Archive for June, 2009

Pictures from Venice and Rome

June 28th, 2009

… are here. We split them into two albums, which can be accessed via the links on the navigation bar or by clicking here or here.

Website Bulletins

Late June movie round-up

June 27th, 2009

In less than three weeks since my last movie-watching summary I managed to see 11 movies, some of them fairly recent releases. Half of them were watched on transatlantic flights, plus I worked through the DVR queue a bit, in anticipation of fast-approaching cancellation of my satellite TV service.

Here is the lineup, with drive-by reviews as always below the cut (few spoilers cannot be avoided).

10,000 B.C. 2008
21 2008
Fool’s Gold 2008
Gran Torino 2008
sex, lies, and videotape 1989
Taken 2009
The Incredible Hulk 2008
The International 2009
Valkyrie 2008
Watchmen 2009
We Own the Night 2007

Read more…


Back to London, for the time being

June 26th, 2009

As I mentioned in passing at least once, I can’t sleep on planes. Sleep, to me, is an exercise in tranquility, with no ambient light, no nearby movement and definitely no unaccustomed-to sound allowed. Ability to adopt the most favorite pose for falling asleep is a key component of the process. None of these requirements can usually be satisfied when flying, and I suspect I have to be literally dead-tired to be able to block all of those distractions out and get some shut-eye in the air.

Oh, I might nod off here or there, but I’d invariably become disturbed by something that would wake me up in short order. I might persist with trying to get whatever sleep is possible, but would end up with a blinding headache and a no less debilitating neck pain after a few fitful hours. I long adopted a policy of not willfully attempting sleeping even on red-eye flights, especially when there is plenty of cinematic entertainment on hand.

The shortcomings of this policy became apparent on my return trip from New York last night. Corporate Travel agency procured a free First Class upgrade for me, and while British Airways’ First Class is not as posh as the Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic (described in the same article), it is still an exceptional way to fly, with seats morphing into flat beds, and bed spreads and even pyjamas available to whomever desires them. All of my fellow cabin-mates took advantage of it. Me, I did not even try, figuring that no matter how relatively comfortable I might get, sound sleep would still escape me. I reclined a little, put my feet up, and spent most of the flight watching movies. Kinda dumb, I know, I should’ve at least tried. (But the flicks were good – Watchmen, Taken, Valkyrie, none of which I disliked.)

It should work out as no more than a missed opportunity, hopefully. Upon getting home around 9 in the morning, I went to bed for a couple of hours, which, as usual, allowed me to more or less function normally through the rest of the workday. I’ll go to bed early tonight and, if the regular form holds, I’ll see no ill effects of the jet lag tomorrow.

During those two hours of sleep, I apparently became an Uncle once again. We are very excited for you, li’l brother and family!


New York City

June 24th, 2009

… has not changed much in the time that I’ve been away.

The same perpetual Midtown crush of the bodies throughout the day.

The same yellow cabs hassling for position and driving with abandon (although the logo they now sport on the side seems to be something that only came into effect recently).

The same weird characters on the street, loudly cursing somebody on their cell phones.

The same dog walkers scooping the poop after their charges.

The same subway trains, every car a cool mobile oasis in the stifling summer heat (not that the temperatures are high at the moment).

The same old tall buildings that skip number 13 in their floor number progression.

The same construction going on in hundreds of places simultaneously – OK, I’m sure that the actual locations are different from a few years ago, but the omni-presence of them is definitely just as I remember.

Strangely, it feels very much like home.

I was crossing the 6th Avenue at some point and a taxi making a turn from an intersecting street came to a stop to let me pass. I acknowledged the courtesy with a slight wave – something that I would invariably do in London. Then I thought to myself: This is one habit that I need to start getting rid of…


Where in the world is Ilya?

June 21st, 2009

In America, would you believe it!?

My first impression after having been away for almost two years: How wide the roads are! How deep from the roads the houses sit! How much space there is between them! How much space there is, period!

I know it is not a straight comparison. We’ve lived for these past years in what is technically still a part of the Greater London and a relatively urban setting; although the buildings all around us are primarily single-family houses, there are three different city bus routes running along our street, a smattering of various shops are within easy walking distance in every direction, and pedestrian sidewalks are everywhere. In New Jersey, while every few minutes or so I drive by a strip mall or a shopping center, the living is comparatively more suburban or even rural – no public transportation, little, if anything, is within walking distance…

And yet, the contrast startled me a bit. Where I live now, houses are invariably attached to one another; they crowd narrow roads; many streets can only accommodate one vehicle abreast, yet traffic can move in both directions, which calls for constant yielding maneuvers in tight spaces; a single car parked on the side can create a bottleneck for everyone traveling on that road; and, anyway, the roads are equipped with constant implements to slow you down… Where I lived before and will live soon again, houses are spaced apart with plenty of landscaping lawns separating them from one another and from the roads; the roads are often wide enough for two-lane travel even when only one lane is marked in either direction; a car parked on the street is a rarity; when you stay on the main road, you may not come to a stop-sign or a traffic light for miles…

I even drove under the speed limit for the entirety of my short driving spell last night. I forgot how easy it was to drive unimpeded, and I had no desire to make my enjoyment of the experience any shorter.


Days of lasts

June 19th, 2009

Just as in the early days of our London living there were various first-time experiences (as seen in this post, for instance), we are now going through experiences that are likely to be our “lasts”.

Our last trip on the Eurotunnel train occurred back in May, on our getaway to Brussels.

What I suspect was the last family day-trip took place this past Sunday.

The last family vacation on the continent is only three weeks away.

Last night, we had what I presume was our last dinner out in the Blackheath Village. Our friends Sharon and Vic came from Central London to join us for a meal at the local Michelin-reviewed establishment. Despite the somewhat sad occasion of this having been our farewell dinner with them, we had a great time, fortified by excellent food and good wine.

I coaxed everybody into a walk on the heath afterwards, but it was too windy for a pleasant stroll, so we left quickly. Unless something unexpected happens, it was likely my very last time of being on foot in the area. (Others in the family will have additional chances: Natasha will be taking Kimmy for one last classical music performance at Blackheath Halls, and Becky will surely have a picnic or two on the heath with her friends before we leave.)

I’m getting slightly melancholic about that, to be honest. Blackheath – which we visited often but did not get to live in – is near the top of the list of places that I grew fond of during my years in England.

The property management company erected a “To Let” sign on our front garden’s brick wall. We are now clearly marked for departure. 40 days left, for those keeping the score at home.


Timeshare fail

June 18th, 2009

So I had 11 direct inquiries about our timeshare week that we put up for donation a while ago. I turned everybody away and, lately, directed them to contact the sales department of the closing company dealing with my donation.

The closing company did not make any contacts with me during roughly six months since their original “we are looking to serve you in a timely and efficient manner” greeting. I periodically checked the online status of my file, which even suggested that a buyer was identified and the transaction was proceeding.

I finally decided to write to the closing company with a not-exactly-complaint that six months’ time was a couple of months over what they initially suggested as the reasonable length of the process. The response I received cordially informed me that the prospective buyer pulled out for one reason or another and that no other buyers could be identified. Therefore, my file was closed and the donation cancelled. “But thank you for your interest”, the email concluded.

I wrote back a snarky and annoyed response, pointing out that I missed on 11 opportunities to sell the week, while the inept “sales department” could not find more than one buyer; and that “timely and efficient manner” does not mean what the Resort Closings, Inc., thinks it means. I felt better as one could only feel after dispensing a brilliant tongue-lashing…

I asked the most recent prospective direct buyer whether she was interested in going ahead with the purchase. She said she was very interested and asked me a ton of questions. I answered some, but for most, I pointed her to a website with pretty good FAQs on the process.

She responded today that she decided to look for a timeshare in another part of Florida instead. She then proceeded to list various items that I “need to have ready” when a prospective buyer contacts me. I don’t recall asking for an advice, but that’s my net gain from this transaction so far.

I suppose I have nothing to lose by contacting all of those other people whom I have turned away to see if they may still be interested. If not, I’ll try donating again through a different channel.

Epic fail! Deserving, too1.

1 As Natasha keeps reminding me, she was not too enthusiastic about getting into interval ownership in the first place. It was I who felt that buying a timeshare week was a grand idea back in 1995.

Chronicles, Customerography

Look who’s 9!

June 17th, 2009

Happy birthday, Kimmy!


YouTube’d memories: Caribbean Blue

June 16th, 2009
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Half a year or so into my American immigrant life, I earned enough money through a couple of small jobs to splurge on my very own CD-playing boombox. Lured in by the infamous “12 CDs for the price of 1” offer, I then joined BMG Music Service (which I accidentally learned is ceasing operation this month) with the aim of building up my music collection.

I bought a lot of dreck through that service (remember, this was before the era of peer-to-peer internet sharing, so I had little opportunity to “try before buy”). Some albums and performers aligned with this or that fleeting “phase” in my musical affinities. Others were recommended by enthusiastic friends whose tastes not always ran parallel to mine. Yet others were of “one hit track plus thirteen crappy ones” variety, where I just had to have that hit track.

I eventually offloaded dozens of barely-used CDs to second-hand music shops for $2 a piece. That’s several hundred dollars of money down the drain…

Buying an album of Enya was one of those “recommended by a friend” purchases. Not even a close friend, as it were, but one of my fellow counselors at the summer day camp. Whom I don’t think I saw ever again or cared to keep in touch with after the camp had ended.

I never managed to get into Enya’s New Age sound and probably never listened to that album more than a couple of times. But Caribbean Blue somehow stuck out, and it is now one of the few musical “survivors” from that period of my life. I have it in my iPod library, and when it comes up in shuffle mode, I normally don’t skip through it.

I like the video a lot, too.


Kimmy and Sudoku

June 15th, 2009

Kimmy had an advance birthday party last Saturday (we had a bit of a scheduling problem with our customary approach of celebrating after the date, not ahead of it). She and a dozen of friends – including Big Sis and one of her friends – enjoyed an hour of fun in a swimming pool. Kimmy says it was the best birthday party ever.

She received many gifts, among them an electronic Sudoku game.

The child is hooked! I never pegged either of my girls as being much inclined towards math – they are both creative artsy types instead – but Kimmy got a hang of it after the briefest of explanations from me and since then spent several hours completing the numerical puzzles and whooping in delight when she got them right. She plays the simplest level of difficulty so far, but after only a couple of tries she started saying that it was “so easy”…

I had not a slightest doubt that she would find Sudoku boring when I first saw the gift. She surprised me big time!


The last little day trip

June 14th, 2009

In a tellingly sad testament to the fact that we, as a family, long stopped spending weekends on day-tripping in and around London, we had a hard time today recalling our last such outing. Turns out it was the trip to Chislehurst caves, in early February, although relative proximity of the place to where we live makes it a stretch to consider that excursion a “day trip”. We had to go all the way back to mid-October, when we explored Rochester, to name a true intraday sightseeing adventure.1

We had plans for this weekend that would keep our recent form, but Sunday unexpectedly opened up, and we boldly took an opportunity to have a family outing for one last time in England.

We went to the Hever Castle, a place the we already visited two years ago. Kimmy specifically wanted to go there because of the water maze (which left her soaking wet), but we also hired a paddle boat for an hour on the lake, wandered through pristine grounds, and sat down in the shade for a bit. The day was a bit on the hot side, but tolerable for staying in the sun. We had excellent time all around.

It was almost definitely the last such time. Over the next few weekends, either I will be traveling to New York or Becky will be in France on her language study trip. There is one Sunday in July after our return from Spain that we may want to use for a farewell walk in Central London, and that’ll be it.

Hard to believe, actually.

1 Our trip to Mini-Europe was a day trip, but the fact that we crossed a couple of international borders during that outing puts it beyond the “local day-tripping” category.


Natasha on UK Food channel

June 13th, 2009

A few weeks ago Natasha scored free tickets to participate in a taping of a UK food channel show “Market Kitchen”. She invited a couple of girlfriends and spent half a day in a studio listening to chef’s presentations and tasting their creations. She says it was a lot of fun.

Her TV appearance consisted of one two-second-long close-up plus dozens of fleeting moments where she could be prominently seen in the background. I finally got around to making a short clip of that.

I currently do not possess recording equipment to transfer a Sky+ program into portable digital format. Instead, I resorted to the incredibly inventive trick of positioning a camcorder in front of the TV. That – and my lack of willpower to go to extra lengths – accounts for the far from ideal sound.

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Family Album

Absolutely amazing sand art

June 12th, 2009
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You don’t have to understand Russian to be fascinated with the skill of this performer.

A poignant sand art essay that commemorates what we know as the Great Patriotic War.

Tip of the hat to Natasha K.

Idle Amusements

The fodder

June 11th, 2009

My culinary talents – and inclinations, to be honest, – are very limited: I can boil eggs or pasta, or grill pre-marinated meats. How in the world am I supposed to feed a hungry teenager and a picky little munchkin for a whole week, while their mother is away?!

Three words: cereals, takeouts, dining out. Fine, four words.

Kimmy can have a bowl of cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and add one as a mid-day snack, for good measure. Plus, she loves pasta with Italian sauces that we constantly stock, and providing her with a supply of freshly boiled pasta is within my abilities. Fruits and berries complement her diet.

Becky has more eclectic tastes, so cereal gets supplemented by takeouts and deliveries. One day we ordered tons of Chinese stuff (that lasted us three days), another time we decided on fish and chips (the huge servings of chips – that would be fries for those of you not familiar with British lingo – could feed a medium-sized family each, oodles of cholesterol and all).

Me, I’m not a cereal person. The loving wife graciously left me with enough ready-to-grill meat to last a few days (neither of the girls are big meat eaters, so I did not have to share); I also nibbled on some of the takeouts. My daily breakfast: Three hard-boiled eggs and a large mug of tea.

When we felt the need to diversify, we went to our favorite sushi place. Kimmy is not much for sushi, but a miso soup and a tuna roll make her happy. Becky and I gorged on various maki and nigiri. Then we came back home – and the kids decided to have a bowl of cereal…

Looks like we survived. Just one more morning, and our resident chef par excellence will be back to work her magic on our appetites.


Romeo and Juliet

June 10th, 2009

In lieu of any other content that I can provide at the moment, here is a recent masterpiece from my budding artist offspring, a music-video-ish interpretation of the immortal Shakespeare’s play by Becky and her friends.

As with her poem, Becky decided that my vast audience offers a chance for better publicity than her own blog readership. Therefore, posted with full author’s consent.


I hate crossing UK borders

June 8th, 2009

America nowadays is likely the country with the world’s most stringent border checks for foreigners. But I’ve been a US citizen since mid-90’s, so I never had to experience the long queues and the indignity of fingerprinting and all. You occasionally end up in a fairly long queue for US citizens as well, but they at least have a tendency to move comparatively briskly, based on my visual observations.

The only country that I’ve repeatedly entered as a foreigner is, unsurprisingly, the United Kingdom. And, as my rotten luck would have it, it is likely the country with the world’s second most-stringent border checks. There are landing cards, one per person, that the border agent has to write upon and stamp; there is requisite passport scanning and stamping; the agent invariably chats you up, sometimes asking formal questions (where do you live? what do you do? are you still with the same company that sponsored your work permit?) or sometimes just engaging you in a non-committal chit-chat. I understand the need, I do not bemoan the thoroughness, I actually do feel safer knowing that it is not easy for a persona non grata to enter the country where I make my home.

What I have a problem with is the accommodation, or lack thereof.

There are normally a handful to a dozen of agents in any given airport border control hall dealing with long queues of disembarked passengers. Those assigned to the UK/EU desks keep their lines moving by giving a quick look-over to each passport and waving people through. Those at the non-EU desks are the ones who need to be very thorough and deliberate. Of course, every other passenger that they see either does not speak any English or has a red flag among his visa stamps or, for any number of reasons, behaves in a way that suggests the need for in-depth interrogation.

All the way while I’m stuck in the queue.

In a large stuffy room that is not properly air-conditioned.

With a tired 8-year-old who has to go to the bathroom.

Next to a bunch of nice folks whose views on personal hygiene are incompatible with my sensibilities.

You see, there are no “non-EU permanent resident” desks, which would be similar to what I remember a standard “Green Card holders” lane in the US airports. Instead, it does not matter to the border agency that I make my home here in the UK. When I show up at the border with my US passport, I don’t get to differentiate myself from other non-EU citizens who happen to be visitors to Britain.

Hey, I pay taxes in this country. You might even guess without me expressly pointing it out – but I’ll do that anyway – that what I pay in taxes is considerably above what the average UK citizen pays. Why don’t I deserve the courtesy of having a speedier procedure for entry!?

Ah, but there is one way to expedite your entry into the country if you are a permanent resident with non-EU credentials. It is called IRIS and I first mentioned it two years ago. When you are registered and the system is operational, it literally takes 20-30 seconds for your retina scan to confirm your identity and grant you entry to the UK. There aren’t long queues either.

Except, children are not eligible to register for IRIS, due to some nonsense about ensuring that “every child’s welfare is considered by a human agent at the point of crossing”. I travel for leisure a lot more than I travel for business. When I travel for leisure, I have my kids in tow. I don’t have any choice but to get into the stupid queue.

I realize it sounds like such a trivial thing, but with our relatively frequent escapades abroad, crossing UK border has become one of the things I hate the most about living in England. I’ve flown into a dozen European countries – some, like Italy or Spain, many times over – and I’m treated as a visitor at their borders better than I am treated as a resident at the UK ones. (Only once on our travels, in Poland, we were inexplicably subject to a lengthy copy-down-all-of-the-passport-information-by-hand border crossing procedure, but I’m willing to discount that as remnants of cold-war suspiciousness, and I lack enough of a sample in Eastern Europe to confirm or refute that generalization.)

I wish I lived on the continent instead. In any case, there is only one time in the foreseeable future that I will have to get into that queue again…

That's England

Lists and spreadsheets

June 7th, 2009

My late grandfather used to say, quite seriously, that the best way to remind yourself to do something important during the day is to write down what you need to do, then thoroughly crumble the piece of paper on which you wrote and put it into the front pocket of your trousers; having that ball of paper in your pocket would be a constant bothersome reminder that you need to do something…

I am not as inventive as he was, but I am extremely organized in my planning and my daily life. I keep fairly evolved lists of to-dos, follow-ups and things to keep my eye on at work, I consult nested task lists at home, I make Natasha write down things that require her attention during the day beyond the simple grocery list.

When we go away on holidays, we always go through our thorough packing lists to make sure we don’t forget anything, starting with documentation and ending with caramel candies for ear pressure relief in flight. Our lists include absolutely everything that we ever needed on any type of holiday; we check off the things that we pack or cross out the things that we do not need for the specific trip. Several years ago, I even contemplated designing a software that would produce customized packing lists based on input such as number and age of travelers, type of destination, length of stay, etc. Laziness won and I did not progress much beyond conceptual design, and the all-encompassing packing list is firmly in our preparation routine.

Relocation gives me a huge platform to flex my organization muscles. We have an overall to-do list, an items-to-sell list, an accounts-to-close list, an accounts-to-retain-but-change-address sublist, etc. Every item is marked with a target date and a responsible party. There are green, amber and red statuses…

I exhibited similar fervor in preparing Natasha for house-hunting. We came up with a nearly exhaustive list of things that we want to pay attention to in prospective properties, and I coded a weighted formula into a spreadsheet that Natasha could populate upon seeing each house. Bigger things (number and age of bedrooms/bathrooms, size and quality of kitchen space, existence of a fully finished basement, quality of outdoor space, etc) get larger point allocation, but smaller things such as closet space, fireplaces and included/excluded appliances are counted as well.

I suppose a house purchase is more about love and hate than about weighted numerical analysis. You walk into a house, you love it, you find several shortcomings that you are willing to work on once you own the place. You walk into another one, everything seems to be suitable, but there is something off-putting that you cannot overcome or one specific parameter – price? noisy road? garage not big enough to fit your SUV? – that make the house undesirable. In the end, after seeing X number of properties, you sit down, look through your notes, discuss all pros and cons of houses that you liked and pick the one that you like the most.

We aren’t any different in expecting to do just that. Yet, I would like to have some quantifiable foundation behind our likes and dislikes.

My formula awards a maximum of 290 points, but no house could conceivably pack in every single feature that we’d like (while simultaneously staying at the lower end of our price range), so I figured that anything around 230 would be as close to an ideal house as one could get. When we did our preliminary online property reviews, we got a handful of houses into 160-170 range on the basis of realtor reports, with a number of unknowns. That boded quite well for Natasha’s search.

But after two days and a dozen viewed properties, only one house came close to 200. It was one of our online top two, but it has a couple of serious shortcomings, including backing out on a major county road…

Several other houses dropped their marks, on account of a realtor report generously saying “new” where the right description would be “20-year-old but in decent condition”, or “finished basement” where the qualifier “partially” would be key. Still, a couple of houses of the ones Natasha has seen score ok and she liked them well enough to schedule a second viewing. Stay tuned.


Early June movie round-up

June 7th, 2009

This is a bit of an inertia post. I do not feel ready to completely abandon my drive-by movie reviews, but none of the movies I caught in the last month or so were truly on my to-watch list (not even Star Trek, an impulse decision, or Coraline, watched at the behest of the kids, both of which I enjoyed). I’m overdue for an installment of the feature, so even though I have few illuminating thoughts on these, here they are.

Coraline 2009
Ghostbusters 1984
I Am Legend 2007
Star Trek 2009
Wanted 2008

Read more…


Coraline in 3D

June 6th, 2009
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The girls and I went to see Coraline today, which was my first experience with “real 3D” movies. Not the old spectrum-shift type that looked very confusing when not seen through special glasses; and the glasses themselves were not of the flimsy cardboard variety with one red eye and one blue eye. Instead, we were issued very sturdy old-fashioned-looking glasses with clear, almost imperceptibly tinted lenses; putting these glasses on outside of the cinema did not produce any discernible changes to the clarity of vision. When we tried looking at the screen without them, the display was obviously flat and a teeny tiny bit blurry but nonetheless watchable. With the glasses on, we were treated to excellent 3D effect and a very enjoyable experience.

Way cool!

The movie is quirky and beautifully made, and there are enough ominous moments to make the young members of the audience uncomfortable (Kimmy confessed to being a bit scared in certain episodes). Neil Gaiman’s stories are always very imaginative, often with strong dark undertones. The cinematographers did an outstanding job of visualizing his novella. There are very few all too brief hilarious moments, the colors are all muted, you constantly feel that something sinister is afoot…

I did not think it was a children’s movie at all, but the girls liked it overall. I did as well. What spoiled it a bit for me was my usual pet peeve of having a Russian character speak in broken Russian. Mr Bobinsky at times spoke brilliantly in Russian (and Ian McShane did a reasonable job of faking Russian accent when Bobinsky spoke English), but there were enough of goofs – putting a given name where a patronymic should have sounded, repeatedly using a diminutive for flies when mice were the subject (мушки vs мышки), mis-stressing a syllable of a long word – to kick me out of my reverie so that I could contemplate this perpetually burning question: How expensive could it be to hire a native Russian speaker to proof-read the few Russian lines in a movie script?

I wonder if there is an alternative career in that…

Anyway, that’s two trips to the cinema in less than a month. Go me!


Relocation update, 06/04/09

June 4th, 2009

Natasha is off to Joysie to look at houses. We perused roughly 50 properties online and identified about a dozen as satisfying our primary parameters. She will see those, plus whatever else may come up in the next few days. In the ideal scenario, one of those properties will exhibit no shortcomings, and we’ll be making a move on it.

Professional moving services have been fully engaged, and dates for the shipment set. We’ll have a familiar task of sorting all of our belongings into several categories (air-freight shipment, sea-freight shipment, to be left behind) prior to when the movers arrive, with an interesting twist of identifying which of the stuff that we use every day had belonged in this house before we rented it…

One-way tickets have been acquired. Circle the date: July 29th. I expect a welcoming ceremony worthy of a foreign dignitary, no less. Fireworks are optional, but a marching band and an honorary guard are non-negotiable.