wondering how she could completely ignore aesthetics. Occasionally she asked my opinion of something, but I had the feeling it didn't really matter what I thought.

We went home; this had been merely an exploratory mission. Several weeks went by. Eventually I asked her if she had been thinking about choosing a dresser. She said she had, but she needed to go back to reconsider the various styles she'd noted on the previous visit. I understood this to mean it was finally time to consider appearance as a factor in the decision. Back we went. This time it wasn't as tedious, because she'd already narrowed the choices. The second look was eye-opening for her; once looks and style became part of the equation, I think she was a little surprised (and I was relieved) at how much she disliked some of the styles she had been interested in previously. (I tend to do the opposite: aesthetics first, function second.)

In the end, there was really only one good choice, and it happened to coordinate nicely with the pieces we already had. Of course it was out of stock, and the expected delivery time was five to eight weeks. But it turned out it took only three weeks before it was in stock, and it was delivered a week ago. Now, if I can just get the Mrs. to start putting her clothes into it...

15 November 2006

Get Comfortable

One of the great things about moving, from the perspective of someone who loves to shop (that would be me), is that you have a built-in excuse for buying new stuff. In our case that meant primarily items related to more effficient use of the storage space available to us. But eventually we arrived at the point where we had to consider some new furniture items.

Now, people who know me know that I frickin' LOVE furniture shopping. I'm not entirely sure why that is, but I definitely like being comfortable and being surrounded by nice things. I like going to the stores and seeing all the different styles available. I like sitting in sofas and chairs and imagining how things would look in my home. I like the idea that the pieces I choose are on display in my home, and that my choices communicate my style to my guests.

Beyond all the aesthetic reasons, furniture is so expensive relative to most things we buy that it triggers the need to feel like you're getting a good deal while still buying something of quality that is going to last and serve you well, which ties in very nicely with the bargain-hunting impulse that I've cultivated for more than two decades.

But you don't want to take that too far, or you can end up furnishing your entire home (if you happen to live in the northeastern part of the country) with cheap, scary stuff from the
Christmas Tree Shops. Don't get me wrong, "The Tree" is useful for mundane household things (just ask my mother), but their furniture selection is limited and of questionable quality and taste. Besides, do you really want to have to assemble every single piece of furniture you own? I actually love putting stuff together, but It's nice to feel that you've reached a point in your life where you can buy something that's fully assembled, and will be delivered for you, instead of having to recruit (and bribe) your buddies to help you fetch it.

This is the frame of mind we were in when we set out in search of a new TV stand and coffee table. (The table got back-burnered in favor of a new and larger dresser for my wife, but we'll get back to it eventually.) The item I was looking to replace was a
piece of wood-grained, particle-board crap that my roommate Sandra and I had bought for about $30 some time around '89 or '90 at the now-defunct discount store Bradlees. (What's really frightening is that, even though Bradlees went bankrupt and closed all its stores years ago, the company that made the TV stand still sells basically the exact same style of stand with a slightly different finish. Yikes.)

Why it was still holding up my television nearly two decades later is a question I can't give a satisfactory answer to, but I decided that after we had moved I was going to replace it. The Mrs. wanted to shop at Jordan's Furniture if possible, because they do a lot of great work in support of local adoption and foster-parent programs, so off we went to the insanely large indoor amusement park that is the newest Jordan's store, in Reading, MA, a few miles north of where we live. We had no trouble finding several styles we liked, but nothing really wowed either of us, so we agreed to keep looking.

Around the time we started shopping, we hit 20,000 points in our American Express rewards program, and I wanted to see if we could cash in those points toward the imminent purchase. I found we could indeed get a $100 AmEx gift card for the 20K points, but if we chose a gift card for a particular store, the same number of points would get us $200. Unfortunately AmEx offers only national retailers' gift cards, so we would have to look elsewhere. I happened across Crate & Barrel's Cadence plasma stand and was immediately attracted to its clean lines and warm finish. It was made
in the US of real wood, was on sale, and we could get a $200 Crate & Barrel gift card from American Express to put toward the purchase. Beyond all that, I'm gearing up to get a new TV, and it's wide enough to hold up to a 50" plasma or projection set. Sold!

14 November 2006

Movin' On Up, Part 2

Having committed to move, we knew the toughest task was going to be de-crapping our life of a great deal of excess stuff. Fortunately, we had over two months between lease-signing and moving day to get it done. Eleven years is a long time to live in one place, and we had a lot of stuff we had accumulated during that time that fell into the category of "excess."

A quick trip down to the basement served as a rude reminder that when we'd moved into the house in 1995 there was a lot of stuff that had been indiscriminately dumped down there and had never been seen or heard from again, so in 2006 it probably wasn't very important to us. The new apartment had ample basement storage, but it would be stupid to move a bunch of stuff we didn't care about just to stash it in another basement. Some people are very good at weeding unnecessary stuff out of their lives on a regular basis, but sadly my wife and I are not among those people. So it was very emotionally healthy for us to have to assess
and cull our belongings in preparation for the move.

Of course when moving day was a few days away, we still weren't where we needed to be, but is anyone ever totally ready to move? (Probably those same people who weed out their unnecessary stuff on a regular basis.) The movers were due at 7:30 AM, so there we were at 6 AM on moving day, making a massive trash pile out of stuff we no longer wanted or needed, couldn't manage to give away, or that was just in such poor shape it was destined for the trash anyway. To be sure, I would have preferred not to throw away so much, but sometimes it's inevitable.

We hired Father & Son Moving, based on their estimate and the fact that the Mrs. had used them for a work-related move. When they arrived (on time) they couldn't get the truck into our dead-end street because of a car parked on the corner. One of the movers went to the nearest house; the owner was home, but the car had no gas. She was willing to go and get some, but for whatever reason, she couldn't do it until later in the day. The movers decided the best course of action was for them to do their other scheduled job for that day first, then come back to us. That was actually a good thing for us, because it gave us several more hours to finish packing (like I said, we just aren't those people...). The car was moved, the movers got the truck into the street and did a terrific job, and
eventually (before dark) we were in our new home.

13 November 2006

Enjoy Dessert, Help Others

It's time for a holiday-related public-service announcement. During the Thanksgiving season I like to support the organization Community Servings. From their web site: "Community Servings is Greater Boston’s free, home-delivered meals program for individuals and families ill with HIV/AIDS or other acute life-threatening illnesses."

Each year at this time, Community Servings sponsors a fundraising event called Pie in the Sky. Pies are baked by local chefs and sold at various locations around the city. The $25 contribution provides a week's worth of meals to one client. In case you need any further persuading, the pies are delicious.

You can order a pie online until November 16th, and select the location where you want to pick it up. I just ordered mine. I encourage everyone to support this very worthy cause, and get your Thanksgiving dessert at the same time.

06 November 2006

Not Fare

The public transit system here in the Boston area is operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or MBTA, but most people refer to it as the "T". This year the system is undergoing one of the most significant changes in its history, an updated fare collection system. Gone are the old-fashioned turnstiles into which riders would drop tokens (there was also a slot on top to read the magnetic strip on monthly passes). Riders no longer have to line up purchase tokens at a single fare booth in each station; multiple machines are being installed which sell fare cards that can be "refilled" with additional funds, and sturdier plastic passcards are scheduled to appear this month. (I'm still a little unclear on why they felt they needed two pass formats that do the same thing, and the explanation on the T's web site doesn't do much to clarify things.)

The transition is not yet complete, but about two-thirds of the stations have the new gates, and a similar system is being added to the T's buses. None of this matters to me, however, because I don't pay to ride the T. That's because, as I mentioned previously, I am legally blind, which entitles me to a special pass issued by the state's Commission for the Blind. I've had one of these passes for almost 20 years, and it's certainly been very useful, especially when I had a job about 25 miles from my home and I had to ride the commuter trains.

In the past I had to go to the token booth and show my pass, which has my picture on it, to the person inside, who would unlock the turnstile next to the booth to allow me to pass into the system. The new system is essentially replacing the token sellers inside the booths, so clearly I was going to need a new pass. Last winter I received a letter explaining that I would be getting a new pass with an embedded chip that would allow me to use the new system. I'd like to give credit to the T for handling this transition very well: I did not have to do anything. The pass was mailed to me well in advance of the new fare system's implementation.

After being shown how the pass worked (a panel on the turnstile "reads" the chip inside the ID card), I started carrying the pass and using it daily. One morning the turnstile area was more crowded than usual, and a mother with a couple of small kids and a stroller was attempting to go through the gate designated for wheelchairs (and the folks like me with special passes), because the wider gate made it easier for her to maneuver. Being a fast mover in general, and not wanting to miss the next train, I stepped to the side and pressed my pass against another turnstile. Nothing happened. I kind of guessed what was going on, and one of the T's "ambassadors" standing nearby confirmed it (none too politely, I might add): "You have to use the handicapped turnstile!"

Now, I want to be clear: I don't have an issue with being singled out as handicapped (though I can appreciate that there are those who might). I've lived with my disability my whole life, I'm fortunate in that it's not outwardly obvious and doesn't prevent me from leading a more or less normal life, and I do not have any special equipment such as a wheelchair that would require me to pass through the wider turnstile. But I feel there's a disparity in the system because, while
my pass (and presumably those of the other riders who have them) can be used only at that one special turnstile in each station for handicapped riders, any T rider can use the "special" gate.

I'm sure the percentage of riders with special passes must be very small relative to the total number of riders, but since my pass is permanent and does not have a stored value that needs to be refilled, what difference does it make which turnstile I use? In the interest of keeping things moving (and of fairness), it would be much more efficient and convenient to be able to pass through any turnstile. I could probably make the argument that it's discriminatory, because I honestly believe it is. I sent an email to the T's general manager and the manager of disability services asking about it, but I never received a response from either one.

01 November 2006

Images Not Available

Public transit, for all its flaws, makes it possible for me to live pretty independently, which is one of the main reasons I choose to live in a large metropolitan area. How does that converge with my shopping desires? Generally, pretty well. There are several decent malls and shopping areas within the city, and several more within the reach of the transit system. But those tend to be fairly well out in the suburbs, and getting there isn't always easy; often the trip involves multiple legs of travel on subway and bus. Frequently the final leg of the trip is a bus that runs only once an hour, so trips have to be timed carefully and can end up taking the better part of a day round-trip, even with good connections. So I tend to plan ahead, and usually have a specific reason for making the trip.

Of course, the internet gave us a new and convenient way to shop, one I love and take advantage of frequently. But I've found that often, the reason I'm making the trek to a mall is to see something in person that I've found online, but don't feel comfortable buying without examining in person. This is kind of silly if you stop to think about it, because it negates the supposed benefit of online shopping. But sometimes it's an item that needs to be touched (clothing), sometimes it's something that needs to be tried on (see my previous entry about shoes).

Some products just shouldn't be bought without a visual assessment (TVs, diamond rings). But the most typical reason I feel I need to go inspect something in person that I've seen online and am considering buying is...because the web site's pictures of it are so lousy, I can't make an informed decision. I spent some time working in e-commerce, so I know what I'm talking about: you can't skimp on the product presentation, verbal or visual.

Sadly, I have on occasion felt the need to send an email to an online retailer asking if there were any additional or better images of a specific product. The answer is inevitably the same: sorry, no. The most recent instance was when I was looking for a new messenger-style bag a couple of months ago. I found a leather one at Fossil that looked nice, but there was only one picture. I could click on it for a slightly enlarged version, but there was no picture of the back, and worse, no picture of the inside.
Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. I'm not going to pay nearly $150 for something if I can't assess whether or not I think it's going to meet my needs. If I can't get a good enough look at it, and I can't see it in person anywhere, there's no way I'm going to buy it, no matter how interested I might be.