July 29, 2005

Berkeley Notes

Well, well, well. I guess that the past two weeks turned out to be my summer blogging hiatus. I rejoin the blogging world with some notes on our trip to Berkeley a couple of weekends ago (Jul 15th-19th):

— Berkeley is, of course, the site of my alma mater, America's finest university. So I got to wallow around in golden memories of bygone student days and stuff like that.

— But my nostalgia wasn't our primary reason for being there; we were attending the wedding of our friends Anita and Derek. Anita is a college friend of mine; she was an attendant (groomswoman?) on my side at our wedding. Anita and Derek's story is handmade for the hardcore romantic; after sharing a class together during their first year at Berkeley, they parted ways, occupied by other things and other people for ten years until a chance meeting in the street. Whirlwind romance and a quick engagement followed soon after, and a year and a half after that, they're married! When we first heard about Derek, I have to admit that we were a little skeptical, but now we heartily approve. Besides being a sweet guy who shares Anita's values, he's fearsomely smart; now that he's earned his Ph.D. in Physics from Cal, his next stop will be a tenure-track professorship at Cal State Hayward. The wedding itself was wonderful; the bride was radiant, the groom was handsome, and the reception was held in the swank, nationally-landmarked Berkeley City Club, with music provided by Dangerous Martini, a live jazz band.

— The wedding invitation said "Black Tie Preferred" (or perhaps "Requested" — either way, bride-speak for "I really, really, really want a black-tie wedding, but I don't want to turn people away by making it black tie mandatory"; I know this because we went through the same thing with our own invitations); naturally, I was the only man outside of the wedding party who showed up in a tux.

— Berkeley is an American nexus for X-Treme liberalism; even though nobody's ever admitted it to me, I'm convinced that when you move to Berkeley and first register your Volvo or Subaru for a resident's parking permit, you get an envelope full of bumper stickers and an instruction sheet that tells you that you must apply at least five of the following:

  • Free Tibet
  • Free Leonard Peltier
  • War Is Harmful To Children And Other Living Things
  • It Will Be a Great Day When Our Schools Get All the Money They Need and the Air Force Has to Hold a Bake Sale to Buy a Bomber
  • I'm Straight, But Not Narrow
  • The Earth Does Not Belong to Us, We Belong to the Earth - Chief Seattle
  • KPFA 94.1 (KPFA is the local Pacifica Radio affiliate)
  • U.S. Out Of My Uterus
  • You Can't Hug A Child With Nuclear Arms
  • George Bush-related: "Chimpeach", "A Village In Texas Is Missing Its Idiot", or the more direct "Fuck Bush!"

(If anyone thinks that I'm making any of these up, feel free to visit this page, which has most of these slogans for sale, along with many, many, many others.)

— In light of that, we had some curious reactions when we told people about our new hometown. Since Orange County is Berkeley's polar opposite, politics-wise, some people reacted to the news like vampires suddenly confronted with a cross or bright sunlight: "How can you stand living there?" I imagine that they imagine that we must have to shovel our way through a waist-high stack of freshly-placed anti-gay pamphlets just to get out of our front door in the mornings, or that we need to cower inside the house every night thanks to gunplay between rival second amendment-supporting conservative Christian groups.

At home in SoCal, when we've admitted that we live a few miles away from Disneyland, and that, yes, we do both have annual passes, we often get a chilly reception — a lecture on the evils of globalization and Disney's culturally-homogenizing ways, or the woman who just hissed, in the most disdainful voice possible, "Oh, I just hate Disney." (Gee, thanks for stopping the conversation cold! Care to tell us about some of your hobbies, so that we can mock them?) Given Berkeleyans' reaction to Orange County, I figured that bringing Disneyland into the conversation would only open us up for more of the same (or worse), but at the D-word, these peoples' attitudes completely changed. "Wow, that must be so much fun!" "Do you go there every day? Because if I had a pass, I don't think I could stop myself from going every day!" And then we talked about each others' favorite rides, or about the new fireworks show.

That guy you see on the freeway driving the car with the "I'd Rather Be Smashing Capitalism" bumper sticker may be harboring some dark, shameful secrets that he doesn't want his neighbors to know about ...

— It's a little shameful to me how, eight years after leaving Berkeley, I can still make any number of restaurant suggestions perfectly suited to budget and occasion, but after almost a year in Anaheim, we have yet to branch out beyond the handful of places that we've discovered and liked.

— Berkeley is just a better place to shop for stuff than Orange County. Instead of going to your Borders Books or Barnes and Noble, where the tables by the front door are piled with the latest from Dr. Phil and that woman who wrote the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, you can go to Cody's or Moes, where the front tables are well stocked with critically acclaimed, intellectually focused fiction and nonfiction. Instead of the Wherehouse or the Virgin Megastore or wherever kids these days get music when they're not stealing it from the Internet, there are the vast used bins of Amoeba and Rasputin's. You can get reproduction-new stuff for your house at Omega Too, or salvage-old stuff down the street at Omega Salvage.

Of course, if you want to go to Target, or want to shop at a supermarket that sells products in anything other than the smallest, most expensive size, you'd better go to the next town over, because those establishments are too bourgeois to exist in Berkeley. Sorry!

— But it doesn't really matter, since my plan to convince Shelby to sell the house in Anaheim and move to Berkeley took a turn for the worse on our last night there. After a pretty good day, we were driving back to our hotel room from a restaurant. First, we passed a candlelight vigil/memorial for a 19-year-old girl who'd been shot dead in the street the night before. Then, on a whim, I proposed we stop at the Ben & Jerry's on the edge of campus for ice cream — and as we sat eating our ice cream, the jittery looking man who'd been in line ahead of us but abruptly left the store came back inside to rob the cash register. Fortunately for us, he seemed both very inexperienced and very nervous; no guns were shown, and he ran out of the store after he emptied the till, rather than coming over to make any demands from us.

A bad end to a good trip . . .

Us with the happy couple.Shelby and part of the crowd waiting at the Fourth Street Cody's Books for the midnight release of the latest Harry Potter. It's not what we'd planned on doing, but we found ourselves at loose ends — we were going to watch a movie, but then the power went out — so why not?

Posted by Kevin at 03:27 PM

July 14, 2005

It's a Scorcher (For Our Neighborhood, At Least)

Yesterday was our first really hot day here in quite a while — too hot to do much more than find the coolest room in the house and flop out underneath the ceiling fan. We'll see what it'll be like today — it's overcast outside, but the thermostat in the hallway says it's already 78° at 9:30 in the morning.

(And hooray for the insulation and ceiling fans in our new/old house! In some of the crackerbox California homes we've lived in, a day like yesterday would've sent us scrambling to turn on the ineffectual air conditioning, or left us throwing up our hands in sweaty frustration, but here we haven't touched the A/C since we've moved in.)

Posted by Kevin at 09:45 AM

July 06, 2005


So London triumphs over all and snags the 2012 Olympics — hurrah for the English-speaking countries, I guess.

If only the US Olympic Committee had chosen San Francisco over NYC, like they should have, and the Germans had chosen Hamburg over Leipzig (Leipzig??!?), like they should have — now that could have been a host-city contest to capture my heart.

At least the Hamburgers are trying again for 2016, last I heard. And one of the post-pick articles I read opined as to how Los Angeles now had a decent shot at 2016 — hopefully LA is trying for the 2016 Games, and that wasn't just an episode of wishful thinking from a member of the SoCal media elite. (If London can three-peat the Olympics, why can't we?)

Posted by Kevin at 12:03 PM

July 05, 2005

Our Local Hospital Can Shove It

Back in Hamburg, Shelby had to go to the emergency room one night, victim of mysterious abdominal pains. She rode there in an ambulance. Once there, she got a CT scan. She was examined by the ER doc on duty. She got IV fluids and various drugs. A few hours later, they sent us home with a prescription.

I sweated out the next few weeks until the bill came; we'd just recieved emergency health care from a medical system whose inner workings were totally opaque and alien to us. Our (still-American-based) health insurance required us to pay any bills up front; they'd then get around to reimbursing us at their leisure.

Our total bill for the whole experience? 67 Euro (or, at the time, about $85 in American money). Why had I worried? I didn't even bother forwarding the bill to the insurance company.

Back to the present: an insurance-related item in today's mail led me to wonder if any claims for Shelby's recent hospital adventure had been filed with the insurance company yet. As it turns out, there were a few:

This goes on for about ten more lines.
$3,182 for "Incidentals"?
That's right — three claims have come in so far, and they're asking for a total of $23,464.48 for the first night of Shelby's hospital stay. Remember, I didn't call 911 until around 7:30 PM on the night of the 20th, so these charges are for about four hours of hospital time.

But those four hours were jam-packed with dedicated physicians performing life-saving feats of derring-do, right? Maybe an emergency open-heart surgery or two? Nope. I think that Shelby got an EKG, an X-ray, and some pain medicine, but most of that first night was spent waiting for on-call doctors to finally call back.

While Shelby was in the hospital, we felt like the internist who was coordinating her care was padding things out, adding not-strictly-necessary tests because we had good insurance. One of the people who came in to do one of those tests even said as much! If this is what they do to everybody who has "good insurance", how much longer will it be before nobody has "good insurance"?

The beloved employer made a big push during the last open-enrollment period to get us to move into a "Health Fund" instead of a traditional insurance plan -- one of those "market-based" systems where us "consumers" are supposed to become more aware of what our health care really costs. Our conventional plan costs more and more each year; the health-fund documents make the new plan sound like carnival rides, puppies, and ice cream on a hot summer's day, and I'd been considering switching the next time around — but an experience like this makes me think twice. Thrice, even.

Note that the claims are still "in progress", so they have yet to go through that hospital-versus-insurance company magic whereupon the hospital agrees that a $10.50 payment is a pretty good reimbursement for a $950 charge. And we're pretty close to our insurance plan's out-of-pocket ceilings for the year, so we're not looking at paying too much on our own. But still, this is just insane, people.

Forget good insurance — what about those people who have no insurance? How much longer and how many more medical bills like this have to arrive nationwide before the country decides to ignore the GOP and Heritage Foundation shills telling us why "Hillarycare" is bad for us, and rises up in bloody socialist revolution?

Posted by Kevin at 05:37 PM

July 04, 2005

Happy 4th of July!

Happy Fourth of July! ( . . . for all of my American readers.) We'll be going to a barbecue at Shelby's cousins' house this afternoon. I just finished making fudge -- our contribution, along with a bottle of wine -- just a little while ago. (Digory was eager to try and disprove the eating-a-whole-pan-of-chocolate-gives-dogs-heart-attacks thesis, but as usual, he was tragically rebuffed.)

Then tonight, we get to come home and find out just how much our neighborhood loves illegal fireworks! (Not only are there neighboring cities that still sell 'safe-and-sane' fireworks, we've been hearing some distinctly un safe-and-sane BOOMs and BANGs around the neighborhood over the past couple of days. Fortunately, both dogs are left unruffled by big loud noises.)

Posted by Kevin at 10:11 AM | Comments (1)

July 03, 2005

Back To The 90s Again

I graduated from Berkeley and went to work in the software industry in 1997 — looking back, the sweet spot of the go-go-1990s. Venture capitalists and starstruck investors were shovelling buckets of cash into dubious Internet-related enterprises; even at long-established companies like my employer, the perks were free-flowing, since they had to keep up with the siren song of the startups burning through all of that VC cash.

The first few years of my employment were a never-ending stream of company-logoed tchotchkes: I got to choose between a shoulder bag or a sweater just for showing up to work on a Saturday. We got corporate-emblazoned light-up yoyos to celebrate the company's fifteenth anniversary (this gift was a divider, not a uniter: those employees old enough to be alive when yoyos were cool were walkin' the dog and looping cat's cradles behind their back, while us twentysomethings were just trying not to hit each other in the head). There were picture frames. Garment bags. Gym bags. Messenger bags. Beer mugs. Shotglasses. Combination desk clock/calculators. Sunglasses. Waterbottles. A model BMX bike on a keychain (from a brief and ill-advised foray into making ourselves "rad" with a younger demographic by sponsoring the "X Games" . . . do they still exist?) Not only did we have stuff from our company, we also had a boatload of swag from other companies as well: Stress balls. Slinkies. Balsa-wood airplanes. Fanny packs. Lots and lots and lots of pens.

And then the Internet bubble popped, and the never-ending stream of swag dried up. We still got stuff from time to time, but now it was usually something useful and understated: a jacket or a T-shirt here and there.

Until . . . now! As some of you may know, my company recently shipped a major suite of products, and the thousand or so of us who were involved in those products' creation received as our official corporate thank-you gift . . . the MusiCooler™!

It's not just a personal cooler that can hold nine cans of your favorite beverage, or perhaps just a few cans of that beverage and a delicious lunch -- it's also a comprehensive personal entertainment solution! Relax and enjoy your food as you listen to your favorite AM-FM radio broadcasts through the MusiCooler™'s built-in radio and speaker! Make the fun last even longer by attaching your CD or MP3 player to the MusiCooler™ through its attached auxiliary cable!

It's been years since I've been given something this frivolous. I'm taking it as an irrefutable sign that the software business must be picking up again.

Had the MusiCooler™ been our only thank-you gift, I'd just go away bemused. But to further bolster my hypothesis, our group thank-you gift came earlier this week -- a 60GB iPod Photo with dock! Eek! Woohoo!

Brief iPod review: This thing is awesome! I'm not completely sure it's something that I'd spend my own money on (even though Apple shuffled around its iPod product line and announced big price cuts on the day I got my gift iPod, the 60GB model still costs a fair chunk of change), but I'm enjoying the free one that's been dropped in my lap. I'd have killed for something like the iPod back when I worked at camp (where I had to struggle to fit an entire summer's worth of CDs into an already-overstuffed trunk), or back in college (where I repeatedly carried stacks of CDs off to random computer labs for late-night hacking sessions).

The dock has a line-out connector that makes a synced-up iPod easy to connect to our living-room stereo (thereby forestalling the purchase of something like the Slim Devices Squeezebox2 or the Roku Labs Soundbridge, an idea that had been kicking around in my head for a while). Now I just need to buy an RF adapter, so that we can use the iPod on those long car rides. (Unfortunately, my car stereo just has a CD player; Shelby's Miata has a CD player and a cassette deck, so she can use the better-sounding cassette adapter.) And if we take another trip that's long enough that I'll take enough pictures to fill up all of my CF cards (as happened during our trip through the Netherlands), the iPod camera connector looks good too.

But what really endears the iPod to me is the fact that my favorite Apple II game, "Sabotage!", has been resurrected as the iPod's built-in "Parachute" game.
Posted by Kevin at 02:14 PM | Comments (1)

July 02, 2005

Disneyland News

Space Mountain is open! We rode it yesterday!

[Note to non-Disneyphiles: Space Mountain is Disneyland's outer-space themed 'dark' roller coaster. The ride is totally enclosed and unlit, except for some 'stars' and such -- so what might be a thoroughly pedestrian coaster, were it outside in the daylight at some carnival (it only goes 32 mph), acquires a whole new dimension because you don't know what's happening. Unless you rode it over and over again as kids, like Shelby and me ...]

While running errands Thursday, I noticed a bus shelter ad that proclaimed "Space Mountain -- It's Back!" Being an up-to-date Disneyland guy, I knew that Space Mountain was scheduled to open from its over two-year-long refurbishment on July 15th, two weeks away. To promise people a blockbuster rollercoaster and then crush their hopes once they got to the park with the news that Space Mountain wasn't quite back -- Disney couldn't be that cruel, could they? And if Space Mountain was back now, we'd have a chance to ride it yesterday, our last chance until August 21st (our annual passports, since we're too cheap to pay for deluxe annual passports, aren't quite annual -- we're "blacked out" for Saturdays, major holidays, and most of the summer).

Checking the messageboards at mouseplanet.com seemed to indicate that Space Mountain was having a "soft" opening -- open to the public, but you're taking your chances on it being closed at any time. So, we decided to drive over and take a look. Posted waiting time at the entrance was 105 minutes, but we managed to get through the line and the ride in around 55 minutes -- comparable to the summertime Disneyland experiences of our youth.

And how was the "new" Space Mountain? They did a good job on the rehab of the ride building and the waiting area -- its previous very-1970s very-2001 appearance has been updated to a more-contemporary science-future look. The entry and exit tunnels -- your car gets 'launched' as you leave the waiting area, and then braked or decompressed or something as you leave 'space' and come back into the loading zone -- have had their special effects updated with all kinds of modern flashing-light technology. If playing 1980s-era Nintendo games on 20" TVs was enough to induce epilepsy in children, they'd better have a gurney or two off to the side of the unloading area, because the reentry is going to leave them flopping like fish.

As for the ride itself, nothing has changed. It took them two years to disassemble and remove the old roller coaster and put a brand-new one exactly like it in its place. The atmospherics are different: where everything used to be faintly lit by an orange 'satellite' in the center of the room, and the darkened line area used to have windows looking onto the ride, the new version is completely dark, except for the light of 'stars' projected around. There's supposed to be a rockin' new soundtrack to accompany your ride, but in one of those soft-opening glitches, our car was silent. Still, you'd think that they'd change around the track at least a little bit -- put in a new drop or a fillip here and here, to throw a bone to the SoCal residents and hardcore types. (Or throw in a loop or two, like Disneyland Paris' version of Space Mountain ...)

We'll have to come back in August for a second impression!

[You can compare and contrast my review with what Shelby had to say.]

Posted by Kevin at 09:10 AM | Comments (2)