Archive

Archive for January, 2010

What’s in a name?

January 28th, 2010

When our children were born, we did not exactly bother to research what the names we were giving them meant. (Or, if we did at the time, my memory did not record it.) But yesterday, Kimmy came across a naming book in our library and decided to figure out what her full name originates from.

Kimberly Sarah turned out as “Royal Princess”. Sorta redundant, but it just proves that we weren’t concerned with meanings much, just with whether we liked the names and whether we could honor our late grand- and great-grandparents by naming the children so.

Becky then looked up Rebecca Evelyn as well.

“Faithful Hazelnut”.

She was surprisingly good-humored about it…

Children

iPad

January 27th, 2010

The newest Apple gadget is shiny enough and I suspect a whole lot of people are salivating at the prospect of getting their hands on one. Perusing the official iPad website, I caught myself on a stray thought about how neat it would be to own one of these.

Let’s recall my repeatedly stated admission that I am a late adopter. Let’s also admit that I am not an Apple devotee, never having bought into the unsubstantiated religious belief that Apple products are truly superior to those of their competitors’, and having never been impressed with the monetary expenses attendant to owning every “greatest” Apple device. (I do own an iPod, but I actually got it at absolutely no cost to me. I don’t own anything else from Apple.)

Those considerations pretty much negate any possibility of me going out and getting an iPad when it becomes available. But there are also considerations of “Do I need a portable – however slick – computer at all?”

I do not spend a lot of “free” time in front of a computer at home. When I do switch on my home PC it is either for a computer-enabled house chore (say, to review family finances) or for a personal project. In both cases, I am pretty sure that a desktop PC with a wide-screen 24″ monitor and a full-size keyboard is a device more conducive to efficient task completion.

I prefer to read during my lengthy commute. Books or periodicals, not daily newspapers or blogs. So, an Internet browser with 3G wireless capability, while an unquestionably nice thing to have available, is not exactly a necessity for me. And an ability to peruse emails on the go – or to respond to them – does not fit at all into my M.O. I occasionally scroll through my Blackberry inbox outside of business hours, but I am a big proponent of leaving work behind when I am on my personal time.

I am perfectly fine with using my iPod – do you know that I still have the original monochrome-screen clunky-by-current-standards model? – for music on the go. I haven’t ever bought anything on iTunes and don’t plan to – vast majority of what I listen to is in Russian and is not available on iTunes, and my tastes in music are so calcified in the past, that it is hard to imagine that I don’t own something that I like on a CD, long ago digitized for iPod.

I have my business schedule and all of my contacts on my Blackberry. Given that it is also my mobile phone and my business emails channel, I am more than happy to have all of that functionality in that one place.

I can’t work up much enthusiasm for watching movies or TV shows on a smallish screen.

I practically do not play computer games.

I can see how having all of your pictures on a device that can easily display them while being passed around has certain value as a great conversation starter. I don’t know how frequently it would be of use, though. Certainly, not a necessity.

Having maps of the entire world – whether GPS-enabled or not – with you can also be viewed as valuable, but I honestly do not see myself trying to navigate streets of an unfamiliar city while checking my progress on a tablet. If anything, it will attract thieves in no time.

I don’t engage in creative pursuits that may require jotting down ideas as they occur to me. And my retentive memory is above average in that I actually rarely take notes altogether.

I do make to-do lists for myself all the time. On post-it notes, more often than not. Replacing that media with a tablet for that particular purpose appears an overkill.

So, of all the items listed on the iPad features page, book e-reader would appear the most useful for me. Except, with an LCD screen, I would not get the benefits of eInk that practically every dedicated e-reader provides these days.

Of course, it should be noted that I have not joined the 21st century yet in buying myself an e-reader. But I suppose I’ll look into doing that rather than contemplating getting a tablet PC, however brilliant iPad looks from a distance.

Gadgets

YouTube’d memories: Waltz from “Beware the automobile”

January 26th, 2010

I have been wounding down this recurring feature on my blog, for lack of material. Unless I get a sudden flashback to some remarkable piece, I can no longer think of a non-Russian song or performer that holds a special place in my memories. And I do not feel much enthusiasm for pulling in Russian songs into the series. I guess about 50 entries in a feature is a pretty good run.

For a finale, though, I will use a Russian exhibit. Not a song, though, but rather the theme from one of my favorite old Soviet movies. As far as melodies go, this one is undoubtedly my most favorite melody of all time, bar none. I can’t exactly explain why but I literally get goose bumps when it reaches crescendo somewhere around two minutes in.
 

Music

Assorted notes

January 25th, 2010

Both of the teams I was rooting for lost in conference championship games on Sunday. The Jets were exposed as a lower-class team with mostly toothless offense and only occasionally stingy defense. The Vikings turned the ball over four times and yet had the game for the taking with 2:29 remaining in the fourth quarter. Except, my erstwhile most favorite football player – on his second consecutive one-year un-retirement – single-handedly gave it up with yet another turnover, followed by the overtime in which he did not get a chance to touch the ball. NFL overtime rules are beyond stupid, a questionable officiating decision helped the Saints on their winning drive, but the bottom line is, as I was sitting on the couch repeating to myself “Protect the ball, get into the field goal range” at the end of the regulation, Favre managed the latter, and then screwed up with the former.

The Superbowl now holds decidedly limited interest for me: Not having seen it on the American TV for several years, I’m curious as to the commercials aspect of it. Colts in a shootout, anyway.

In other news, Cablevision and Scripps Networks have resolved their dispute regarding Food Network and HGTV, and both are back on air. Since these two channels constitute roughly 80% of Natasha’s choice of viewing, she is now back in contention for TV-watching time.

And on an entirely unrelated note, my corporate overlords recently decided to block access to a variety of blogging sites. Stand-alone domains such as mine are still accessible, but services such as Blogger are not anymore. I can still use my RSS aggregator for reading, but my ability to click through has been curtailed, which means however little I commented in the past, there will be even less of that going forward. And it goes almost without saying that I practically never spend time on blog-reading when at home. If they block RSS sites as well, I might drop out of the blogosphere altogether. Advance apologies to all of my pen friends.

Chronicles, Sports

UK taxes, one more time

January 22nd, 2010
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Yep, 15 minutes, give or take.

January 31, 2010, is the deadline for filing UK taxes for fiscal year 2008-09, and I repeated the self-assessment process that I first mentioned here. This time, I literally typed in three different amounts provided to me on the British equivalent of W-2 form (called P60) and one other form (called P11D), after answering a series of binary questions regarding my sources of income and eligible deductions; to do all that I needed to click through about two dozen different screens at the HMRC website, but all of my personal information was already there, I only had to additionally re-enter my banking account attributes for the purposes of direct deposit. It all took 15 minutes, if that.

I actually ended up owing Her Majesty’s government a small amount of money, which was very easily paid through my UK bank online service. My tax account already reflects zero balance on the website.

Curiously enough, this is not the last time I will have to report taxes in the UK. Their fiscal year inexplicably runs from April 7th of one year through April 6th of the next. As I was on the UK payroll through early August of 2009, I earned about four months of salary in the fiscal year 2009-10. The tax return filing deadline for that will be January 31, 2011. Only after that I’ll no longer have any obligations to HM Revenue & Customs.

Expat Topic

Some props to Microsoft

January 21st, 2010

I know quite a number of technology people with strong opinions about Microsoft and its products. Usually, not too positive ones. That does not prevent most of those people continue to use Microsoft products all the time, especially seeing how PC software have always been easier and cheaper to come by as opposed to, say, software for Macs.

Me, I never had to develop software on Microsoft platforms during my career and I never had much of a problem with my home PCs either, so I am a reasonably content PC person, always amused with anti-PC exaggerations in the mostly entertaining John Hodgman/Justin Long commercials.

I am also a late adopter who has never ever upgraded an operating system on a home PC. Moore’s Law in hand, I simply get better hardware once every few years, and use whatever comes pre-installed on it, which is more likely than not at the Service Pack 2 level by that time, meaning that all of the initial most annoying problems have been resolved already.

My last PC purchases until recently have been made before our move to England in pre-Vista days, so I have been happily running XP on all home devices. But I decided to renew almost all of the family home computers upon settling down back in the US. Before Windows 7 came out, so that my late-adopter bona fides were not impacted. Having never heard a single good thing about Vista, I made sure that my own new PC had XP installed on top of Vista installation. But for the new computers for kids, I did not bother with such specifics and ordered standard-configuration devices that came with Vista pre-installed.

One of those PCs came with an “invitation” for a free upgrade to then soon-to-be-released Windows 7. I misplaced that leaflet originally, but then came across it a couple of weeks ago. Late adopter or not, a free upgrade is a free upgrade. The information on the leaflet specified that I would be ordering an upgrade disk rather than doing any sort of on-the-spot installation, so I figured I’d get the disk while I was still inside the eligible time period and then decide whether to use it on some computer later.

I go to the online ordering site, type in the upgrade code from the leaflet, and learn that I am entitled to an upgrade from Vista Business Premium edition. Oops! The Vista installations that I have in the house are all Home Premium. The accompanying note on the website instructs me to be absolutely sure that I am ordering the correct upgrade, else it will not work.

I click through a couple of pages to find the appropriate support number, pick up the phone and within a few seconds speak to an “upgrade project team” member who introduces himself as John. After hearing my overview of the problem, he profusely apologizes for a mix-up and assures me that it is easily fixed. All he needs is the supporting documentation (literally, a scan of my upgrade leaflet and a print-screen of the operating system info from the PC in question) and my shipping address, so that they can order the proper upgrade version for me directly. Fifteen minutes later, I have the necessary jpegs which I send on to the e-mail provided to me over the phone.

Within 30 minutes, I get an email response from someone named Mario asking me for additional information needed to place the order. Apparently, my daytime phone number is necessary. I immediately respond. Within another hour or so, I get another email from someone named Malik that all of my information was received and sent up to the “processing department”. As soon as they review and approve, my order would be placed.

Next day, I receive an email from someone whose name I do not recall notifying me that my order has been placed. In less than 24 hours, yet another email comes, of seemingly automated nature, advising me that my order has been shipped and providing the tracking number.

A few days later, I get the package in the mail, with the Windows 7 Home Premium upgrade disk in it.

I’ve seen some efficient product-replacement issue resolutions (and even blogged about something of the kind), but this was right up there on the Great Service plane. Quite unexpected, to be sure. Props to Microsoft.

Now, do I really want to futz around with an almost brand-new PC that probably can safely run Vista for several years, given that its primary user – a certain 9-year-old – is only interested in internet and streaming video…

Customerography

Same drivers, old problems

January 19th, 2010

Having spent a large portion of the long weekend behind the wheel of a car, I am reminded of an old problem I have with American drivers. (I reflected on it in passing in this post.)

Left lane is for passing, not for cruising. I don’t care that your speed is marginally faster than that of the car to your right – if nobody is in front of you and you do not pass that car within seconds, then you have no business being in the faster lane. And if there are no cars to pass and you persist in staying in the left lane, then you’re a dick. Yes, I can break two laws at once – pass on the right while exceeding speed limit – to get around you, but you won’t be any less of a dick as a result of that.

Somehow, this never feels like a problem when driving in Europe. People exceed speed limits all the time, of course, so you might come up behind someone already going pretty fast in the fast lane. But if they see in the rear mirror that another car is gaining on them, they’d move to a slower lane as soon as they find an appropriate gap between vehicles. If they don’t, while no longer passing cars in slower lanes, a couple of headlight flashes will remind them of what is considered common courtesy on Euro roads, and they’ll comply.

Try flashing your headlights to a car that drives at around speed limit in the left lane on an American freeway. It will likely decrease speed and the driver will either completely ignore your hint or gesticulate his confusion at your apparent intrusion into his driving reverie. Finishing with a bird.

Man, I hate stupid drivers!

Re-pat's culture shock

The Brit

January 17th, 2010
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I wanted to put up another video of Becky, this one of her recent number at the school Performance Showcase, but I can’t make the Facebook video download script work in my Firefox browser.

The quality of that video is lacking anyway, so I have to rely on eyewitness accounts that it was a pretty good number. It also became apparent to said eyewitnesses (Natasha and Kimmy) that some of Becky’s expectations for coming back to the US did come true. She is widely known as “The Brit”, which contributes a fair share of her popularity among her classmates. Since I don’t personally recognize traces of British accent in her speech, I cannot truly opine whether she works extra on that when in school.

Children

Becky: Monologue of a …

January 10th, 2010

I don’t want to provide the name of this little performance out of concern for what type of future Google searches it may attract. You’ll understand.

This is something Becky did for a graded Drama class project at school a while ago. We decided to take a video cut for posterity.
 

Get the Flash Player to see this content.

 

Children, Family Videos

Travel anecdotes: Everybody knows Antonio

January 8th, 2010

While this is one of those little travel recollections that we frequently like to recount, it is not an “anecdote” in the sense that I associate with the word. It does not have a punchline or a comical outcome. It is simply something we recall with fondness.

On our visit to the Amalfi Coast, we headquartered ourselves in a relatively minor location, as evidenced by its name, Minori1.

We stayed at a great B&B high above town, with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and the Tyrrhenian Sea that we enjoyed from our private terrace. The food was great, the accommodations perfect – after all, our demands rarely exceed good location plus cleanliness plus running water – and the hospitality of owners unparalleled. Only one person in the family spoke any English, and not very much of that. Our mastery of Italian was very minimal at the time. And yet, we were greeted as if we were long-lost close relatives and the communication barrier quickly evaporated under the torrent of amiability and warmth.

One the last night of our stay we decided to have dinner at the B&B. The meal was prepared by the owner’s sister. Boy, was that a monumental mistake! Not in the direct sense, mind you. Everything we were served was out-of-this-world delicious. The problem was in the amounts of food. We were not used to a six-course dinner where everything is unbelievably tasty… and there is no way to leave something on the plate without risking offending the friendly cook! Who was also the waiter. One appetizer replaced another, then came pasta, then another pasta, then some succulent meat dish… And all we could think of after the third or so course was, How are we going to eat anything else, we are so full!

And then, for dessert, we were offered to sample from a dozen of different brands of limoncello. Mmm… Quite impossible to get seriously drunk, too, with so much food blocking all of the digestive paths…

But this is not the main point of this story.

We asked the owner for restaurant recommendations when we arrived. He pointed us to a place in town that served the best seafood on the coast, according to him. He instructed us to mention to the staff that he sent us there.

We followed his instructions. The restaurant occupied a beautiful stucco building on the corner of the seafront promenade. As a member of the staff greeted us, I managed enough of Italian to explain that we would like a table for two and that Signor Antonio, whose guests we currently were, recommended the place.

The waiter’s already friendly smile stretched as far as his face allowed.

“Antonio! Certo! Him and I, we practically shared a potty when we were kids!”2

We were shown to a small table in an alcove with a view to the promenade and the beach beyond. Quite romantic! Possibly, we would be given the same table even if we were not sent here by our host, but I’d like to think that we were treated like VIPs because of him.

I asked for a wine recommendation. Our waiter summoned another, whose sommelier qualifications probably exceeded those of the first guy only in that the latter spoke a little English. He first tried to explain to us that someone in his family was married to Antonio’s sister’s best friend’s cousin or something, and that he and Antonio were close friends since childhood. Then, he proceeded to point out which of the wines on the menu was the most perfect accompaniment to the meal we were about to have. It turned out to be il vino della casa. Maybe, he did not want to waste some more expensive wine on American tourists; knowing that house wine is often the best value for money in non-touristy European eateries, I’d like to think that he was sincerely helping us avoid overpaying for something we might not enjoy as much.

While we were having our meal, we experienced something that almost never happens at a restaurant in most parts of Europe: Our dinner was interrupted a couple of times by the members of restaurant staff3. First, one waiter or another came to our table to check on us and said something along the lines of him needing to make sure that we’d tell Antonio that his friends know how to look after his guests. Then, at some point, the chef came around to our table, introduced himself, inquired how our meal was, and regaled us with a story about Antonio’s father and himself and a most beautiful girl who ended up either Antonio’s mother or chef’s wife, I didn’t quite get it, with the “losing” guy stoically performing best man duties at the wedding4.

When the time came to order dessert, Natasha picked some torta or other, while I was content not to have anything else. The waiter nonetheless brought us a full bottle of limoncello. As I tried to say that we did not order any, he waved my protest away. A gift, he said. To take home with us. On the house, because we were guests of Antonio.

True to his word, the bill did not include any mention of limoncello. We brought that bottle home to the States with us and it lasted us quite a long time, occasional drinkers that we are.

Neither Natasha nor I remember much about the specific dishes that we had at that restaurant (and we did not yet start the practice of detailing our meals in the travel diaries then). But it remains one of the most memorable restaurant experiences on our travels. Because everybody knew Antonio.

After a day or so, we were pretty sure that among residents, everybody knew everybody in Minori.

—————
1 For those unfamiliar with that area, yes, there is a nearby village called Maiori. As far as I am aware, it is bigger. While still being a minor point of interest, compared to the likes of Sorrento, Positano or Amalfi.

2 I allow that what he said was actually something quite different. But I understood much less Italian then than I do now, and this is all an interpretation of what I think was said, based on such clues as gesticulation and body language, plus individual words that I thought I caught.

3 American travellers frequently complain that once your food is delivered, the waiter seemingly loses all interest in the customer in French or Italian eateries. You often have to make an effort to catch her or his attention when you need something or even when you’re ready to pay and leave. Me, I find that quite all right. Once I start eating, I don’t want to be disturbed by questions about my food and unsolicited offers of help. I want to eat and enjoy conversation with my dining partners in peace. When I need further help, I’ll call for it.

4 See 2 above.

Memoirs, Travel

An answer to a small mystery

January 6th, 2010

I’ve long been stupefied by the fact that one of the most common search terms that leads people to my website is “medical sign”. Type that into a Google search and you will not find a link to B[b]otH anywhere near the top (I gave up checking after ten pages).

But!

Run that same search on Google Images. Either at the bottom of the first page or the top of the second page – I don’t know why it fluctuates – you’ll find a picture from this old post of mine with “burlaki.com” link underneath it. Which apparently gets a fair share of clicks through.

I have no idea why a picture from my site would be near the top for a query that returns 62,500,000 results, but page ratings must not work the same way between regular searches and image searches. I don’t know whether to be proud that I lap almost the entire Internet on one specific search query or to be upset that success does not come whence I would like it.

At least, I stumbled across an explanation for something that bothered me for a long time…

Blogging

Decades and centuries

January 5th, 2010

It occurred to me today that it had always bothered me when people insisted that the 21st Century and the new millennium started on January 1st, 2000 (when, in fact, the previous millennium and century both continued for another year after that1), yet I am not bothered at all with the commonly-accepted notion that a new decade starts in a year that ends with 0. Must have something to do with “decade” being oftentimes used to mark any statistically or historically significant stretch2, whereas “century” or “millennium” seem to always be used with specific boundaries in mind.

This deep thought is all I’m going to offer today.

——————
1 If someone wants to re-visit that tired argument, please do me a favor first. Imagine yourself turning 2000 years old on January 1st, 2000. Count back 2000 years to come up with the day you had to be born. Use all of the tools in your disposal to determine whether year 0 AD ever existed. Try to accept that the first day of Anno Domini was January 1st, 1 AD (at least, as expressed within our modern-day Gregorian conventions). Add two thousand years to that to determine on which exact day you would turn 2000 if you were born on 01/01/0001. You can also add in increments of 100 to determine each century’s boundaries.

If you still want to pick up that argument with me after that, please don’t expect me to hold your mental abilities in high esteem.

2 I see passages like “over the following decade” appearing very frequently in bios and historical notes, preceded by an event occurring in a not-multiple-of-ten year.

Stray thoughts

Into the new year

January 4th, 2010
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I took a few days off blogging after New Year’s, mostly on account of being busy with various friendly get-together engagements. There have been only a couple of days in the last week and a half that we did not spend in company of good friends.

Which is, as I have been repeatedly pointing out lately, the main reason for our recent repatriation.

I actually spent last week in December on vacation; I had exactly 4 vacation days left for 2009, and my corporate overlords do not look favorably on carrying those over into the new year. This was the first vacation in years that I spent entirely at home (driving trips to various corners of New Jersey and New York notwithstanding). A novel experience, without a doubt. Turned out not that bad, with all those social events.

We greeted 2010 with a traditional party at our close friends’ house, with a nice meal, plenty of karaoke and lots of general silliness. After getting a few hours of sleep on the morning of the 1st, we came back for breakfast, but even that failed to clear considerable amounts of food prepared for the occasion. I had trouble buttoning the pants around my waist this morning as I was dressing for work…

We went comparatively light on the presents this year, but the kids each got at least one thing that they most wanted, and I managed to very pleasantly surprise my wife with what I bought her. That does not happen often. Practically never. I am a notoriously inept present-picker.

One of the things we bought as a “family present” was Wii, which marks the first time that there is a gaming system in our household (beyond various handheld devices). Kimmy immediately occupied herself with hours of playing Wii Fit. I tried a bit as well, and even set a goal to lose a few pounds. Didn’t help with the pants this morning, of course, after only a couple of sessions. This would be my 497th attempt at regular exercise, light as it is. None of the previous ones ended in success. At least, here I can combine exercising with playing with Kimmy. Two incentives for the price of one!

Back in office for the first time in 11 days – and it’s as if the holidays and the vacation did not happen. Fun, fun, fun!

Chronicles