Monday, January 14, 2008

Cough, Cough, Cough

We've all been sick -- I'm now on the tail end of some kind of cold/sinus infection that has lasted for over a week. I lost two days of work, as well as most of my productivity on the days I dragged myself in while still coughing. Sam spent a night screaming because it gave him a lot of pain in his ears, but seemed to clear up pretty quickly. Veronica ran a raging fever and slept and seemed to burn it out that way, although she is still coughing a bit and somewhat cranky.

I'm sure the wild swings in weather -- between blizzard and 60 degrees -- that we've had this January have not made things any better. It was probably the stress of our holiday travel that brought down my immune system. Grace pointed out to me that I almost always get sick in January. Last year it was a shingles infection in the eye. By comparison I'm quite grateful to merely be coughing!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Baby Sam is Talking, Sort Of

A couple of nights ago Isaac left the gate at the top of the stairs open and baby Sam started climbing his way up to explore the upstairs. Isaac grabbed him just before he made it to the landing, and brought him back down, which prompted him to burst into his hot little baby tears.

Grace said to him "Oh, Did Isaac bring you you back downstairs and break your precious little baby heart?"

Sam said "Isaac did it! Broke heart!"

Sam is a few days shy of 15 months old and says a surprising number of different words. It got me wondering how a 14-month-old can conjugate verbs! Unfortunately, he won't answer questions, And we can't never get him to speak when we ask him to speak. As Grace likes to joke, he gives us a look that says "I am not a trained monkey!"

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Potts Vacation 2007

So, we are back and the holiday trauma is over. We took the family to visit my cousins in the Washington, DC area and saw various friends along the way. I have just a touch of ranting I have to get off my chest before I can write anything else!

The trip, on Amtrak, went well for the most part. It is not easy, though, getting a disobedient pre-schooler, an infant, a teenager, two car seats, and a lot of unchecked luggage around.

The train from Toledo to Rockville, MD was only late getting into Toledo by about an hour. I was rather surprised!

We stayed in Gaithersburg with my cousin. We had planned to stay there each night, but things became more complicated. My cousin has just been diagnosed with a thyroid illness called Graves disease. This was making her unable to sleep and prone to a racing heart and anxiety attacks. This isn't good for a hostess who has to cope with two babies, so I really sympathized. We spent a couple of days staying out of her hair as much as we could, going to some of the Smithsonian Institution museums.

To top it off, our hostess was scheduled to take a dose of radioactive iodine. We had to find another place to stay for the last couple of nights because our hostess was literally about to become radioactive, and her instructions advised her to avoid people, and especially children, as much as possible! So we had to scramble a bit.

Another complication -- I deposited a check, which was going to cover some of the expenses for the latter part of our vacation, the Friday before we left, thinking that it would clear in a few days. A week later, though, acting on a hunch, I asked Grace to call the bank, and she found out that the check had not cleared, and in fact the funds would not be available until the tenth calendar day after making the deposit.

We had just set up these new accounts because we were unhappy with our old bank, which was acquired, unilaterally cancelled our overdraft protection arrangement, instituted ridiculously punitive fees, and put in place various floats and back-dating of checks apparently designed specifically to absolutely maximize said fees.

Granted, the ten calendar days, during the holidays, was only five banking business days, but in the world of Check 21 and electronic check clearing it seems just insane to me that an institution would hold a deposit that long. We were able to convince them to make enough of the funds available to cover several check card transactions we had just made, but our old bank -- the one I'm planning to leave -- clears all deposits overnight. It seems that this was technically legal under the Expedited Funds Availability Act, but I am distinctly unhappy with this, and contemplating whether or not I want to close these new accounts immediately and find another bank. (Do any of them not suck?)

Fortunately, I had set aside a little bit of extra money in a savings account at our old bank. Using my other cousin's iPhone, was able to log in to the bank and move that money into checking. Did I mention the iPhone is very cool?

We were able to stay with family friends for the last couple of days in Richmond, Virginia. Along the way I got to make Christmas better for two of their three sons. They had both gotten iPod Shuffles for Christmas. (I wonder how many people got iPod Shuffles for Christmas? It must be in the millions!) iTunes would not run correctly on their Windows XP box. They had taken it to a local Staples and the guru there had spent a whole afternoon trying to get it to work, and failed. The symptoms were this: iTunes apparently installed successfully, but would crash immediately after launching, with the usual "tell Microsoft about the problem" message. QuickTime player would also crash upon launch, with one of several error messages, including a security warning about stack overflow in a Visual C++ library. The uninstall process for iTunes and QuickTime always failed.

Despite a distinct lack of expertise with Windows system administration, I decided to take a crack at it. I had to putz around for a long time. I Googled myself into a frenzy looking for notes from people with similar problems. I downloaded and ran several virus and trojan detectors. I installed every recommended Windows XP update I could find, and cleaned out a bunch of unused software. Nothing seemed to help. Finally, I forcibly uninstalled iTunes and QuickTime (removing everything Apple-related from the registry, and deleting the program directories). I then downloaded a whole series of earlier versions of iTunes, starting with 6.10. This one installed and ran without a hitch, so I started going version-by-version. At some point, I found an installer which said that it could not run properly because the VBScript service was not enabled. This led me to an Apple support article on enabling VBScript, which had probably been turned off by a security product. After that all the installers seemed to work and I was able to get the latest iTunes installed.

The problems seems to be that one of the more recent iTunes installers silently fails if VBScript is not enabled. It runs and seems to believe that it has succeeded, but leaves behind an unusable QuickTime configuration. iTunes needs QuickTime and thus crashes on startup. Somewhere along the way Apple's installers lost the ability to verify that the necessary VBScript service is available.

After finally getting iTunes working, I thought it was all going to come to nothing, because the iPod Shuffle itself was not working. iTunes could see it, and fill it up with music, but when it came time to turn it on and push play, it would just flash a series of alternating green and orange lights and do nothing. A complete reinstall of the Shuffle's firmware didn't help. Running Apple's separately available iPod Shuffle utility designed to fix this problem didn't fix it. I thought we might have to just send the iPod back. But then apparently just toggling the little switch between continuous play and shuffle made it suddenly work. This does _not_ fill me with confidence about the device's firmware, but it was working.

Anyway, I spent a ridiculous five or six hours messing with this, but got a number of hugs in return when it finally worked. I can attribute my success only to being tenacious. Age and tenacity beats the 18-year-old Staples employee FTW!

We also got the opportunity to meet up with my friend Antonio, and had a great chat with him.

Although we gave ourselves what I thought was a sufficient safety margin, planning to arrive at the train station an hour and 45 minutes prior to scheduled departure, we had a couple of delays. We got slightly lost getting back to the train station. The first part of getting lost was trying to navigate through downtown DC in a maze of unmarked roads. The second part involved following our Google map, which took us to the wrong train station in Rockville (there are two; one at the end of the line, and one a few miles away where the Amtrak train actually stops). So Grace had to run in and get directions, and we had to race over to the other one. Thus we arrived only 20 minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive. While we were waiting at the light to turn into the station parking lot, it arrived. Then, under two minutes later, before we could even get inside the building and onto the platform to flag someone down, it left. Without us.

So we had another night in Gaithersburg, at a Holiday Inn. That wasn't so bad. It meant I got to watch Iron Chef and soak in the tub. We had to get a hotel shuttle to the nearest metro station, then carry the car seats on the metro, while a friend of my cousin drove our luggage to the train station. He was a huge help.

We spent New Years' Eve on the train. No one got much sleep, and we got back to Toledo on time (about 5 in the morning on the 1st). Then we had a drive back up to Ann Arbor. The drive turned into blizzard conditions. We had to crawl along moving at times just 25 mph, nervously looking at quite a few cars that had slid of the road. But we all made it back safely.

Oh, we did nearly lose one of the babies. At the end of of our train, at the last door, where you could stand and watch the tracks retreating, Grace and I had come back and stood there and looked out the window. "I wonder if that door would open if I pushed the button?" she asked. "No way," I said. "I'm sure there is a security interlock of some kind so if it isn't connected to another car, it won't open. That would be a huge liability issue if there wasn't."

Well, Veronica proved me wrong. We were walking up and down the train and she pushed the button to open the door. Fortunately, I was holding her hand. There is a kind of cage to prevent someone falling out, but it was really just a couple of metal bars and they were spaced far too widely to keep a child from pitching right out the door onto the tracks, from the upper level of a speeding train.

Grace mentioned to the conductor that the rear door was unlocked. She saw, as she described it to me, "a black man turn white." Yes, it was supposed to be locked. He _ran_ back to lock it.

So, that was our Christmas vacation. No casualties but my sanity. Now I just need a vacation from my vacation!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Brussels Sprouts with Toasted Cashews

(I also posted this recipe on my programming blog).

I made up this recipe after being inspired by an episode of Iron Chef I happened to see on vacation. That was a venison battle, but one of the dishes involved brussels sprouts. My family tells me it is one of the tastiest dishes I've ever concocted. I served it on New Year's Day. It seemed like a very new-year-ish dish.

If you don't like brussels sprouts, it could be because if you cook them by steaming or boiling, they tend to turn into nasty, bitter, sulfurous little cabbages. Cooking them in a dry method with high heat caramelizes them and releases wonderful complex nutty flavors and aromas.

A warning: if you are not used to eating a lot of cruciferous vegetables, this dish may be a bit challenging to digest. You may need to sleep with the windows open!

Serves 8, or me and three other people : )

I served this with mixed greens (collards, kale, and mustard greens) cooked with sage-flavored bulk pork sausage and a loaf of challah with unsweetened butter. We had a Shiraz with it, but that was all wrong; it would have gone much better with a very cold Charonnay or Riesling.

You will need:

3 or 4 lbs. fresh brussels sprouts
1 cup raw cashews
Hard cheese (parmesan reggiano, aged gouda, etc) -- enough to yield 1/2 cup grated
3 Tbs grapeseed oil
2 tsp allspice or pumpkin pie spice mix (allspice, nutmeg, cinammon, cloves)
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt to taste

For the spices, I actually used a leftover pumpkin pie spice mix that my wife made for Thanksgiving. I tend to cook by sniffing and tasting the spices and the raw food and deciding what seems like it would go well together. Trust your instincts!

A heatproof bowl
A large frying pan

Prep: grate the cheese. The sprouts should be dry, so if you washed them, dry them completely with paper towels. Cut off the stem ends and make them into 1/4" slices. (Don't worry if some of them fall apart and you have loose bits -- the goal is to give the vegetables a lot of surface area).

Heat half the oil to medium heat and throw in the cashews. Fry until nicely browned, turning constantly to avoid burning (perhaps 3 minutes). Scoop the cashews out into the heatproof bowl (make sure you get all the pieces of nut, or they will burn in the pan and ruin the flavor). Leave some of the nut-flavored oil in the pan. Add the cheese to the hot cashews and stir quickly. Set the nut mixture aside.

Add the remaining oil to the pan and increase the heat to high. Before the oil starts to burn, toss in the brussels sprouts. You want to cook them quickly, turning several times to lightly brown the cut surfaces, until they are softened slightly and a bit brightened in color. They should release a nutty aroma. You don't want them to start cooking down and releasing a lot of liquid. On my stove this took 3 minutes or so, but your stove may vary. Add the allspice and red pepper flakes about halfway through cooking. Add the cashew/cheese mixture and mix. Add salt to taste (I threw in only a small amount, perhaps a quarter-teaspoon). Serve immediately.

If you try this recipe, I'd be interested to know what you think!