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:: More Help Around the House

This week my parents came to town for another visit. As I feared, they took one glance at our back yard and got this deeply concerned look on their faces. The look that says, "I did't know grass could grow that tall" and "you know, having a jungle in your back yard has a negative impact on your property value". Within no time, they plotted out a bunch of projects they could do to help us out and were promptly on their way to the local Home Depot.

The first project of course was to tame the back yard. As I said in the previous post, I've been letting the grass grow for quite a while out back. So much so that it's too tall to tackle with anything less than a chainsaw. Or so I thought. My dad talked my neighbor into loaning him a gas lawn mower while I was at work on Monday. I came home and found my dad clear cutting the back yard, slowly mulching a lawn-mower sized patch of grass at a time. I was worried that the mower would get wrecked by the long grass, so I stepped in and busted out the trusty weed whacker to make the job feasible. After the weed whacker, the yard was reminiscent of what my head looks like whenever I get drunk and decide its time to cut my own hair, so dad made a pass with the gas mower and got things back into shape. As we were finishing up, dad revealed that during the mower negotiations, the neighbor had decided to give us his old electric mower which "worked great, but needed to have the starter switch replaced". Sigh. I guess that means I have a new broken electric mower to replace the old broken gas mower that I tricked some local kids to take off my hands a couple of months ago (that was left by the previous owners of this house). And thus, the laws of broken lawn mower preservation have been upheld. I swear, this street is all about tricking your neighbors into taking old busted stuff off your hands.

The second big project during my parents' visit was to stabilize one of our fences. Last winter I noticed that the east side of our back yard fence would really flop around when the wind picked up. I guess that dead tree stump the previous owners had nailed the fence to just wasn't strong enough to support the weight of the whole fence. In order to stabilize the floppy side, my dad and I put in two new fence posts Putting in fence posts sucks. In addition to digging two-foot holes in rock-hard ground that's right next to the fence, we had to mix up three bags of concrete to make sure the fence posts would stay put. Oh yeah, and while we were picking up the fence posts from Home Depot, I pushed the posts too far into the VW Golf and cracked our windshield. Doah. But in the end, we got it all done. Now the fence is sturdy enough that it doesn't wiggle much when the fat squirrel in the neighborhood waddles across it.

The last major project for my parents was to plant a tree in the front yard. At one point in time, every house in our neighborhood had a tree out front. However, after 50 years, a lot of those trees had to be removed because their roots were growing into the pipes. While we've been enjoying the shade our neighbors' trees provide (and their leaves in the winter), we thought it was time to have a tree of our own. After a lot of debate on what tree would be the best for us, we decided that we'd get something purple. The official term is "Royal Raindrop Crabapple", which sounds more like a brand of Snapple than a tree. Heh. Picking it up was fun. My mom and I drove down to the orchard store and had them stuff the 7 foot tree into the Golf. The orchard people were skeptical, but we made it work. My mom and I giggled the whole way home, wondering what the other drivers were thinking. If anyone asked, I was going to say "yeah, I'm taking my tree for a drive, what's up?". However, we were bested by another car we saw while waiting at a light. They had the back seat window of their Jeep Cherokee rolled down, revealing that they had a small pony in the back of their ride. Huh.. like I've said, it can be an odd town.

Ah well. We dug a hole in the front yard and planted our new friend. I think the tree looks pretty good, although I'm worried that he'll get fried during the summer. I guess we'll keep a close eye on him for the next year and water the hell out of him. Next thing you know the tree will be huge enough to fall over in a wind storm and crash into our living room (uprooting the sewer line on the way down). When that happens, I'll be sure to call my parents and have them come out to bail us out again. Anyways, thanks for all the help mom and dad. Think of it as an investment in interesting stories you can tell to your friends on Bridge night.

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:: Out of Control

Ok.. so maybe it's time we do something about the back yard. It's been raining almost continuously in Livermore for the last couple of months, and the grass has been loving it. Yard work here in the winter is tough to manage- the rain doesn't give you much time to cut the grass, and then before you know it, it's so tall you can't possibly cut it without a lot of work. This year Amy and I kept up with the front yard, but the back is out of control. Here's what it looks like as of today.

While it's alarming to feel like we're about to be overrun (the stuff is like kudzu), I've got to admit that I really like seeing it so thick and green. I love to watch the grass ripple as the wind rolls by. Amy's also let the Swiss chard blow up in the garden as well. The chard is amazing- it's probably more than four feet tall now, and does a nice job of obstructing the sagging part of the fence. Aye, though. These greens days are numbered. It's only a matter of time before the skies dry up for the summer and I'll have to take a weedwacker to the whole lot. Still, I guess we can enjoy it while it lasts.

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:: Corpus Christi

I think if Texas were to come up with a new slogan (to replace "Don't mess with Texas, we've got enough problems as it is."), it should be "Texas: We're right smack dab in the middle of the country". This fact has recently become useful to us, since we now live on the opposite side of the country than the rest of our family. While we like to go back home to the East coast, cross-country flights suck the life out of you. Since we're the geographical oddity in our extended family, we usually have to take one for the team and be the ones that make the transcontinental trip when there's a family get together.

However, this year we have Benjamin. He's small and gives us plenty to worry about, so we dug our heels in when it came time to plan a small spring outing with some of Amy's family. And that's why I'm writing about Texas. We didn't have much interest in seeing Texas, but you have to admit that it's smack dab in the middle of the nowhere mid-section of the country, and equa-inconvenient for everyone on both coasts to travel to. So.. We planned a week-long stay in Corpus Christi with Amy's mom and Amy's brother's family (David, Gretchen, Ari, Milo, and Gus).

For us, the main concern on the trip was how well Benjamin would take to traveling. The doctor said he was old enough to fly, but the last thing we wanted was to be that couple on the plane with a non-stop screaming baby. In order to make things go more smoothly, we wound up booking nonstop flights as well as a seat for BTU. You can hold babies (under 2 years) in your arms on most flights, but we felt better reserving some space (United gave us BTU's ticket at half price). Benjamin did great on the flight out- he didn't cry that much and he slept for a good part of the flight. The car ride was a different story. We left the San Antonio airport at rush hour, thinking that we were home free. Within 5 minutes, we missed a crucial (unmarked) turn, got stuck in construction traffic, and Benjamin melted into a tear-streaked rage. It was awful. Fortunately, we booked a hotel in outer San Antonio and it didn't take long to get him to a quiet bed where he could stretch out.

As fate (and contract work) would have it, our friend Joe from NY was in town doing a nuke cleanup job for a government (how cool does that sound?). When he picked us up at the hotel for dinner, the back of his rental suv was filled with unopened boxes of ziplock bags. It was like he was a crime scene investigator, but for really really dangerous stuff. Joe confirmed what we had deduced about San Antonio- that it it was a sprawling mess, packed with mis-expanded interstates, smog, pickemup trucks, and rundown strip malls (I've heard San Antonio is one of the legendary Seven Toilets of Texas that Cortes was searching for). Yeehaw. We at least had a good dinner and lunch with Joe, who has always got some jaw dropping stories to tell (like cleaning up a site that had an accident with nuclear surface-to-AIR missiles, or how him and Beth raised their two story house a few inches so they could put in a new foundation).

After lunch with Joe at a Taco Cabano (which has awesome Tex-Mex), we set forth for Corpus Christi. The drive was amazingly boring and highlighted just how much nothing there is in Texas. Heh.. The first sign that you're about to reach Corpus Christi is that the tumbleweed farms give way to a gigantic oil refinery. If you're looking for this point on a map, look for "oil refinery road". I think there are some other clever street names nearby, like "pig farm road". Perhaps this is the "straight shooting call it like it is and not something creative" spirit that Texans take so much pride in.

The resort that we stayed at was pretty cool- it was basically a block of condos that get rented out when the owners aren't there. They had the largest pool in Texas (complete with two corkscrew water slides) and easy access to the beach. During the week, we didn't do too much of anything- mostly trips to the pool or beach, along with periodic outings to the nearby town. Overall it was a good family vacation for us, because we merged in with David and Gretchen, whom have a lot of experience in handling kids.

On the way back inland, we stopped in San Antonio to check out the touristy river walk. It was as about as cool as I remembered it being from when I was a kid, although the heat at the street level was unbearable (hitting close to 100 in March). We spent the last couple of days in Austin, at a Rebel Mamas gathering (RM is a liberal mom support group thing that Amy is involved with). It was cool to hang out with these folks in Austin, but it was just so freaking hot that I was glad to head home.

Yep. So that was Texas. On the flight back home, some retired Texas jerk-wad got pissed that he couldn't recline his seat back 160 degrees because Benjamin's car seat was there. Rather than move over (his middle seat was empty) he wanted Amy to sit in Benjamin's window seat so he could recline back on her. We shut him down by telling him that FAA regulations forbid a baby seat from being put anywhere but the window seat (which is true). Texas jerk-wad. Heh.. later on in the flight I took Benjamin to the back of the plane to calm him down. The flight attendants cooed with him, and then told me that the reclining jerk and his wife had given them a hard time about an difficult drink order. Accident or not, the drink cart somehow managed to ram the jerkwad's wife's leg. Let's hear it for Karma. Anyways, maybe next time we're looking for a central state we'll look a little more North. Like maybe Canada..

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:: Norton Anti-User

This is annoying. Over the Christmas holidays I got burned by that MS Windows security vulnerability that a lot of people were talking about. This is the one where someone realized that MS still had hooks in their OS to allow WMF media files to execute callbacks. Someone got the bright idea of attaching exploit code to an WMV (or even Jpegs) so that if you looked at an infected video, you're machine got rooted. The beauty of this attack is that you could get nailed just by visiting a web page with any browser, be it IE, Netscape, Mozilla, or Firefox. And that's exactly what happened to me. One minute I'm looking at random "funny" videos from an aggregate site, the next I'm wondering why my machine is slowing down. The answer became clear when my desktop background changed to black with some big text about the system being infected with a virus, and how maybe I should buy a spyware removal program, like say "winhound".

A quick search on the web revealed that winhound was made by a scam company that goes around infecting people's machines and telling them that they'll remove the infection for $30. Bastards. I dug around some more on the web to see if there was any info on how to remove the infection by hand. Following some suggestions, I removed some files and registry settings. I then updated both Adware and MS Antispyware, which claimed to remove some of the spyware this infection had brought in with it. I wasn't able to get all of it, but it appeared as though I'd crippled the infection enough that it couldn't get away with anything malicious. While reading about all of this, I noticed that Symantec's Norton AntiVirus had good info about Winhound, as well as auto-remove functions in their latest NAV update. Figuring that I should probably have an antivirus tool, I looked online and bought a 3-user copy from CompUSA for $80 minus a $50 rebate.

After two months of waiting, it looks like Symantec is going to try screwing me out of the rebate. Their website says I bought the software on an "invalid date", even though it was on the last day of the rebate period. I'm pretty angry about not getting the rebate. While I'm appealing it, they only interact with people through the mail (update: 3 months later it finally came). . It's obvious that they do this to slow down the whole process, knowing that most people will just give up after a few months. Symantec is as guilty of scamming people as Winhound. It's like saying that you'll give everyone a rebate, but it has to be written in braille and delivered to them by pony express.

Oh, it gets better. So I finally got around to installing Norton AntiVirus (NAV) on my machine to clean things up. As promised, it found the infected files (along with a ton of spyware droppings) and asked if I wanted to repair or remove the infected files. I told it to remove them, and it in fact did just that. The problem is, it deleted wininet.dll, which turns out to be a system file that explorer needs in order to load. I learned this after I rebooted the machine and realized that without this file, there was no way to load explorer (ie, the gui that handles everything the start button, my computer, and every other icon on the desktop). Way to go Symantic, you killed my freaking Windows installation.

With some experiments I found that I could still launch firefox and the command shell, but not IE, explorer, or some of the services that are needed to install stuff (ie, crypt). Great. Following some people's suggestions, I downloaded some MS updates that happened to replace the missing DLL, but these wouldn't install due to the lack of a working crypt service. I tried copying the wininet.dll off Amy's computer, but it gave exception errors due to version conflicts. I tried running the ms sfc.exe tool, which is supposed to find damaged system files, but it disappeared after scanning the system. Finally, I gave up and downloaded the dll from some "missing dll" site and copied it into the system32 directory. That sort of worked, in the sense that explorer would load, but then die after about 5 seconds (and then repeat the process endlessly). In the few seconds explorer survived, I was able to get the ms update patch I'd downloaded to work and replace the missing system files. It seems to work now, but who knows for how long.

What a scam. Instead of fixing an infected machine, Symantec NAV broke it in a way that 95% of windows users out there would be unable to fix. I'm sure if I had just reinstalled windows at that point that one of the NAV license keys that I'd paid for would be forever lost.

I think I've had it. I'm making a (late) new year's resolution to get away from this windows crap and move 100% to Linux. I've been meaning to do it for a long time, it's just that there are a couple of windows apps that I haven't been able to replace in Linux (Office, DVDShrink, a good desktop since X11 sucks so bad). I guess the thing to do now is to minimize the windows partition for basic things like Office, and force myself to use Linux for everything else. It's going to be tough, but I'm sick of being a sucker for these bozo companies.

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:: Hotel Experiment

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that Amy and I were making a point of taking Benjamin out in public more. One of the reasons why we're motivated to do this is that we have a week-long trip to Texas coming up soon, and we're worried that we're not going to be prepared for all the problems that come about from carrying a baby around in unfamiliar places. In order to get ourselves into shape, we planned a fake vacation to San Francisco this weekend. Amy booked a room down at the Union Square Hilton and off we went.

While it's no big whoop to drive into SF, we wanted to make the simulated vacation more realistic so we parked at Pleasanton and took BART into town. Wow. Even though we were only going for the night, it was amazing how much gear we had to drag around with us (stroller, two backpacks, and a roller carry-on). Moving about BART with all that gear was pretty awkward, especially when you're trying to keep the baby happy. Things went ok until we tried to depart BART down at the Powell Street station. Elevators must have been an afterthought to the BART designers- if you take the elevator from the BART platform at the Powell Street station, it dumps you out outside the turn styles. Huh? After a lot of confusion, someone pointed out that you have to go back in through the wheelchair gate in order to get your ticket exit-stamped. After that fiasco, we still had to take an escalator to street level, which involved taking BTU out of the stroller and folding it up as we went up. What a hassle.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we got to the hotel and check in. The trip was draining so we didn't do much except check out some of the city views. Genevieve came over to see BTU and hang out with us for the rest of the day. We explored the hotel's labyrinth of passageways and elevators, which ultimately led us to the restaurant/bar on the top floor. The restaurant wasn't open for dinner yet, so we snuck around to check out some of the views (sorry, forgot to bring the camera). As we were leaving, the maître d' saw BTU and called us over. The maître d' was this older, Indian guy that was super enthusiastic about kids. He started talking about how his older daughter was just graduating from college, and how wonderful it is to have kids. He happily invited us to hang out and have a drink in the bar. After we sat down, we started adding up some of the things he'd been saying and realized that there was at least a 30 year age difference between him and his wife. Huh.

Later, Genevieve volunteered to watch Benjamin for a couple of hours so that Amy and I could go out and have dinner in the city. We wandered about Union Square for a while, crazily pondering all the restaurant options. In the end, we settled on an Indian place which turned out to be kind of ho-hum. However, a dinner alone is about all we could dream of these days, so the night was pretty great for us. Genevieve had a hard time, though. She had to walk around the hotel courtyards to calm BTU down. Amy found them both by listening for BTU's cries.

The night was rough, but we managed to get some sleep in somehow. BTU slept in a porta-crib that the hotel brought up for us (porta-cribs are usually free, you just have to reserve them before other people get them). BTU slept in it ok, although I spent the whole night worrying that something would be different from what he's used to and he'd wind up suffocating somehow. That's the life of a parent though- constantly thinking of a million threats in the room that might harm your child.

In the morning Amy and I took turns going to the heated outdoor swimming pool. There's something great about still being able to swim when the air's cold outside (well, if you can ignore the guilt of what a colossal waste of energy it must be). We then packed up the stuff in the room, checked out, and hopped back and BART. We flirted with the idea of getting some snacks at the Embarcadero, but the subway was crowded and we didn't fell like it'd be worth the trouble. The key to good traveling is to know when to take the time to explore the little things, and when to admit your exhausted and head for shelter.

While our mini-trip was draining, we're glad we did it. I feel like I have a better idea of what to expect, as well as some confidence in being able to deal with having all this extra gear. We also learned how much extra effort is required in traveling with a baby. It makes me sad to think that we're no longer the nimble travelers we once were (ie, just throw some stuff in a backpack and go), but still, I'm excited about showing the world to Benjamin.

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