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Wrapping up 2008

Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Well, 2008 is rapidly coming to a close. I'm of the opinion that it can't end fast enough, since, as years go, it was one of my least favorites - filled with a lot of heartbreak, pain, and "learning experiences". I'm optimistic about 2009, though.

the future... that way!

2009 is coming in with a lot of expectations, at least for me. I really hope to have a great year and be able to be the person I know I can be: smart, strong, fun, and cheerful. It was be a change for the better, I assure you.

... and to all, a good night.

Thursday, December 25, 2008
Merry Christmas, everyone! I've made it past yet another holiday. I'm now back at my dad's place after a midnight Christmas Eve service at my church, ready for another glass of wine and some apple crisp.

I wish everyone and anyone who might read this a very Merry Christmas.

Quite Impressed

Wednesday, December 24, 2008
It happened again yesterday. I had yet another flat tire on my car. I had my chains on the front tires (which are getting to the point of needing to be replaced) and my nice new(er) tires on the rear.

The tire in question (on the rear) had been low on air before, but it seemed an isolated incident best explained by outside circumstances; with the inclement weather, I wasn't sure if the cold air combined with the pressure on the sidewall from perhaps sliding a little into a parking space hadn't combined to allow air to leak out of the tire. The tire seemed fine for a couple days. Then, yesterday, it was flat.

Of course, I didn't notice that it was flat at first. Since the flat part was buried in the snow, even though I glanced at it I couldn't tell that there was very little - if any - air in it. There was also enough ice and snow on the road that the tire - stuck in it's flat shape by the cold - didn't even rotate, it was just sliding. I didn't notice anything was wrong until I got on pavement and my chains started slipping. I pulled over almost immediately and discovered the tire was flat.

Skipping forward in the story, I ended up at Les Schwab with a flat Les Schwab tire. In the past year and a half I've had three flat tires, and they've all been on Les's tires. Probably coincidence. Anyway, this post is about the Les Schwab service.

Every time I go there, I've been well taken care of. I don't just leave as a satisfied customer, I leave as an impressed customer. In this case, they found a screw in my tire (explaining the flat) and then, since it wasn't immediately discovered, they found a gash in the sidewall, probably caused by the rim when it was dragged. Since the tire was under warranty, they replaced and reinstalled it at no cost to me. They explained what happened, I signed off on getting a new tire, and was sent on my merry way.

Les Schwab, as a company, has always treated me well. They've consistently exceeded my expectations, and I've been quite happy with the service I've received. The slight difference in initial tire price is more than made up for in the difference in service; and I approve. As long as I can afford it, I plan on being a Les Schwab customer.

... And that's as great an endorsement as I've probably ever given a company.

Snowstorm - Salem Report

Monday, December 22, 2008
While yesterday I woke up in Portland with the intent of driving down to Salem, today I woke up in Salem with the intent of getting around. It's a rare thing that snow blankets downtown Salem (the Oregon Willamette Valley cities don't get a whole lot of snow - on average), so it's extremely unusual for us to get several days worth of snow.

another day with my car covered in snow

Imagine my surprise, then, when - after clearing 8 inches of snow and ice off my car yesterday - I had to clear another 5 inches of fresh snow off my car this morning. Of course, it didn't bother me too much since I'd left the chains on overnight and was looking forward to driving in the snow. (Driving on slush in chains bothers me, driving on bare pavement in chains bothers me a lot.)

So yes, Salem was blanketed in snow today. Much of it melted, though more snow was falling throughout the daylight hours. Driving with the chains was easy and fun.

My prediction? I think most of what's left will freeze tonight, we'll get a bit more precipitation tomorrow, then everything will melt and, by Christmas, the snow will be (mostly) a thing of the past.

Of course, all the truck and SUV drivers are feeling extremely vindicated right at this moment...

Covered in Ice

Sunday, December 21, 2008
We spent the night at my good friend's place in Portland last night. He and his wife were incredibly accommodating. We had planned on having to potentially stay there, given the weather, so we were prepared. Today, however, we planned on coming back down to Salem. The weather had different ideas.

My car, covered in snow and ice

Getting out to my car this morning was an adventure. With a half-inch of ice on 6-8 inches of snow on another half-inch of ice, the conditions were ripe for me falling on my ass. I managed not to, but it was touch-and-go the whole time.

Getting into my car was an even bigger challenge. My doors have a tendency to freeze shut in cold (or freezing) weather, and opening them is a balance of pulling on the door and trying not to break anything. Then came getting the ice off my car, which took about 20 minutes (including kicking the accumulated ice off my tires.)

With my chains still on my car from yesterday, getting around was easier than I thought it would be. On roads that weren't plowed, the broken ice and fluffy snow provided much better driving conditions than walking conditions. Three hours before dark (with a two-hour trip ahead of us) we decided to head back to Salem.

As I have alluded to in the past, low-traction driving isn't one of my favorite passtimes. In spite of this, I was confident that I could make it back home safely. I went nice and slow - not more than 30 mph with the chains on - but not everyone was driving with such caution. I was, at one point, passed by someone on the right shoulder - someone who didn't have chains on and then spun out in traffic just ahead of me. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Asshole-driver-in-a-white-Chevy-truck-license-plate-046-QXI.)

We made it back to Salem safely and the conditions here were significantly improved over Portland. There was a bunch of slush and ice, but bare pavement was visible - though some roads were blocked by downed trees. Outside was picturesque upon arrival, and I'm happy to be home safely.

My car, covered in snow and ice

Snowshoeing in a snowstorm

Yesterday, several of us climbed into my car (aka The Dentmobile) and, with cheap Wal-Mart chains on the tires, clawed our way up to Mt. Hood and went snowshoeing around at Trillium Lake.

The drive was... interesting. I'll admit that I tend to avoid low-traction conditions as much as possible and finally putting the chains on my car and braving the drifting snow was exciting. However, since the snow was so dry it wasn't really piling up on the road. There were patches of snow, with some ice, and I more-or-less needed the chains, but I was driving for about two or three hours each way with them on the car. That works out to a lot of driving.

Snowshoeing in fresh snow is awesome. We were on groomed trails, but even then the snowshoes were handy (and, being us, we frequently went off the trail to play in the waist-deep snow. We were only out for a few hours, mainly due to travel time and a desire to get back on the road before dark. With all that fresh, dry snow, we also didn't get a chance to have a real snowball fight - though that didn't stop us from throwing snow around.

Coming back, we stopped for dinner at Calamity Jane's in Sandy. The stop, though, meant that the drive from Sandy back to Portland was done mostly in the dark, which - I'll admit - got pretty stressful with the blizzard conditions that were blowing into town. Making it home safely makes this a story of fun!

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

Monday, December 15, 2008
Well, the winter storm showed up, finally. As I write this,there are 2-3 inches of snow/ice on the ground outside my apartment. While not the cataclysmic meteorological event that the news was predicting, the snow is making life a little interesting.

Downtown Salem

Downtown Salem

I'm enjoying it, though. Nothing like being bundled up on the couch with Christmas lights on, a candle burning, steaming hot chocolate, and video gamest that need to be played.

Bad List

Sunday, December 14, 2008
Time just released a special on the "50 Worst Cars of All Time". It's really just a chronological list (from 1899 to 2004) of cars that the author wanted to complain about. I'm going to say that I take exception to a few of the vehicles placed on this list, for several reasons. Between consistency of complaint to historical context, the list contains more than a few entries that it shouldn't.

The Ford Model T doesn't belong on this list.

For instance, the second vehicle (chronologically) is the 1909 Fort Model T. The author claims that the Model T:
"conferred to Americans the notion of automobility as something akin to natural law, a right endowed by our Creator. A century later, the consequences of putting every living soul on gas-powered wheels are piling up .... with its blacksmithed body panels and crude instruments, the Model T was a piece of junk, the Yugo of its day.
Right off the bat, the author implies that cars are a Bad Thing™ and that lowering the barrier to entry was a crime against humanity. I dispute this claim. I'm also willing to look and say, "gosh, this was the first mass-produced car and sold in record numbers to people who otherwise couldn't have one. There were quality issues?" There are quality issues in almost every early product brought to market. Early computers (even in the 80s, twenty years after their invention) were hard to use and could crash at the slightest bump of a desk.

another car that shouldn't be on the list, the DMC-12

Another vehicle inappropriately on this list is the 1981 De Llorean DMC-12. The author's biggest complaint is that the car was "heavy and underpowered", adjectives that pretty much describe every car built from 1975 to 1990. The DMC-12 was cool, it was novel, and it was a neat idea. The author talking about John Z. De Lorean's arrest on drug trafficking charges (of which he was acquitted) is irrelevant.

Consistency is completely lacking in this list. The author criticizes the 1995 Ford Explorer:
[P]eople came to prefer the outdoorsy, go-anywhere image of SUVs. In other words, people became addicted to the pose. And, as vehicles got bigger and heavier, buyers sought out even bigger vehicles to make themselves feel safe. Helloooo Hummer. All of that we can lay at the overachieving feet of the Explorer.
Yet, on the very next page, the author says of the 1997 GM EV1:
The car itself was a tiny, super-light two-seater, not exactly what American consumers were looking for.
The way the author can justify calling the Ford Explorer bad for being at the head of the SUV craze while - almost in the same breath - lambasting the EV1 for not being what the consumer wants is, well, idiotic.

Finally, my biggest complaint is that the cars are are entirely European or American. No mention of stinkers from Japan (like the 1988 Suzuki Samurai, which may or may not have been prone to rollover issues.) Cars from Korea are excluded, as are cars from India, China, or any other market. That bothers me, and, while the list was written in an entertaining fashion, it has - in my mind - zero credibility.

Notes from a bellringer

Friday, December 05, 2008
So I just completed my first shift bellringing for the Salvation Army. This year, because I'm significantly less hardcore than in years past, I opted for the indoor Macy's skybridge at the Salem Center, though - and I had no way of knowing this ahead of time - the weather was beautiful and being outside would have been okay.

As I am now a seasoned veteran when it comes to standing there and ringing that bell, I feel confident that I can accurately categorize the types of people I encounter:

The Shy Donor:

This person, a favorite, is the person who sort of angles towards the kettle at the last second, shoves some coin into the kettle, mumbles "Merry Christmas", and hustles away.
The Cell Phone:
These people are completely oblivious to my existence. Out of courtesy, I usually quiet the bell when they're walking past. I suspect that's more than they'd do for me.
The 1000-yard State:
Folks who are looking straight ahead as they march past out of fear that, were they to make eye contact, they'd be forced to donate money. (Either that or they're afraid I'll poison their soul.) They will not respond if spoken to.
The Busy Shopper:
Someone who walks by, smiles, says "Hello", and then marches in and leaves by a different door, if possible.
The Good Parent:
This is a parent, usually with a toddler, who will stuff some change in their kid's hand, pick them up, then have them put the money in the kettle. I love these people. I usually let the kid ring the bell afterward, which seems to be the highlight of their experience.

Of course there are a few more types that are extremely rare, but these are the people I see most often. It's fun to try to identify who will be what type as soon as you see them; I'm getting pretty good at that game.

Black Mesa: Source

Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Hot on the heels of my Left 4 Dead post, I saw an article at Ars Technica about the Black Mesa Source project.

Black Mesa Source is a complete remake of the original Half-Life, which stands as quite possibly one of the best games ever made. I still play it every year or two, just because it's so darn fun. However, since it was Game of the Year about a decade ago, the graphics are a bit dated at this point. Black Mesa Source is the same awesome game, but with modern graphics.

If the trailer's anything like the game, it's going to be awesome. I saw this project about a year or so ago, but it seemed to be in that state of "coming soon... eventually". Now it looks like it'll be out in the next year, and I can hardly wait. Headcrabs, the resonance cascade, and Xen... the original adventure will be reborn.

Do I get geek points for recognizing every single scene in that preview?

Left 4 Dead

Monday, December 01, 2008
A very good friend gave me a copy of Valve Software's Left 4 Dead over the weekend, and I spent quite a bit of time playing it.

L4D logo

Left 4 Dead is best described as a cooperative multiplayer zomb-pocalypse experience. It puts the player in a zombie survival movie - complete with dramatic music. If there's one thing I'm always up for, it's culling the hordes of the living dead. Four players (any of which can be AI if need be) must fight their way through The Infected to escape the nightmare. To survive, the players must stay together, they must work together, and they must stay alert the whole time.

One of the things that gives this game a high degree of replayability is that, while the physical levels are the same, the placement of the zombies is random - and is adjusted on-the-fly by the game's AI. The game is designed for you to win, but only if you're good. It will do what it has to in order to keep you on the edge of your seat, just barely surviving.

Left 4 Dead screenshot

If I had any complaint about the game thus far it's that some of the special infected boss-type creatures are a little too difficult. While they're fun to encounter (and the music changes when one is close), no amount of planning can take them into account, particularly when you're simply trying to hold a position. I'm sure it will be tweaked by Valve over time, and the complaint is pretty minor.

So here's my take on this: Get Left 4 Dead. It's fun. It is cooperative multiplayer gaming at its best. You won't regret it.




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