Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Again With The Energy Scammers

These energy scammers just won't let up. This time, Dustin, from NGE called tried to get me to sign up for a discount on my Com Ed bill. He said he wanted to check my eligibility. I asked him what he meant by checking my "legibility" and wondered if I had written something for him. When he asked my zip code, I asked him if he meant my work or home zip code. I also kept asking him what his name was and then repeating it back incorrectly. When he asked me whether or not I got government assistance, I wavered on my understanding of the term and he finally gave up and told me that I didn't want his services and hung up.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Expectation vs Reality: Steak & Spicy Butter

You've got to love Blue Apron when they manage to enrich your dinner experience with an on-time delivery. The Steak & Spicy Butter with Creamy Mashed Potatoes & Zucchini was a pretty simple dish, which is exactly what I was looking for during the dog days of Summer. The description is brief and to-the-point: To elevate classic steak and potatoes, we’re dolloping a soft, spicy compound butter onto the seared steaks and mashing creamy mascarpone cheese into the potatoes. Tender sautéed or grilled zucchini rounds out the meal. There wasn't a lot of skill involved in this one, and that's not a bad thing.

Here's the Expectation vs Reality for comparison:



But how did it taste? It's steak and potatoes. The steak tasted just like I expected it to. The potatoes, however, were actually pretty damn good.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Washington DC: A Retrospective

I first came to Washington DC back in 1987 as part of an 8th grade class trip. I don't remember much from that trip aside from nearly getting sent home after leading a mass protest during an inter-school mixer party. The trip organizers had promised us an appearance by Madonna, which, wasn't TOO terribly implausible given what our parents had paid for the trip. Of course, "Madonna" was an impersonator and my friend Matt and I led the crowd in chanting "Bullshit" during the poor lady's performance.

Anyway, coming back to Washington DC for this new jaunt was a lot of fun. I visited several fun places and ate at a lot of different restaurants. I've made a little retrospective video highlighting just a few of the attractions and dining options available in Washington DC. Included in this video, you'll see:

  • Pizza Autentica

  • The Washington Monument

  • The George Mason Memorial

  • Washington DC Food Trucks

  • The Albert Einstein Memorial

  • Ollie's Trolley

  • Newseum

  • Ben's Chili Bowl

  • Congressional Cemetery

  • The USDA Cafeteria

  • The DC Wharf 

Monday, July 9, 2018

DC Metro Issues

A lady that I went to college with moved out to Washington DC and started a blog called "Metro Eats My Soul" that detailed her struggles with the Washington DC Metro system. Due to her writing style and her seemingly losing battle with the DC Metro, it soon became one of my favorite blogs. It's gone now, probably a victim of her political ambitions, but I remembered it fondly as I braved the Metro for myself this past week. It took me a while to get the hang of it, even though I practically grew up on the Chicago L system.

I know that the DC Metro is plagued with delays, accidents and line closings, so a lot of what I'm going to bitch about are going to seem like "noob" issues. But it's these sort of issues that can really shed some light on how weird the DC Metro really is. Here are my main issues:

  • So I have to pay $2 to get the Metro card, but that just gives me the card. I don't get to have $2 on the actual card? I have pony up $2 for the card and then put money on it? LAME!

  • You have to pay by distance between the station you get on at and the one you get off at? It's not a flat fee like in Chicago. 

  • There's peak and off-peak pricing. How do you know if you're traveling during peak or off-peak hours? 

  • I have to scan my card to get IN to the Metro and then OUT of the Metro as well? 

  • If I don't have enough money on the card to cover my trip from one station to another, then I have to get out of line, put more money on the card and then try getting out again?
The worst part of the whole DC Metro system is that, whenever I'm wandering around the stations, I always harken back to Fallout 3 and half expect to encounter a feral ghoul luring around a random corner. 

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Caught A Washington Nationals Game

We caught a Washington Nationals game at Nationals Park last night. Now, being from the South Side of Chicago, I'm usually a White Sox fan. But, I'm always happy to catch a major league baseball game, so, if I'm at a park on a nice day, I don't really care which teams are playing. Last night, it was the Miami Marlins facing off against the Washington Nationals. 

The story of the Washington Nationals team is actually a pretty crazy one. There have been several incarnations of the Washington Nationals over the last 130 years or so dating back to the old Union Association and American Association leagues. The current incarnation of the team dates back to 1969 when they were the Montreal Expos, the first Major League team in Canada. After some back office troubles during the early 2000s, the team was moved to Washington DC where it was renamed The Nationals. It took them a few years, but they've turned into a pretty solid team, even though they've yet to get past the first round in any playoff. 

It was a pretty good game last night. The Nationals won by one run in the bottom of the ninth. 

Friday, July 6, 2018

The National Archives Building

I've been trying to get into the National Archives for the last several days. It's apparently a very popular place, because every time I walked by, there was a line around the corner to get in. This morning, however, I arrived early, about 30 minutes before opening. The l
ine was manageable and actually moved pretty quickly.

The National Archives Building holds some of our country's most precious documents including the original Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. All of these documents can be found in the rotunda. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed anywhere in the National Archives Building. This rule is very strictly enforced in the rotunda. If you even pull your cell phone out of your pocket while viewing the founding documents, security will usher you out. The founding documents are very old and are fading and flash photography will just degrade them more and the National Archives doesn't want to take the chance that some idiot forgot to turn his flash off.

Aside from the founding documents, there are lots of other important and interesting historical documents on display at the National Archives Building. Here's just a small sampling on what you'll find:

  • The Emancipation Proclamation
  • The Louisiana Purchase treaty
  • Various treaties with Native American tribes
  • Oval Office Audio Recordings
  • Japanese Surrender Documents
  • Captured Nazi Documents

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Washington National Cathedral

We visited the The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington. That's a mouthful, right? It's more commonly known as the Washington National Cathedral. Congress designated Washington National Cathedral as the "National House of Prayer". Every since, the cathedral has hosted major events, both religious and secular, that have drawn the attention of the American people, as well as tourists from around the world.

The Cathedral's design is a mix of influences from the various Gothic architectural styles of the Middle Ages, identifiable in its pointed arches, flying buttresses, a variety of ceiling vaulting, stained-glass windows and carved decorations in stone, and by its three similar towers, two on the west front and one surmounting the crossing. Most of the building is constructed using a buff-colored Indiana limestone over a traditional masonry core. Structural, load-bearing steel is limited to the roof's trusses (traditionally built of timber); concrete is used significantly in the support structures for bells of the central tower, and the floors in the west towers. Numerous grotesques and gargoyles adorn the exterior, most of them designed by the various carvers who contributed them. There were two competitions held for the public to provide designs for gargoyles to supplement those contributed by the carvers. The second of these produced the famous Darth Vader Grotesque which is high on the northwest tower, sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter and carved by Patrick J. Plunkett.

Several notable American citizens are buried in Washington National Cathedral and its columbarium: 

I Heard That Helen Keller Was Buried Here. She Didn't.
I Can't See Why She's Buried Here. Neither Can She. 
  • Larz Anderson, businessman, diplomat
  • Thomas John Claggett, first Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland
  • William Forman Creighton, fifth Bishop of Washington
  • Joseph Edward Davies (ashes), diplomat, presidential adviser. He gave a stained-glass window in the Cathedral in honor of his mother, Rachel Davies (Rahel o Fôn)
  • George Dewey, United States Navy admiral
  • Angus Dun (ashes), fourth Bishop of Washington
  • Philip Frohman (ashes), cathedral architect, following the death of Bodley
  • George A. Garrett, diplomat, first United States Ambassador to Ireland
  • Julia Dent Cantacuzène Spiransky-Grant, granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant
  • Alfred Harding, second Bishop of Washington
  • Cordell Hull, United States Secretary of State
  • Helen Keller (ashes), author, lecturer, advocate for the blind and deaf
  • A.S. Mike Monroney (ashes), U.S. representative, senator
  • Norman Prince, fighter pilot, member of the Lafayette Escadrille flying corps
  • Henry Yates Satterlee, first Bishop of Washington
  • Francis Bowes Sayre, Jr. (ashes), dean of the cathedral and grandson of President Woodrow Wilson
  • John Wesley Snyder Secretary of the Treasury under President Truman
  • Leo Sowerby (ashes), composer, church musician
  • Anne Sullivan (ashes), tutor and companion to Helen Keller, first woman interred here
  • Stuart Symington, U.S. senator, presidential candidate
  • Henry Vaughan, architect, associate of Bodley
  • John Thomas Walker, sixth Bishop of Washington
  • Thomas C. Wasson, diplomat and Consul General for the United States in Jerusalem
  • Isabel Weld Perkins, author, wife of Larz Anderson
  • Edith Wilson, second wife of Woodrow Wilson and First Lady of the United States
  • Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States. Wilson's tomb includes variants on the Seal of the President of the United States and the coat of arms of Princeton University. Wilson is the only American president buried in the District of Columbia.
President Woodrow Wilson's Tomb

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Ford's Theater

The Presidential Box
One of the most vivid memories I have of my 8th grade class trip to Washington DC was the disappointment I felt when I found out that we wouldn't be able to visit Ford's Theater. The reason behind it escapes me. We either ran out of time or the theater couldn't accommodate our some other administrative SNAFU cropped up. Well, today, I finally got the chance to visit Ford's Theater and, as a Lincoln fan and as someone who played John Wilkes Booth in a production of Our American Cousin, I'm incredibly happy to have been able to do so.

On the morning of April 14, Good Friday, actor John Wilkes Booth learned President Abraham Lincoln would attend a performance of the comedy "Our American Cousin" that night at Ford’s Theatre—a theatre Booth frequently performed at. He realized his moment had arrived. By 10:15 that evening, the comedy was well into its last act. In the Presidential Box, President and Mrs. Lincoln and their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, laughed at the show along with the audience—not knowing that Booth was just outside the door. Booth waited for the show's funniest line to be delivered: "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap!". During the ensuing laughter, Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Being familiar with the play, Booth had chosen that moment in the hopes that the sound of laughter from the audience would mask the sound of his gunshot. Booth then leapt from the Presidential Box onto the stage and made his escape through the back of the theater to a horse he had left waiting in the alley.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Congressional Cemetery

Final Resting Place Of J. Edgar Hoover
Congressional Cemetery is kind of a misnomer. Although there are quite a few congressmen interred there, Congressional Cemetery is not a federally owned burial ground like the name would seem to imply. Rather, it's privately owned by Christ Church and the government merely owns 800+ plots at the site.

Many members of the U.S. Congress who died while Congress was in session are interred at Congressional Cemetery. Other burials include early Washington DC landowners and speculators, the builders and architects of early Washington, Native American diplomats, Washington DC mayors, and American Civil War veterans. Some of the more famous burials include J. Edgar Hoover and John Phillip Sousa.

Monday, July 2, 2018

The George Mason Memorial

George Mason is one of the more interesting and contradictory of our Founding Fathers. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention who contributed many clauses to it, but he refused to sign it and even lobbied against it. He was an abolitionist, yet the only person in Virginia at the time who had more slaves than he did was George Washington. So, why do we honor him with a memorial in the shadows of other greats like Lincoln, Roosevelt and Jefferson? Because he was right and he was ahead of his time.

As the writer of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason felt that a similar set of declarations was needed for the new United States Constitution. Mason also sought, at the very least, a clause within the Constitution to provide for an end to the slave trade within the United States either via outright abolition or a gradual phasing out. There were also some minor economic issues that Mason wanted to work in favor of the states rather than the Federal Government that didn't pan out.

After the ratification of the Constitution, it was soon realized that a declaration of rights was indeed needed. The resulting Bill of Rights borrows quite a bit from the Virginia Declaration of Rights. And, after tip-toeing around the issue of slavery for several decades, slavery was eventually abolished. So, George Mason was proven right. However, the damage had been done. His friendships suffered in the aftermath of his anti-ratification efforts and his legacy was lost to history. The George Mason Memorial seeks to give back a little of what he lost and honor a man whose ideas were ahead of his time.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Mr. Mac Goes To Washington

Ages ago, when I was in eighth grade, I went on a class trip to Washington DC. I don't remember much about the trip. I remember that we traveled by bus, Kathy Young got crapped on by a pigeon at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial was jam packed, Ford's theater was closed, the Washington Monument was awesome and we spent way too much time outside the Capitol waiting to get in. I also remember my friend Matt and I leading a protest when we found out that the lady entertaining our group during our inter-school mixer party wasn't actually Madonna, but was an impersonator. Matt and I nearly got sent home over that.

I'd been wanting to get back to Washington DC for quite some time, and a little Summer trip seemed
like a good opportunity to do so. With my daughter in tow, we jumped on a plane and now we're staying within walking distance of the National Mall. We're practically surrounded by museums, monuments and other attractions.

Of course, the first thing we did after dropping our bags at the hotel and scarfing down some lunch was head out to the Washington Monument. I had planned to go up in it again, but, alas, it was not to be. The Washington Monument is closed until sometime in 2019. The monument has been plagued by problems since an earthquake damaged it back in 2011. It has been closed various times since then in order to fix different issues with the structure. As of this writing, The Washington Monument has been closed in order to modernize its elevator.

Even though it is closed, it's still a very awe-inspiring structure to look at. At 555 feet tall, it's the world's tallest stone structure and the world's largest obelisk. Most of all, it's a fitting tribute to our first President.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

I Hit A Deer

It was around 4 AM. I was driving to the airport. There was a train running on my right side and I was about two cars behind the engine. A deer came bounding out of the forest between me and the train. The train must have scared her because she was moving like a bat out of hell. I hit the brakes, but it wasn't enough and she ran right into the front passenger side of my car. The impact was enough to throw my head forward onto my hand which was clinched around the steering wheel. I essentially punched myself in the face.

I pulled to the side of the road and got out of the car. I looked around for the deer but couldn't find her. She had either run off, or the impact had launched her back into the forest whence she came. The damage to my car was bad, but only seemed to be cosmetic. It didn't appear as if the engine had been affected. Still, I figured I should alert my State Farm agent right away. Thankfully, I remembered the summoning jingle.

"Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there!", I said out loud.

Nothing. My agent didn't appear out of thin air like in the commercials. And I guess that's a good thing because I'm sure he was still asleep at the time and I had no desire to see my agent in his PJs.

Friday, June 29, 2018

What Did You Say Your Name Was?

These energy scammers just keep calling me, even after all the crap I've been giving them over the past few months. You'd think they'd learn. But, no, they keep calling. And I keep messing with them. Today, I kept pretending to space on the rep's name and kept calling him by completely different names.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A Tour Of The Toys R Us In Champaign, IL.

This is it. The last gasp. The last hurrah. At the end of this week, Toys R Us will turn into Toys R Gone! The aisles are nearly cleared of merchandise with only the dregs remaining. Everything, including the fixtures, must go. I took a tour around the Toys R Us in Champaign, IL on June 24, 2018 to see what they had left to offer. There wasn't much there, and the store was planning to close by the end of the week.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A Tour Of The Toys R Us In Orland Park, IL.

With less than a week left before all Toys R Us stores across the United States close, I took a quick tour of the store in Orland Park, IL. to see what's left on the shelves. Prices have been dropped by 70% to 90% off and, at this point, they're only taking credit cards. No debit cards and no cash or checks are allowed. There's actually more stock than I thought there would be and there's less Star Wars merchandise than I expected. I expected to see a few rows of Rose Ticos and Admiral Haldos, but, for better or worse, there was nary a one to be bought.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Getting Our Grub On At Chicago Food Truck Festival

I attended Chicago Food Truck Fest 2018 on Saturday with a number of friends and family. We were treated to over 45 different food vendors offering a variety of different cuisines. While I was very impressed with the food offerings, I have to say that there were other aspects of Chicago Food Truck Fest that did not measure up. For example, we arrived 2 hours into the first day of the fest and the Pina Colada vendor was already out of alcohol and had to resort to serving virgin Pina Coladas. At some point, the sangria that the fest was pushing was switched out to Franzia over ice. I had also heard via a number of folks that the VIP tickets, which allowed for entry into the fest an hour early, were essentially useless because none of the trucks were ready to serve until the advertised opening time. These are the growing pains of a festival in its infancy and I'm sure that Everbright will get the kinks knocked out next year.

Despite the negatives, I think we all had a pretty good time at Chicago Food Truck Fest. I did a live video feed during our lunch excursion. You'll see it below. In the video, you can almost feel our disappointment when we discover that there's no alcohol left in the Pina Colada line. But, then, you can feel the joy as we dive into a pineapple chicken bowl made from a hollowed out pineapple!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Com Ed Energy Scammers Keep Calling Me

You'd think they'd have learned their lesson by now. Guess not. The Com Ed scammers called me once again. This time, I went all conspiracy theory on them and accused them of being agents of the government out to silence me. The rep didn't last long on this one. I only managed to keep him on the line for about a minute.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Expectation vs Reality: Middle Eastern Spiced Cod

Blue Apron hit the mark yet again this week with a second consecutive on-time delivery. I took a shot at the Middle Eastern Spiced Cod with Brown Rice, Dates, & Lemon-Yogurt Sauce. I was really excited about this one. The picture made the dish look delicious, even if the description left a little something to be desired: Some of the season’s first juicy tomatoes make their appearance in the hearty brown rice side for our flaky cod, which gets heady, fragrant flavor from ras el hanout—a popular blend of spices that often features turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, and more.

Here's the Expectation vs Reality for comparison:



But how did it taste? Well, I think that this has been my favorite Blue Apron meal so far. The cod was spiced well and was cooked perfectly. And it went well with the rice, dates and vegetables. I actually had never eaten a date before this meal and was pleasantly surprised at their taste and texture. The yogurt sauce was good, but, in my mind, the dish didn't really need it.

I think that I can confidently say that, with this Blue Apron dish, I totally nailed it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Com Ed Energy Bill Reduction Scammers Call Me Yet Again

You'd think they'd have learned by now. Yet another scammer using the old "lower your energy bills" line called me. This one actually had a decent accent. I figured I'd keep this one short and just decided to act overly excited when he said I would qualify for a lower rate.

The rep knew that he was being pranked and was about to hang up when I asked him his name so that I could properly express my thanks. He said his name was "Satan". I asked if it was some sort of ethnic name.

Monday, June 11, 2018

RIP Anthony Bourdain

I had a dream the other night. I was running a marathon in a blizzard and Third Eye Blind's "Narcolepsy" was playing in my ears. I came to a bridge high up above a raging river where I saw another runner standing on the ledge. He jumped off just as the lyrics "How'd you like to be alone and drowning" came on. I went in after him but couldn't find him. I woke up gasping for air and shivering.

I think the dream was brought on by news of the suicide of Anthony Bourdain.
He was one of my favorite chefs (yes, I have favorite chefs, geez.). He taught us to be adventurous, to embrace unknown cultures and to love food for its nourishment, it's flavor and its sense of community. He seemed so full of life, but, alas, many of us wear a mask to hide our pain. And while that is sinking in, consider this: He had an 11 year-old-daughter. I feel that one's pain would have to be incredible in order to override your parental instincts and take your own life in that situation. But, then, I think of what David Foster Wallace, famed author and essayist wrote about the subject:

"The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling."

David Foster Wallace suffered from mental illness with some extreme swings and killed himself in 2008, thus adding considerable weight to that quote.

But, now, back to Anthony Bourdain. Via his television show, Parts Unknown, Bourdain brought home to us the extraordinary diversity of cultures and cuisines. He was a gifted writer and chef with a larger than life personality. And I know that I'm usually much more jaded about celebrity deaths, but this one hit me hard. I feel like I've lost a friend. So, in honor of Anthony Bourdain, I'd like to share my favorite scene. Here he is at Waffle House, of all places. Watch as he truly appreciates the place for what it is and for what it does.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Expectation vs Reality: Chicken & Poblano Tostadas

After the last delivery arrived late, Blue Apron comped me for three boxes of two meals each. The first free box arrived on time and I tore into it in order to cook up the Chicken & Poblano Tostadas with Roasted Zucchini. Blue Apron's description is as follows:

The gentle, smoky flavor of poblano is used two ways in the topping for these tostadas: the sautéed fresh pepper is tossed with tender bites of chicken spiced with ancho chile powder (made from poblanos that have been dried and smoked). To pair with our zesty tostadas, we’re serving roasted zucchini topped with tart lime juice, Mexican spices, and crumbly queso blanco—a nod to classic elote seasonings.

This was a pretty easy recipe to make. The only issue I had was with the tostadas. I left them in the oven a bit too long and they started to inflate. But, I quickly recovered them and they deflated. They didn't turn out as golden brown as they did in the picture, but they still tasted great. And, surprisingly, the roasted zucchini came out perfectly.

Here's the Expectation vs Reality for comparison:



Wednesday, June 6, 2018

A Tale From Tech Support

For me, there's nothing worse than when a tech guy needs tech support. IT folk can be pretty presumptive and impatient when they need technical support. They don't want to hear "Did you try rebooting?" because, yeah, of course they tried rebooting. They take being asked the question as an insult. But, sometimes you have to go through the steps in order completely understand the issue being presented.

A colleague of mine was away on sabbatical and asked if I'd handle a problem one of his students was having. The student had apparently been a network tech by trade and was now studying IT security. He was having trouble saving a file from a security program. Whenever he'd try to save the file, he'd get an error: Cannot create file. Save cancelled. I wondered if this wasn't because of an access issue. I asked him to screenshot the steps he was taking and make particular note of the path he was trying to save the file in. He came back with "I've tried many paths. This isn't a save issue. This is an issue with the program itself". Never mind that the error message quite clearly indicated that it was a save issue. Literally, the file could not be saved. And, of course, the guy had to pull the "I've been in the industry X years. I know what I'm doing".

As a favor to my colleague, I offered to look at the issue and went over to the class lab to have a look for myself. I told the student to run through the lab exercise for me. And when he went to save his work, I noticed the issue right way. He was using an illegal character in the file name. One of the things I always liked about tech support was that look people got when they realized that the issue they were having was so simple that they didn't even consider it. I call it the "brain dump" look because they look as if their brain is taking a crap all over their ego. It's a combination of realization, shame and sudden self-awareness.

That being said, I think all of us tech people are occasionally guilty of this sort of ego puffing. Who among us hasn't said "Hey, I'm having a problem with X and, yes, I've tried rebooting" when initiating a call? But, it's this intellectual myopia, the result of being too close to the problem, that causes us to overlook the simple things. Sometimes, it takes a second set of eyes to help us step back and really, truly look at the problem.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Energy Bill Reduction Scammers Call Me Again

A rep with a very thick Indian accent calling himself "Chris Martin" called me about lowering m Com Ed bill. Clovis asked "Chris" why he was working on Memorial Day rather than having the day off. Clovis asked about Chris' girlfriend, Hania and informed him that Hania was actually over at Clovis' house. Then, Clovis told Chris that his mom was also over at Clovis' house and that she was VERY disappointed in his merits as a son. "Chris" actually seemed to think Clovis' impressions were funny.

The rest of the conversation was Clovis and Chris arguing over what Chris' real name was.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Angry Trevor

This is my second attempt at a GTA V movie using Rockstar Editor. It follows a vague narrative.

Trevor encounters a street preacher who resembles Jesus. His preaching about the failings of his father makes Trevor think about his own father and he goes on a rampage across Los Santos as he searches for closure.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Expectation VS Reality: Seared Chicken Over Couscous

I'll admit it. I'm a terrible cook. If it's pizza or pasta or rice pudding, then there's a high probability that, if I'm cooking a meal, something is going to get messed up somehow. That's one of the reasons why I've been looking into various meal kit services. It's my hope that they'll not only provide a good meal, but also that I'll some cooking skills from following the recipes.

I got a free meal box from Blue Apron recently. For those of you who don't know, Blue Apron is subscription food delivery service that sends you two or three meals a week. Blue Apron sends you the ingredients and the recipes, and you cook the meal yourself. For my free box, I got to choose two meals of two servings each.

For my first Blue Apron meal, I went with Seared Chicken over Couscous with Peppers, Zucchini & Caper-Butter Sauce. Kudos to their copy writer because they make it sound so good: For a unique spin on pasta salad, we're tossing warm pearls of couscous (a type of toasted semolina pasta) with tender sauteed vegetables in a rich, tangy sauce made from butter, lemon, and capers. It's the perfect bright accompaniment for our simple seared chicken.

The instructions are pretty straight forward and easy to follow. There weren't any steps that I was uncomfortable with, except perhaps chopping the garlic. I had no idea what I was doing and struggled a little with it. I tried to stick pretty close to the cooking times given for each step in the process. That's probably the most difficult part. It's tough to keep in mind that your couscous cooks in 7 minutes while your chicken cooks for 6 minutes per side. But, I managed to keep it all straight in my head.

And the end result? Not bad, if I do say so myself. The meal turned out well and it tasted pretty good. You'll see my result down below on your right compared with the advertised version on the left. Pretty close, right? Although, I did away with the peppers because I knew I would not eat them. And the portion size is smaller because I made it for three people instead of two.


All in all, I would call this Blue Apron meal a success. Based on this meal kit alone, I would say that Blue Apron might be worth a two-kits-per-week subscription which is the lowest option they offer. If they had a One-kit-per-month option or an "on demand" option, I'd be all over it. Unfortunately, Blue Apron delivered my very first meal kit to me late, which may have been the fault of FedEx. Still, if I can't rely on the kits getting to my house on time, then it really may not be worth it. We will see.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Medicare Back Brace Scammers Called Me

A rep from some back brace insurance scam called me. I put Otto on to handle the call. His told the rep that his back has indeed been hurting ever since he was on the toilet making poopies and fell off. He kept wanting to tell her about his Beanie Babies, and even hoped that he might be able to get a Beanie Baby Back Brace, but the rep just didn't want to listen. She also kept pronouncing his name as "Arthur" rather than "Otto". I kept her on the phone for about 8 minutes. Once an American rep took over, the call was ended quickly.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Jones Good Ass BBQ and Foot Massage

For a brief moment, I actually thought that Jones Good Ass BBQ and Foot Massage was a real commercial. It was done in the spirit of the 80's era Chicagoland commercials like Moo and Oink, Eagle Insurance and Victory Auto Wreckers. The Jones Good Ass BBQ and Foot Massage commercial even features a real phone number and an an actual address, just 20 minutes from the old homestead! If Toby Jones hadn't said "shit" in the commercial, I would have been completely convinced and I'd have taken suggestions from my fans (both of them) on what to bring down to Jones Good Ass BBQ and Foot Massage to have Toby fry up for me.

Alas, this dangling carrot of awesomeness is not real. It's the brain child of Big Dog Eat Child, a Chicago area sketch comedy group. Toby Jones is portrayed by stand up comedian, Robert L. Hines. Hines has done a number of other Toby Jones commercials for Big Dog Eat Child including Jones’ Big Ass Truck Rental and Storage and Jones' Cheap Ass Prepaid Legal and Daycare Academy.

Here's a link to the Jones' Good Ass BBQ and Foot Massage video.

If you're interested in checking out some classic Chicagoland commercials, be sure to check out my Classic Chicagoland Commercials playlist on Youtube.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Yanny Vs Laurel

I haven't paid much attention to the Yanny vs Laurel debate that has erupted over my Facebook feed lately. In fact, I thought that the Yanny vs Laurel debate had something to do with American Idol finalists. I hadn't paid that much attention to the noise about the whole debate through, so, when my daughter finally played the audio sample for me last night, I was finally let in on the latest fad that has been taking the Internet by storm.

Apparently, this whole thing began on Reddit when the poster of that thread had recorded the video by playing the pronunciation guide to “laurel” through their speakers. The original poster also had friends saying they heard "yanny" from the audio. Youtube star, Cloe Feldman happened onto the thread, created the poll and it went viral.

So, you might ask whether I hear "Yanny" or "Laurel" on the clip. My answer to that is "neither". Instead, I hear something akin to "9/11 Was An Inside Job", though, I must admit, my hearing isn't what it used to be. Still, I hate to admit it, but I have to say that I'm a bit disappointed that Yanny won't be winning American Idol this year.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Home Solar Panel Sales Calls Me

Otto got a call from a sales woman working for a home solar panel installation service. When she asked for Otto, I told her that he was an old man who shits himself, but, if she wanted to talk to him, that would be okay. She got a little defensive, and, by the time Otto answered the phone, she decided to hang up.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Surfing On The Humane Van In GTA V

I'm incredibly late to Grand Theft Auto V. I had played it on Playstation 3 a few years back and didn't get very far before I purchased my PS4. At that point, I didn't want to double dip the game, but I just never got back to playing GTA V. I finally broke down and bought GTA V for the PS4 earlier this month and have been steadily making progress on the single player missions. I've also been playing with the Rockstar Editor which allows you to do all sorts of things with your game play clips like change camera angles, add filters and substitute music. This can make for some pretty epic videos.

To that effect, I've made a video my my mission to steal the knockout gas from the Humane van. It's a pre-heist mission that Michael De Santa must complete in order to proceed to The Jewel Store Job. In order to steal the gas from the van, it's suggested that you tail the van, shoot the doors open from your car and then pick up the canisters that drop out. I misunderstood and thought that you needed to get the van to stop, then shoot the doors, then open the doors, take the gas canisters, jump back into your car and leave. You could just hijack the van, but that forces you to confront the driver who is armed and armored, gives you a higher wanted level than shooting the doors from your car, and forces you to try to elude the cops while driving the van.

In this clip, I have stopped the van, shot the doors, and attempted to open them manually. Instead of opening the doors, I climbed on top of the van. Once I did that, the van started moving again. I expected to be thrown from the van rather quickly, but, when that didn't happen, I decided to try to shoot the driver through the roof of the van. When that didn't work, I thought that, if I shot at the passenger side of the van, the GTA V A.I. would read it as an attack from a car and would try to swerve to get out of the way, which would possibly cause one of the A.I. cars to crash into the van. It worked pretty well, as the van swerved, got T-boned by one of the A.I. cars and threw me from the roof. The driver got out, we had a brief firefight and I jumped into the van and took off.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Another Toys R Us Tour

While I was in Bloomington, IL for my TSA pre-Check interview, I decided to stop at the local Toys R Us to see how their liquidation sale was going. When I got there at 10:00am, there were about 8 people waiting for Toys R Us to open. Inside, markdowns of 20% - 40% off meant that there were finally some decent deals to be had. There was a lot of stock still on the shelves and in the walkways.

Monday, May 7, 2018

TSA Pre-Check Interview

About a month ago, my daughter an I arrived at the New Orleans airport three hours early for our flight. She had automatically gotten TSA Pre-Check status, probably because she's a minor. I, however, did not get the same courtesy, so, we had to wade through the security line with the rest of the plebs. The line was so long that we almost missed our flight. Never again.

I signed up for TSA Pre-Check. The program allows you to skip the line and go through an expedited security line instead. Most TSA PreCheck members go through their line in about 5 minutes. The first thing you do is sign up via the TSA PreCheck website. Once you submit your application, you pick a time and location to go in for an "interview". You pick an airport or some other TSA office to go to and then set a date. You have to bring a valid TSA compliant ID and $85.

Today, I had my interview. I had prepared for something at least a little intense. I figured I'd be asked about my parents, grand-parents and any criminal history. Nope. They just took my money, scanned my ID and finger-printed me. I was in and out of there in 15 minutes, 5 of which was me bantering with the TSA agent. Now, my info goes to the TSA for approval and, hopefully, within a week, I get my status.

Honestly, this all seems kind of scammy to me. You have to pay $85 for the privilege of the TSA running a background check on you? Is it worth it just to get through the security line quicker? Yes, yes, yes and MORE yes. I hear that I might not even have to take off my shoes.

EDIT: Not even one week later, I was notified via e-mail that I have been approved for TSA PreCheck and have received my Known Traveler Number (KTN). The next step is to input that number into my accounts with various airlines so that, the next time I fly, my ticket will indicate that I can skip the pleb line.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Betsy DeVos Institute For Privileged Children

I made a new commercial lampooning US Department Of Education Secretary, Betsy DeVoss. It's basically a takedown of her handling of the Department and what her philosophy on Educational standards seems to be. Have a look for yourself:

Friday, April 27, 2018

Some Energy Bill Scammer Called Me

Some scammer offering to reduce my energy bill called me. I handed him over to "Otto". The scammer didn't want to hear about Otto's Beanie Baby collection, his lactose intolerance, or his tendency to crap his pants. The rep realized that he was out of his element and handed Otto off to a supervisor where Otto explained it all again.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Uranus Smells Like Rotten Eggs

If I were still in grade school, the latest news about the seventh planet in our solar system would make me laugh so hard, I'd get sent to the principal's office. Again. You see, scientists have recently discovered that Uranus' upper atmosphere is composed largely of hydrogen sulfide, the molecule that makes rotten eggs smell so stinky. So, essentially, Uranus smells like rotten eggs. Oh, the fun I would have had with this news back in the day:

"Hey, teacher! They say Uranus smells like rotten eggs! They're going to probe Uranus just to be sure!"

The funny thing is, Uranus is also an incredibly windy planet. Winds on Uranus can get up to around 1500 mph. So, basically, it's windy, it's a gas giant, and it's named Uranus. It's basically the gnarliest fart ever ripped in space.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Walk Around Lafayette Cemetery #1

I had been thinking about my most recent trip to New Orleans and had been lamenting all of the things that we did not get to do while we were there. Easter Weekend put a pretty big crimp in our plans with lots of places closing early on Holy Thursday, remaining closed on Good Friday and through Easter Sunday. I had hoped to do a tour of the Old Ursuline Convent, but it was closed on Easter Monday. We had to settle for the Beauregard-Keyes house across the street. We actually hadn't meant to get a tour, I just had gone up to the porch in order to get a better picture of the Old Ursuline Convent and somehow got driven like stray cattle into the tour of the Beauregard-Keyes house.

One of the other things I had hoped to do was take a walk around Lafayette Cemetery #1. I have visited the site a number of times over the years and have a great story about the first time I went there in 2010 that deserves its own video and would a great into to a video tour of Lafayette Cemetery #1. Unfortunately, the itinerary got switched around too much due to Easter closings and we weren't able to get out there. Yet, while going through a bunch of my old, unpublished Youtube videos, I ran into a walkthrough I did of Lafayette Cemetery #1 back in 2012 with my brother, ChrisMac. I don't know why I never published the walkthrough. If I had to guess, it was because the wind ruined what little narration I was providing.

Still, it's a nice video, and I think it shows some beautiful tombs, thus, it deserves its time to shine. So, here it is, with some new background music in order to mask the heavy winds:

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Quiet Place

I saw A Quiet Place is past weekend. It's a horror film directed by John Krasinski who also stars with his real-life wife Emily Blunt as parents who are trying to protect their family in a post-apocalyptic world where they must live in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt exclusively by sound. For such an intimate and simple story, this movie is really well crafted. Your experience in watching it is largely going to be dictated by your immediate environment in which your watching it. My daughter and I saw this in a packed theater on a Saturday night and the rattling of snack bags and the whispers of inconsiderate patrons and the occasional cell phone light really distracted from the experience. Still, I liked the movie overall and appreciated what it was trying to do and the message it was trying to convey (the importance of family, etc etc).

What I really liked about A Quiet Place was the amount of detail that has been put into executing the premise. That being said, the small touches that the movie uses makes it frustrating to think of the premise in a larger context. A Quiet Place starts out with everyone playing Monopoly using cloth tokens instead of the standard ones. Okay, so the fear is that monsters might hear the tokens being jaunted across the board and attack? If that's the case, then how does one handle snoring or farting which are noises that are certainly louder than token-skomping. And you can't tell me that the family can harvest the crops they are growing without making a sound greater than moving a Monopoly token, even if they do it by hand. If louder sounds in the vicinity mask the quieter sounds around them, then why not broadcast the sound of running water around the farm rather than worrying about running a lighting system?

There are a lot more nerdy nit-picks that I can make, and I'm sure that there are people out there more observant than me who can pick out even more than what I noticed. But, you can't let those nits take you out of the movie. So, turn off your brain, go to the theater when few people will be there, and go see A Quiet Place.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Tour Of A Toys R Us

Toys R Us is in the middle of closing all of their stores and liquidating all of their inventory. The thing about liquidation sales is that they don't automatically mean you'll be getting a super low price. At least, not right away. A liquidation sale means that merchandise that was marked down before the liquidation are no longer marked down. The original price of the merchandise goes back up to 100%, and then the price gradually falls. The liquidator will first mark items down to 10% off, then 20%, finally escalating to some actual deals that might even beat sale prices elsewhere.

When I visited the Toys R Us in Orland Park, IL, there liquidation sale was still at the 10% phase. A lot of merchandise was still on the shelves. The place was pretty active for an early Saturday night. Follow along with me as I take a quick tour of the Toys R Us in Orland Park, IL.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Lost In Space

I binge watched the new Netflix original series, Lost In Space, this weekend. It's based upon the television series from the '60s that follows the adventures of the Robinson family, stow-away Dr. Smith and The Robot aboard their ship, Jupiter 2, as they try to find their way to their colony in the Alpha Centauri system. The 2018 update has the family assigned to a colonial group with several other colonists and Jupiter vessels aboard a mothership named Resolute. Overall, the 2018 reboot series is pretty good and evokes some nice callbacks to the original Lost in Space series, including Billy Mummy, who played Will Robinson in the original series, playing the "real" Dr. Smith in the reboot.

I have to admit that I almost stopped watching the show during the pilot. The science was so far off, that I was finding it hard to suspend disbelief. For example:

  • Temperatures in the area that the Robinsons landed are stated to be -60 C. I can buy that their suits would keep them warm, but, I find it hard to believe that they could remove their helmets and not have the urge to at least cover their ears or the top of their heads somehow. 

  • Judy Robinson becomes trapped in a glacial lake that is rapidly freezing. In the show, the lake freezes from the bottom up. In actuality, water freezes from the top down. The lake she's in can't be liquid carbon dioxide because carbon dioxide can't exist in that state under standard Earth pressure/temperature. You'd need an atmospheric pressure of 5 times that of Earth's in order to get carbon dioxide to a liquid state. 

  • Will Robinson has the brilliant idea to ignite some magnesium to use as a heat source to melt the ice and free his sister. He says something along the lines of "Do you know what happens when magnesium meets ice? It burns even hotter". Problem is, that only happens with dry ice, which is frozen carbon dioxide (2Mg + CO2 -> 2MgO + C). 
Once you get past the pilot episode, the subsequent episodes are pretty good. I like the dysfunctional family dynamic, I like the slow reveal of what happened to Earth and the nature of the aliens. And I hate Dr. Smith in a way that I haven't hated a villain since Gaius Baltar on the Battlestar Galactica reboot or Kai Winn on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I found the ending of the season finale to be a little bland and predictable, and I found the back and forth with the robot (He's he's he's gone he's back again..aaaaaaand GONE! For now!) to be a bit much. 

Overall, I think you'll enjoy Lost In Space if you can take the time to binge watch it and turn off your brain a little. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Car Warranty Scammer Calls Me

A rep from one of those fly-by-night car warranty companies called me. They call me about once a week and usually hang up once I start going into one of my characters. This time, however, the rep took the bait.

The rep asked for Thomas Mac and I then came on trying to sound like a crazy, doddering old man. She asks me about my Mustang and I start going on about the joys of driving a convertible. She asked how many miles I had on the Mustang and I tried to wax philosophical. I spent a good 10 minutes going off on tangents, the funniest being when I kept trying to figure the origin of her first name.  Whenever she'd try to connect me with a specialist, I'd misunderstand and start complaining about my medical problems.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Top 5 Eggs Benedict In New Orleans

The dish known as Eggs Benedict, a breakfast dish consisting of two halves of an English muffin each topped with Canadian bacon or ham, a poached egg, and hollandaise sauce, was first popularized in New York City around the late 1800s. Several restaurants in New Orleans have their own take on the dish, and I have sampled many of them over the years. If you're as big of an Eggs Benedict fan as I am, then you might want to know where to find the best Eggs Benedict in New Orleans. The following list is my own opinion:

TommyMac's Best Eggs Benedict In New Orleans:

  1. Cafe Fleur-De-Lis: Hands down, the best Eggs Benedict in New Orleans. The spicy hollandaise sauce gives this take on the dish a good kick without being overwhelming and without significantly changing the nature of the dish. 

  2. The Old Coffee Pot: Their Chicken Benedict is a welcome deviation from the original. They replace the Canadian bacon with buttermilk chicken and the hollandaise sauce with biscuit gravy. 

  3. Cafe Pontabla: Their Cajun Benedict replaces the traditional Canadian bacon with spicy cajun sausage. 

  4. Stanley: Their Breaux Bridge Benedict features boudin, ham, American cheese, poached eggs, and Hollandaise on French bread.

  5. Court Of The Two Sisters: They use the classic recipe and they do it very well. Why try to improve upon perfection?

Friday, April 6, 2018

Yet Another Insurance Scammer Calls Me

I got a call from some rep pushing a "new, state of the art, pain relieving technology" sling to help relieve shoulder pain. She asked for "Thomas Mac" and I begged off and pushed her off to my "dad" who was the one with shoulder pain, Diksmash. Diksmash was all too happy to tell the rep about his shoulder pain. She asked if his pain was in his left or his right. Diksmash said it was in his shoulder. She attempted to clarify. He attempted to remember which bone his shoulder was connected to. She eventually gave up and asked about his insurance. She asked Diksmash if he was with Aetna. Diksmash said he once had a girlfriend named Edna, but that was years ago and he figured she was dead by now. The rep said "No...." and Diksmash jumped to the conclusion that she was saying that his girlfriend was alive! He was so excited, he had to tell his son right away that his girlfriend was alive! The rep said she didn't know Diksmash's girlfriend which made him very mad. The rep muttered something and hung up.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Best Bread Puddings In New Orleans

Among other things, New Orleans is famous for its bread pudding. Nearly every restaurant in town offers some variation on it. And, I'm a huge fan of it. Over the years, and over this specific trip, I've sampled a lot of bread pudding in New Orleans. Who has the best bread pudding in New Orleans? Well, that's subjective. But, for my money, the best bread pudding in New Orleans comes down to five places:

TommyMac's Top 5 Bread Puddings in New Orleans:

1) Commander's Palace
2) Red Fish Grill
3) Bon Ton Cafe
4) Muriel's
5) Napoleon House

Now, hands down, the bread pudding at the Commander's Palace is the best bread pudding in New Orleans. At $25 a serving, it's rather pricey for what you get. So, when considering the dollars to deliciousness ratio, the bread pudding at Red Fish Grill is probably your best bet. 

I'm told that I also need to try the bread pudding at Copeland's, Mother's and Dookey Chase's. We'll save those for next time.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Sights And Sounds Of Jackson Square

I have to admit, Jackson Square is one of my favorite places in all of New Orleans. French colonists originally created the area as Place D'Armes (Weapon's Square). When the Spanish took over New Orleans, they called it Plaza De Armas. After the Great New Orleans Fire in 1788, the Spanish rebuilt the adjoining St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo (where the Louisiana Purchase was signed). In 1815, to honor Colonel Andrew Jackson's victory in the Battle Of New Orleans, the area was re-named to Jackson Square and statue representing Colonel Jackson was erected in the middle of the square.

The area regularly plays host to a number of painters, musicians, psychics and other artistic individuals at any given time. My daughter and I grabbed some sandwiches from Nola Po'Boys on Bourbon Street and headed over to Jackson Square to eat them and people watch. The video I took should give you a good idea of what Jackson Square is like.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A Tour Of St. Louis Cemetery #2

St. Louis Cemetery No 2 is located on Claiborne Ave,  just a few blocks from St. Louis Cemetery No 1 between St. Louis Street and Iberville Street. It's divided into two sections due to Bienville Street  being run through it later in its existence. Some famous people interred here include: The Venerable Mother Henriette DeLille (a current candidate for Sainthood with one officially recognized miracle credited to her), Oscar Dunn (Louisiana's first African American Lt. Governor) as well as a number of politicians and soldiers.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Walking Down Bourbon Street

Most of the streets in the New Orleans French Quarter are named after French royal houses and Catholic saints. Of course, the most recognizable and famous street in all of New Orleans is Bourbon Street. Named for the ruling house of France at the time, The Bourbons, Bourbon Street quickly became notorious for its brothels, saloons and gambling parlors. After WWII, efforts to clean up Bourbon Street started to mount, culminating in the 1970s when Mayor Landrieu turned it into a pedestrian mall in order to stimulate tourism. The next 20 years saw Bourbon Street turned into a tourist trap nicknamed Creole Disney with the proliferation of souvenir shops and corporate ventures. There's still a bit of a seedy side to Bourbon Street these days. There are some strip clubs and adult stores among all the restaurants, bars and shops lining the streets. And, on any given night, you never know what you'll see from one of the balconies along the route. But, on a Monday night at 8am, I figured it would be tame enough to bring my daughter along for a video walking tour.

A couple of highlights of the walking tour include me catching some beads at around 5:34 and me holding the sign for Huge Ass Beers at about 10:10

Sunday, April 1, 2018

A Tour Of St. Louis Cemetery #3

We took a trek out to New Orleans City Park today. On our way, we stopped at St. Louis Cemetery #3 and did a quick video tour. Opened in 1894, St. Louis Cemetery #3 is much better organized than its counterparts. It was flooded during Hurricane Katrina but most of the tombs sustained only minor damage. Famous people entombed here include ragtime composer Paul Sarebresole, photographer E. J. Bellocq, and painter Ralston Crawford.

If you're in the vicinity, make sure to also stop by The Luling Mansion and Pitot House.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Afternoon Tea at Le Salon

When I was very young, I had a fat old Irish nanny who helped take care of me and my siblings. My father worked a lot and my mom was both working and going to school. That, and the fact that we were all little monsters made it necessary for some extra help to be brought in. This lady doted on me and every afternoon we would have tea and snacks. With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to take my daughter to an "offical" afternoon tea. The Windsor Court Hotel hosts one every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Le Salon.

There's a difference between afternoon tea and high tea. Afternoon tea is, of course, served in the afternoon and acts like a small meal between lunch and dinner. Tea is typically served with small finger sandwiches and snack sized pastries. Whereas afternoon tea is seen as a social occasion, high tea is a meal itself and replaces dinner. Meats, breads and pies are generally served at high tea.

Le Salon has over two dozen different teas to choose from. Pick your favorite and a pot will be brewed for you. While you're waiting for your tea, you choose a refreshing cocktail (non-alcoholic versions are available). And while you drink your tea, small sandwiches are served. The pastries are sent near the end. With a professional harp player adding to the ambiance, it's a good environment to have a small social occasion with friends and family.

I had thought it was a pretty novel idea, and my daughter and I had a pretty good time. The last time we had tea together, she was a toddler and her stuffed animals were invited.

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Tour Of St. Louis Cemetery #1

New Orleans is famous for its cemeteries with above-ground burial plots. Having plot after plot of stone crypts and mausoleums have an effect of creating cities of the dead, and, as such, make for unique tourist attractions. New Orleans was built on swamp land, and much of it is below sea level, which meant that if you dig just a few feet down, you'll end up striking water. And nobody wants a to be buried in a watery grave. So, the only solution was to build up.

St. Louis Cemetery #1 is located just outside of the French Quarter on Basin Street between St. Louis and Treme Streets. It's the final resting place of many famous New Orleans citizens like Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen. History records that the Laveau was buried somewhere in St. Louis Cemetery #1, but the exact location is disputed. Most sources say that she was buried in the Glapion family crypt, plot 347. Visitors to her tomb who seek her favor from beyond the grave draw an "X" on the tomb, turn around three times, knock on the tomb, yell out their wish, and if it was granted, come back and circle their "X," and then leave Laveau an offering.

Other famous New Orleans citizens who are buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1 include chess champion Paul Morphy, Homer Plessy of the landmark Supreme Court segregation decision Plessy vs. Ferguson and Ernest "Dutch" Morial, the first African American mayor of New Orleans (although he was moved to a family plot in St. Louis Cemetery #3 in 2014). It is also the future resting place of actor Nicholas Cage.

These days, due primarily to the desecration of the alleged Marie Laveau tomb, the cemetery has been closed to the public. The only way in is to pay for a tour, which usually costs around $20. However, if you are a genealogist or have family buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1, you can get a pass from the New Orleans Archdiocese and get in for free. Since I've written a fair amount of genealogy articles for various publications, I qualified.

I decided to do a video tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1, so, with my daughter in tow and with two passes in our hands, we trekked out to the cemetery. Immediately, I was struck with the large number of tour groups. I would also discover soon that those tour guides don't like it when someone gets in for free. Can't have someone horning in on their meal ticket. At about 9:32 into the video, I bump into a tour guide who asks me if I had lost my group. "I am the group", I replied. She then asks if I am taking video, and, of course, I lied and said that I wasn't. She then threatens to call someone and actually gets on her cell phone in the middle of her tour to try and get me busted. From that point on, I start trying to avoid the tour groups in the cemetery, which was not an easy feat, given that there were so many of them.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Paranormal Investigation at St. Vincent Infant Asylum

My daughter and I signed up for a ghost investigation run by French Quarter Phantoms. Now, I'm not exactly what you would call a believer. At best, you could call me an open-minded skeptic. I've had some weird paranormal type things happen to me a few times over the years, but most of what I have encountered could be explained away via various means. Still, a ghost hunt in a "haunted" area in the most haunted city in America sounded like an opportunity that we couldn't pass up.

St. Vincent's Asylum is located on the corner of Race and Magazine street just a few blocks East of the Garden District. It was originally built in 1861 as an orphanage for children whose parents were killed in the Civil War or by the Yellow Fever epidemic that ran through the city. It was run by the Sisters of Charity and heavily funded by Margaret Haughery. She was widely known throughout New Orleans as "Our Margaret," “The Bread Woman of New Orleans", "Mother of Orphans" and "Saint Margaret". She devoted her life to the care and feeding of the poor and hungry, and to fund and build orphanages throughout the city. St. Vincent's Asylum was home to a number of colorful figures throughout its operation including priests, nuns, children of various ages, and a sadistic doctor. St. Vincent's has been converted into a hostel where people on a budget can stay. Guests report seeing ghostly children playing in the rooms and common areas as well as hearing their eerie laughter throughout the hallways. The apparition of a Nun ascending the front stairway has also been reported. Before we were there tonight, we heard it told that a guest in Room 26 awoke this morning to the feeling of someone sitting on his feet at the edge of the bed.

We went in to Room 26 to try to make contact with whatever spirit may be lurking there. As part of the investigation, the lead investigator from French Quarter Phantoms used some proximity detectors and a tool called an echo vox which, in this case, uses brief snippets of sounds coming from random FM stations. Don't ask me how a ghost would use these tool to communicate with the living, because I don't know. And, to be honest, I feel that the human brain's tendency towards pattern recognition makes it likely that anyone using the tool would unintentionally recognize many of the FM snippets as actual words. So, straight away, I didn't think that it was a good tool to use for the investigation. The proximity detectors, however, did show some interesting results that are more difficult for me to explain. Go ahead and watch the video I took in Room 26 of St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum for yourself. It's dark in there, but you can see the lights of the proximity detectors that have been placed on the bed.

After we finished our investigation in Room 26, we ventured down to the common room of St. Vincent's Guest House which used to be the library of St. Vincent's Infant Asylum. Here, the investigation centered on using dousing rods as a sort-of poor man's Ouija board. In theory, you ask a spirit yes/no questions. The spirit is asked to cross the dousing rods for "NO" and uncross them for "YES" or vice versa. After a little bit of coaxing, my daughter got up to make a run with the dousing rods.

After the library, we all moved on to the dormitory. This part of the investigation was much like the one in Room 26. In my opinion, not much of note happened during this part of the investigation. However, one of the lead investigators does give a pretty good explanation of how the echo vox works.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The TSA Has Me On A List

Greetings from glorious New Orleans.

My daughter and I hopped a flight tonight and headed down to The Big Easy for a few days of fun while she's on Spring Break. A funny thing happened on the way to the Crescent City. While we were going through the TSA security check-point at the airport, we attempted to go through the TSA pre-check lane. My daughter was sent straight through. I, however, was denied and got sent through the regular line with the rest of the plebs. The TSA agent asked if it would be an issue for us to go through different lanes. I said that it wouldn't, but I was curious as to why I was denied.

"I don't know the exact reason, but you're on a list somewhere", the agent said.

So, after a bit of a laugh, and after getting through the checkpoint, my daughter asked me "Have you ever done anything to make the government take an interest in you?"

"Easily", I said.

"Recently?", she asked.

"Umm...I don't know. Maybe".

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Blue Screen Of Death On A Wal-Mart Self Checkout Kiosk

I was running through Wal-Mart yesterday morning to pick up some Chobani yogurt for breakfast and an apple for snack. I wanted to run through the self-checkout aisle because I was pressed for time. When doing so, I noticed that one of the counters was sporting a Windows blue screen of death. Now, I don't know all that much about self-checkout kiosks other than the fact that their implementation is increasing and that they are useful for when I can't handle interacting with another human being in the morning. As for speed? Well, if you've got maybe 5 items or less, you'll probably come out ahead. But, as you approach 10 items, it becomes readily apparent that a customer is nowhere near as fast at scanning items as a seasoned checkout person is.

In any given Wal-Mart, there's almost always at least one automated checkout machine that is experiencing an issue of some sort: Either the cash threader is broken or the card reader is inoperative or the change till isn't working correctly. However, I can't say that I've ever seen a blue screen of death on an automated check out machine before. I would guess that the Wal-Mart automated check out machines are probably running Windows XP embedded. Sure, XP is old, and not officially supported anymore, but it's a very stable operating system with a fairly light fingerprint.

This particular point of sale machine appears to have an issue with one of its hardware devices. Note the error message: IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL_TO. Okay, so what is an IRQL (pronounced "Urkel" like the annoying kid froM Family Matters) and why does Windows care whether is is less than or equal to something? IRQL stands for Interrupt Request Level and those levels define the priority at which requests from certain components can be processed. What basically happens is that the CPU on the computer is running, doing various tasks and a piece of hardware connected to it, like the barcode scanner or the chip reader will send a request to the CPU for processing. Those requests have priority levels. The CPU then looks at the tasks it has to do, executes the ones with the higher priority first and, while doing so, sets all other tasks in the queue to "pending" until it can get to them. If a low priority task is being processed by the CPU and a task of higher priority comes in, then the CPU will interrupt (see where we're going here?) the lower priority task in order to process the higher priority task that just came in. If we look at the STOP line in the blue screen of death, we see that the IRQ level (represented by the second number in the parentheses in the STOP error) is 2

Instructions for how hardware components interface with Windows and the computer's physical memory are written into little programs called device drivers. What's probably going on here is that a device driver is attempting to access a block of memory at an IRQL that is too high. This is usually caused by faulty hardware or an incompatible device driver. My guess would be that someone tried to update a driver belonging to one of the hardware components on the checkout machine and that newest version of the driver has some instructions in it that are incompatible with the system. The solution would be to downgrade the device driver. Just see what version of the drivers the other machines are running and make sure the one with the error is at the same version for each.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Pre-Need Cremation Services Call Me

An automated attendant called me trying to sell me pre-need cremation/burial services. Once a live operator came on, she asked me "May I have your last name?" and I replied "You can have it if you get married to me!" and was promptly hung up on.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Toys R Us Is Closing Its Doors

National toy retailer, Toys R Us, sought court approval yesterday to liquidate its remaining 735 stores, thus signaling the end for a chain known to generations of children and parents for its sprawling stores, Geoffrey the giraffe mascot, and its catchy "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" jingle. As Toys R Us implodes over the next few weeks, you'll hear a lot of talk about how Amazon and Wal-Mart caused the death of yet another brick-and-mortar retail operation. And, while Amazon and Wal-Mart certainly contributed to the downfall of Toys R Us, they weren't what struck the fatal blow.

In 1978, Toys R Us went from a privately held company to a publicly traded one. This, of course, meant that anyone could buy shares of Toys R Us on the stock market. In 2005, shares of Toys R Us were purchased by three companies, Bain Capital (connected to Mitt Romney. Get your "Mormans Destroyed Toys R Us" headlines out now), KKR and Vornado in a leveraged buyout. These companies joined together to get a $6.6 billion loan to buy Toys R Us and $5.8 billion in debt from the purchase went right onto the balance sheet of Toys R Us. This was right before Wal-Mart and Amazon started to eat Toys R Us' lunch. Plus, the trend of tablets and game consoles overshadowing toy sales didn't help either. This meant that Toys R Us had less profit with which to service its massive debt and less money to invest into improving its stores. And, for me, that's where Toys R Us massively failed. Going into a Toys R Us over the last several years was like walking into a Mad Max movie. Whenever I went in there, I expected to find post-apocalyptic gangs setting up rival camps in various different sections of the store. You'd find The Vuvalini in the Lego section and The Buzzards in the clearance aisle.

That's not to say that there isn't still a glimmer of hope that Toys R Us can survive this. The stores will remain open for the next 60 days and a buyer could still possibly be found. If that happens, and there's enough money involved to act on some initiatives to improve the stores and make them more inviting to customers, then Toys R Us may just come out of this alive. It's possible, but I don't think it's probable. It's much more likely that we'll have to relegate Toys R Us to the shelf of childhood memories like we've had to do with many other formally popular retail stores over the last few years.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

About Those Amelia Earhart Bones...

There has been quite the stir in the scientific community lately, thanks to a group of scientists boldly claiming that the mystery of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart has been solved. But, has it, really? It certainly sounds intriguing, and it makes for great headlines. We get the same stories about Jack the Ripper's identity finally being revealed or the Zodiac Killer's, or DB Cooper's every few months. I'd swear that the press just keeps these sort of stories around as filler material to use on slow news days.

In case you're not familiar with the latest wrinkle in this Amelia Earhart case, here's what's going on: Skeletal human remains were found on the remote island of Nikumaroro (aka Gardner) in the South Pacific around 1940. At the time, measurements of the bones were made by D. W. Hoodless who concluded that the bones belonged to a man with a height of about six feet. Recently, Richard Jantz, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Director Emeritus of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, took another look at those measurements. Using several modern quantitative techniques, including Fordisc, a computer program for estimating sex, ancestry, and stature from skeletal measurements Jantz concluded that Hoodless had incorrectly determined the sex of the remains. Jantz also compared the bone lengths with Earhart’s presumed lengths using data from old photographs of her. Jantz concluded that the bones have more similarity to Earhart than to 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample. Based on this, Jantz declared "until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers".

Sounds pretty conclusive, right? Wrong. There are a lot of other things to consider here:

  • Jantz was working from an analysis made by Hoodless rather than doing his own analysis of the bones, which wasn't possible because the bones have been missing for quite some time. Even if we assume that Hoodless' measurements were accurate, context is still important. How old are the bones? What does a DNA analysis say? What condition are the bones in? Under what circumstances were they found? How do any objects found near the bones compare to them? These are important questions that cannot be answered because the bones have gone missing. 

  • The island had been of interest to the British since the 1800s and had been inhabited for quite some time prior to the discovery of the bones. Also, the SS Norwich City was shipwrecked on the island in 1929. Given these facts, it's hard to say exactly who those bones might belong to. 

  • If Earhart crash landed on the island and lived long enough to die there, then where is the wreckage of the plane? And why didn't any of the inhabitants of the island notice her? 

  • Nikumaroro was searched a day after Earhart's disappearance and a week afterward. No signs of her were found there. 

  • Nikumaroro is 1200km off of Earhart's route and in the opposite direction of her last known location. It stretches the bounds of credibility to think that she would have ended up there somehow. 

  • The statement "until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers" is troubling. It's bad science to believe that your conclusion should be considered true until it is proven false.

  • Jantz's study was funded by TIGHAR, a search group who have been vocal proponents of the Earhart on Nikumaroro theory. This implies bias. In other words, the study was not conducted with an open mind to any conclusion. Rather, it was looking to prove a theory on behalf of the expounder of said theory.

So, given the list above, I'd say that the study, while compelling, is far from conclusive. And, unless the bones are somehow found, I don't think that this mystery will ever be solved.

Monday, March 12, 2018

State Farm Eliminates 900 IT Positions

   When I was a Computer Information Systems student in college back in the mid-90s, my COBOL professor used to tell my class that, if we were good little programmers, worked hard, and documented our code well, then we could hope to get a job at State Farm doing Y2K conversions on their mainframe system. The prospect of expanding a 2 digit year field into a 4 digit year field didn't appeal to me, so I went into web programming. Well, that, and the State Farm recruiter took issue with my attitude. Something about me saying "If you judge my programming ability based upon how I shook your hand, then you're not someone I'd care to work for".

   Anyway, now comes news that State Farm is cutting nearly 900 IT positions in their Bloomington headquarters. About 300 of those positions will be moving out of Illinois and into other hubs around the country. Some of the affected employees, depending on their skill set, will have the opportunity to transfer to one of the other hubs. The announcement comes on the heels of a reported pre-tax operating loss of $1.7 Billion for 2017, largely due to significant catastrophe losses from hurricanes, wildfires and storms.

   I still have a few friends from college who work at State Farm, so I made a few calls over the last few days in order to get a feel for what's going on over there. The general consensus seems to be that this mess is the result of an over-staffed, under-worked IT department that has been subjected to the unnecessary duplication of processes and a refusal to listen to ideas for efficiency. Hundreds of contract workers were hired over the years to help keep up with the bloated processes, and now, the chickens have come to roost. There is optimism, though. I'm told that the claims department went through similar circumstances a few years back and now they seem to have their act together.

   Let's just hope that the IT department finally got all their Y2K conversions done.