Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Temple of Stylish Doom

Well, the fateful day arrived and my wife dragged me, against my will, to IKEA. She had visited a few days before with her sister, and they had made decisions that I was expected to rubber-stamp.

I had been somewhat prepared for this experience by reading David Byrne’s account of his first visit to IKEA, which he compares to a video game. In all honesty, I was prepared to hate it completely.


IKEA in my town is located in a very upscale shopping district, consisting of major high-end retailers such as Bloomingdale’s and Neiman-Marcus. The place is immense. When you walk in, you’re herded into a maze of tastefully arranged displays, with arrows marking the path you are required to take.


Occasionally, a map appears, not so much to show you where to go, but to reinforce the belief that if you wander from the path, your body may never be discovered.


All of the products have a designer cachet. Things look very stylish and elegant, but prices are shockingly inexpensive, considering the fashionable neighborhood. Sometimes the designs are whimsical, sometimes simple, and sometimes weird, like these lighting products:





Even the toilets are novel; they look like normal toilets, but they have special “green” flush mechanisms:



Every product grouping has a name, but the names are all foreign (I’m guessing Swedish), which look and sound bizarre to my American eyes.


The displays are often simple, but consist of large, dramatic clusters of the product. They emphasize the IKEA concept: Develop a good product design, then make LOTS of them so you can sell them cheaply.




Sometimes the products aren’t particularly unique designs, but are available in a riot of bright colors:



The emphasis is on storage solutions, which I suppose is why IKEA is so popular in urban areas like New York. IKEA knows who their customers are – they’re women. An entire section of the store is devoted to shoe storage systems.


When we finally got to the kitchen section, we found all kinds of options, some sterile, some warm.



And there was this kitchen display, which is probably not suited to someone suffering from epilepsy.


The staff was very helpful, and we were told that it shouldn’t take more than an hour to assemble a cabinet. But in a kitchen with 15 cabinets, that’s more than an entire weekend of thankless assembly work. I found this “spare parts” display near the customer service desk. Anyone who has ever tried to assemble “flat pack” furniture will agree that this can be an absolute godsend.


We didn’t come to any decisions tonight, unfortunately. My wife has her heart set on a design I don’t like. Now comes that long, uncomfortable wait to see who will back down first.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


We had a contractor come to look at our kitchen situation. He recommended that we buy tile first, then agree on a kitchen layout, then buy appliances and cabinets. In the meantime, he built us a temporary countertop out of 2x4s and dropped our sink into it, then hooked it up so we have water and a garbage disposal. Otherwise, we’d be eating delicious meals at fancy restaurants every night, and that would have really sucked.


We spent a Saturday wandering around tile places and disagreeing on what would look good on our floor. It seems my wife wants a tile pattern that looks “dirty,” so that people can’t tell when our floors are actually dirty. This is what she picked out, and I agreed it was the least filthy looking design.


We’re going with large 20x20 tiles, laid out in a diamond pattern. We needed 105 of them, so we bought 21 boxes containing 5 tiles each. I picked them up today. Each box weighed 60 pounds, so I had to move 1,260 pounds of tile from the car to the back patio area until we can get the contractor to install it.



My wife’s minivan was positively groaning under the weight. Because the springs were so compressed, I cracked my head on the hatchback, which is normally high enough for me to stand under it. But you can see from these before-and-after wheel-well photos how low it was sitting.


The second step in this process had proved to be the most contentious. My wife wants to lay out the kitchen differently than it is currently laid out. We’ve been through a half-dozen layouts, all perfectly serviceable in my opinion, but each with some fatal flaw in my wife’s opinion. The problem is, it’s not a big kitchen with lots of options. So we’ve been struggling with the limited configurations available to us, and finally agreed to replace the ageing stove with a separate oven and cooktop. We shopped around and today I went out to buy them, locking us in to this design scheme. This will prevent her from changing her mind, which normally happens 3 – 5 times a day.

Finally, we’re down to the real tough choices – the cabinets. I thought we were on a fairly smooth path, because we’ve looked at a few designs and it turns out our tastes are similar. But then, at Thanksgiving dinner, someone had to screw it up.

Recently, an IKEA store opened in our area, and some people are treating it as a religious shrine. One woman at the table couldn’t stop gushing about it. “Do NOT buy cabinets until you visit the IKEA store!” she insisted. “The designs are so clever! You won’t believe it!”

I’m skeptical, because it sounds to me like they’ve added a lot of little storage compartments where traditional “unimaginative” cabinet design has large storage compartments. You can’t get something for nothing, so in my opinion, you’ll actually lose storage space. Plus, I suspect that there will be lots more things that can break. And I’ll have to assemble them myself, because that's how IKEA works. Any married woman will tell you that "husband labor" is free.

“And you can get an entire kitchen for less than $2,000!” she added. This got my wife’s attention, because we’ve already received the settlement check from the insurance company, and they’ve allotted nearly $6,000 for the cabinets alone. This would mean that we’d be able to pay for almost our entire kitchen remodeling project from the insurance money, with very little out-of-pocket.

So our cabinet shopping is on hold until we can visit the stupid IKEA store. It’s just far enough away that it will be an all-day shopping trip. I expect to be aggravated to the point of physical violence. It may not be a religious shrine, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be praying for deliverance.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Finding Ballpoint Pens in the Fog

One of my wife’s relatives from Panama was in town this week for a convention. Raymond works in the entertainment business in Miami doing light shows, mostly for dance clubs. In his shows, he uses a lot of lasers and motion-controlled lighting synchronized to the pulsating rhythms of techno music. This business is considered part of the same industry that encompasses theatrical lighting, concert lighting and electronic advertising displays.

It also includes lighting for church productions, which are considered a form of theater. In fact, some churches have embraced the concept of worship as entertainment so strongly, there’s an entire sub-industry built around it.

Raymond gave us two tickets to attend the LDI convention, so my daughter and I went to see it. It was held at the Orange County Convention center, which is larger than most international airports. Because the LDI convention was taking place at the same time as an Auto Show, the parking lots were full. We had to park in the North Concourse parking lot and walk to the West Concourse for what felt like miles along an interminable elevated walkway. My knees were throbbing by the time we arrived.


The show was impressive because it revealed all of the machinery behind the entertainment industry. There were lots of booths devoted to the trusses used to hang theatrical lights, and the winches and hoists used to lift them into position. Nothing was omitted; the show covered everything from catwalks to gaffer’s tape. There were huge spotlights, underwater lights, digital projection systems, LED screens, lasers, artificial snowmaking equipment, theater curtains, and much more.

Several vendors had confetti-launching systems on display, which fired off at regular intervals. We stuck our heads behind one booth and found this poor guy sweeping it all up.


There was lots of fog-making machinery on display, some using liquid nitrogen, some using carbon dioxide, some using vaporized mineral oil. The entire exhibit floor was enveloped in a soupy fog, because it was being generated faster than the air conditioning equipment could suck it out.

All of this was fascinating, but I was just there for the ballpoint pens. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to attend numerous conventions of one sort or another, and one of the most appealing elements to me is all the free swag. “Swag” is the term that covers the little giveaway trinkets that vendors use to lure visitors to their booths. Sometimes swag is impressive; sometimes it’s just a piece of candy. Usually, it’s a ballpoint pen. We got lots of ballpoint pens.


When we left the show, I had been on my feet all day, and my ancient knees were positively screaming. I asked one of the convention center employees if there was a shuttle bus to the North Concourse parking lot. She directed us to a bus stop that was equally as far from us as the parking lot, so we walked all the way back. Next time I need a ballpoint pen, I think I’ll just buy one.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Starved for Entertainment

People write blogs for different reasons. Some are industry-specific, some are for disseminating news, some are for creative purposes. Most are semi-private, intended mostly for family and friends who may be in distant locations. Until recently, my blog fell into the latter category.

I have a feature on my blog called Google Analytics. Google Analytics lets me see how my blog is doing, and where the visitors are coming from. Every day, I would get 4 – 5 hits from people I knew. A good day for me looked like this.


During the course of my normal day, I have what I call an “Internet Routine.” This means every day, I check certain Web sites for news, information and entertainment purposes. Some of these Web sites are blogs, but most are not. One site that I like is Rob Cockerham’s site, He’s kind of a natural-born prankster, and his favorite time of the year is Halloween.

Every year he constructs an elaborate costume and details the stages of the process for his readers. In the past couple of years, he has invited his readers to contribute photos and descriptions of their costume projects, and he posts them on his site. I thought he might appreciate my last-minute Scary Candy Bucket project, so I sent him an e-mail.

Rob posted a link to my blog, and on November 5, this is what I saw when I logged in to Google Analytics:


My first reaction was “Holy Crap!” Within the next few days, I got hundreds of visits from all over the planet. In about a week, the spike of visitors leveled out to a fairly constant 25 – 30 visits a day:


A small percentage of those visits are from people I know; most are mysterious strangers from far-away places, such as Guam. I can’t help but wonder if people are starved for entertainment in Guam. But that wouldn’t explain the dozens of visits from New York, Chicago, London, Vancouver, Sydney and Athens.

So I’d like to welcome all of the new visitors to my blog, particularly if you are a returning visitor. Feel free to comment if you enjoy the descriptions of my silly life experiences. It’s nice to know you’re out there.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Balloon Animals vs. Lip Piercing

Last night my daughter and I went out for dinner because we have no kitchen. When we arrived at the restaurant, the hostess seated us at a booth directly across from an open area containing several small folding chairs and a clown, who was busily making balloon animals.

Apparently it was “Kid’s Night.” Little children kept dashing over from other parts of the restaurant, making requests for absurd items. “Make me a Spider-Man!” “Can I have a Thanksgiving turkey?” “I want a ninja mask!” To her credit, the clown fulfilled every request with a surprising degree of craft.

But of course, during the entire evening, we were subjected to the constant sound of balloon animals being fabricated: SQUEEAAK! Squika-squika-squika SQUAWK!

My daughter was captivated by the performance, and told me that she thought she’d like to learn how to make balloon animals. This, unfortunately, struck one of my hot buttons. “Be careful about the skills you acquire,” I told her, “Because some things you think you’d like to do now will be things you wish you’d never learned later. You’re better off learning something you’ll use all your life.”

She gave me that “What the hell are you talking about?” look, so I had to explain.

“If you learn how to make balloon animals, you’ll be making balloon animals for years, until you get sick of it. Once people find out you have this skill, they’ll call you up and want you to come over and make balloon animals at their kid’s birthday party, and they won’t want to pay you. Even if they agree to pay you, it means you have to dress up in the stupid clown suit with the makeup and the wig and drive over there hoping you don’t see any of your friends on the way. If you work 8 hours every day making balloon animals, you’ll never make much money at it. And most jobs you’ll get will be on weekends, so you can forget about having a social life. Plus, it’s a skill that cannot be expanded into another skill. It means nothing on your resume. You won’t find many Senior Vice Presidents who can make a balloon Spider-Man.”

She seemed satisfied with this answer, but then she noticed a man at another table with an eyebrow piercing. “What would you think if I had my lip pierced?” she asked.

I found myself making the same argument. “Don’t make decisions now that you’ll almost certainly regret later. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll have to remove them at some point later in your life because they’re inappropriate.”

“That’s OK,” she said, “they fill in eventually.” We had a brief stare-off.

I guess if she later comes to me and wants to get some bizarre piercing, I can always just counteroffer and send her to Balloon Animal School.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Making Adjustments

Today the insurance adjuster came to the house to inspect the damage to our kitchen and determine the compensation our policy entitles us to receive. Insurance adjusters have the most horrible job in the white-collar world, in my opinion. No matter what amount they award us, the insurance company will believe it’s too much, and we will believe it’s too little. They’re caught in the No-Man’s-Land between rampant capitalism and personal greed.

I suspect there are guidelines that insurance adjusters are required to follow, a little dance that will convince us we won some kind of huge victory over the huge impersonal insurance company corporate bureaucracy.

He showed up early for our appointment, a half-hour before my wife was due to arrive. He worked quickly, and then attempted to lowball me by claiming there wasn’t much “visible damage.” I pointed out that due to standing water that had since been dried up by the dehumidifiers, the mold very likely extended behind and under the cabinets, where it was not visible.

I was prepared to argue with him all day, and he could tell I wasn’t backing down. Plus, he was aware that any minute, my wife was going to arrive and he’d be double-teamed. He thought about it for a very short time and said, “You’re right, the cabinets should come out. But they’ll be destroyed if they’re removed, so we’ll have to replace the lower cabinets and the countertop.”

“And the upper cabinets,” I said. “We can’t match them, so you have to replace the whole set.”

“I’ll have to review your policy,” he replied. “But I’m pretty sure we don’t cover the whole set if only a portion is damaged. I’ll work on the estimate and get back to you.” With that, he left.

When my wife arrived, she was not happy to hear the news. “Where are we going to find cabinets to match? We’ll have to pay for upper cabinets ourselves!” Just as she was working herself into a rant, the phone rang. It was the adjuster, who told me that he normally works on Commercial policies, which only cover replacement of damaged units. Homeowner’s polices, he told me, do cover replacing an entire set. So we stuck it to The Man. But later that afternoon, The Man stuck it to us.

I had to return to the office, but my wife stayed home to meet the Water Damage team who was planning to remove the big dehumidifiers and the Air Scrubbers we had been living with for days. But the adjuster had called them, and told them to pull the cabinets.

When they showed up, they immediately began ripping out our kitchen. They found large patches of mold under the cabinets, as predicted, and treated it with a chemical. They removed the dehumidifiers, but left us with two very loud Air Scrubbers to catch any stray mold spores. I have no idea how long we’ll have to live with these God-awful things.


That evening, when I arrived home, I found our kitchen sink sitting on the floor of the garage, next to the unused croquet set that can be found in every American garage.


We now have no kitchen. We’ll be eating out for at least a month. The good news is, a friend at work told me that the insurance company is obligated to reimburse us for our meals until we can replace the kitchen. I haven’t confirmed that yet with the insurance company, but if it’s true, we’re going to become regular customers at the local steakhouse. Sticking it to The Man!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Ass-Grabbers Arrive

I’ve had a nagging, hacking cough for the past week or so, and two days ago I found out why. As I was walking to the front door in my bare feet, I noticed a damp spot in the family room carpet. Closer inspection revealed an ugly line of mold along the bottom of the wall.


On the other side of that wall was our dishwasher.


I contacted a plumber, who determined that the water supply line to the dishwasher was leaking. He replaced it, and told me to call my insurance company. “You’ve got a mold problem, and it will only get worse if it isn’t treated,” he said. “It’s a health risk.” This explained my cough.

The insurance company recommended a water damage treatment company, and a workman showed up the next day. His name was Jean, and he was from Haiti. He had a very thick accent. He pulled the carpet away from the wall, exposing the mold, which he treated with a chemical.


Next, he pulled out the dishwasher, exposing the wet cabinet base and the sheetrock wall, both covered with mold and mildew.


He went to his truck and brought in two very large dehumidifiers. One went in the kitchen, the other went into the family room. They are very loud. The drain hoses run into one side of our kitchen sink, which is now pretty much useless until they’re removed.


Jean told me that they would have to run 24/7 for three days. He said that the next morning, a different worker would arrive with what sounded like “ass-grabbers.” There was an uncomfortable silence as I tried to figure out what he was actually saying. Eventually, I understood that he was saying “air-scrubbers.” I confess I was relieved.

We slept pretty well considering the continuous roar of the dehumidifiers. The next morning, another truck showed up with the air-scrubbers. The workman told me they would only make things “A tiny bit louder.” He put one in the family room, and one in the kitchen. They are much louder than the dehumidifiers, so our house now sounds like a busy airport. Watching television in the family room is almost impossible. And of course we have these bulky machines in our way.



Then he gave us the bad news. He said that on Tuesday, workmen would come to “Rip out the cabinets.” Because they are now contaminated with mold spores, they have to be removed, along with the sheetrock behind them. The insurance adjuster will determine what kind of compensation we’ll receive from our policy. I’m told that if the water-damaged cabinets can’t be replaced with an exact match, they’ll give us enough to replace all of the cabinets.

We’ve never been happy with these cabinets, which are quite old, and the color of a “Flesh” Crayon. So naturally, we’re hoping they don’t make this color anymore.

But the worst part of this whole thing is that we won’t have a functional kitchen, probably for weeks. We’ve already committed to hosting Thanksgiving, so we’re going to have to change our plans.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Sword of Technology

I work for a technology company that produces software used in the banking industry. Unlike many technology-driven industries, the banking industry is very conservative and slow to adopt innovations that could improve their business. As an example, my company did not require its customers to abandon our DOS-based software products and move to Windows-based versions of those products until the year 2000, when Microsoft formally abandoned support for DOS.

By the time banking executives decide that a new product or service has matured to the point where it’s safe to use, there are usually a half-dozen choices to pick from. And of course, they seem to always pick the wrong one. We’re constantly receiving memos from high-ranking Vice Presidents informing us of some wonderfully wrong-headed technology “solution” that they have bestowed upon us.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the bathroom sinks. My company leased space in a building and fitted it out over the period of several months while we occupied another building. When we moved in, we discovered that the sink faucets in the bathroom were styled after airport facilities, without handles. The faucets use some kind of Star Trek sensor at the base of the spigot to detect the presence of hands, and begin dispensing a stream of water when hands are held underneath. The stream shuts off immediately when the hands are removed. This makes it impossible for someone to leave the water running (water costs money), or to use a lot of hot water (energy costs money). When you talk about saving money, bankers listen.


The water is delivered at a predetermined temperature, which I imagine is dictated by some corporate committee. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that an employee at corporate headquarters has the responsibility of lowering the water temperature by a few degrees at company facilities all over the world whenever corporate earnings fall, to recoup some of the losses in water-heater energy savings.

Unfortunately, the sensors were designed at about the time Star Trek was a popular TV show. They are ridiculously unreliable, breaking frequently. This is not a problem at a typical airport, where there may be a dozen sinks. You simply move to one that’s working. However, we have only two sinks. This means that after that first cup of morning coffee, a line forms at the one working sink. Inevitably, the soap dispenser at the working sink runs out of soap, forcing employees to do a little sidestep dance from one sink to the other. Complaints to building management seem to take weeks until repairs are made. I swear that right after a faucet is repaired, the water temperature goes down a few degrees.

The company has also decided to use a popular (though expensive) online meeting service to enable senior management to communicate directly with employees. By “directly,” I mean “poorly.” It seems that senior management consists of people who require very large offices to contain their egos. Sending an e-mail with your message attached simply won’t do, even though it’s free. People with big egos require a live audience. So the online meeting service enables the presenter to display a presentation, while speaking verbally over the phone. Besides the expense, there are two problems with this solution.

The first problem is that the phone link can only support a limited number of connections, and management is too cheap to pay for the level of service that would permit employees to listen from their office phones. So every employee is forced to crowd into a conference room, shoulder-to-shoulder, where the display is projected on a screen, and the voice portion is delivered on a crackly speakerphone. Despite this consolidation, the phone connection is horrible, breaking up into an unintelligible, garbled mess at frequent intervals.

The second problem is that not everyone with a big ego is an effective speaker, although they all think they are. Most of them simply read their PowerPoint presentations, bullet-point by bullet-point, in a monotonous drone. Clearly, they don’t think we can read. Every employee leaves these meetings feeling resentful, sarcastic and degraded – exactly the opposite of the speaker’s intent. Worse, after each presentation, the water temperature goes down a few degrees.

Technology is one of those double-edged swords. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get cut. As I see it, high-ranking executives in my company have the authority to demand technology solutions, but don’t have the expertise to comprehend the solution. In addition, they don’t have the common sense to recognize that a new solution might be inferior to the old solution. Like faucet handles and e-mail, which work just fine.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Only the Big Stuff

On Saturday, I helped my brother and his wife move from his tiny one-bedroom apartment to their new 2-bedroom condominium. The apartment is on the first floor, and the condominium is a ground-floor unit. Had either one been up a flight of stairs, I would have found a way to be in Bolivia on Saturday. I’m getting too old for this crap.

We picked up the truck in the morning, and my brother reassured me that we would only have to move “the big stuff.” He and his wife would move all the small stuff. “The big stuff,” according to him, was two sofas, a mattress and a box spring. He was lying, of course.

We got the two sofas on the truck easily, but for some reason, he didn’t want to take anything else on the first trip. The two dwellings are only about a mile and a half apart, but I couldn’t convince him that it was easier to load the truck completely than it would be to make multiple trips. I did convince him to throw a few light but bulky pieces of furniture into the truck, and then we drove over to the new condo.

The first unload went well, then he told me that we would be making two stops on the way back to the apartment. The first stop was Wal-Mart, where he ran in to exchange something he had purchased the previous day. Before going in, he asked me if I would walk across the parking lot to McDonald’s and pick up a sandwich for his wife.

On the way back across the gently sloping Wal-Mart parking lot from McDonald’s, I saw a marble and stone delivery truck pulling out of a parking space, so I walked out of my way to give the driver lots of room to maneuver. The truck picked up speed backing up, heading for the median that separated the McDonald’s parking lot from the Wal-Mart parking lot. I expected the driver to hit the brakes, but instead, the truck smashed into the bushes, and a wheel ran up on the curb. I wondered what idiot was driving, and looked into the cab. There was nobody in the truck.

Suddenly, a guy ran out of McDonalds, vaulted over the median, and ran up to me apologizing. “I’m so sorry, sir! I’m so sorry! The parking brake didn’t work! I’m so sorry!” I tried to calm him down, assuring him that nobody was hurt, just a few squashed bushes. But he was freaking out, because there were little kids in that parking lot. Somebody could have been killed. You could see it in his eyes.

The second stop we had to make was at a furniture store, where my brother and his wife had purchased a Five Piece Bedroom/Dinette Set. We pulled up to the loading area, and the workers there brought out ten boxes containing the Five Piece Bedroom/Dinette Set. Each box contained parts of the furniture that were apparently made from depleted uranium, judging from the weight. Moving those boxes, I managed to pull a muscle in my chest that burned like I had been branded.

We decided to unpack the six-drawer bedroom bureau (the largest box) in the truck, so that we could remove the drawers first. But the bureau had been made in some country that has not signed the Standard Drawer Hardware Treaty of 1972, so removing the drawers took half an hour puzzling over the mechanism. When we finally removed them, we moved it all in, only to discover that the tolerances were so tight, some of the drawers would only fit in the slot from which they had been removed. All the drawers are identical. There are 720 possible combinations. I left my brother to solve that puzzle on his own.