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Taxing

In honor of tax day (which is 3 days late this year because of Emancipation Day in the District of Columbia), I just wanted to write a little post to say:

Holy crap this was the most annoying tax year I’ve ever had.

On the one hand, it was a little easier because Debbi and I got married last year. And filing jointly saved us a bunch of money in taxes, and that meant two fewer returns (federal and state) to file.

On the other hand, Mom passed away last year, and I’m the executor of her estate. So that meant filing federal and state taxes for her personally, and then federal and state taxes for her estate, and an additional state return for California because (apparently) that’s where I live.

On top of that, one of the funds she’s invested in was astoundingly late getting their information to her investment company, so they sent out a preliminary 1099 in February, and then an amended 1099 in late March (!!). Fortunately I have my CPA do all the paperwork, and I know they do it all on computer, so it was mostly a matter of waiting, waiting, and waiting some more before finally dropping it off with them. Oh, and since I transitioned her account from a personal to an estate account, and the personal account records were still being sent to her old address, I had to contact her investment advisor to get the amended 1099 for that account sent to me. Ghaaa-aaah.

And basically everything else hinged on getting the estate returns done, so it could generate K-1 forms for myself and my sister (the estate’s beneficiaries) for our own returns.

Lastly, I found an error in our returns when I picked them up for review, which involved some more running around (but was worth it because it saved us a reasonable amount of additional money).

I am one of those luddites who still files my taxes on paper. Although that’s not really the issue; some of my Mom’s taxes cannot be filed electronically anyway. It did mean a wait at the post office to ship things off, but on the plus side the fact that so many people file electronically these days means the wait is a lot shorter than it used to be.

Anyway, I got everything sent off on Thursday, and hopefully that will be the last I hear of them. Where taxes are concerned, no news is definitely good news.

Shadows Over Innistrad Prerelease

Yesterday I headed down to Isle of Gamers for the prerelease for the latest Magic set, Shadows Over Innistrad. After listening to the set review on Limited Resources, and poking around on the net a bit, my feeling was that this would be a complicated set, and that assimilating all the information in the sealed deck prerelease would be pretty daunting, trying to figure out how best to fit together the various moving parts.

Once I opened my packs, I had this card pool:

(click to embiggen)

(click to embiggen)

Notice the following things:

  • I opened 7 rares (well, one was the promo card), of which 3 were land, 2 were planeswalkers (yay!), and 2 were not really great in limited.
  • All five colors are somewhat playable – this is a pretty deep pool.
  • Unfortunately, red is the weakest color, and green the second-weakest, and both planeswalkers require red.
  • Black is both deep and has a bunch of removal, so I’m surely playing black.

My first inclination was to go white-black, splashing red for Nahiri, so I came up with this:

White-Black splashing Red deck

That’s not awful, but probably not worth splashing just for one card, even a really good one. And there isn’t really any other red worth splashing. The other thing I realized is that it often doesn’t start doing stuff until turn 3, and it doesn’t make great use of its rare, Odric.

So I decided to try again, with blue instead of white, which gives me a little more early options, and a little more flying power:

Blue-Black deck

I would characterize this deck as “unexciting midrange” (no rares other than the dual land!), but I hoped it would make up for that in consistency and evasion, and after some agonizing, it’s the one I decided to go with. Here’s how it played out:

Round 1: I played against a white-blue deck, and both of our decks ended up playing out as control decks against the other. I had more evasion than he did, but he had cards like Puncturing Light and Sleep Paralysis to deal with my Stormrider Spirits. I won game 1 mainly on the back of Daring Sleuth‘s flip side giving me lots of card advantage, and he won game 2 by grinding me out. Then we drew game 3 because we didn’t have nearly enough time to finish.

After this round I decided that Wild-Field Scarecrow didn’t do much in this deck, so I replaced it with the more aggressive Wicker Witch, which turned out to be the right choice. I also swapped out Merciless Resolve for the cheaper Macabre Waltz, which also paid dividends as I often had creatures in my graveyard I wanted to get back.

Round 2: Another white deck, this time white-black. In game 1 I recognized that my draw was much more aggressive than his and won by pushing through damage early, combined with overwhelming board position through my incremental card advantage. Game 2 was a squeaker, with me seemingly taking a big advantage and playing the Morkrut Necropod, but he had an answer for it in Murderous Compulsion. He took me down to 1, and he was also at 1. I ended my turn with 3 creatures to his 2, and with Broken Concentration in hand I countered his attempt to cast Bygone Bishop (I believe my spoken response when he cast it was, “No no, no no no – no.”) and that was enough to push through the last point of damage on my next turn.

Round 3: My opponent ran me over in the first game, playing a white-green humans deck which fired on all cylinders. Game 2 went much better as he never drew green mana and so stalled out in the midgame. He later told me his deck was mostly white, so this was a weird draw for him. For my part I was pleased that I mulliganed a hand with 3 islands, 3 black spells, and an artifact creature. Game 3 was the opposite as he kept a hand with 3 forests, 3 white cards, and an Intrepid Provisioner. He didn’t draw a plains until it was too late, and I won again.

Afterwards we chatted about his last game’s keep, and I told him that I’d had a similar scenario in game 2, where I’d mulliganed, and that I always seemed to do (and feel) better when I mulliganed color-mismatch hands like that. He pointed out that he had many more plains in his deck than forests, and he only needed one to get going. I don’t know what the answer is; if he had 10 plains in his deck, then the odds were he’d draw one by turn 4, but he really needed to draw one before that if my deck curved out (which it did). So it was a tough loss for him.

Round 4: My opponent here unfortunately also had mana problems, stalling out at 3 land in game 1, and I had just the right removal for the cards she could play (such as the ultra-annoying Sin Prodder). In game 2 she got mana flooded, and while she did play a big bomb in Flameblade Angel when she was still around 14 life, Press For Answers was exactly the answer I needed to push through a bunch of damage which she didn’t have any other blockers for.

So in the end I went 3-0-1 in my 4 matches, which was good for fourth place overall (and 8 packs!) in a field of over 50 people. I feel that my deck overperformed a little bit, and that my opponents’ decks underperformed – in some cases by a lot – so I’m not sure whether I truly “earned” my record. But sometimes you end up on the good side of the variance gods.

A few lessons I learned from the day as regards the format:

  • The removal doesn’t look impressive in this set, but a lot of it works well against a wide variety of threats. It seems like there are a lot of 2/3 and 3/2 creatures, and doing 2 damage does really well against the latter, while the former tend to be less threatening. As one person put it, there’s “not a lot of beef” in this set. (But – small sample size alert. There are a number of ways to make some larger creatures, and I just didn’t face many of them.)
  • Morkrut Necropod is a better card than it looks like, as there are not many things which can deal with a 7/7 with Menace in the format, and sacrificing a land by the time it comes down is not a big penalty.
  • It doesn’t take a lot of Investigate sources in your deck to enable cards which need them such as Daring Sleuth. I think I had 3 in my deck, and that was enough to pretty reliably flip the Sleuth.
  • Also, Daring Sleuth can be a horse in limited.
  • Gone Missing can do some work. One game when an opponent was struggling with mana, I put his tap-land on top of his deck, which not only blanked his next draw, but it meant even if he had anything to play with 4 mana that he hadn’t played for some reason (such as a combat trick), he would have to wait an extra turn to play it. Also great to enable an alpha strike.
  • Accursed Witch is a great card. If they decide not to kill it, then it hits them for 4. If they do kill it, then (most of the time) it turns into an annoying enchantment.
  • Thraben Gargoyle is also surprisingly good; by the time you can flip it, if your opponent hasn’t been careful to hold back some removal, a 4/2 flyer is pretty hard to deal with.
  • Bygone Bishop looks awesome.

Also, having a deck where only one card costs double-colored-mana is a nice incremental advantage since it makes it harder to be color-screwed.

Also, it turns out that my worry about information overload was unfounded; while I could imagine that having several good Madness cards could lead to struggling to figure out how to use it effectively, I didn’t have that problem. And there are several good ways to interact with discarding and sacrificing and the graveyard which don’t require Madness.

This looks like it will be a fun format, though I think there will be more to keep track of in draft than in sealed (“Whoops I forgot to draft a discard outlet”), but it also looks possible to draft a pretty straightforward deck if you prefer. I also wonder if it’s going to be a less bomb-y format than most (i.e., a pauper rather than a prince format, as the lingo goes).

Obviously I have fun – winning is usually fun! Definitely more fun than the Battle for Zendikar prerelease last fall, where my pool was both not good, and not fun to play. And it was my best prerelease showing since Journey Into Nyx (which featured a fairly meat-and-potatoes aggro deck, albeit one with two great rares).

I’ve been averaging a little less than every other prerelease for the last few years, for a combination of reasons. I’m hoping I’ll be able to make it to the Eldritch Moon prerelease in late July.

Bookstore Roulette

I occasionally read about how bookstores are doing better these days, presumably through a combination of Borders closing (perhaps opening a chunk of the market for independent bookstores), the supposed leveling-off of eBooks, and people looking for a more personal touch than they can get at Amazon, or even Barnes & Noble. But small businesses are a high-variance proposition, and perhaps few other places more so than here in the Bay Area, with its skyrocketing rents. So, as someone who visits a lot of bookstores in the area, I’ve been watching how rough it is out there.

There have been some encouraging stories:

But there have been some sad stories, which I wanted to record since most of them fell below the radar other than a few small local reports.

In Half Moon Bay, the Bay Book Company (their web site is still up as I write this) was a very nice new book store with great presentation and a fine selection, too. I saw John Scalzi read there back in 2007, and bought a number of books from them over the years. They closed last summer, I understand due to a rent increase. We swung by to pick up a few things at their closing sale.

Also in Half Moon Bay, Ocean Books (Facebook, Yelp) was a small used book store, of the sort where you go to find something to read while lying on the beach. We visit downtown HMB fairly often and we almost always stopped in, but we didn’t often find much to buy, which is perhaps the curse of the seaside town small bookstore, at least as far as people who aren’t going to lie on the beach are concerned. I wonder if they also felt pressure from the nearby and much larger Ink Spell Books.

Lee’s Comics is (I think) the oldest comic book store in the Bay Area, and they announced earlier this month that they’d be closing their San Mateo location, though their Mountain View location will stay open. This news got national attention in the comics press. While there are a bunch of comic book stores in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, there’s only one other comics shop I can find between Mountain View and SF (Coastside Comics in Pacifica, which is one of the few in the area I haven’t visited).

Lastly, and perhaps the one I’m saddest about, is Know Knew Books (Facebook, Yelp). When I moved to the Bay Area in 1999 this was the first used bookstore I visited, and it was great! A huge science fiction selection, not quite as big as Bookbuyers, but generally a more selective stock. I bought a hardcover copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – autographed! – there. At the time it was located on California Ave in Palo Alto.

But over time the store seemed to go downhill. They tried reconfiguring the Palo Alto location, and seemed to have a really long going-out-of-business sale. But then, surprisingly, they suddenly moved to downtown Los Altos, opening in a new location, bright, perhaps a little sparsely stocked, and branching out a bit into jewelry and other knick-knacks, but still fun to browse. The last time I visited they’d gotten a couple of bookstore kittens who were getting acclimated to the attention, but the store seemed to be looking up.

They abruptly closed late last spring, which I only learned about when walking up to the vacant storefront. It sounds like there was some behind-the-scenes acrimony between the two owners, but it appears the details have been kept private. You can read a little public grousing by customers in comments on this article, and what appears to be one side of the story in this GoFundMe page. I guess I don’t really want to know the story of what really happened, I’m just sorry the move didn’t work out.

I’ve seen other great bookstores close in my life (hell, Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA alone is littered with storefronts I remember fondly visiting when I was in high school and college), and like I said, small businesses are a high-variance experience, and when you patronize a lot of them, then a lot of them are going to come and go over the years.

But it still sucks, and I think the next five years are going to be at least as rough as the last five.

Update 4/18/2016: In just the 2 months since I posted this, Bookbuyers announced they can no longer afford their space in downtown Mountain View on Castro Street and are moving. At first they’d hoped to find another place in Mountain View, but now they’re looking further afield, and will be leaving Mountain View. Their last day open was yesterday (we stopped by and Debbi bought a bag of books).

I can only recall one bookstore moving other than by choice which managed to survive (Lee’s Comics in Palo Alto lost their lease 15 years ago and relocated to their current Mountain View location), so unfortunately I am not optimistic about Bookbuyers’ chances. And if they move somewhere far away like Morgan Hill (as they apparently were exploring), then it’s likely we will rarely-if-ever go there (I think we get down to that end of the valley to shop about once very 3-5 years).

It’s a big blow to Castro Street, which is flooded with restaurants and has very little retail. I’m very bummed.

Arbitron

Back in February of 2014 Debbi and I were selected to join Arbitron ratings (who have since acquired by their competitor Nielsen and are now named Nielsen Audio).

I imagine back in the day that people in this program would need to note which programs they watched and when on paper and then mail them in. (I think I’ve heard of this, and no doubt someone who participated back in those days could explain in detail.) Today it’s different: You get a little device (“meter”) to carry with you which is connected to the cellular network, and it would listen programs you watch or listen to for a signal which identifies the program, and report back to its home base. All we had to do was charge it each night, and notify Arbitron if we were going on an extended trip away from home. Well, and not tell that we were in the program on social media while we were in it. (I doubt we told very many people at all, in fact.)

In return, beyond being counted directly, we also received a small check every month for our troubles. Coincidentally, we also signed up for Graze around the same time, and I noted that the checks we got from Arbitron would just about cover the cost of the Graze boxes. Convenient!

Debbi watches a lot of television in the background, especially police procedurals, while I tend to throw on sports. We also had some regular shows we watched. While I doubt I can remember it all, here’s a rundown of what we watched while we carried our meters:

  • I listen to public radio, and Debbi listens to country.
  • NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans. Probably also some NCIS: Los Angeles, though we have run out of gas on that show.
  • Doctor Who, of course.
  • The Big Bang Theory.
  • We started watching Elementary during that time. (Did I mention police procedurals?)
  • Ascension
  • Baseball and football.
  • And a random assortment of films which aired on cable.

Last September Arbitron contacted us that we had been randomly selected to leave the program – a little early, since we’d been told at the start that it would be at most a 2-year term. Apparently we’d been among the most diligent participants in the program. It was kind of weird for a couple of weeks to no longer be carrying our meters with us everywhere.

Anyway, it was a neat little perk for a while, easy to do, and maybe helping keep some programs we enjoy on the air. I rather wish we’d gotten a TiVo while we were in the program in order to support a few other shows, such as Person of Interest, which I’d been interested in but which aired at an inconvenient time slot to watch live. But, so it goes.

A Long Birthday Weekend

My birthday weekends get a little more low-key over time. Having a big to-do of a party seems less appealing than it used to. Maybe for my 50th.

This weekend I decided what I mainly wanted to do as play poker, so Friday night I had five friends over for an evening of our low-stakes game. Rooting around for the new deck of cards I knew I’d bought, I looked at my order history on Amazon, and found that it had been over two and a half years since I’d hosted a game. Probably almost that long since I’d last played no-limit, too. But it was a successful evening for me, more than doubling my buy-in. I was particularly pleased with a hand where I turned two pair with a 4-straight on the board, and realized no one had the straight when they didn’t bet the turn, so I was able to make a little more money on the turn and river.

(I’ve been listening to the Thinking Poker podcast, and find it’s maybe even more instructive to learn about hand-reading by listening to it than by reading a book about it.)

Saturday was my actual birthday, and I’d thought of going to the Magic Oath of the Gatewatch prerelease, but decided that poker was probably enough gaming for the weekend. Instead I opened presents, talked to my Dad on the phone for a while, and then watched the Patriots beat the Chiefs in the playoffs.

In the evening we went to Amber India with some friends for dinner. They moved a few months ago (I think their old strip mall is going to be redeveloped soon), and their new spot has a nice outdoor patio (not suitable for this rainy weather, but should be great in the summer). The inside feels a little cramped and warm, but possibly they just have a few kinks to work out. The good news is, the food is still awesome!

Sunday was had a relatively quiet day, though in the afternoon we drove over to Half Moon Bay hoping to catch some of the rain showers we were supposed to be getting. We stopped for lunch at Cameron’s British Pub, whose English pastie was exactly what I was craving. Then we drove down the side street the pub is on and ended up at the Wavecrest open space preserve, where we hiked around for about an hour, getting our sneakers muddy and (in Debbi’s case) soaked. But it was a pretty – if blustery – day, and we had a good time. We then drove up to Point Montara Lighthouse where we sat in the car and watched the waves crash on. Alas, we never got more than some drizzle on the whole trip, which was a bit disappointing.

In the evening we started watching Person of Interest, which I’d been curious about for a while, but it never aired at good time for us. (Now that’s a concern we won’t have in the future now that we own a TiVo.) It’s good stuff, a little over-the-top, but at least as good as other police procedurals, and I understand it gets more sophisticated over time.

Oh yeah: And my company’s “gift” to me for my birthday was that we have Martin Luther King day off for the first time. So today we took care of a bunch of chores in the morning, including having a plumber over to fix two of our toilets whose gaskets were having problems. In the afternoon we had some other friends over, who hadn’t been able to join us for cupcakes on Saturday, and I played with the kids for a bit, and they chased the cats and Debbi’s BB-8 robot around for a while. We wrapped up the weekend with dinner, some more chores, and some more Person of Interest.

A pretty busy weekend in a lot of ways, but also some nice quiet time. And we did get that rain I was hoping for, but it came in last night. Wish we could get a good solid day of rain during the daytime on a weekend. But for now it looks like I’ll have to be satisfied with another shower tomorrow.

2015 Revisited

2015 was a roller coaster of a year, with some great stuff mixed in with some bad stuff and a huge amount of stress.

The year opened with my Mom’s health in decline. The holidays were stressful with worry about her, and probably even worse for my sister who was her health care proxy. While there were periods of hope that she would stabilize, she never really did, and went on hospice care in early February, and passing away in early March. We held a memorial service for her in late May.

This is the first time I’ve lost someone this close to me, and I still have a lot of feelings and memories that I’m working through, especially regarding these last few years since she moved into assisted living. It’s a process.

At the other end of the spectrum, Debbi and I got married in April! After 14 years together we decided it was time, and we had a great small ceremony at the county clerk’s office, followed by dinner with our friends, and Debbi’s sisters flew in for the day to join us. We also used it as an excuse to take a mini-honeymoon to Monterey Bay in July, and a longer trip which we called our honeymoon to Walt Disney World in November (as well as visiting Debbi’s parents).

The cognitive dissonance of getting married while dealing with my mother’s passing was occasionally difficult to reconcile in my head, but it worked out smoothly in the end, and we’re having a good time together. Of course, we had a good time before, which I guess is why we did it!

I’ve been the executor of Mom’s estate, which has taken a bunch of time this year, coordinating filing with life insurance, tracking people down, working with an attorney to file the estate and pay taxes, and all the work that goes into that. I think probably more than half of the work is done now, and most of the rest will play out over this coming year.

Last summer I decided I needed to add more exercise to my routine, so in July I started running, and I’ve kept up with it through the end of the year. I started running a mile per day, and now I’m up to 2-1/2 miles 4-to-5 days a week. I’ve lost about 10 pounds since I started, though my stretch goal of about 13 did not get met. But so far so good. Listening to podcasts keeps me motivated and occupied while running, and some days I even look forward to it. My plan is to get to 3 miles and do that on a regular basis. It’s really more about sticking with it than getting a lot better at it – I don’t plan to run any marathons.

In August, something I never got around to writing about here: I traded in my trusty 2000 Honda Civic and its 137,000 miles for a new Volkswagen Eos hard-top convertible. I’d been thinking of getting a more “fun” car for a while, and 2015 was the last year for the Eos, so I decided to treat myself (with a little urging from Debbi, who knew I’d been putting it off for a while). It’s been a great little car so far – and no, it doesn’t have one of VW’s questionable diesel engines!

After Disney World we had a quiet rest of the year, with time off around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and mostly just hanging out and taking care of stuff around the house. Oh, and finishing up the paperwork for my Mom’s estate’s tax filing. Debbi and I did get out for a few things, though: We made trips to Half Moon Bay and San Francisco; had dinner with a new cow-orker of mine and his wife (recently transplanted from the midwest); visited my cousins who were hosting their parents, whom I hadn’t seen in over 20 years; and we upgraded our A/V system by adding a TiVo (which has been great, other than the expected hassle of enabling the Comcast cable card).

I am not one for making New Year’s resolutions, and I’ve been joking that I started mine back in July. But this year I would like to write more regular journal entries, maybe write some fiction, and ma-a-aybe get back to drawing (must resist buying iPad Pro for drawing I haven’t actually been doing). We’ll see. Mostly I’m just hoping that with most of the stress and hassle of handling my mother’s affairs behind me that I can clear my head of worrying about that and do things I enjoy without wondering if there’s Something Important I need to be doing instead.

And of course having Debbi along for things that we both enjoy, too!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

We finally went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens today. It’s fun! Action-packed. Great special effects. And Max Von Sydow!

But it’s by no means a perfect film. I wonder if it’s even worth reviewing a Star Wars film, because historically they’ve been either fun-but-not-very-deep, or utter crap. But I’m not going to let that stop me, so: Spoilers ahoy!

Read on, Macduff! »

Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

Because I Have Opinions, I’m going to write about this past week’s Doctor Who episode, “Heaven Sent”.

In isolation, the episode instantly became the best of the Peter Capaldi episodes to date. Not that that’s saying a lot, since his run has been extraordinarily weak so far, with only “Under the Lake”/ “Before the Flood” being above average. (Most of last season was completely forgettable.)

What sets this episode apart is that it seems Steven Moffat remember what made his four stories during the Russell T. Davies period among the best of that era: While his stories didn’t always hold up to close scrutiny, they always had a successful emotional resonance and felt true to the characters and situations. But as show runner, Moffat’s stories have lost that emotional resonance and often feel downright manipulative. And his plots have gotten increasingly contrived, and just needlessly complex. While there is some of that here, fundamentally “Heaven Sent” is a simple story which works on an emotional level, relying heavily on Capaldi to pull it off, which he does, in perhaps his best performance in the role to date.

Much more spoilery discussion after the break. No plot summary, though; read the Wikipedia article if you need a refresher.

Read on, Macduff! »

The Dishwasher Mystery

As I mentioned last time, while we were on vacation in Florida our cat sitter wrote that our dishwasher was leaking. Specifically, the bottom of the machine was filled with water and was leaking onto the floor. This was right after the first of two big storms that hit home while we were away, so of course I worried that something had gone wrong with the dishwasher (bad), with the water supply to it (bad), or with the backflow valve on our house’s line to the sewer (worse). Still, despite my worrying about the worst case, apparently it was just water on the floor, and not any of the other wonderful stuff you would expect if you had a sewer back flow.

Our sitter, wonderful person that she is, brought over some super-absorbent pads to put under the front of the washer, and also turned off the hot water to the washer and to the sink, just to be safe.

For the rest of our trip, now news was good news; despite another storm hitting the house, we heard nothing more about the problem from her. That seemed like further evidence that it wasn’t a sewer backflow problem. We have not been thrilled with our dishwasher (a General Electric model which came with the house) as it doesn’t do a wonderful job of cleaning dishes, and we’ll probably replace it before too long. (Of the appliances our builder installed, it’s the only one we haven’t been happy with.)

So, we got back last Monday night and inspected the washer before going to bed: It was clean and dry. The next day I turned the water back on, and we kept an eye on it for the rest of the week, and nothing happened. So we planned to run the washer this weekend when it was reasonably full.

Late this afternoon Debbi noticed that the washer was filled with water on the bottom, and on the edge of leaking out. Very mysterious, since we hadn’t had any rain at all! My theory at this point was that there was some blockage in the side of the sink that the washer drained to and when we ran the water on that side of the sink it was draining to the washer instead. But I couldn’t see anything in the drain. So, after a short debate we decided to run the dishwasher as planned.

Two things happened: First, the dishwasher immediately started venting water into the sink drain as expected. Second, two of the front lights were flashing as it did so, which is not normal operation. Debbi checked the user’s manual, but didn’t find out what it meant. So I decided to stop the washer, wait a moment, and then start it again. This time it started normally, no flashing lights, ran to completion, and did not leak.

So my best guess is that the washer somehow got into some weird state while we were away, so that the drain from the washer to the sink was open, and thus the sink was partly draining into the washer rather than vice-versa. Maybe we bumped something before we left, somehow. Maybe our sitter was making sure everything was working and somehow triggered something with the washer by accident. Who knows.

But as of now, anyway, it seems to have been a transient fault which has been fixed.

Which is good, because I hate dealing with plumbing problems.

To Disney World – and Beyond!

We’re back from our big vacation for the year! Debbi and I flew to Florida to visit her parents, and then spend several days at Walt Disney World with Debbi’s friend Lisa and her husband Jeff.

We flew out two weeks ago, on Friday November 6, on United Airlines, which is the only airline with direct flights from the Bay Area to Orlando. It’s the first time in quite a few years I’ve flown one of the so-called major carriers (we fly JetBlue to visit our families in Boston, and smaller carriers around the west coast), so I was a bit worried about the experience, but it was actually fine: The flight was only slightly delayed, and the seats were not as cramped as I had feared they might be. Once we landed we rented a car and drove a couple of hours (with a stop for dinner) to Debbi’s parents’ house.

Her parents live in a nice community on the Gulf coast. Once we arrived, we stayed up a bit late that first night since we were still on west coast time (and we didn’t get in until close to 9 pm).

The one downer to the trip was that central Florida was setting temperature records for the first few days we were there; Saturday it got into the 90s and had very high humidity, which made for a pretty nasty day to be outside. Despite this we went out to an art fair and got lunch at a restaurant and did not completely melt. But we were pretty motivated to spend much of the rest of the visit with her parents inside in the air conditioning due to the weather.

Sunday Debbi’s uncle (her father’s brother) and his wife came to visit for a few hours, so I got to see a bit of the family resemblance (and hear a little of the family gossip). Debbi thinks she hasn’t seen her uncle since her sister got married almost 20 years ago, and everyone had a good time.

We got up a couple of mornings to go running (me) and walking (Deb), which was about as rough as you’d expect since it was mid-70s and muggy even at 8 am. But the humidity did start to go down so the second day was a bit more pleasant than the first, even if it was still hot.

Monday we went down late in the day to the Venice chalk festival, but we got there just as the one rain shower of the week kicked in, so we went back again on Tuesday. It was pretty neat, even though we were there for the early stages of the drawing! A big 3D painting from the previous year was done in latex paint and was still there, and the same crew were working on a larger painting to set a world record. And there were several smaller pieces in progress. I observed that the references the artists were working from were stretched onto a perspective grid so they would have a 3D look when placed on the ground – a technique I remember my dad showing me when I was a kid.

Otherwise we had a pretty relaxed time visiting her parents. I spent a bunch of time playing The Room Three on my iPad (which is great – each installment has been better than the last), and I read one book and part of another. I believe Debbi got through a few more books, too. So, it was a good visit.

Oh, one wrench in the trip was that our cat sitter e-mailed us that on Monday the dish washer had somehow gotten filled with water and leaked onto the kitchen floor. It didn’t seem to have gotten too bad, but it happened the day of a big rain storm, which made us worry that something was backing up from the outside or that something else had happened. The sitter shut off the water to the washer just in case and said she’d keep an eye on it for us.

Wednesday we drove back to Orlando and dropped off the rental car. Lisa picked us up and we spent the evening at her house before heading to Disney World on Thursday. We stayed in a suite at the Saratoga Springs resort and took the bus to and from the theme parks. This was a bit annoying as they don’t run enough buses (in my opinion), and sometimes they get bogged down in traffic. But, so it goes. The suite itself was nice, though.

We last visited Disney World in 2007 with Debbi’s family, so we did things a little differently this time: We didn’t go to Animal Kingdom, and we spent more time in Epcot. Thursday we first went into the Magic Kingdom, followed by Epcot Thursday night and Friday, Hollywood Studios on Saturday, and back to the Magic Kingdom on Sunday. We used the FastPass+ system to plan out rides for the various days, and used Magic Bands for admission. These are new systems since we last visited, and which are not yet available at Disneyland, but they’re pretty convenient.

A big difference between Disneyland and Disney World is that the parks at Disney World are much larger. This has the advantage that you do not feel as packed in with the other people as at Disneyland, but it also means you have to walk farther to get between places, and that though it might not feel as crowded, it might actually be more crowded, and thus the lines for attractions might actually be longer.

Among the most fun things on this visit was Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival. Epcot features exhibits from many countries around the world, and the festival set up booths where food and drink associated with each nation was available. And lots of it was really good! I especially remember some crispy pork belly, and an especially good glass of sangria. Of course, being Disney, I wondered how authentic the food selections were, and scratched my head at Argentina being referred to as Patagonia, and the lack of diversity of African stations (one was just called “Africa”!). But I didn’t worry about it that much.

The FastPass+ selections were handy for getting to some of the most popular rides, although it was strange not being able to just walk on to some of them if the lines were short as at Disneyland – because the lines were rarely short. It was also weird not knowing where many things were, or things being just a little different at the Magic Kingdom than at Disneyland (no New Orleans Square, no Indiana Jones). Some of the rides are slightly different too, such as some of the details being moved around on Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion.

Though we spent most of our time at the parks, we did come back on Friday to relax in the room for a bit, and came back early on Saturday and went down to the pool. Had we had more free time I might have gone running, since their running path was about the right length for the distance I’m currently running.

Anyway, we all had a good time. Debbi has been wanting to do this trip for several years, and we’d postponed it either due to my Mom’s health, or because I wanted to go to Cape Cod last year. I think she wishes we’d spent a couple more days at Disney World so we weren’t running around quite so much. Maybe next time!

On our flight home we bought first class seats, because for some reason they were a lot cheaper for this leg than for the flight out. And factoring in baggage fees and extra leg room seats – both included in first class – it was not a lot more than we would have been spending anyway. And it was pretty nice! Only two people per row per side, with a two-course meal for dinner (and better food than I’d expected), with wine and warm cookies added in. To top it off our luggage came out first on the other end. The only wrinkle was that we hit some nasty turbulence which caused Debbi’s wine glass to take a dive off her tray table and break, but at least it didn’t hurt anyone (plus it was empty).

We took today off from work to catch up on sleep and get some things done. And a good thing, too, since we both came down with colds, probably from the flight. Nothing too horrible, but definitely feeling under the weather.

Fortunately, no further incidents with the dish washer, even though there was another rain storm last weekend. Strange.

So that was our big fall trip! And now back to reality, and to brace ourselves for the holiday season.