Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Voyage Ends - Completed the Master & Commander Series

About six years ago I discovered Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. It was when the movie based on the books came out. From the previews, the movie looked like one I'd enjoy...action, adventure, thrilling naval battles; and I was curious to read the book before seeing the movie.

That book was like no other I'd read before. It engaged and challenged me as a reader, immersing me into the time period and action of the story. Many historical fiction authors write their characers' dialogues in modern language, but not O'Brian. His characters speak like they would have at the dawn of the 19th century. Add on the unfamiliar vernacular of a ship's crew and the occasional Latin or French phrases and there's a learning curve.

It wasn't easy at first but the more I read, the more I enjoyed O'Brian's writing style and mastery of story telling. I yearned to discover what would happen next. I was hooked and became an avid reader of the series. I even started catching myself wanting to use language from the books in regular conversations some times.

So why did it take me 6 years to finish? Life happens. I typically read 2-3 in a row then took a break. These aren't books to be read in 10 minute bites, so I'd wait to start the next one until I knew I could devote time to reading. And along the way I read other books, including O'Brian's biography.

Sadly, O'Brian passed away while writing book #21. His unfinished manuscript of nearly 3 chapters was published posthumously. I don't know if O'Brian intended it to be the final book of the series, but those three chapters make it seem so. Events are going well for Aubrey and Maturin (professionally and personally) and it's easy for a fan of the series to picture them living out their lives happy in their pursuits. O'Brian would've kept them busy, of course, and thrown a few twists in their paths. It was a premature but fitting end to the series.

I got a little melancholy while reading the last couple books, knowing that the end was approaching. Now that I'm done, I miss the characters and their thrilling adventures. At some point I'll go back and re-read select books, maybe the whole series. I've already listened to the audio book version of Master and Commander. That was fun because I got to hear how many words I'd been pronouncing wrong in my head. For now, I'm going to read one of O'Brian's pre-Aubrey/Maturin naval adventures, The Golden Ocean.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Survivor Samoa - The Best Survivor Ever

And it's all because of Russell H. Without him, this season would've been mediocre at best. But with him...we've watched smart, brazen game play and suspenseful blind sides nearly every week.

He's played the game harder and better than anyone before him. He eliminated threats quickly, formed good relationships, found 3 immunity idols (2 without clues!! no one's done that before), masterminded multiple tribal council blindsides and led Foa Foa to the near total obliteration of the former Galu tribe. It helps that most of his competition was overly confident and played like they never saw the show before applying.

Galu had an 8-4 advantage at the merge and now they're down 1-4. They're so inept and bad at this game that they couldn't get rid of a single Foa Foa! Watching the tide turn so dramatically was fun. If Russell S. hadn't left due to health issues, Galu might've had a fighting chance.

I don't know what'll happen in Sunday's finale, but it should be good. No one can win against Russell in the final two, he's earned every vote. If Jaison and Mick want any chance at winning, they better work with Brett to vote Russ off at the first tribal council.

What do you think? Leave a comment below or go cast your vote for your favorite Survivor season.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Wendy's Drive Thru Update

Wendy's lost my business last year when they were misleading about the size choices at the drive thru. Today I gave Wendy's a second chance and am glad to say they passed!

This time the cashier asked if I wanted "small, medium or large" and he asked another customer the same when I pulled up to pay. The spicy chicken sandwich is pretty good, too.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

First Snow of the Season!

Buy at Art.comWoke up today and last night's drizzle had turned to snow! Big wet flakes, the kind that really cling to the trees, and lots of 'em...close to 6 inches by dark.

Fortunately I didn't have to go anywhere and could enjoy it. Watching it snow out the back window while rowing before breakfast made the workout go quicker. Later on came sledding and lots of shoveling.

An early snow fall's the perfect way to start getting in the Christmas spirit. Makes it feel like winter and we should be out singing Christmas carols and what not.

Now if only the local TV station would take down their annoying "winter weather advisory" logo...seriously, anyone can look outside and see the wintry weather. It's not breaking news.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Guy Gets Paid For Getting Dressed In The Morning!

Saw this article about Jason Sadler who basically gets paid to wear a t-shirt every day. He founded I Wear Your Shirt and hires himself out to wear a different company's t-shirt each day, take some pics and post online about it.

He made over $80,000 this year! That's good money for maybe a few hours' effort each day. And he already has more than half of next year's days sold out.

This is a brilliant idea, and I wish I'd thought of it. Not sure how scalable it'll be...he's doubled his fee and added a 2nd t-shirt wearer on the West coast. But it's a sweet side business and must give him tons of freedom to pursue other things.

What I like best about this is it exemplifies one of many things that make America great. Anyone with a good idea and the initiative to make it real can be successful...even in challenging economic times. Congrats, Jason, well done!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Shaolin Warriors Invade Maryland

Yesterday we saw the Shaolin Warriors perform at the Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown. They're a group of Shaolin disciples from China demonstrating their mastery of kung fu.

Most of the show was choreographed fight sequences with performances of individual stunts and skills mixed in. The discipline and athleticism of these guys is amazing. They did all kinds of jumps with crazy flips yet made it look effortless, appearing to move in slow motion through the air. It was impressive and fun to watch.

It's a family friendly show. We took our little one and there was a part of the show where they brought about 25 kids from the audience on stage to teach them a form.

I couldn't find a full schedule of their tour locations so check your paper or StubHub for a Shaolin Warriors show near you. If you'd like to learn about life as a Shaolin disciple, read the book American Shaolin by Matthew Polly. It's a fun read about an American who travels to the Shaolin Temple and trains to become a Shaolin monk.

Here's the show's promotional video from the theater:

This was also our first visit to the Maryland Theatre. It's a beautiful old theater built in 1915. Very intimate and nostalgic with ornate decorations, balcony box seats and vaudeville era organs. You don't find that kind of character in today's mega-plex theaters. We'll look for more shows to see there.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My Fantasy Football Draft Day Nightmare

Serving as a league commissioner is usually an easy job...not this year. I'm the commish for a fantasy football league that me and two friends started years ago. We rotate the commish job each season and this year it's my turn again. There's usually 8-10 returning players with some new additions each year. We always do an online draft since everyone's all over the country.

Being a responsible fantasy league commissioner, I set up the league in Yahoo back in mid July, scheduled a good draft date/time near the end of pre-season and sent out the invites. About a week from the draft we had 8 teams registered. I started sending emails and making calls to get us up to 12 teams. Two days before the draft we had 11 and one of the other league founders had #12 lined up.

On draft night I logged in 45 minutes early and #12 still hadn't signed up. Tried calling the guy who recruited him but couldn't reach him. Meanwhile I'm planning to boot #11 if we're not at twelve teams right before draft time. Last thing we want is an odd number of teams and have to deal with bye weeks...that's no fun for anyone.

Then the real trouble starts. Refreshed my browser 29 minutes to draft and see a message from Yahoo that the league was switched to an "Auto Pick" draft format (where the computer picks players for all teams) because we didn't have an even number of teams. Crap!

I quickly kicked out team #11 to get us down to even teams. #11 is a long time league member, and I hated doing that, but he dragged his feet and signed up last. I thought that if the league had an even number of teams and I set the draft type back to Online, we'd get our original draft time back. Sounds reasonable and it's how I would've designed the system.

But that's not how Yahoo works. It let me switch to Online draft mode but forced me to pick a new draft date and time! And it wouldn't let me pick any draft times that night! Are you kidding me?!

All this time I'm trying to keep folks updated via the league message board, get one of the other league founders on the phone and fire off a quick email to Yahoo support. And I called #11 to explain why he was booted.

One guy suggested creating a league in another system and trying to draft there. The members who replied on the message board all wanted to do the draft that night so I told him to go ahead. He set up a league in ESPN and got us a draft time two hours later. We had everyone who was online sign up for an ESPN account and create a team.

There was some discussion about still trying to get 12 teams. Unfortunately, the format that the dummy draft league was created under only allows 10 teams using ESPN standard scoring. The scoring wasn't an issue because I would load the draft picks back into Yahoo but we couldn't change league size. I decided to stick with 10 teams. Getting a hold of everyone again to join yet another league and try to get #11 back plus a 12th team in time to meet ESPN's league size cutoff (1 hour before draft) was too much chaos.

One league member wasn't available online so I registered a team for him and sent him the login info. Since he wasn't online for the original draft time and Yahoo would've picked his team, it would be ok for the ESPN system to auto draft his team. I forgot to consider that he might have pre-ranked his players in Yahoo.

That guy ended up getting on in time for the draft but couldn't get ESPN's draft tool to work on his computer so he got an auto pick team. Another team couldn't get the draft tool to work either but he had someone else log in for him and told them who to pick over the phone.

It was a mess but we got through it and the league had a successful draft. I'm very thankful that the league members were flexible and patient enough to roll with the changes.

Turns out the guy whose team had been auto picked by ESPN knew he wasn't going to make the Yahoo draft and spent a lot of time pre-ranking players. He wasn't happy and has a legitimate gripe. Unfortunately there wasn't much else we could've done without rescheduling the draft to another night which didn't work for most people.

Afterward I manually loaded all of the draft picks into our original Yahoo league. That was a lot of fun.

So what did I learn from this draft fiasco?
1. Make sure all league members register in advance. This was my responsibility as commish and I dropped the ball. Mainly because I don't like hounding people. Give your league a deadline to register well ahead of the draft and hold to it.
2. Know your system's rules on league size and draft type. We always have an even number of teams so I didn't pay attention to these when creating the league. Yahoo supported odd number leagues in the past via bye weeks and I assumed it wouldn't complain if we had an odd number right before draft time. Well, they changed that rule this season and I got caught by surprise because I didn't do my homework.
3. Have alternate contact info for league members. Having a list of phone numbers or IM IDs for everyone might've helped me get folks re-organized quicker. If we had a league IM chat going, it definitely would've helped.
4. The commish has to make decisions quickly. There wasn't a clear solution. Rescheduling to another night this close to the season opener wasn't feasible. After a reasonable amount of input from the league it's up to the commish to make the call.
5. Don't count on Yahoo's fantasy sports support! The only support is an email link which I didn't expect much from. I got an auto reply email saying that I'd get a reply in 24 hours. No response until 54 hours later and they couldn't do anything for me. ESPN on the other hand has a toll free number which one guy called and got a live person and an answer right away.

It was a lousy situation but I'm good with the decisions made that night. We got the draft done and the season can begin. Here's hoping for a trouble free fantasy season!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sneaky Tricks Some Gas Stations Use to Rip You Off

Imagine you're on vacation or a business trip. You're running late getting to the airport for the flight out and still need to fill up before returning the rental car. No worries though because you saw a gas station across the street from the rental lot when you got into town.

You pull into the station, swipe your credit card and start pumping. While the fuel is flowing you look around and realize there's no big sign with the gas prices. Hmmm...that's odd. Then you look at the price on the pump and realize you're paying two dollars a gallon more than the local average price! You're getting ripped off!

Yeah, this happened to me recently while vacationing in Orlando...almost. I did swipe my card but noticed the price as I was reaching for the nozzle. It was $3.99/gallon. The local going rate was $2.06/gallon at the time!

The culprit was the convenience store gas station on SR 436 (Semoran Blvd) north of Orlando International Airport directly across from the Thrifty and Hertz lots. No sign anywhere with prices except the little display on the pump...which is difficult to read due to sun glare. No doubt they're hoping that rental car drivers will stop and fill up in a hurry before they realize their wallet's getting cleaned out.

I expect stations to charge a little more in locations like that because they're selling "convenience". But nearly double the going rate?! That's ridiculous. They must make a ton off of tourists and business travelers...I can't imagine many locals buy gas there.

Fortunately I saw the price before I started pumping and in time to alert the guy at the next pump. We both canceled our credit card transactions and drove a mile up the road to a 7-11 charging $2.11/gallon.

Lesson learned...always check the price on the pump before filling up...especially at a station you haven't used before.

P.S.: Make sure you select the fuel grade you want. I stopped at a station in rural Maryland once that had the grade buttons in the order Premium, Regular, Plus...not Premium, Plus, Regular like every other gas station. If you expected Regular to be on the end and hit that button, you're now buying Plus instead.

They also had the octane stickers down near the bottom of the pump instead of near the buttons so you don't have that extra visual cue that something's different. That tells me they're intentionally trying to trick customers into selecting a higher priced fuel grade.

Saturday, July 18, 2009 Reopens For Peer to Peer Lending announced last week that they finally got through their SEC registration and are back open for business. If you're not familiar with Prosper, it's one of the first online person to person lending sites...basically an eBay for unsecured personal loans up to $25,000. I've been a lender there since 2006 with mixed results and haven't bid in a while.

About 9 months ago the SEC shut Prosper down for selling unregistered investments. For some reason, Prosper thought the SEC rules didn't apply to them. They were wrong. Hopefully they used the 9 months down time wisely to improve their fraud detection and collection processes...things lenders have complained about.

The sad part is that Prosper had to shut down during the height of the credit crunch when lots of credit worthy small businesses and other folks were having difficulty finding lenders. It was a perfect opportunity for peer to peer lending to shine and Prosper missed it.

Prosper still has several legal hurdles to clear. Residents of many states aren't eligible yet to lend on the site which makes it more difficult to fund loans. I'm in one of those states but I won't bid until the delinquency numbers improve.

For anyone with decent credit history needing a loan, Prosper is worth a look. Here are some tips to get your loan funded on Just make sure to pay it back on time.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

More Reasons Why Chrysler Is In Bankruptcy

Yesterday I received a letter from Bob Nardelli, the CEO of Chrysler. It's a form letter sent out to Chrysler customers (we have 2 Chrysler vehicles) with info about the bankruptcy and assurances that they're still making great vehicles, will honor all warranties, blah, blah, blah.

At the end is an "Owner Loyalty Certificate" offering $1000 toward the purchase of a new Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep vehicle. Sounds like a good idea to retain customers and maybe generate some sales. Then I looked at the fine print and a couple things hit me...

The offer is only valid from May 5 to June 30. The letter was delivered to me on June 6, halfway into the program. The fine print says the offer's "not valid on a prior purchase or lease". So if I had purchased a new Dodge last week and then got this certificate for $1000 yesterday that I couldn't use, I'd be one ticked off customer and brand loyalty would be the last thing on my mind. Note to Chrysler...when running an offer like this, send it out in time for people to use it.

Only good for purchase of a new 2008 or 2009 vehicle with some models excluded. There are a lot of models on the excluded list which I understand. Manufacturers don't want to discount their best selling models. But it's now model year 2010...if you still have a 2008 Crossfire or Magnum on the lot, you want to sell it now. A $1000 loyalty offer is one way to do that. So why are there any exclusions on purchasing a 2008 model?

I'm disappointed to see Chrysler go into bankruptcy. We're overall pretty happy with the quality, styling and what not of our Chrysler vehicles. And I hope that they continue to make great cars and trucks. But they need to get smarter about how they run their business.

Unfortunately, the writing was on the wall when we bought my wife's car in 2005. It was a new purchase and Chrysler offered us an extra $500 rebate if we would finance through them at 0% interest for 4 years. In other words, these financial geniuses paid me $500 to use over $20k of their money for free for 4 years! Is it any wonder they're in bankruptcy now?

But I guess the joke's on me as an American taxpayer since we're squandering billions to bail these guys and GM out of a mess they created. Meanwhile Ford could get the royal shaft because they used smart management to avoid taking bailout money.