Return to Reality

We got home at about 1 AM last night after a week at a wonderful vacation destination called GreenLinks Resort between Naples and Marco Island, Florida. We had a great, spacious two-bedroom condo with excellent amenities for the price you would normally pay for a mid-range hotel room in a larger city. With three people traveling together, we find that it’s essential for a successful family vacation for everyone to have a space of their own when they want it. I would very much recommend the resort for couple or families. It was quiet and clean, and we were comfortable with our 16-year old being able to hang out at the pool or elsewhere on the grounds on her own or with us.

(For the plane nerds: we flew three legs in Boeing 737-400’s and one in an Airbus A321-100, the first time I’ve flown in one of the latter planes. The interior was a bit more spacious than most American planes, but the ride felt labored, as if the plane never quite got to the point where it was cruising comfortably with its load. I’m not normally a 737 fan, but the Boeing warhorse was the superior plane for this trip, even though two of the three planes were clearly at the back end of their life cycles based on hull and interior wear and tear).

The average high temperature each day of the vacation was around 80, with relatively low humidity and bright, clear skies. We rose early most days to play 18 holes of golf at a great course for our experience level, The Lely Mustang Course, where I shot the two best nines I’ve played to date, unfortunately on different days, so I didn’t break my 18-hole personal best. So much for practicing, I guess, since I literally made my first swing since October in the tee box of the first hole. We visited Naples, Marco Island and Sanibel Island for shopping and eating on different days, and at night sat out behind our condo in the hot tub and pool with an amazing east-northeasterly view in a cloudless sky, with Mars, Sirius and Orion just stunningly bright and clear in the heavens above us. I’ve been to just about every major region or city in Florida, and don’t care for most of them, but I really, really liked this particular area for its mix of sports, beach, culture and nature, with the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary standing as a highlight in the latter regard.

Kind of makes the snowstorm I’m going to have to drive through tomorrow to get to work all that much more dreary, though I’m looking forward to getting back into the office since we’ve got some interesting, challenging procurement and operations projects on the table that will have far-reaching ramifications for the way we manage our business. I actually find that I think well and clearly about work matters when I’m away from the day-to-day minutiae, and can think how I want to move things strategically, rather than reacting to issues as they emerge. Of course, I’m sure there will be some unexpected surprise awaiting in my in-box that will immediately blow up my big picture plans, but at least I will have them formulated to underpin the daily rush and bustle.

After that first day back at work, we’ll be celebrating New Year’s Eve with friends at the Desmond‘s annual shindig, at which we had a great time last year. If you happen to be there and see me, please say howdy. I’m generally pleasant and friendly in person, much to people’s surprise. My only resolution post-January 1 this year is to figure out a plan (be it chiropractic, massage, ergonomic or exercise based) to get my back in better shape. The two hours I spend on the road and eight hours I spend at a desk most days have taken their toll on my spine this year. I lived with chronic pain in my shoulder for 20 years before getting it surgically corrected, so am not inclined to let the back deteriorate the same way. I’m thinking some combination of a better home office chair, sensible weight and stretching work, and occasional chiropractic visits should do the trick, although I’m hoping I can do without the latter, since the last time I went to a chiropractor for any period of time, I found that the treatments made me feel great, but that they seemed to be self-reinforcing in the sense that if I missed a week, all of sudden everything felt even worse out of line than it did before I went the first time.

So we’ll see. Happy New Year and Healthy Backs to you all, and please be safe as you welcome 2008.

Seeds for a 4.0

When I was a real little kid, I was way into planting stuff, so a good report card (i.e. one that didn’t have the usual “needs improvement” listed in the “plays well with others,” “is pleasant and cheerful,” “shares toys well,” or “pays attention and follows instructions” categories) often resulted in a trip to the general store to pick out some seeds to plant. (Yeah, I know. Poor little redneck country cracker is me). I would merrily study the seed packs, pick just the right combination of flowers and vegetables, rush home, find the sandiest, least appropriate place in the world to plant them, dig a three foot hole, dump all the seeds in, run hose water into the hole until it was a mud bath, and then completely forget about the fact that something was supposed to grow from my labors. I honestly can not ever remember seeing anything that I planted result in anything other than a sinkhole to twist your ankle in weeks later.

I bring this up because I got my grades on Friday and was pleasantly surprised to learn that I maintained my 4.0 grade point average through another semester. I had felt good about my prospects for an “A” in one class, but wasn’t so sure about the other. I guess my final paper must have a been a hit, because I don’t think my final exam was. But I’m not complaining. 34 credits down, 12 to go. And of the 12 left, four are “pass/fail” for the master’s essay, so all I’ve got to do grade-wise to finish grad school with a perfect score is nail two more A’s in a pair of seminar classes. Self-imposed pressure’s on. In five weeks, anyway.

At the end of my first year in grad school last May, when I reported my 4.0 to my mother, I was rewarded with a package in the mail a few days later with some choice flower and vegetable seeds. Amazingly enough, with Marcia’s assistance (she’s the master gardener), I actually managed to produce some visible growth this year in pots that we placed around our patio. Ain’t nothin’ growing in Albany at this point, but here’s hoping that if I nail those last two A’s, come May I’ll get another bunch of Burpee packs, just because nothing says “job well done” for me like a muddy hole in the ground with some drowning seeds swirling around inside it, into which I will trip and fall three weeks later.

You can take the redneck out of the trailer, but you can’t take the trailer out of the redneck.

Top 20 Albums of 2007

Yeah, there’s another couple of weeks left, but even if I bought a masterpiece a week from now, I wouldn’t have time to love it enough to bump any of the albums listed here off the list, so why bother?

Rather than doing the usual stock list of numbers 1 to 20 (which forces me to decide whether a given disc should be number 16 or number 17, a pretty meaningless distinction by any measure), I took the approach of clustering the albums into four groups, based on how I responded to them through the year just past, and not ranking any further within the four groups. I’ve linked to each of the artists’ websites so you can explore further, as the spirit moves you.

The “Best of the Best” (Numbers 1-5) go into “The Permanent Spin” category. These were the five albums that I just kept returning to over and over again throughout the year. They might leave the car stereo for a brief spell while something new got test run, but then they came back and pleased me just as much as they did before their short reprieves:

The Permanent Spins

Max Eider, Max Eider III: Back in the Bedroom
M.I.A., Kala
Department of Eagles, The Cold Nose
Caribou, Andorra
Montag, Going Places

The “Best of the Rest” (Numbers 6-10) get categorized as “The Big First Impressions, Lacking Longest Legs.” These are records that really blew my socks off for a few weeks, but then once they came out of rotation, never really managed to work their way back into the regular listening schedule:

The Big First Impressions, Lacking Longest Legs

Black Moth Super Rainbow, Dandelion Gum
Grinderman, Grinderman
The Fall, Reformation Post-TLC
Clutch, From Beale Street to Oblivion
Blitzen Trapper, Wild Mountain Nation

The next category, the “Rest of the Best,” (numbers 11-15) are defined as “Flawed Albums With Masterpiece Songs.” Every one of these discs has at least two songs that are as good as anything I head this year, and which are staples on my mix CD’s and the family iPod, but none of these records maintained that same level of brilliance throughout. For this category, I’ve also identified two masterpiece songs per disc, in case you just want to (legally!) download them to test run:

Flawed Albums With Masterpiece Songs

Chris Letcher, Frieze (masterpiece songs: “Deep Frieze” and “Milk”)
Ween, La Cucaracha (masterpiece songs: “Blue Balloon” and “Your Party”)
St. Vincent, Marry Me (masterpiece songs: “Now Now” and “Your Lips Are Red”)
The National, Boxer (masterpiece songs: “Fake Empire” and “Squalor Victoria”)
Via Audio, Say Something Say Something Say Something (masterpiece songs: “Presents” and “Developing Active People”)

Finally, the “Rest of the Rest” (numbers 16-20) I would call “The Solid Citizens.” These are robust records that offer very pleasurable listening experiences without generating any masterpiece singles or obsessive listening patterns. Most of these took a while to grow on me, but I’m glad they did, and think you would enjoy them too:

Solid Citizens

Einsturzende Neubauten, Alles Wieder Offen
Film School, Hideout
Yeasayer, All Hour Cymbals
Public Enemy, How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?
Trans Am, Sex Change

Happy listening in 2008, and I hope you have the chance to score some of these 20 excellent discs as well, since they are all worthy additions to your music collection, I promise.

Three Down, One to Go

Semesters that is. I finished my last exam Thursday night, and turned in my last paper for the semester. Six weeks until I start semester four, which will feature two evening classes each week plus my master’s paper. I’m enjoying having absolutely nothing to do this weekend by way of reading, researching, writing or pondering public affairs and policy. Brain off. And happy. It’s movie time.

Polls to Vote By?

I’m always fascinated by the types of things that we expect our computers and the Internet to be able to do for us. We shop online. We talk online. We date online. We research online. We bank online. We blog online. We spend more time in Internet social networks than we do pressing the flesh in the “real world.” When we have questions, we pop in to Wikipedia to check on the great group mind there. When we encounter something new, we Google it. Someone or someplace online can answer any question we can pose, from the most mundane to the most profound.

Take the 2008 Presidential election. There are no shortage of websites sprouting up online that will quickly and painlessly tell you which candidates will best represent your interests should you choose to vote for them. You don’t have to get into all the messy details of platforms and politics, you just have to answer a few easy questions about, say, the War in Iraq, reproductive rights, immigrants, health care reform and medical marijuana and, hey presto, you’ve got a candidate!

Only problem is, which poll do you trust and believe? I went and took the first dozen spit back at me after a simple Yahoo search, and got the following spectrum of results (three highest ranked candidates for me listed in order from first to third):

WQAD: Dodd, Gravel, Paul

VAJoe: Kucinich, Gravel, Obama

Minnesota Public Radio: Kucinich, Dodd, Gravel

Speak Out: Obama, Clinton, Edwards

Go To Quiz: Clinton, Dodd, Obama

ABC News: Huckabee, Tancredo, Biden

Glassbooth: Dodd, Obama, Richardson

2decide/DEHP: Kucinich, Gravel, Obama

USA Today: Huckabee, Tancredo, Giuliani

SelectSmart: Obama, Kucinich, Dodd

PidgeonTech: Dodd, Paul, Edwards

Poli-Talk: Richardson, Kucinich, Biden

So . . . if I go with the first choice each calculator gave me, then that’s three voted for Dodd, three for Kucinich, two for Huckabee, two for Obama, and a Richardson and a Clinton thrown in for good measure. That’s kind of a broad range, isn’t it? Is it odd that the two most likely taken quizzes (ABC News and USA Today) gave me far more conservative choices than any other poll? What do I make of that? What do you make of that? Who’s skewing who?

If I weight the top three (three points for first, two for second, one for third) and go with a consolidated “poll of polls,” then here’s what I end up with:

Dodd: 14 points

Kucinich: 13 points

Obama: 11 points

Gravel: 7 points

Huckabee: 6 points

Clinton: 5 points

Richardson and Tancredo (tie): 4 points

Paul: 3 points

Edwards and Biden (tie): 2 points

Giuliani: 1 point

That’s a little closer to my general leanings and thoughts on the campaign, but still an odd combination of candidates. So I think that this is one case where I’ll be much better off getting into the details of guts of the decision that needs to made, and leave the Internet quiz makers to help me figure out less important things. I hope you all will do the same.

This, That, T’Other

I finished a 7,000 word paper for my Law and Policy class this afternoon. Or at least the first write-through of the paper. I expect it’s going to need some heavy re-reading and editing before I turn it in on Wednesday, since I tend to research and write fast, omitting little details like two-letter words, punctuation and paragraph breaks. After that, I have a take home exam in the same class that should be about 12 pages, a 12 page paper in my Policy Evaluation class, and then an in-class final exam in Policy Evaluation. The semester will be done on December 13, and it can’t come any faster for me. When I began this degree, I was working in Troy, ten minutes from my home and 15 minutes from school, and I was pretty much in full control of my work schedule. Now I’m working an hour away from home and school in a job with much less schedule flexibility, doing three hours of class on Wednesday and Thursday nights (with related homework and readings) on top of 40 hours in the office and 10 hours a week on the road commuting. That situation makes for really, really long semesters, but I’m stubborn, and plan to complete what I started. Good thing is, there’s only one semester left after next week: in the spring I will have to take two evening classes (also Wednesday and Thursday, on Strategic Planning and Urban Policy) and complete a roughly 15,000 word master’s paper (on policy, problems and recommendations related to government funding of broadcast media like NPR and PBS) to complete the degree. If I had a fast forward machine, I would use it. No question.

On a music front, I did my monthly download of my pre-paid 75 songs from eMusic, picking a combination of new (to me) artists and some old favorites. After a couple of passes through the discs (the long commute is good from that standpoint), I would rate Einsturzende Neubauten’s new Alles Wieder Offen is the best of the lot. I’ve been listening to them since the early ’80s, and this is one of their better records. It’s less clangorous and metallic than some of their classic industrial discs, but it’s got some lovely arrangement and melodies, and Blixa Bargeld’s voice remains a thing of wonder. South African Chris Letcher’s Frieze opens with a masterpiece number, “Deep Frieze,” one of the most exciting and unexpectedly rich songs I’ve heard in ages. It reminds me of the better bits of early Split Enz. Maybe there’s something in water down there in the deep Southern Hemisphere. The rest of Letcher’s album has some other exciting high points as well, but it violates my sense of musical economy (it’s over an hour long, 20 minutes more than is necessary), so it’s been harder for me to grasp and appreciate as a full disc. That said, there’s a wonderful video of “Deep Frieze” that I recommend you watch here. It’s really lovely. Marmoset’s Florist Fired has some goosebump inducing great moments, too, especially when the trio gets fuzzy and furry and droney like some hairy Midwestern reinvention of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Their album is economically short, but the freaky bits are out-numbered by some more straightforward, dirgy, soft pop bits, pulling the overall quality rating down a smidge. Film School’s Hideout wraps up the month’s list, and it’s a solid guitar-driven album with all the decadent ambience and world-weary elegance you’d expect when you see that the disc was released by Beggar’s Banquet, once home of Britain’s finest shoegazing and goth ensembles. This record has got some great rhythms and melodies, with sonorous, resonant vocals that make it a perfect follow-on to The National’s Boxer, which I reviewed a couple of months ago. It’s stately, it is. And that’s nice. While I didn’t download them from eMusic, and while neither of them is brand spanking new, I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention scoring and enjoying Ween’s 2005 odds and sods collection Shinola, Vol. 1 and the complete 2007 released works of The Bird and The Bee. Both of them goofy. Both of them good.

Okay, off to check out the sports page to see if LSU and Ohio State will be playing for the BCS national championship, which will make me very unhappy, since I hate the greed-driven competitive ambiguity of a system that rewards the same teams year after year because of the conferences they play in, not because of the quality of their teams in any given year. Undefeated Hawaii may not play in a power conference, but their conference (Western Athletic) never will get a chance to be a power conference as long as they’re relegated to the Division I-A ghetto of non-BCS-dom. We should all be watching the Division I-AA playoffs, where things make sense, and brackets lead to a championship game that means something other than a paycheck. Bigtime college football is broke bad, for sure. But it gives something to be annoyed about, and that’s worth something, I suppose.