Sunday, December 30, 2007

No Such Thing as a Free Stone

We're up in the wild woods of northwestern Maine, staying at the incredible "camp" of our friends, D* and J*. This is the driveway, which is a thousand feet long:



They purchased a piece of property along the Kennebec river and had a small cottage built. The cottage consists of one room downstairs that contains a kitchen and a dining area. Upstairs, there's one bedroom and a bathroom. It's cozy, warm and completely unsuitable for the large number of family members and guests that drop in from time to time.



So D*, a tireless and creative man, bought a barn. Not just an ordinary barn, but a 200-year old post-and-beam monster, 40 by 50 feet. It was dismantled and transported to his property by a contractor, who laid a foundation and erected the structure, cladding the exterior in high-tech, 8-inch thick Styrofoam-insulated panels. Inside, the structure is completely open, with two complete floors and lofts at each end. The thing is huge, 34 feet from foundation to the peak of the roof. The largest timbers are 10 x 10 inches, 32 feet long. It's hard to imagine how big those trees must have been.




It's not finished yet, not by a long shot. But D* had a complex radiant heating system installed in the floors, so it's warm and comfortable. Here's the control system, which is intimidating.


The downstairs of the barn is full of rocks, which will be used to build the chimney.



The mason arrived to work on the fireplace, and we talked about his work. Maine has rocky soil, and is crisscrossed with thousands of stone walls, plowed up by farmers since the plow was introduced to North America. The mason told us that those walls are now the primary source of his building material. He has to pay the landowners to remove the rocks, then he has to get them across the fields to his truck. "Theah's no such thing as a free stone," he declared in his thick Down East accent. "In the summah, I have to pay fifteen dollahs an houah fah labah to carry them out. In the wintah, I can sled them out, but I have to pay fifteen dollahs an houah fah labah to crowbah them out of the frozen wall."

The next morning, we drove to Sugarloaf, a huge Alpine ski center.


However, living in Florida, we don't even climb stairs anymore, so we didn't feel very comfortable about the idea of flying down the side of a mountain.

There's a Nordic ski center about a mile away, and we have cross-country skis that our friends have kept for us. I was surprised at how quickly the smooth stride came back to me, and we glided through the snowy woods.



But it was tiring, and the downhill stretches were a little tricky. I fell a few times, as did all of us, except for one. My daughter, who has never cross-country skied before, took the hills in stride. Shown here is my wife sprawled on the side of a hill, and my daughter's reaction.



Friday, December 28, 2007

From Hot to Cold

Because I've somehow stayed with the same company for more years than I ever intended, I've managed to accrue some degree of seniority. This comes with the benefit of more vacation time than I've ever had. I arranged to take the last week of 2007, as well as the first week of 2008. My officious stuffed-shirt supervisor insisted that I draft a "coverage plan" for my absence, even though I'm the only person in my department, thanks to a hiring freeze he helped to orchestrate.

The progress on our kitchen has been slow, and I'll write more about that later. However, we did rent this little steamer to take off the existing wallpaper during the weekend before Christmas:



It turned out to be a messy job, steaming and scraping sticky gobs of soggy wallpaper off the walls. But worse than that, it was hot. Sauna hot. The steam rose to the ceiling and hung there at head level as we strained and scraped and sweated like pigs.

On the day after Christmas, we flew to Boston to visit friends for the remainder of my vacation. The evening we arrived, we went out to eat with a big group to an Indian restaurant. It was pretty authentic, hot and spicy, and once again we sweated like pigs.

The next day, we drove up to a "camp" in the woods of Northern Maine owned by two of our friends, D* and J*. I'll write about that later.

On the way up, we stopped at a New England retail icon, L.L. Bean. L.L. Bean started as a folksy equipment retailer for hunters and fishermen. In the 70's, I visited their retail outlet in Freeport, Maine. It was a classic shabby New England general store, with linoleum floors. Shortly after, it became fashionable, and sales exploded. Now it's a cluster of chic, modern buildings, selling all kinds of high-tech outerware, camping gear, and New England delicacies like chocolate-covered cranberries.

It had begun to snow on our way up the coast, and the temperature dropped as we went further north. By the time we got to the camp, 4 inches of new, fluffy snow had accumulated on top of the 12 inches they already had.


And it's cold. Frigid cold. I wonder if our friends need any wallpaper removed.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Marketing People Eat Their Young

I don't try to hide the fact that I have a deep dislike, bordering on loathing, for most people in the Marketing profession. When I meet someone with a degree in Marketing, I categorize them with people who have a Divinity degree.

Today I visited a local burger chain called Checkers. When you place a take-out order, they include a little sheet of coupons in the bag. Here’s one of the coupons:


You’ll notice that it’s so simple, an 8-year old kid could understand how it works. You buy a “combo,” and you get a free sandwich. You don’t need a Marketing degree to design something like this, or to predict the likely redemption rate. As a mechanism to generate traffic, it’s very effective. It tells you very clearly what you have to buy, and presents an appetizing picture of what you will receive.

However, the same sheet of coupons included this:


OK, class. I’m going to open this one for debate. Does ANYONE understand this offer? I showed it to several college-educated people, and not one of them had any idea what item had to be purchased, or what the customer could expect to receive. Does the picture help? Is that what I’ll get? Do I need a bigger car?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Art for Art's Sake

I know lots of musicians, but I think it’s interesting that very few of them play for their own pleasure. As I’ve mentioned before, I have an Art School degree. I don’t have many opportunities to exploit that training in my current line of work, and I don’t draw or paint for pleasure. Unlike many of my classmates, I discovered that I had an affinity for computers. Over the years, I’ve been thrilled to see how much of the drudgery of production art has been alleviated by technology.

One interesting development in this area is photo retouching. Back in the day, only skilled airbrush artists could modify a photograph convincingly. These days, thanks to digital photography, images can be easily altered using products such as Photoshop.

Unlike drawing or painting, this is something I enjoy very much. I often amuse myself by doing horrible things to pictures of my friends. Most of these people have learned not to send me photos without a clear verbal understanding that I won’t mess with them.

Not all of my efforts in this area are intended to be funny or cruel. Sometimes, someone will send me a photo and ask me to make some changes. For example, one of my co-workers sent me a photo of two relatives embracing and asked me to remove one of them for unspecified (but fairly obvious) reasons. The original is on the left, and the modified photo is on the right.


One of my friends is a frequent butt of my jokes. Nonetheless, she often makes use of my skills knowing full well that there may be a price. One time she brought me this photo of herself and her husband, and asked me to remove the reflection of the flash:


I was happy to oblige, but then she made a fatal mistake. She said, “And while you’re at it, could you remove my wrinkles and make me look young and beautiful?” Once you open that door, you’re asking for it. So I removed the flash reflection and softened the lines of her face, which delighted her.


But then, to illustrate that the door swings both ways, I aged her by 25 years and added about 60 pounds:


We’re still speaking, but it took some time to repair the relationship.

On another occasion, she sent me some fairly boring pictures of herself and her sister parasailing. I saw these two shots and immediately got an idea:


So I used elements of one and removed elements of the other to produce this exciting image:


A couple of my co-workers became involved in an office romance, which eventually blossomed into marriage. The wife brought in her wedding photos, and I modified one of them to illustrate her triumph:


Another couple of pranksters with whom I work brought in this photo of a guy they know who they like to torment. They asked me, “Is there anything you can do with this?”


So here’s the lawnmower guy mowing the White House lawn, the African savannah, Antarctica and the Moon:





But I didn’t let the pranksters off that easily. I got hold of this picture of the two of them yucking it up at a client conference in Las Vegas:


So I took the image of prankster #1 and merged it with this photo of Michael Jackson:


Then I took the image of prankster #2 and merged it with this photo of Pamela Anderson (by the way, I did not alter the image of Pamela Anderson):


I hope you have enjoyed viewing these images as much as I’ve enjoyed creating them. Feel free to send me your photos, if you dare.

Friday, December 14, 2007


We placed our cabinet order from IKEA last night. If you think that a huge, multi-national company would have a slick, efficient order fulfillment process, you probably still believe in the Tooth Fairy.

First of all, let me start by saying that the cabinet style decision-making process has been very stressful and time-consuming. Here’s the Wall of Difficult Choices that confronts otherwise loving couples at IKEA. By the time you reach the end of the wall, you’re either completely alienated from one another, or outright abusive.


My wife and I were at loggerheads over these two cabinet door styles, which happen to be conveniently located next to one another. I won’t tell you which one I liked, but I will tell you we’re not getting it.


To get to the kitchen cabinet center, you must ascend this escalator. You may notice something peculiar about it – there’s no corresponding “down” escalator. You have to walk through the entire upstairs of IKEA and descend a staircase. Then you must walk through the entire downstairs of IKEA before you reach an exit. This, I suspect, is to prevent husbands from bolting from the building, abandoning their wives in search of alcohol.


Prior to our visit to IKEA I had downloaded their Kitchen Planner software, which enables you to drag and drop IKEA products into a layout of your kitchen. You can change cabinet door styles and handles on the fly, and view a rotatable 3-D view of your kitchen. When you’re finished, it prepares a complete order list with prices, which you may then upload to the IKEA servers.

When we arrived at the store, we opened our Kitchen Planner file on a workstation and printed out our Kitchen Planner order. The salesperson directed us to a desk full of order forms and little IKEA pencils. She told us to take an order form and “copy everything from your Kitchen Planner order to the IKEA order form.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You mean you want us to copy the order by hand?” I demanded. “Can’t you simply use a printout of the Kitchen Planner order?” The answer was “No.”


So I laboriously copied the order, growing to hate the stupid little pencils, worrying constantly that I might make an error. I handed her the order form, and she went over to a computer and copied my hand-written order into the computer. That’s right, she copied it AGAIN. I was speechless. But I watched carefully, and sure enough, she made a mistake which I was able to correct.

When this process was complete, we were given a printout of the final order and sent down to the checkout area. “You must give this printout of the order to the cashier,” I was told. Once again, I had to ask: “Can’t you just transfer the order electronically?” The answer was “No.”

After the long trek to the checkout area, I paid for the order, and was then directed to the Stock area, which had two doors, side-by-side. One was labeled “Pickup” and the other was labeled “Home Delivery.” The kitchen we had ordered weighed over 1,700 pounds, so there was no way I was taking it home with me. Unfortunately, IKEA doesn’t enable me to arrange for home delivery when I place the order. Instead, the entire kitchen has to be pulled from stock, checked for completeness, and then wheeled out of the “Pickup” door and into the “Home Delivery” door, where I then have to arrange for delivery.

The process of removing my items from stock was expected to take an hour or so. To relieve my boredom, I browsed through the little shop of Swedish delicacies that has been set up right outside of the checkout area. If you’re wondering what happens to Swedish pop groups once they disappear from the charts, they’re cut up into bite-size chunks and sold to Americans:


This product isn’t toothpaste. It’s fish eggs in a squeeze tube:


Eventually my order was ready, so I paid for delivery and left. I had spent about two and a half hours at IKEA. All the way home, I was wondering why I couldn’t simply pay for my Kitchen Planner order and home delivery at the workstation in the kitchen section and leave - the process would have taken all of 15 minutes. On my first visit to IKEA, I was struck by how much thoughtful effort had gone into the design of everything. But apparently, there are some chinks in the armor.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

My Last Theme Park

I live in the magical Land of Theme Parks. There are a lot of places I’d rather live. I’ve never lived anywhere for more than 25 years, so I told my wife that’s how long I’d stay. We’re about halfway through.

Since we’re raising a child here, we’re obligated to take her to the theme parks. Because if we don’t, we’ll just have to pay for her therapy later, and the theme parks are slightly cheaper. Of course, this strategy has backfired to some extent, because after seeing “It’s A Small World” for the fifth or sixth time, I’m the one who needs therapy.

Every year, my company plans a “holiday outing” for the employees. The last several years have been theme park trips, which include a catered luncheon. This year, we were given a choice of any one of the Disney parks (Magic Kingdom, MGM Studios, Epcot or Animal Kingdom).

We chose Animal Kingdom, because I’ve never been there. It’s been struggling, because most people assume it’s just a zoo with a $67 admission. To counter this thinking, Disney desperately ran a series of ads with a man in African native attire declaring “Nahtazu!” They stress the “educational” and “ecological” aspects of the park, and they’ve expanded on those concepts to some degree, but they’ve caved to tourist demands for entertainment and added a few thrill rides.

The first thing we saw when we entered was a giant artificial Christmas tree, decorated with images of animals. Like everything at Disney parks, it was tasteful and grandiose, but because of the potential for hurricanes in Florida, it had to be tied down to heavy ugly steel supports. Here are pictures of it in the morning when we arrived, and illuminated in the evening when we left.


There’s a high-tech mechanism through which you must pass to enter the park. You slide your ticket into a slot, then place your finger on some kind of biometric sensor that records your identity. This (I suppose) is to prevent you from leaving the park at noon and giving your ticket to someone else to use for the rest of the day. Or perhaps it’s to help identify bodies in the event of a terrorist attack. We didn’t ask.


Disney tends to overdecorate everything in their theme parks. Everything is theme-specific, from the lighting fixtures to the manhole covers. There’s nowhere your eye can rest that you’re not seeing something engineered and decorated to enhance the experience. I once met a couple of plumbers who worked as contractors for Disney. They said that Disney pays well, but it’s horrible to work for them because “they change their minds every 5 minutes.” One of them told me that they installed a public bathroom, then were told to rip it all out because the Disney designers had decided to install tile in a “mouse ears” pattern. Then they had to do it all over again.




One of the first things you see when you enter the park is the massive “Tree of Life.” It’s huge, designed to look like a tree whose trunk has been carved in the shapes of animals. As we entered the park, I overheard one woman exclaim, “Look at that! Is it real?” And her companion answered, “Yes, it’s a real tree.” I confess I was shocked by the ignorance.



But that wasn’t the worst thing we observed. My wife and I were struck by the sheer number of tantrums we witnessed. It was only 9:30 in the morning, and everywhere we looked, kids were pitching fits. Another problem was obesity. My wife mentioned a news report she had seen that declared that this is the first generation in history that may live shorter lives than their parents as a result of obesity. Disney has addressed this issue by placing this warning on some attractions:


Another impressive construction is the “reproduction” of Mt. Everest. Seen in this view, it looks surprisingly enormous and realistic.


But Mt. Everest isn’t just for decoration; it contains a roller coaster. From another angle, you can see the ramp lifting the cars up for the ride, and the sense of scale is immediately destroyed. Nonetheless, it still might be the highest point in Florida.


One section of the park has a “dinosaur” theme. There are some good, scary reproductions of assembled dinosaur fossils scattered around.


But of course, Disney doesn’t want to actually frighten the children, so they have this one as well:


At lunchtime, we took a park bus over to the Disney Contemporary Resort hotel , which opened in 1971. I remember the fanfare at the time, because of its “revolutionary” atrium design, and the fact that the Disney monorail runs through the hotel atrium, stopping in the lobby. My wife and I both had a good laugh over the fact that "Contemporary" isn't contemporary any longer.


My company had arranged for lunch in the hotel ballroom, during which Mickey and Minnie arrived for a photo op. My wife insisted:


After lunch at the hotel, we took the bus back and continued with our visit to the park.

Some aspects of the park seem poorly planned. For instance, you have to take a train to one part of the park – you can’t walk. Which means you have to take the train back. So you spend part of your day waiting for the stupid train, which of course moves no faster than a brisk walk. So why not install a sidewalk and save the expense of the train?


At the end of the day, we saw a “Festival of the Lion King” show that consisted of people in brightly-colored costumes, music, songs, moveable stage elements, four floats with animatronic characters from the Lion King film, acrobats, fire, smoke and other wretched spectacle. Thanks to my ride on the “Expedition Everest” roller coaster, my stomach was already unsettled, but this really put me over the top.


I’m not a fan of the theater, mostly because I cannot suspend my disbelief. I can see all of the artifice that goes into such things, the little pieces of duct tape holding it all together, and it just looks completely fake to me. At one point, a woman did a dance with another performer, and she was hooked to a harness at the end of a thick cable. He would swing her around and let her go and she would swoop over the heads of the audience, who would “oooh” and “ahhh.” But of course, all I could see was the rope and the shiny metal clip holding her up in the air. She’s not flying, she’s hanging. By the time it ended, I wished I was.