Frustration

Self-Service Pain

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It’s extremely easy to cause yourself a lot of pain while performing maintenance on your computer. Here are two sure-fire steps:

  1. Do something really stupid, while being aware that you are doing so!
  2. Compound the error by being macho, and wanting to fix it manually!

Voila! You will have no one to blame but yourself for your pain, and you can be proud enough of the time wasted to waste a little more by publicly flogging yourself in a blog (like, say, this one…).

Here’s what I did to myself this morning…

Yesterday was Patch Tuesday at Microsoft. When I booted up this moring, Windows informed me that there were four critical updates available, and two optional ones. I looked over the list and was happy to accept the four critical updates.

Of the two optional ones, one was for my LAN device (which I’ve successfully updated in the past, so I was happy to include that). The other was for an external tablet device that I don’t own, and will likely never own. So, why did I check to include it? Only because I thought it might be more efficient to have the updated driver (dormant) on my system, than to hide it from future updates, but make Windows notice each time that it was out-of-date.

Oh oh, first big dumb mistake. When I restarted the computer, installing that driver triggered Vista to think that I now had a Tablet device, and it automatically turned on Tablet PC mode. In itself, that wouldn’t be so bad, except that it disabled my touchpad, which is my only mouse. 🙁

Other than resizing and moving windows around, Windows (XP and Vista) are suprisingly easy to navigate around with only a keyboard, even without Accessibility settings turned on.

I could have undone the Windows Update quickly and painlessly, through the keyboard. But no, I’m macho and need to figure out how to fix this on my own. I launched a browser, searched Google, and found out how to turn off Tablet PC mode. That worked (Tablet PC mode was off) but my touchpad was still dead, even after a reboot.

I found an updated Synaptics Touchpad driver for Windows Vista x64, downloaded and installed it, but it failed to load properly after the reboot.

After dorking around way too much (nearly 90 minutes!), completely mouseless, I finally broke down and did what I should have done in the first place. I pulled up the System Restore facility, selected a restore point from this morning and let it do its magic.

After rebooting, everything was exactly the way it was before I updated the system. I then reapplied the four critical updates plus the networking one. I hid the Tablet (IdeaCOMM) update forever, and all is back to normal and wonderful.

To summarize:

Don’t install optional updates for hardware you don’t own!

If you make any mistake after an update, roll it back immediately!

Lessons to live by. 🙂

Paying for Free Software

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There is a lot of free software available for every operating system. Some of it is open source, some of it is proprietary, but still free. Some of the free stuff comes with strings attached (shareware, for example). Some of the programs are amazing, many are just toys (or worse).

One relatively common theme in free software (at least on the Windows platform) is to give a relatively complete free version, but offer an upsell to a Pro version that does more. If the free version is too crippled, it’s likely to turn off potential buyers rather than create a demand for conversions to the Pro version.

Over the years I have used many free programs. If it was a shareware program (where you are legally required to pay for the software after a specified time of use, even if the program itself doesn’t enforce that!), then I always either paid for the program, or removed it from my system.

Examples of that are WinZip and Drag and File (later upgraded to Power File, from Canyon Software). While I felt good about both programs, for a very long time, buying them also had the perverse effect of psychologically locking me in to those programs once I paid for them.

Even when alternatives (often free!) became available, I’d feel that I needed to get my money’s worth with the one I bought, and I’d stick with it longer than I should have. For the record, I no longer use either of the programs, even though I own them, and could…

The best part about free, or shareware, is the ability to be sure that a program delivers what you expect (hopefully even more), before shelling out the money for it.

Early in 2008 I started feeling guilty that I wasn’t donating to a few of the software products that I was using regularly, even though they were truly free (not shareware). All three of my favorites were requesting donations (and deserved it!). The three programs I was using back then, on a regular basis were:

Of those three, only Vista Start Menu had a Pro version, enticing you to pay for more features (though the free product is quite awesome on its own). The other two have donation buttons on their websites.

I use Paint.Net whenever I upload photos to my blog. That’s the only time I use it. Even though I can go weeks without launching it, I still it use it regularly enough, that I should donate to the project, and I will.

At one point, even though I was addicted to Launchy, I deleted it from my computer, because it (in conjunction with other background processes) was slowing down my computer. At that point, I was happy I hadn’t paid for it. Then, after getting my computer back to normal, I tried it again, and was again happy with it, without any slowdown. Then I felt guilty that I hadn’t donated.

In the summer of 2008, before the financial meltdown, I decided that I would be more aggressive about paying for programs that I use even semi-regularly, just because it’s the right thing to do. And yet, I didn’t go out and do it right away. That’s because by then, I knew that I would be purchasing a new laptop within the next six months, and I wasn’t sure what operating system I would put on it, or whether I would carry over the same habits/programs even if I stuck with Windows XP.

In November 2008 I finally got my new laptop, and indeed, I switched operating systems to Windows Vista Ultimate x64. I no longer had a need for Launchy, because the basic functionality of Launchy is built right into Vista, and it works really well (Launchy is still awesome, and highly recommended for XP users!).

Paint.NET is still in my arsenal, still on an infrequent but regular basis. Vista Start Menu is no longer on my system. While I think it too is an awesome program, and there is a off chance that I will install at some point in the future, the built in Search in Windows Vista (the part that mimics Launchy) is so powerful, so fast, and always finds what I want instantly, that I just don’t miss Vista Start Menu (though it’s incredibly cool, both conceptually and in its implementation!).

So, now that I’m settled in, I’m ready to fulfill my promise to myself to start paying for things I use regularly, even if they’re free. Especially now, in this economy, I want to support innovative people who create useful software.

So, first up is my favorite VoIP Softphone, Zoiper. For many years, I used a softphone called Diax. I loved it. Unfortunately, I had a few minor problems with it, and at some point, the author stopped maintaining it (it was free). I discovered Zoiper (after trying quite a number of other softphones). I was very happy with it in general as well, though it too presented me with a few problems.

I reported those to the company that produces it, Attractel, and they were amazingly responsive to me via email, even though I was using the free version. Their next release solved all of my problems! At the end of 2007 I wrote to them and told them that even though I didn’t need any of the Biz (their name for a Pro version) extras, I was thinking of buying it just to support them.

As noted above, I ended up rationalizing not doing so for another year. On Friday, I upgraded to the Biz version. So far, the only feature that I have even tested is creating more than two accounts (which is what the free version limits you to). Until I install Asterisk 1.6 (which is still months off for me), I am not likely to even test any other Biz feature. Still, this is a great company, producing great software, and they deserve the support of anyone who uses their stuff!

Next up was backup software. On XP, I was using a combination of two programs. The first was Apricorn EZ Gig II. This is commercial software that came with a hard drive upgrade kit that I purchased a while ago. It can clone hard disks, or make image files that can be restored later on. It works very well, and is very fast. I used it semi-regularly, to make full-image backups of our laptops.

In between those backups, I used Microsoft’s SyncToy program to incrementally backup our most critical content (emails, documents, etc.). There were things about SyncToy that were a little annoying, but mostly, it worked well. It was a version 1.x beta at the time. The new version 2.0 is much better, and only has one annoying thing left (IMHO).

Over time, I started to dislike the EZ Gig II method of backing up, because the only way to access any file on the image backup was to restore the entire image to a disk drive, then pluck out the file(s) that you want. I found another program (free for non-commercial use) called Drive Image XML. It pretty much does what EZ Gig II does, but it also creates an XML file that maps the image to individual filenames (after the image is complete), and individual files can be extracted from the image via an Explorer like interface.

It’s slower than EZ Gig, but not too bad. I used it to image my old XP drive when I got my new Vista-based laptop. Then I copied the image on to the new hard drive. Then I used Drive Image XML directly on the new laptop to access the XP image, and pull out whatever files I wanted, knowing that the rest of the files were at my fingertips.

Unfortunately, while that worked well enough, I found a few files that were showing up in the Explorer interface, but that Drive Image XML couldn’t extract, thinking they were zero length. They shouldn’t have been zero length, so I realized that Drive Image XML wasn’t perfect. Thankfully, I was able to pull them over with a USB key from my old laptop, so they weren’t gone forever.

That got me to search for a better (but similar) program. After reading a bunch, and testing some, I settled on the free version of Macrium Reflect. I was able to image my entire Vista hard drive (while still logged in!) to an external eSATA hard drive, in 55 minutes! It took 193GB and compressed it (with normal compression mode) to 133GB. To restore a file, it mounts the image as a virtual hard drive in Windows, and you use the regular Explorer to browse and copy files. Awesome.

This, in conjuction with SyncToy 2.0 would have been enough for me. I did not need to pay for the Pro version. But, in my new spirit, I wanted to pay for the upgrade. I ended up buying the Family Four Pack (pay for two licenses, get two free). I only need two (one for me, one for Lois), but why not get two emergency licenses in the bargain, just in case, for the same price.

Since the Pro version can do individual files in addition to complete images, and can do incremental and differential images as well (which the free version can’t), I may actually use this tool only, and abandon SyncToy (even though it works well). While my use of Reflect has been minimal so far, I’m really impressed and pleased with this program. If they didn’t have a free version, there’s no way that they would have me as a customer.

I expect to continue to pay/donate for software that I use on a regular basis going forward. I am promising myself that I won’t let that lock me in psychologically should better programs come out in the future. It’s a small price to pay to feel better about doing my bit in keeping these innovative developers going.

Update 1/20/2009: On Windows XP, I used WinPatrol for a reasonably long time. I never had a need for the Plus features, so I never upgraded. When I switched to Vista, I didn’t install WinPatrol. This morning, I decided to add this wonderful program to the list of software that I want to support. I installed the latest version of WinPatrol, and even before I did, purchased a Plus license (just to support the author!). 🙂

December 2008 Poker

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December was no different than November. Good results in Omaha (though not many tournaments in general), and a total wipeout in the big Sunday Hold’Em tourneys, accounting for a terrible economic showing. Bottom line for the month: -$694.60.

In one of the big tourneys, they paid the top 135 spots. I finished 137th. I probably could have squeeked in if I just folded two more times, but I decided to play like I should, not like I was tempted to. It didn’t work out.

Anyway, another bad economic month, but another satisfying round of Omaha tourneys (though still a very light playing schedule).

For the year, a complete economic wipeout: -$2,128.26.

Horrible, obviously, on every level. That said, I was playing with previous winnings, and still have enough left in the account to play a bit more (a lot more if I would avoid paying full-freight in the big Sunday tourneys).

As much as I love playing online poker, and I really do, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m secretly looking forward to running out of money in the account, so I can obsess about other pursuits that I don’t make enough time for, given the siren song that poker sings to me. 🙂

Vista speech recognition

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I’ve been fascinated by speech recognition for a very long time.  I used a program called Simon on a NeXT computer back in 1992. I have toyed with every version of Dragon Naturally Speaking since v2 (now owned by Nuance). I keep upgrading my copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking (through v9, I haven’t done v10 yet), even though I never actually use it for anything real beyond checking out how much better each version has gotten.

The primary reason I don’t dictate more is that Lois and I work two feet apart 99% of the time. That makes it awkward to be speaking to the computer, from a number of perspectives. Still, I remain intrigued by the concept.

Vista has built-in speech recognition. My new laptop also has Realtek HD Audio built in, including a very high quality microphone next to the webcam, at the top of the monitor. As an example, I tested it with Skype the other day, with no headset, and there was no echo on either side of the conversation, and the other person said I sounded fine.

That made me think about the extra convenience of being able to dictate without scrounging around for headset, or wearing it for extended periods. I decided to play with the speech recognition just to see.

Basically, it works pretty well. Far from perfect. In fact, I’m not sure that Dragon 10 wouldn’t be better. That said, it’s built in, and feels much lighter weight (starts up instantly, shuts down instantly, doesn’t shift application windows around to put its toolbar up, etc.).

It took me a while to get it to work with my USB headset. Basically, you don’t tell the speech recognition program which device to use. In order to use it with the USB headset, you have to set the USB headset to be the default microphone on the system, and then the speech recognition program automatically picks it up.

You might be asking why I wanted to use the USB headset? The simple reason is that my headset has a microphone mute button on the cord. That’s very cool for speech recognition. If the phone rings, or Lois wants to talk, I can just hit the mute button, and speech recognition is off, even though the program is still listening. It simply can’t hear anything. As a bonus, in theory, the recognition should be better, but for now, I don’t care too much about that.

Here’s one annoyance. It was my intention to dictate this entire post, including all of the actual production of it (clicking the save button, publish, etc.). Unfortunately, I gave up after five minutes. I tend to write my posts in Firefox, right in the admin interface of WordPress. Even with Allow Dictation Everywhere set on in speech recognition, it doesn’t think that Firefox is a normal input program (though it recognizes that I’m in a text area).

So, every phrase gets put up in a dialog box for me to confirm. It got them all correct, but I couldn’t just speak the post. I could have dictated into Word, WordPad, NotePad, WindowsLiveWriter, etc., and in the future I might just do that, but for now, I’m typing this post…

Using speech recognition in Command Mode works reasonably well. I can switch applications easily, select menu items, switch folders in email (Thunderbird, which obviously isn’t written by Microsoft), etc. Yesterday, while eating lunch with both hands, I had an IM conversation with someone by speaking my responses and saying Enter after each one. The concept was very cool, even though I had to correct a bunch of words (I wasn’t using the USB headset at the time).

Anyway, I recommend playing around with speech recognition in Vista if you work in a room alone, or have a spouse (or co-worker) who would be amused by your ranting at the computing out loud. 😉

Welcome Back Courier-IMAP

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When Matt was maintaining this server, starting back in 2001, he installed Courier-IMAP for our mail service (both IMAP and POP). It worked extremely well for many years. At one point, IMAP folders started taking a long time to open. Once they were open, performance was excellent. I think this was due to not enough simultaneous open connections allowed from the same IP address.

I’ve been maintaining this machine for a while, but I didn’t bother to do anything with Courier-IMAP even though it had started annoying me. Over 18 months ago, I switched to a new server. I decided to build it from scratch, correcting some legacy problems along the way. One of them was the above-mentioned IMAP hangs (not always, but annoying nonetheless).

After some research, I chose Dovecot as the new POP and IMAP server. I was impressed with how easy it was to install and configure. While there were tons of options to choose from, all of them are controlled in one dovecot.conf file, with extremely clear descriptions of what each choice entails. Once installed, it worked perfectly, and I was very pleased with my decision.

This joy lasted for more than a year! Then, at some point (possibly after my server was physically moved from one data center to another), a few times a day (typically 1-3 times), Dovecot would think that the system clock had moved backwards in time (it never does, and no other program every complains about that). Dovecot sees this as a very bad event (understandably) and exits automatically.

After noticing this a few times, I installed a monitoring program called Monit. I am running a 5.0 beta version, but monit has been flawless in every respect, even in beta. Since I installed monit, every time that Dovecot would quit, monit would restart it within 30 seconds, and email me that it just restarted it. That’s how I know it’s a daily event, sometimes multiple times a day.

I’ve lived with this nonsense for way too long. Each time, I assumed that the next version of Dovecot would magically fix my problem, even though it started on a version that had worked perfectly for months before the problem started! As much as I like everything else about Dovecot, I finally gave up.

This weekend, I installed Courier-IMAP (a much newer version than the one we used to run). I made sure to allow more concurrent connections from the same IP address (both Lois and I always come across as coming from the same IP address). I had a few hassles with the configuration (even though there are way fewer things to choose than with Dovecot). After about an hour of messing around (probably all my own fault, over-thinking some of the choices), I got it working.

There was only one side-effect to the change. Under Dovecot, my IMAP folders were shown in the mail client as follows:

INBOX:

———>XXX

———>YYY

———>ZZZ

After switching to Courier-IMAP, the structure in the mail clients was:

INBOX:

———>INBOX:

——————–>XXX

——————–>YYY

——————–>ZZZ

We can all live with it, and no mail was lost. It’s a minor nuisance.

I tested on a separate port, and when POP and IMAP were working, I turned Dovecot off and restarted Courier-IMAP with the correct default ports.

I then wrote an email to all of my users (all four of them). 😉

However, when I went to send the email, the send failed with a SASL authentication error. Ugh. I have saslauthd on the system (it wasn’t running, because Dovecot was performing that service as well). I started it up, but even though I played around a bit, I couldn’t get Postfix to authenticate correctly through it.

After looking at the top of the dovecot.conf file, I saw that by changing one line (which protocols Dovecot should handle) to “none”, it would run in SASL authentication mode only. That worked. So, now I still run Dovecot for authentication (since I didn’t have to change anything), and Courier-IMAP for mail fetching.

So far, the system has been running for a little over 24 hours, with no exits on the part of Courier-IMAP or the Dovecot auth daemon. I also haven’t had any hangs on opening an IMAP folder. It’s still very early, but the Dovecot IMAP server would have died at least once by now (guaranteed), so it’s already a win.

Here’s hoping that this will be a permanent change…

Update: First, so far so good. No exits in 4+ days! More important, I just stubmbled across a post that gave me the answer to my nested mailbox problem above. Apparently, Dovecot repeats the .INBOX in front of each sub-folder in the Maildir folder. In other words, .INBOX.SPAM is the SPAM folder, directly under the main INBOX in Dovecot. Courier-IMAP expects it to just be .SPAM in the top-level Maildir folder, in order to be considered a direct sub-folder of the main .INBOX.

I moved the folder names, unsubscribed the old one and subscribed to the new ones, and my folder hierarchy is now sane again. Whew. 😉

Update: It turns out that the fault lies not with Dovecot, but with some bad code in the Linux Kernel for certain hardware configurations (obviously, mine included) that causes the system clock to jump a few times a day. There is a long thread about it on the Dovecot mailing list, which points to a very long thread on the Linux Kernel maintainers list. So, while the problem definitely affected me, it’s not Dovecot’s fault, which correctly notices the jump, and decides that it’s safer to exit than to guess. Perhaps a future kernel update (I just applied one today) will solve the problem. I don’t feel like hand-patching my kernel, or Dovecot…

Sister Hazel at Fillmore NYC

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We own two Sister Hazel CDs. In the pre-iPod days, Lois used to bring 20-30 CDs along whenever we took long drives. One or both of the Sister Hazel CDs made it into that pile nearly every time.

In the last few years, even though Sister Hazel is on our iPod, they didn’t get much play. A few months ago, Lois played them, and we fell in love all over again. That made me look to see whether they were touring, and indeed, they had a concert scheduled for NYC last night (December 13th).

It was at the new Fillmore at Irving Plaza, a venue we had never been to. Pretty close to our apartment. I wasn’t crazy about the 9pm start time (we’re old) but we were reasonably excited nonetheless.

We rarely purchase tickets for a show unless the seats are reasonably good, it’s first come first served (so we can line up early), or it’s Girlyman. 😉

The Fillmore is either owned, or exclusively run, by Live Nation. When I purchased the tickets, they were Row 9, Seats 31 and 32. Sounded reasonably good, so we were happy.

We drove from the house to the apartment and spent the day there. At 8pm, we headed to the Fillmore. When we walked in, we were completely disoriented. No seats at all. Everyone standing up (scrunched in near the stage), in a cavernous room with a big screen showing videos covering the stage. A bar in the back. A very young crowd, looking for a great show, but also a ton of drinking and dancing.

So not our scene I can’t even tell you. We asked a few people where the seats were (I honestly thought this might be a staging area, before the concert started. A few people pointed us up to the balcony. There were some small round tables with bar stools, but more people were standing up there.

We went downstairs to the main entrance and asked about the seats. We were told that it was a standing up show, general admission. When the manager came out, he showed us on the tickets that it said Section GA, which we were supposed to understand meant Section General Admission. Huh? GA, but with an assigned Row and Seat?

He said that the row and seat were purely for accounting purposes. Wow, how nice of them to account for where I might have been seated.

Lois asked for a refund, and he refused. After a bit of arguing back-and-forth, he said that he would do what he could, but that I would have to take care of it back on the website that we originally ordered the tickets from. He took down some information from me and said he would submit the info on his side to make the transaction smoother for me.

I’m very skeptical as to whether we’ll get our money back, but we were glad to leave anyway, even if we lose our money. There were two opening acts, so Sister Hazel wasn’t going to be on stage before 10pm, likely between 10:30 and 11pm! That meant that we could be standing until 1am or later.

It simply wasn’t going to happen. As a bonus, instead of spending the night in the apartment and returning to the house in the morning, we hopped a bus back to the apartment, grabbed our stuff, and were home by 10pm. At least the evening ended smoothly…

Vista Hotsync Success

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I’ve written numerous times about the fact that Palm doesn’t support (nor intend to support!) Vista x64. I have also noted that many people claim to have success with Bluetooth Sync (and Phone-as-Modem as well).

I recently reported getting Phone-as-Modem to work over BT, but have had zero success with Hotsync over BT.

Following the instructions in this forum post, I have finally successfully sync’ed the Treo 755p with Vista x64! The technique uses a Network Hotsync, using the Sprint Network. I couldn’t test it until today when I got home and could put the correct port forwarding comnands on my router.

It worked instantly. The first sync was extremely painful (in length) because the machine correctly noticed that it was a first sync, and that the Treo had previously been syncing with another machine. In total, it took 80 minutes and drained 1/4 of the Treo battery in the process. Still, it worked with no errors or timeouts!

The second sync picked up on other things that were left out of the initial sync, and it took about 20 minutes. The third sync became a more normal sync, and took roughly two minutes (not too bad at all!).

I don’t sync all that often, so I don’t really care about the speed. Even with the cable, I was syncing roughly once a month.

This will be workable for the forseeable future even if I never get BT sync to work. The only downside is that I won’t be able to sync when traveling, because I won’t be able to control the port forwarding to the laptop. I tried doing something clever with a reverse SSH tunnel, but I think there might be some UDP packets involved, and SSH is only forwarding the TCP packets.

Either way, I’m back to being a happy camper, even if Palm didn’t help.

Also, just for the record, I am running the Sprint version of the Palm software, installed off of the Treo 755p installation CD that came with the phone. That CD claims that you need to visit Palm for an updated Vista version (which also runs on my machine). But, as I have noted before, everything seems to run fine on Vista x64, now that SP1 is out, including the Palm software that isn’t supposed to work.

Now if they only wrote a USB driver, I’d be all set!

Semi Bluetooth Success

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For those who read this space regularly, you know that the one thing I’ve struggled with on my otherwise perfect new laptop is getting my Treo 755p working with Vista x64. The USB Cable option simply isn’t available, as Palm is too busy dying to support an up-and-coming version of the most popular operating system in history…

But, many people report success using Bluetooth to sync (and dial up I guess). I wasn’t able to get either working, even though I was able to pair the phone to my laptop (it has a built-in BT radio). I admit that I didn’t kill myself to get it going, but I tried many things.

Today, I decided to try again (given the hassles that I had on our trip this past weekend to Birmingham, where I connected through Lois’ old laptop using ICS). I found instructions on the Palm website for connecting Windows DUN via Bluetooth to a Treo 755p.

When I tried it, I got the same error that I did previously, “modem already in use”. This time, I had a clue (last time I didn’t). In messing around today, I deleted the original pairing, leaving myself without a device. Somehow, that hung Hotsync Manager. When I killed and restarted it, it said that it couldn’t connect to Serial Port COM41, but would connect automatically if it became available!

Aha, that was the clue I was missing, that somehow, Hotsync Manager was successfully grabbing the Serial Port, even though it wasn’t correctly syncing! After re-pairing (not repairing) 😉 I quit Hotsync Manager, and then did the normal DUN dance on the PC (with Sprint, you dial #777 with no username/password). I pay for full Phone-as-Modem (PAM) from Sprint, but on XP I use their Sprint Broadband Connection Manager application (which won’t even install on Vista x64!).

Voila, it dialed and authenticated right away. I had a semi-pokey connection, 341Kbps download and 105Kbps upload, but hey, that’s infinitely better than no connection at all!

At least now we don’t both need to share one connection. That’s not the big win though. At some point, Lois might actually want to switch to her new laptop (don’t hold your breath, I stopped holding mine!) 😉 and when that happens, we wouldn’t have had any Treo connectivity. Now each of us will be able to use our phones via BT if/when necessary. I continue to hope to never need such a connection, but at least I’m not as likely to cancel the insurance premium just yet, now that I know it works.

Sprint will continue to get a crazy premium from me for the moment, until an Android phone that I like becomes available. Now if I can only figure out how to sync via BT (others claim it works perfectly, but my phone hangs every time, instantly)… 🙁

Giving Thanks

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Lois and I are truly thankful every day of our lives. We’ve been blessed in so many ways, we couldn’t accurately count. Near the top of any list of blessings for us, you would find our wonderful godchildren. In 2008, we were extra-blessed, when Laura got married, and moved to NYC with her husband. They now live in the same building we do, so we get to see them more often than we ever used to!

Unfortunately, while Laura came north, David went south. He is doing his first year of medical residency at UAB (University of Alabama Birmingham). It was his first choice, and he loves it, but we miss him. We hadn’t seen him since Laura’s wedding on July 5th. For us, that’s an unusually long stretch not to see one of them.

We’ve now corrected that, and were rewarded (blessed) with a near-perfect long weekend!

On Tuesday afternoon, we drove from Zope to Durham and spent the night in a Hampton Inn there. The next morning we picked up a very good friend of David’s (and for a long time, ours too, once David introduced us) and we headed to Birmingham, AL. The drive was going along fine, including a successful detour off of I85 to avoid a horrible accident, until we hit Atlanta (mid-afternoon). We were stuck in traffic for nearly two hours, for what should have been a 15-20 minute drive-by. All things considered, not that bad.

We got to Birmingham at a reasonable hour nonetheless, and after checking out David’s apartment, headed for a wonderful meal at La Mesa Cantina and Grill. It’s a different type of Mexican Restaurant. The place is gorgeous (including the bathrooms). You can check out the photo gallery and the menu if you might ever find your way there. I had three soft tacos, two with fried oysters and one with grilled skirt steak. They were excellent, but the oysters were truly outstanding. Next time, I’d probably go for three of them!

David Wes Le Mesa

David and Wes at Le Mesa

After some coffee and catching up at David’s, Lois and I headed to the local Embassy Suites to check in, leaving Wes and David to catch up (and play NCAA Football on the PS3).

Epic Battle

Epic NCAA Battle

I have chronicled my WiFi woes at the hotel in two separate posts, here and here. Without that experience, I would have described this weekend as perfect as opposed to near-perfect. 😉

On Thanksgiving day we headed to David’s mid-morning and relaxed there for a while. We then headed out for lunch and a movie. Amazingly, there were no places open for lunch near the movie theater, which was at a giant outdoor mall called The Summit. We even drove around a bit in the surrounding neighborhood, and every single place (other than McDonalds) was closed.

We decided to be pragmatic and we bought prepared food at Brunos (a supermarket near the theater) and ate it at a table that they provide expressly for this purpose). No one would confuse our lunch for a gourmet meal, but we all enjoyed it nonetheless, and it ended up being very convenient.

Brunos Lunch

Brunos Lunch

We headed over to the movie early, which gave us enough time to split a large buttered popcorn (which was indeed gourmet!) 😉 between the three guys.

Popcorn

Popcorn

We saw Four Christmases. Most of it was laugh-out-loud funny, with a few way-too-stupid scenes thrown in to ensure that it wasn’t a great movie… Seriously though, if you like comedies, there are definitely a ton of laughs. Both Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon do a great job, and the majority of the supporting cast is excellent as well. Wes and I were repeating lines from the movie for days, so it definitely hit the funny bone.

In addition to the humor, there are a few reasonably deep family/life insights, most of which are delivered cleverly or at least in an interesting way, so there is even a bit of redeeming value to the movie. 🙂

We returned to David’s and relaxed the rest of the afternoon, and mentally prepared for the big Thanksgiving meal. Finally the time arrived, and we headed back to our hotel for the event. In the lobby of the Embassy Suites is a Ruth’s Chris. We’ve all had many great meals at various Ruth’s Chris restaurants over the years, so we had no doubt that this one wouldn’t disappoint. We were right.

We could have ordered a traditional TG Turkey dinner, but the boys all went for steak. No surprise, as we had been talking about it for a few days beforehand. We also shared an exceptional bottle of Ridge Zinfandel (2006). Don’t get me started about how great most bottles of any Ridge wine are. It’s one of my all-time favorite wine makers.

Ruth's Chris Thanksgiving

Ruth's Chris Thanksgiving Dinner

We skipped dessert there and headed back to David’s, where we had coffee and some cheesecake that we bought earlier at Bruno’s. It was fantastic.

The next morning (Friday), David left early for an overnight on call shift. That’s 30+ consecutive hours in the hospital, usually with little-to-no sleep. We don’t understand the point, but it’s a regular part of his life/schedule, so it’s just a fact of life at this point.

We decided to take the opportunity to create an adventure for the rest of us, which I’ve documented separately. The only thing wrong with Friday was that David didn’t get to enjoy it with us, and that we didn’t get to enjoy David’s company. Otherwise, a perfect day!

On Saturday, we headed to David’s mid-morning to hang with Wes. After a few hours, David called to say that he was headed home. Lois and I went out to bring lunch back in. The plan was Chick-Fil-A (which I’ve never had the pleasure of), but rather than go to the one Wes directed me to, I allowed the GPS to pick a closer one, which ended up being closed. We brought back Quiznos instead, which served the purpose just fine.

You can tell just how wiped David gets after being on call. He needed a slightly larger shot of caffeine than Wes did. 😉

Extra Caffeine

Extra Caffeine

Right after lunch, David napped while Wes and I watched college football and caught up with emails. I created a mini-panic when I tried to fix what felt like a flaky WiFi router in David’s apartment. We had no Internet connectivity for nearly an hour. Eventually, I got it all working again, and it seemed less flaky, but there were moments when I was wishing to have flaky back. 🙁

When David woke up, we watched more football. We didn’t want to go to dinner until the Iron Bowl (Alabama vs Auburn – Roll Tide!) was over, because we were headed to Dreamland BBQ, which we assumed would be a mob scene during the game. We had an excellent meal there (with yet another round of extraordinary service!). Also, since the menu is limited (but exactly what we were interested in), they are constantly cooking all of the available items, so it’s as lightning as fast food, but clearly as good as cooked to order.

On Sunday, we headed to David’s mid-morning again (broken record). We watched the first half of an amateur movie on DVD called The Pinecone Priority. The movie is pretty poorly executed, but it has some extremely clever lines and concepts in it. Wes is one of the stars, so we were happy to watch it, even though it was over-the-top campy… If you watch the teaser/trailer (linked above), you won’t get a sense of how the movie itself is poorly executed, but you’ll see another form of poor execution. Most of the trailer is black. At exactly the 1:24 mark, you can barely see one scene. Wes is the guy on the left in that scene.

Here’s a better picture of Wes, taken by Lois, while Wes was on the TV. This time, he’s on the right. 😉

Pinecone Priority

The Pinecone Priority

We headed for PF Changs for lunch (back at The Summit). All of us count it among our favorite restaurants. The meal was exquisite, including our first taste of the Kung Pao Scallops. David and I split an order of Moo Shoo Pork, which simply couldn’t have been any better. We then did a little shopping, including picking up a Blue Ray DVD of Tropic Thunder to watch later on.

We relaxed back at David’s the rest of the afternoon and finished up watching The Pinecone Priority, and then David, Wes and Lois headed to an evening church service. I stayed at the apartment and played (and lost) in my weekly big poker tournamet (I already reported about the crushing loss I took in November…). They brought back pizza for dinner. I called the order in to Dave’s Pizza while they were still in church. The timing worked out perfectly.

We then watched Tropic Thunder. This movie is way over the top, and was definitely not a hit with the entire crowd. That said, it had some pretty funny scenes and lines in it, and the concept was quite clever, if overdone in the delivery. It seems that no one associated with this movie ever heard of the word subtlety. Given that I am a sucker for most forms of comedy (even reasonably bad ones), I likely enjoyed it more than the rest of them, but honestly, even I don’t recommend this one to anyone. 😉

After coffee and one last slice of the heavenly cheesecake, Lois and I headed back for one last night at the Embassy Suites. In the morning, we headed over for one last hug from David, and headed on the long trek back to Fredericksburg (and Zope). We dropped Wes at Durham, after stopping in the Hampton Inn where we stayed a week ago. I had accidentaly left my Treo charger in the room, and they were kind enough to hold it for me. We had to drive back through Durham anyway, so it wasn’t as inconvenient as it could have been.

We made it back to the hotel at 8:30pm, which was almost exactly 12 hours after we left Birmingham. We had essentially zero traffic the entire way, which was extraordinary, and another thing we give thanks for on this weekend.

We couldn’t be more thankful for this wonderful visit, regardless of whether it was Thanksgiving proper or not. We’re already counting the days until we find our way back to Birmingham (and Atlanta). 🙂

And, just because Lois loves this one… 😉

Ernie Tea Cup

Ernie's Tea Cup

November 2008 Poker

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Ugh. That says it all. I played very little this month. I was really busy so it wasn’t a lack of desire. Unfortunately, I got to play in four of the five Sunday tournaments, and lost all four. That alone accounts for 98.56% of my loss this month. It’s a big number, and put a big dent in the account.

Total for the month is a loss of $872.58! Ouch!

Still have enough money to play all of the tourneys that I want, but I’m at a point where I can imagine running out of money in the account, and I’ve already decided that might not be a bad thing. I will most definitely not put money back in, at least not for a long while.

Given that I haven’t put any new money into the account since 2005, I have no complaints. I have enjoyed a long run (that isn’t over yet), full of enjoyment, without having to reach into my pocket in a long time.

Until next month. 🙂