2011 in the Rear View Mirror

Time flies. I was joking a few weeks ago how most of the news media takes off the week between Christmas and New Years. They publish endless “Top 10 x of year y” articles that were probably written months ago. My dirty little secret (ok, one of them) is that I keep reading these lists, no matter how predictable they are.

This is of course just a build up to my own list, right? Well, sort of. I didn’t take enough notes during the year and I’m too lazy to go back through my receipts and ticket stubs. Besides, a memory that has to be shaken loose by a ticket stub isn’t much of a memory is it?

So here it is. Not a top 10, and not in any particular order, but a few of my favorite memories of 2011:

Seeing my sister Peggy get married, and seeing the Muirhead family again.

Getting to see the St. Pete Grand Prix on a gorgeous day in March.
No Cutting The Corners

Going to an Iron Maiden in concert for the first time in (cough) years and seeing that they are still one of the best shows going.
Iron Maiden

Seeing two top-notch photographers do an all-day discussion, and getting to see my friends Chad and Leigh Ann in the process.
Joe McNally & Crew

Paying off my bills.

Going on a fantastic trip to Colorado with Sue, spending days hiking in the mountains, and seeing all sorts of wildlife including elk, moose, marmot, pika, coyotes, and a bear.
Elk Crossing

Watching Curiosity, the latest Mars lander, leave for the Red Planet.
Curiosity Lifts Off

Let’s see what 2012 has to bring us!

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Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s not focused on buying tons of useless crap like Christmas is, and there isn’t too much ritual drunkenness like other holidays have. Just a good meal with people you love, or are at least related to.

It’s kind of crazy to think that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I’ve had Thanksgiving dinner in a Chinese restaurant. I’ve had a Thanksgiving dinner of White Castle hamburgers eaten in a hospital. Once I made a full turkey dinner just for myself and four cats.

Not all of them have been that crazy, but I really have grown to be thankful for the things that I do have. Yes, I have been able to get nice things and go to cool places, but the true thankfulness comes with the realization of just how quickly something can be lost.

Forget the things that aren’t going well at the moment, even if only for a day. What are you most thankful for?

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Wells Fargone

I ended a relationship today.

Not the one with my girlfriend. No, this was a relationship with my bank.

When I came to Florida 20 years ago I had nothing but a guitar, a suitcase, and a few hundred bucks. Once I had a job, I opened a checking account at Southtrust Bank in Clearwater. I saw a lot of crazy stuff that NCNB/Nations Bank/Bank of America did to people, but I never had those issues with Southtrust. The tellers recognized me and I never had a problem with the bank. It’s the only bank I’d ever had in Florida, of a sort.

Southtrust became Wachovia. No real change, my bank just quietly did what I needed it to do, with never a problem.

At the end of June, Wachovia changed to Wells Fargo in this area. 2½ months later my 20 year old bank accounts are closed for good.

Long story short, I pay a lot of bills online. Since the switch was made to Wells Fargo, I have been unable to pay one of my creditors. This payment has been made every month for the last 11 years without issue until Wells Fargo took over. 2 months and several attempts later and Wells Fargo is still unable to deliver a payment for me. I’d be willing to cut them some slack if they would admit the problem and work to help me fix it, but their customer service basically tells me “the check is in the mail” and claims they cannot do anything. For each failed payment attempt, Wells Fargo got to sit on my money for a week since their minimum time for an online payment is 5 business days. The best part is that after each failed attempt, when I called customer service, they could not tell me where my money was. They could not even tell me if the payment cleared. This is especially galling since the payment never cleared, which means they had my money all along.

It occurs to me that banking with Wells Fargo is functionally equivalent to being bankrupt. So what if I have money in the bank if I’m unable to pay anyone?

I went to my local branch today and closed my accounts. The lady asked me why I was closing them and I said that the online bill payments simply didn’t work.

The smile left her face. “That’s pretty much what everybody is saying who closes an account now” she says. A little chit-chat and I get the impression that a lot of accounts are being closed for this reason. I mention that it’s got to be frustrating to be losing business over something she has no control over. She gives me a look that says I don’t know the half of it. I have not seen someone look so dejected in a professional capacity in a long time.

You’d think someone would wonder how a 20-year professional relationship could fall apart in 2½ months. This lady did. She obviously cared too. Nobody will ask her though. Wells Fargo customer service? I’m just one less person in their phone queue waiting for a scripted response designed to hide the fact that they have an issue. Wells Fargo management? Who knows if they care about anything other than today’s share price.

I’m still cleaning up the mess this has caused with one of my creditors. I’ve had enough of “too big to function.” It’s credit union time. Oh, and my rinky-dink credit union got a payment to this creditor in 2 days. Wells Fargo would have taken 5 business days at best, but even with 2 months they were unable to do it.

</rant>

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The Tree of Life

This is a tough one. Look at a site like Rotten Tomatoes and you will see very high ratings from critics coupled with very low ratings by the general public. This definitely falls into the “love it or hate it” category.

We see a scene of a family in the 1950’s. The film then goes back to the beginning to show how we arrived at this point. I’m not talking “beginning” in the sense of boy-meets-girl when the husband and wife first meet. I mean “beginning” as in watching dust clouds form into planets.

I am not kidding.

It takes a while to get back to the family. We watch planets collide, volcanoes erupt, and water in various settings as life grows from self-replicating cells all the way through dinosaurs and mammals.

From there the film alternates between showing various scenes from the history of the family and scenes from the history of the universe. This film isn’t driven by a plot or story so much as an attempt to show us how the smallest of things and the biggest of things are all related.

The pacing is very slow and deliberate. Everything is given time to sink in. This is good when a scene resonates with the viewer, but very tedious otherwise. The film has many beautiful moments. Many scenes of the family life are very touching. Scenes of the natural world are visually stunning. The problem is that they keep interrupting one another. As pretty as some of the natural scenes were, they resulted in long stretches of the film passing by without me having anything to care about. Despite the many beautiful moments contained in the film, I found myself thinking at several points “this is pretty, but I am not enjoying myself.”

This film tried to do a lot. There are gems contained within and some of them will stick with me for a while. It is a beautiful film in many ways, but not necessarily an entertaining one. It would have been a fantastic 20-minute short, but as a 2-1/2 hour film I can’t recommend it.

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Eureka (Springs)

So we wanted to go out and have a picnic on the 4th of July weekend, but we didn’t want to fight the crowds at Fort Desoto or Aldermans Ford Park. That’s when we came across Eureka Springs Park in Tampa. I’d never heard of it before, and it’s not far from my house, so we decided to head there with our pic-a-nic basket and check it out.

What a hidden gem. We would have never found it without the internet. Apparently not many other people have heard of it either. We were there for probably a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon and we were the only people in the park the entire time.

It’s a small park. You can’t walk far, but there is a wetlands boardwalk, a small greenhouse with some orchids, a garden area, and a picnic area. Traffic from I-4 and I-75 was on the edge of hearing, but other than that it was a very quiet place to spend an afternoon.

Spread the word. As much as I’d like to keep it a secret I don’t want the county to decide that it’s not worth the effort because it can’t support a concession stand.

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Brown, Part II

A couple of years ago I went through hell trying to get a package delivered via UPS. It was an overnight package and it took me two weeks to get it. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I do remember that it was something relatively inexpensive and I wouldn’t have minded if it sat outside all day, but they refused to leave it at my door since it was an overnight package that required my signature.

Fast forward to this year. Last week I was waiting for a package to arrive via UPS (shipper’s selection, not mine) and hoping I wouldn’t have to go through the same hassle. This time it WAS something that I didn’t want left in front of my door all day. To their credit they did manage to get the package to me this time, but they did leave it in front of my door all day. At least they cleverly concealed it:

Hidden Package

It took me a while to get in my door I was laughing so hard.

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Change of Terms

Dear Bank who holds my MasterCard account,
20 years ago you loaned me money at a 12% interest rate. This allowed me to quickly furnish a new apartment. For that, I thank you.

I understand that our agreement allowed you (the lender) to change the terms of the agreement for me (the debtor). It was my understanding that this was an option for you to enact if you needed to based on market forces, bank interest rates, or the risk involved in my debt. I did not know that this would be used primarily as a method to enhance your revenue stream, and was totally disconnected from market forces or my ability to pay you.

I came to you with no credit history beyond a student loan. I had no savings, and a job less than 6 months old. You gave me a rate of 12%. Although I may have been a few days late a couple of times in the last 20 years I never missed a payment.

Over the last 20 years I have:

  • Been continually employed, in one case for 13 years at the same company.
  • Purchased a house.
  • Built up savings.
  • Increased my salary to 3 times what it was when I originally borrowed money from you.

In every measurable respect, my ability to repay you has grown substantially since I borrowed money from you.

In that same time, your conditions have changed as well:

  • You saw your interest rate drop to essentially 0%.
  • You stayed in business with the help of my tax dollars.
  • You also went through several mergers, becoming much larger, which you claimed would allow you to provide me better service at a more competitive rate.

It would seem that since our agreement began, the cost of my debt has gone down for you while my ability to pay has gone up. Given these conditions, I find it troubling that every time I got a raise or was somehow able to increase the amount of my monthly payments, you raised my interest rate or changed my agreement and added new fees. As I made progress on repaying that loan, you took money that I borrowed at 12% and eventually raised the interest rate on it to over 22%. Although I have not borrowed any more money from you in well over 10 years, you have been receiving monthly payments from me that included finance charges of almost double what the terms were when you originally gave me the money.

You will notice on my account that I have repaid it in full. Actually, I paid about $50 too much, so you now owe me $50. This changes the basic nature of our relationship. As you are now the debtor and I am the lender, I am making the following changes to our agreement:

  • Your interest rate is now 24,000%. This will result in a minimum monthly payment of $1000, and that will just cover the interest.
  • Any month that ends with you still having a balance will result in a $50 service charge.
  • Any payment sent to me will be subject to a $50 processing fee.
  • Any payment that is late or below the minimum will result in a $100 penalty. This is in addition to the $50 charge for maintaining a balance.
  • Any overpayment to me will be subject to a service charge equal to the amount of overpayment, and will be considered an immediate termination of our financial relationship.

As our agreement states that the leader can change the terms without reason and without consent of the debtor, I am within my rights to do this. I’ll go one step further and spell out the consequences of this to you, which you only recently started to do as a result of federal law:
Based on today’s balance, you can settle your account by getting a payment of $1050 to me by the end of the month ($1000 finance charge + $50 processing fee).
If you make the minimum monthly payment of $1000 every month you will bee making that payment forever since that payment only covers the interest and not my $50 processing fee.
To help you, I will inform you that if you miss your first payment, your balance will go from $50 to $1200 ($50 principal + monthly rate of 24,000% finance charge + $100 penalty + $50 balance maintenance fee). If you miss a second consecutive payment, your balance will be $1,201,350. If you miss a third payment you will be bankrupt, but due to the favorable laws you got passed through congress you will not be able to write off your debt to me and will instead have to liquidate the company.

Thank you for doing business with me!

p.s. Stop sending me crap in the mail about the great offers that you have for me and how willing you are to help me.

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2010 Photos

In 2009 I didn’t get out to shoot pictures as much as I would have liked. I resolved to get out more in 2010. I failed. On the plus side, I think I did a better job of coming away with decent shots when I did break out the camera. You tell me. 2011 may be a bit tougher as I now work in a completely uninspiring part of town. I’ll just have to make a point of getting out to shoot more.

Here are some of my favorite shots of 2010.

1/19/2010 – Motorcycle Engine
Motorcycle Engine

1/23/2010 – Dry Dock
Dry Dock

3/26/2010 – Nissan GT-R
Nissan

3/31/2010 – My best bug picture yet
Bee on Green

4/1/2010 – Dead Tree
Dead Tree

4/1/2010 – Falcons at Twilight
Falcons At Twilight

4/2/2010 – Don’t ask how close I got to the alligators in the Everglades.
Smile for the Camera

5/30/2010 – Georgia Guidestones
Georgia Guidestones

5/30/2010 – The trestle from the back cover of R.E.M.’s album Murmur.
Bridge Out

8/20/2010 – Tampa Bay Lightning
Reaching Up

8/20/2010 – More Lightning
Blue Lightning 2

10/13/2010 – Flaming Lips
Laser Lips

10/23/2010 – Berries
Berries

10/23/2010 – Extreme close-up of a flower
Business End of a Flower

10/28/2010 – One of my favorite shots of the year.
Zen Garden

10/28/2010 – Mill near Stone Mountain, Georgia
Grist Mill B+W

11/27/2010 – Timing is everything.
Cannon Fire

12/5/2010 – Mojo
Domestic Hunter

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Another Year Gone By

As the year winds down it’s that time once again for reflection on the year past. Time to mentally catalog the past year and look forward to the upcoming year.

Travel-wise it was a mixed year. This was a year of small weekend getaways instead of big trips. This is the first year in the last six or seven that I did not make it to Tennessee. I miss my friends there. I did make a couple of quick trips to Atlanta, where I have two friends now. I went on a mini-adventure of camping in the Everglades, which was a lot of fun, and I spent a fantastic Thanksgiving weekend in St. Augustine. I think this was the first time I ever did St. Augustine “right” by staying downtown in the old city. We parked the car and didn’t need it again until we left a few days later. Not bad considering I started off the weekend by dropping my car keys down a storm drain just as we arrived at the hotel.

Speaking of which, if you’re ever looking for a place in St. Augustine I definitely recommend The Inn on Charlotte. I looked at a lot of places online before settling on this one, but after walking around and actually seeing some of the places I considered, I think we got the best of the bunch by far.

On and off through the year I continued reading Neil Gaiman and loved both Neverwhere and Anansi Boys. The man definitely knows how to tell a story.

Besides Mr. Gaiman, two titles stick out for me that I picked up on someone’s recommendation. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is a fantastic story set in a near future that is very reminiscent of Blade Runner. It makes a couple of overt nods to Blade Runner and asks some of the same questions about what it means to be human, but the story stands on its own and is one of the best SF stories I’ve read in a long time.

The other title is The City & The City by China Miéville. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before; A murder mystery in a very soft SF setting that illustrates the way we percieve our world, or more importantly, the ways in which we don’t percieve the bits we don’t want to.

In movies, Touching Home and A Single Man were good. Inception was enjoyable. I found it funny to hear people say it was confusing since following deeply recursive computer code is what I do for a living. For me the best movie of the year was easily Winter’s Bone. It’s a dark movie that’s not meant to be happy or uplifting at all, but it was fantastic. Of course, Tron Legacy comes out in just a couple of days. Princess Bride and Casablanca at the Tampa Theatre were high points as well.

Musically, there were some real gems in 2010. Not many shows, but most of the ones I did see were fantastic. I FINALLY made it to the WMNF Tropical Heatwave. Despite the heat, the insane crowds, and the fact that it’s impossible to catch more than a few songs from any one band, it was an awesome show.

I finally got to see Assemblage 23 in Orlando, which was a real treat. Tom Shear writes songs that I wish I could have written. Vampire Weekend put on a good show at Jannus Landing Live but it was overshadowed by the fact that I saw my first Flaming Lips show there the very next day. I never paid much attention to the Lips, but a few people told me they put on a great show so I figured I’d go check it out. After seeing literally hundreds of shows it’s hard to impress me. I was impressed. There was more confetti than I’ve seen (including at Blue Man Group shows), dozens of huge balloons, streamers, and the singer rolling around the crowd in a huge hamster ball. That was just the first song!

The other big highlight was seeing Roger Waters play The Wall. I’ll probably never get to see that show again. I had chills through most of it. Of course the year wouldn’t be complete without another trip to Atlanta to see Metric.

So that was 2010. As always, the thing I’m most grateful for is YOU who take the time to read this and keep in touch. Let’s all make 2011 a better year!

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The Starbucks Dribble Cup

Coffee Cup

For three years I worked a block away from a Fourbucks Starbucks. It was an occasional indulgence when I didn’t feel like dealing with the office coffee machine. Now I work in a place with no coffee machine and no good options nearby. If I want to partake of the evil bean at work my only choice is to bring it there, and this has illustrated a point I was only dimly aware of when coffee was little more than an elevator ride away:

Starbucks cup lids suck.

Those lids turn every cup of coffee into a dribble cup. I noticed when I walked for coffee that I always seemed to spill some, but now that I’m driving it’s practically impossible to transport coffee without making a mess. I can rarely drink these things while standing still without at least some small amount of coffee escaping through some portion of the lid that is not the suck hole.

I think what really made me notice was a trip to Dunkin Donuts. Whoever makes those lids has it right. The roads are broken up around my work and I can still drive them fairly aggressively and be absolutely confident that not a single drop will escape the cup. Contrast that to Starbucks where I can’t even get out the door without licking coffee off of my hand.

As successful as Starbucks has been you’d think they could do a better job on something so fundamental to serving beverages.

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