Jan. 25–27, 2008

My friends and I embarked on our fourth annual ski trip to Jack Frost in the Poconos. For the second consecutive year, I served as the overall organizer of the trip, and my friend Christina skillfully handled the food purchases.

The northbound drive on Friday afternoon started out with a close call. Heavy traffic came to an abrupt halt on the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike just north of Lansdale, and I came fairly close to hitting the car in front of me. But three drivers just ahead of me weren’t so fortunate and collided with each other, spraying the road with shards of glass. (Given that I was involved in a minor accident under similar circumstances a few years ago, maybe I’ve already paid my dues in that department.)

This year, a total of 13 of us occupied two condos in Snow Ridge Village. We basically followed the same routine as the last few years — dinner and drinks on Friday night, an action-packed Saturday on the slopes, a well-earned dip in the hot tub after a long day of skiing, and another relaxing night by the fire on Saturday night.

But this year’s trip did manage to stand out from the rest, given that one of our neighbors in the condo development decided to set off very loud, very bright fireworks at 2:45 a.m. on Saturday night. Who does that?

[ No. 410 ]

Jan. 23, 2008

Last Thursday, about three inches of snow falls on the Fairfax County, Va., area. One 17-year-old senior from a local high school wonders why the schools haven’t closed. He can’t reach the school administrator at work, so he locates the man’s home number in the phone book and leaves him a message.

Later that day, the administrator’s wife leaves a furious reply on the student’s voice mail: “How dare you call us at home! If you’ve got a problem with going to school, you do not call somebody’s house and complain about it.” She says that her husband works very long hours, chastises the student for questioning the dean’s whereabouts, and tells him, “Get over it, kid, and go to school!”

The student responds by posting a recording of the message — and the dean’s work and home phone numbers — on a new Facebook page. Dozens of people can’t resist calling the administrator’s house, including one that night at 4 a.m.

Predictably, the student defends his phone call by claiming the right to petition a public official, refers to his Facebook page as an exercise in free speech, and implies that the dispute stems from a “generation gap.” A school spokesman prefers the phrase “civility gap” and describes the phone call as “harassment.”

My take on this? Perhaps the wife should have let her husband handle the matter himself, but I can easily relate to her anger over intrusive phone calls at home. And the supposedly bright student should know that calling a school official at his residence about a snow day is inappropriate to begin with, but embarrassing the dean and his wife on a public Web site is way out of line.

I’m sure that I sound like an 80-year-old man here, but if this little episode is any indication of how many of today’s young people prefer to handle disputes, then God help us all.*

* Update: My friend Tony writes:

Good post on the Fairfax snow issue. Here’s my two cents:
Both the kids and the wife really handled this poorly. The kid should not have called, and in my opinion, he should not have posted that stuff on the Web. Then again, the wife really opened herself up when she went ballistic on the phone.
And where were the parents of this kid? They seem to be missing from the story altogether.

Very good points, one and all. Both sides definitely share the blame here, but it would never have received this level of publicity if the student hadn’t announced it to the world. And aren’t there laws about getting someone’s consent before recording a conversation?

[ No. 409 ]

Jan. 21, 2008

The entertaining blog Uni Watch (subtitled “The Obsessive Study of Athletics Aesthetics”) recently featured a surprisingly heated discussion about the design of Penn State’s football helmet, which has remained virtually unchanged since the mid-1970s.

Some argued that PSU’s helmets are far too plain and boring, and suggested that the oval Nittany Lion logo would look sharp on the headgear. Others vehemently rejected that notion, and I definitely share that view. The solid white helmet with a single blue stripe down the middle — and, for God’s sake, no cute little stickers for individual achievements on the field — is simple, beautiful, and an austere symbol of Penn State tradition. I hope it never changes.

The author of Uni Watch, Paul Lukas, responded to the lengthy PSU helmet debate as follows:

When I was about eight years old, I asked my mother why the New York Times didn’t have comics like all the other newspapers. She thought for a moment and then said, “Because if it had comics, it wouldn’t be the New York Times.” That was a profoundly unsatisfying answer to an eight-year-old, but I think it was EXACTLY the right answer.
So: If Penn State put a logo on the helmets, they wouldn’t be Penn State. Simple as that.

What a terrific analogy. Many colleges restlessly change the design of their uniforms every few years in an effort to look modern and unique, and the results are often disastrous. But it’s nice to know that an expert in such matters considers Penn State’s understated style to be as timeless as the Gray Lady.

[ No. 408 ]

Jan. 19, 2008

Some brief reviews of my first five rentals from Netflix:

  1. High Noon (1952): A classic Western starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The plot is rather simple, but the acting and suspense are superb — the clocks on the wall keep reminding you that the bad guys are coming. Rating: 9/10.
  2. Reservoir Dogs (1992): Plenty of violence and dark humor, as we’ve come to expect from Quentin Tarantino, and the soundtrack is terrific. But Pulp Fiction had much more substance and entertainment value. Rating: 5/10.
  3. Remember the Titans (2000): The story of an Alexandria, Va., high school football team in the wake of desegregation, based on true events from 1971. An inspiring tale of teamwork. Rating: 8/10.
  4. Blazing Saddles (1974): I’d seen this movie long ago but had forgotten most of the plot. Sadly, it wasn’t nearly as funny as I’d expected, especially compared to other Mel Brooks films such as Young Frankenstein. Rating: 5/10.
  5. Falling Down (1993): Another repeat viewing. At times, the film’s theme of white-collar rage, especially the opening scene with Michael Douglas’ character stuck in traffic, reminded me of the desperation in Office Space. Rating: 7/10.

[ No. 407 ]

Jan. 12, 2008

Once again, it’s that time of the year for many people to try to make good on their resolution to get back into shape. I’m certainly one of them, and so far, I’m off to a good start. (I keep reminding myself that I’ve succeeded in this area before, and kept the weight off for about 18 months. It can be done!)

So, it’s inevitable to see a lot of commercials for weight-loss programs and fitness equipment in January. But one particular ad caught my attention — toward the end of a Bowflex commercial, a young guy who had purchased a Bowflex home gym and lost 70 pounds proudly tells us:

“I gave all of my fat clothes to my fat friends.”

Wow. Did the guy just blurt that out, or was it part of the script? And either way, what did the advertising agency hope to achieve by leaving that comment in the final cut? (You can view the entire testimonial on YouTube; the above quote is at the 1:43 mark.)

I can’t imagine anyone feeling inspired to buy a Bowflex machine after seeing that pompous jerk on TV. Sure, Bowflex might help you lose some excess pounds, but would you want to lose your self-awareness and friendships, too?

[ No. 406 ]

Jan. 8, 2008

I’ll be the first to admit that Ohio State (or, to be precise, The Ohio State University) destroyed Penn State this past fall. And over the last six years alone, the Buckeyes have won four Big Ten titles and have made three trips to the BCS Championship game, both of which are extremely hard to do.

But despite all of Ohio State’s recent success, I don’t envy their fans in the least. Last night, LSU soundly defeated Ohio State, 38–24, and handed OSU its second straight double-digit loss in the title game. (Last year, Florida thoroughly embarrassed the favored Buckeyes, 41–14, to capture the title.)

Ohio State is quickly becoming the Buffalo Bills of college football — they keep making it to the big game, and then find ways to lose. Meanwhile, Penn State has finished each of the last two seasons with an underwhelming record of 9–4, but I’d much rather quietly stew over a pair of mediocre finishes than watch my team suffer repeated humiliation on the national stage.

The Buckeyes have also fallen to an astounding 0–9 against SEC teams in bowl games. But it’s strange to me that fans of every SEC team, not just LSU, are gloating over Ohio State’s demise. The SEC was the toughest conference in the nation this year, no question. But guys, unless you’re an LSU fan, the Buckeyes were still better than your SEC team this year, at least on paper. Bandwagon fans are bad enough, but conference bandwagon fans are insufferable.*

* Update: My friend Steve writes:

I am wondering when will the BCS get this right? I watched a lot of bowl games this year (yay!) and I can tell you that, at a minimum, USC and LSU were more than capable of beating Ohio State. (Consider that USC decisively defeated an Illinois team that beat Ohio State during the regular season.)
I hate to say it but it really does make the Big Ten conference look bad to keep having Ohio State go to the national championship and [get] defeated in such a manner that you wonder why they were there in the first place. While we can feel sorry for the Buckeye fans, I actually feel more sorry for the more deserving teams that for two years in a row didn’t get their shot at # 1.

Well, Steve, we both know that the BCS, now in its 10th year, frequently fails to “get things right.” I’ve always said that the system is deeply flawed. In fact, I was especially outraged in late 2003 when Oklahoma was invited to the BCS title game despite losing its previous contest, the Big 12 title game, by four touchdowns.

The only true way to determine a champion is a playoff system. In other sports, teams that are not ranked No. 1 or No. 2 at the end of the regular season still have a chance to prove themselves in the playoffs. (For example, in college basketball, the 1985 Villanova Wildcats were a No. 8 seed within one of four brackets, and won six straight NCAA tournament games on its way to the national title.)

Were some other teams more deserving than Ohio State to play in the BCS championship game this year? Perhaps, but I disagree that USC was one of them. The Trojans did indeed trample Illinois, but they also lost to Stanford — a 41-point underdog — at home.

[ No. 405 ]

Jan. 5, 2008

It’s resolution season once again, and for many people, that means making a renewed effort to get one’s financial house in order. Well, here’s a timely reminder about the importance of saving for a rainy day, because a monsoon of unexpected expenses can arrive at any time, especially when you happen to own a house.

In mid-December, my built-in Spacemaker microwave oven failed to cook a bag of popcorn. I scheduled a service call with GE, and even if the microwave couldn’t be fixed, a new one wouldn’t be terribly expensive. Besides, my current microwave’s manufacture date of 1984 practically made it a candidate for Antiques Roadshow; its demise was long overdue.

On Christmas Eve, three days before the scheduled appointment, my dryer suddenly decided that it was tired of applying heat to my clothes. So, on the way to my parents’ house for an extended Christmas visit with the family, I called GE again to reschedule the original service call, hoping to kill two birds with one stone. They found someone to come out on New Year’s Eve to look at both appliances, and I was lucky to have the option of running a few loads of laundry at my folks’ place until then.

The GE technician arrived within the first quarter of the eight-hour window, took one look at my ancient microwave, and informed me that repairing it would be absurdly expensive, as I expected. But he also determined that the dryer’s heater needed to be replaced, which called for a part to be ordered and an estimated cost of $280 — about two-thirds the price of a new one. I opted to eat $85 for the service call, and promptly ordered a new GE microwave and Whirlpool dryer from a great new local store, Gerhard’s Appliances in Frazer. The new items will be delivered and installed this Monday, and that will be that.

But wait — bad things happen in threes, right?

Right. Yesterday, someone from the help desk stopped by my cubicle and rudely interrupted my phone conversation to drop off a laptop cord (a matter that could have waited a few minutes, no?). As I swiveled around in my chair to the left, I knocked over a tall plastic cup of water all over my laptop and PDA. The Dell laptop, which was powered on but closed and sitting in its docking station, was miraculously unaffected. But my Palm Tungsten handheld, a device that I use constantly, has been lifeless ever since.

I obsessively back up my contacts and to-do lists on a frequent basis, so the situation could be much worse. But if my waterlogged Palm doesn’t dry out within a few days (as my former Lazarus-like cell phone did last summer), that’s another $200 that I have to drop, and my savings account wasn’t exactly sky-high to begin with. But still, I’m grateful that I haven’t been living completely paycheck-to-paycheck — this kind of financial onslaught was bound to happen sooner or later.

[ No. 404 ]