29 September 2008

Times Two

Today marks an anniversary of a different sort: two years since I started this blog. In that time I've done just shy of 275 posts, and I probably could have made it to 300 if I'd been slightly less lazy. But it's not all about quantity. Mine is just one voice out of the millions out there in the blogosphere, but it's there, and that's really the point.

Since I started this, two of my friends have started their own blogs, and I'd like to think I had something, however small, to do with that. If any of you have the inclination, if you've been thinking about blogging but haven't taken that first step, I would urge you to just go ahead and start writing. It couldn't be easier to set up a blog. Don't get hung up on what to call it or what template to use; you can always change that stuff later.

I can't say for sure how long I'll keep doing this, but I don't feel even close to finished, so I imagine it's going to be a while. Thanks for reading.

28 September 2008

Happy Anniversary

On Friday the Mrs. and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. These days that seems like a big deal, though perhaps it shouldn't be. We marked the occasion by having dinner at Flora in Arlington. Maybe we should have done something fancier or more elaborate, but it just isn't our style.

We had a low-key wedding, both because we wanted it that way and because we paid for it ourselves. The important thing was that our family and friends were there to celebrate with us. So we rented a historic house owned by the town of Arlington, which turned out to be a very nice and appropriate setting. We bought many cases of wine at a New Hampshire liquor store, hired a friend to DJ and an attorney/justice of the peace to officiate, and had the food catered by an Italian restaurant. Our guests had to line up to fill their plates buffet-style, but they didn't seem to mind.

We are planning on taking a nice vacation as our way of celebrating, and we chose to bank this year's tax refunds and our government stimulus check toward it, but we have not yet decided where to go or when. Suggestions are welcome.

25 September 2008

Get Fluffed

This weekend is the annual "What the Fluff?" festival in Somerville's Union Square. I have yet to attend this fine event, but as a lifelong Fluff lover, I feel a near-irresistible urge to go, so I'm getting my act together this year.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Fluff, it's a thick, marshmallowish spread that was invented in 1917 in Union Square. It's used in many recipes, but is perhaps best known and best loved as a sandwich companion to peanut butter, which is known as a Fluffernutter. It's most definitely a New England thing. In my experience, people from other parts of the country are often (needlessly) scared of Fluff.

The festival is scheduled for Saturday, September 27th from 4 to 7 PM. Of course, this being New England, we're supposedly in for some stormy weather over the next couple of days. The organizers have yet to decide whether or not to move the Fluffage to its rain date, Sunday the 28th. They say they are going to watch the forecasts and decide on Friday, so check that link tomorrow for the updated info.

24 September 2008

No Shoes for You

For someone who likes to shop as much as I do, and who owns as many pairs of shoes as I do, it's somewhat unusual that I have never purchased anything from Zappos. But it's not because I haven't tried to. On several occasions I have found shoes I wanted on their site, only to be disappointed when they did not have my size.

In the most recent episode, I was looking around for some casual trail-type sneakers. These are good shoes to wear on weekends if the weather is iffy, but I'm not a runner so I don't need anything overly technical. I have a pair of New Balance shoes of this type that I have not had long, maybe 18 months, and suddenly whenever I wear them they are extremely uncomfortable, so I feel like I should cut my losses and replace them.

I spent part of my lunch hour poking around sites like Zappos, looking at sneakers. I found some that I liked, and of course they didn't have my size. But the thing about this that's particularly galling is that Zappos does not tell you the inventory status until after you have clicked the "add to cart" button. Only then do you learn that the size or color you wanted isn't available.

From a customer service standpoint, this isn't an especially winning practice. More than a decade into the era of e-commerce, it is certainly possible to have accurate inventory information and to provide it to customers. Plenty of other web sites do it. I don't know why Zappos chooses to do it the way they do, and they seem to do just about everything else right, so it's puzzling.

I was eventually distracted by a different style of sneaker that Zappos also did not have in my size, so I went and bought them somewhere else.

22 September 2008

Emmys Post-Mortem: Awards Healthy, Show DOA

Last night was the 60th Emmy awards show, broadcast on ABC. I generally don't watch award shows, though the Golden Globes tends to be a bit more lively and interesting because it's a dinner and everyone's drinking. But since I spent the time writing up my Emmy nomination observations a couple of months ago, I felt somewhat obligated to watch the show. Yeesh, what a waste of three hours that was.

It was mind-numbingly bad, due mostly to the conceit of having the five nominees for best reality show host serve as the host of the awards show itself. Wait, they give out an Emmy for reality show host now? Seriously? What a useless waste of whatever metal those statues are made of. Their collective "bit" was that they didn't have any material prepared, and it fell flat. It was clear that the audience thought the hosts were just fooling around, but the joke was on them, and those of us watching at home: they really didn't have anything prepared.

That right there, inside the first ten minutes of the show, should have warned me to change the channel or go find something else to do with my time. But I didn't, to my regret. A bit later on we were "treated" to singer Josh Groban (who is he, again? I've heard of him but I have no idea what sort of stuff he does) performing a medley of TV show theme songs. I hit the mute button and went to the kitchen to get some ice cream. Next year I'll just wait until the show is over and read the list of winners online.

With regard to the shows that won the awards, today the critics are noting how the majority of the big winners were shows on cable networks, with the exceptions of supporting actress in a comedy (Jean Smart for ABC's Samantha Who?) and NBC's great 30 Rock's wins for best actor, best actress, and best comedy. 30 Rock is always going to be an underdog in the ratings, because it lacks the mainstream appeal of workplace comedies like The Drew Carey Show or Mary Tyler Moore. It's point of view is deliberately absurd, and much funnier for it, but as long as it collects awards and critical praise, NBC will probably keep it around.

By now, a lot of people have heard the story of how Matthew Weiner, the creator of critical darling and last night's best drama winner Mad Men, pitched the show to HBO when he was working as a writer on The Sopranos, and never got any kind of response from them, not even a rejection. Surely HBO's execs are kicking themselves now. Awards and buzz don't translate into revenue in quite as direct a way as ratings do, but you can be fairly sure that AMC is planning to start charging more for ad time on Mad Men now that it's the network's signature show.

And it's not always entirely about ratings. A show like Damages might draw two or three times as many viewers if it aired on one of the big broadcast networks, but when people who do watch it start talking about it to their friends, and then people who don't watch the show see Glenn Close win an Emmy, it raises the cultural profile of the FX network along with the show.

The proliferation of drama shows on cable networks is a clear sign that the television audience is becoming more fragmented and less of a mass audience than, say, a decade ago. But more importantly, it shows that quality shows are finding audiences on cable channels, and being recognized by the academy for their work. I believe this is due at least in part to the networks' over-reliance on reality shows. How ironic, then, that the networks fill much of their schedules with this debris, then have to sit by and watch as cable channels like HBO and even basic cable networks like AMC and FX reap the most prestigious awards.

To be fair, there are reality shows on cable too. There are plenty of people who are happy to watch reality TV; my mother is a huge fan of The Amazing Race, and my understanding is that it's better than most other reality shows. But there are also plenty of people like me who prefer scripted TV, and will seek out the thoughtful, entertaining shows on whatever networks they air.

19 September 2008

A Proper Introduction

Well, my friend LT has made good on her threat promise to start her own blog, so I will refer to her henceforth by her new nom de blog, A Proper Bostonian. Expect intelligent opinions, sharp wit, and plenty of words about food, especially cake.

17 September 2008

Counterfeit City

September brings us the beginning of another new TV season, and you all know how much I love my TV (both the set itself and the shows). A couple of new shows have already started, including Fringe on Fox. (Fox tends to start its fall shows ahead of the other networks, because their annual coverage of the baseball playoffs consumes a significant chunk of their prime time broadcasting in October.)

comes to us courtesy of J.J. Abrams, who has also given us Alias and Lost. (He seems to like those one-word titles.) Fringe is about an FBI agent who is called upon to investigate a mysterious occurrence at our own Logan Airport that may have a supernatural connection. Though Mr. Abrams would probably be reluctant to admit it, Fringe plays an awful lot like a certain other Fox show that premiered fifteen years ago, in which two FBI agents investigated mysterious occurrences with possible supernatural connections.

But I'm not looking to compare and contrast the two shows. This morning I followed a link from a Universal Hub story to a critique of the things that Fringe has gotten wrong about greater Boston. This is absolutely not intended to malign that writer's observations; I'm merely using it as a jumping-off point for my own thoughts.

I agree that some of these inaccuracies--referring to Back Bay as having its own police department, moving Stoughton to the coastline--are fairly egregious to us locals, but as someone astutely points out in the comments, it's entirely possible that the producers and writers are not making any particular effort to be locally accurate. This can happen either due to ignorance or deliberate intent. I'm inclined to extend benefit of the doubt and assume the latter. Any fictional universe, be it in a book, a movie, or a television show, is a creation of the imagination, and while many of these bear a strong resemblance to the places we live and work, we should not be too surprised when artistic license is taken.

A New Yorker might be appalled if a writer referred to a character driving north on Broadway, but I remember seeing Dennis Lehane speak several years ago, and someone asked him about a scene in one of his books in which a car drives on Washington Street downtown, but in the opposite direction from how traffic flows on it in real life. He basically shrugged it off, saying (paraphrased) "It's my story, so I can make the traffic go however I want." So when an agent on Fringe pursues a car "south on Fenway" after leaving a hospital and we all know there are no hospitals on the portion of the Fenway that goes south, we just have to let it slide. It's probably in there so the folks watching out in Missouri can go, "Oh yeah, Fenway, like the baseball park."

There have been hundreds (thousands?) of TV shows over the years that take place in one locale but are made in a different one. It's the nature of the business; location shooting is an expensive drain on the budget of a weekly television series. What helps them conjure an authentic sense of place is a nice batch of pretty, atmospheric establishing shots: aerial views, skyline shots, nighttime vistas of twinkling lights in buildings that we all recognize. This is where Fringe comes up short in its depiction and use of Boston; I don't believe that any of the exteriors or establishing shots they have used were filmed locally. I certainly haven't recognized anything.

Sure, they're shooting the show in Toronto or one of those cities that gets used as a stand-in for many other places. Fine, but not even a few authentic cityscapes? That's kind of lazy. Send a crew out here, shoot for a few days, add some CGI snow if necessary (the pilot took place during the winter, but who knows when it waa shot), then come back one or two more times to get some assorted shots in different seasons. Shows don't bother much with opening credit sequences anymore, but when done right, they can look great, and make our city look great as well. How about it, Fringe folks? Show us some local love.

15 September 2008

Icy, Hot

On an unseasonably warm and soupy morning like today, could there be any feeling better than getting on the bus and finding it's nearly as cold as a walk-in freezer? I don't think so.

Conversely, two of the people who work in my section of the office keep portable heaters under their desks because air conditioning makes them too cold, and they both had them cranking today, so the cool indoor air was blunted.

13 September 2008

Kickin' It Old School

Driving through Porter Square this evening, we were stopped at the traffic light on Mass. Ave. when a guy crossed the street in front of our car. In each hand he was carrying an old-style boombox by the handle. Both of them were on and playing "Come As You Are" by Nirvana, so they were probably tuned to the same radio station. Or given the hardware, who knows? Maybe he'd copied the music onto cassettes and pushed play on both decks at the same time. Rock on, my friend, rock on.

10 September 2008

I'm Your Guy

This morning our weekly bagel breakfast was combined with a goodbye party for a departing coworker. During the event, his phone rang a couple of times, with a ringtone of the theme to the Clint Eastwood movie The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. We all had a chuckle on that.

He ignored the calls, but it turned out his wife was trying to reach him (probably because he'd brought their baby into the office for us to admire). So eventually he answered the phone, at which point one of my other coworkers asked, "What is that from, anyway?" I offered the answer, and she replied, "You're such a... treasure trove of useless information."

I'm kind of proud of that. Everyone needs to have something to aspire to, right?

Spoiler Alert

This morning I was on the T, minding my own business as usual. Generally I read the paper in the morning, which occupies my mind enough so that it doesn't wander off and start listening in on other people's banal goings-on.

But for some reason, today I started picking up on the voice of the woman sitting on my left. (Maybe it's because she was right next to me; if someone is a few feet away, it's easier to tune out their voice.) She was talking to a friend sitting on her other side about the new TV show Fringe, which premiered last night. After a minute or two, I realized that she was not just talking about the show, but describing the entire episode.

These days I do most of my TV watching via TiVo, and while I did record this show last night, I haven't watched it yet. Therefore, I did not want to hear any of what happened, especially secondhand. I quickly yanked my earbuds out of my bag and got my iPod going. (I often don't listen to music in the morning, preferring to concentrate on what I'm reading; going home after work, I'm much more likely to listen to music as a way to relax.)

Meanwhile, to my right I had a guy who was sitting with his legs spread so far apart that I was forced to sit sideways, and his leg was still touching mine. What's with that? It's one of those displays of general ignorance that we tend to ignore or let slide. I was in fact just about to ask him if it was really necessary for him to sit that way, when he got up and left the train. I believe this is an example of why commuters like the single seats on trains and buses so much.

07 September 2008


Like a lot of other people in the Boston area, we live on the first floor of a two-family. Our apartment used to be the owners' unit, but after they had a baby they decided they needed more room, plus they saw the income potential of collecting monthly rent from two apartments, so they moved to New Hampshire and rented to us. Three people live upstairs, and we've been very fortunate that they are friendly, responsible people and have been excellent neighbors.

A week ago, one of the upstairs residents moved out, and someone else moved in. The one who moved out told us a couple of months ago that she was leaving, and the other two roommates posted their ad on craigslist around the beginning of July. They had all the interested applicants come by over the course of a few days, and had their decision pretty much wrapped up within a week. We did not meet their new roommate; I trust their judgment, and they are the ones who have to live directly with their choice, after all.

We were pretty busy last weekend, and it seemed like a good idea to stay out of the way anyway, so we were gone most of Sunday at one place or another. At one point we came home, around seven in the evening, and found a bunch of stuff on the sidewalk, not exactly blocking our way into the driveway, but hindering it. There were two people sitting on the steps, but it turned out that neither of them was the new roommate but rather friends who were helping him move, and they were waiting for him to come back with some additional help to move these large, bulky items.

We went back out and returned a couple of hours later. By now the stuff had been cleared from the sidewalk, but there was a black leather sofa on our front porch, and later, when I went to take the dog out, I found a piece of exercise equipment sitting by the back steps. I'm assuming that the new guy and his friends had tried to move these things up the steps and had difficulty. The older houses common around here have notoriously narrow stairways, plus the ones in this house curve around 180 degrees on each flight.

Everyone has a story like this; when we lived in our old house, we had a new mattress and box spring delivered, and the box spring would not go up our stairs; fortunately we were able to get the furniture store to swap it for the two-piece kind, but it took another week to get it.

The next day the treadmill got moved up onto the back porch, but otherwise the couch and the treadmill (at least I think that's what it was; it was folded up into a vertical position, and I didn't look at it too closely) sat outside all week. We figured the new guy was planning on selling them or giving them away. I didn't care too much about the treadmill, because it was in the back, and not really in anyone's way. But every day I'd come home from work and look at that couch and think, great, it's still here. It just looked tacky sitting there, and I was worried that the mailman would complain about it blocking access to the mailboxes (postal workers can be funny about things like that).

The Mrs. said, "I'd love to have something out on the porch to sit on, but that couch isn't made to be outdoors, so it's gonna get all gross and mildewy." So now it's been there a week, and while this past week's weather was quite beautiful, we had the remnants of a tropical storm blow through yesterday and overnight, and the couch is now rather wet. This morning when I took the dog out, I noticed that the treadmill is gone. I can't say for sure if it was still there yesterday, but I think it was. One down, one to go.

05 September 2008

Computer Blues

I'm excited because I'm getting a new computer at work, but it's sure been a dragged-out process. For about a year and a half I've been using a laptop (connected to a big LCD monitor) that used to be my old boss's computer. He got a new one and passed this one along to me. It's never given me any problems, but its performance has been a little sluggish in certain programs for some time now. And I have no real need for a laptop, because I don't have the sort of job that requires me to do work at home, so I don't need to lug the thing back and forth.

More importantly, there are one or two little tasks I need to do each month that, for whatever arcane reason, can only be done in Windows; even though I'm using Word on my Mac, there are differences from Word for Windows (that are just too ridiculous to go into, trust me), and one of them affects my work. So each month, I have to trundle down to the conference room. where there's a Windows computer setup. It's connected to a nice big Samsung LCD TV so that it can be used for presentations and stuff, which is sweet, but it's still a pain, and sometimes I have to shuttle back and forth a couple of times.

So I suggested to my boss that it might make sense to get me a new Mac, something with a lot more RAM and a bigger hard drive, that can run Windows so that I could switch back and forth on the same machine and thus work more efficiently. She presented the argument to her boss, who agreed. Naturally, these types of purchases have to align with the budget, so they told me to wait for the start of the new fiscal year, which was July 1.

July came and went, so I figured I should remind someone about it, and as I suspected, they had forgotten. After that, it took a couple more weeks for the business manager to come around and spec out what I needed, then another few days while he did the same thing for someone else in the office, then another couple of days for it to be processed...

Sorry, didn't mean to put you to sleep. My new iMac with the big-ass 24" screen actually arrived a week ago, and the two giant boxes (mine and the other person's) have been sitting in the business manager's office ever since. On Wednesday I stuck my head in and said, trying to seem really casual about it, "So, what do we have to do to get this puppy up and running?" He said, "I just put in the request to IT for them to come and set it up." Okay, I know it was a long weekend, but what were you waiting for?

Today the business manager came by and said that he was still waiting for the Windows software and the virtualization software that will work with it to arrive, because he wants IT to be able to do everything all at once, which certainly makes sense. But it's really killing me knowing the thing is just waiting there, twenty feet away from my cubicle.

Oh, and the boss's boss wants my 23" LCD monitor, since I won't need it anymore. Seems fair.

02 September 2008

Sweet Spot

A couple of weekends ago, we found our way to Flour Bakery for the first time. They have two locations, South End and Fort Point. South End is the original one, but we never find ourselves in the South End. (Does that make us bad Bostonians? Everything about the area feels pretentious and, well, New Yorkish.)

Flour's other location, which we were told opened two years ago, is tucked away on Farnsworth Street, which is off Congress Street a couple of blocks past the Children's Museum. On that Sunday afternoon the area was pretty dead, but that meant there was no line in the bakery. I sampled a chocolate cupcake with chocolate buttercream icing that was light, almost fluffy. While it wasn't cheap (most of the pastries are $2.75), it was delicious, and generously sized as well (some of you may remember the brouhaha last year about tiny, dry, pricey cupcakes). The Mrs. had a sticky bun which she declared "awesome" and said she could have eaten another one immediately.

This weekend we went back. Unfortunately there were no cupcakes, but plenty of other goodies. I tried a raspberry-filled doughnut, which was much denser and chewier than a typical doughnut, but otherwise not so special, and then Flour's version of a granola bar. This was much more special: three distinct layers, from the bottom a base very much like coffee cake; a layer of "cranberry-apricot-apple jam" according to Flour's web site), and a layer of oats, honey, walnuts, and seeds. It was about four inches long, and very substantial. I wasn't hungry again until around 8 PM that day.

So it appears we have a new favorite bakery. The Mrs. said we should make going there a regular Sunday thing, and I'm inclined to agree with her, as long as we plan on going for a walk afterward to work off whatever goodies we've had.