Archive for April, 2010

Four chords

April 29th, 2010
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I think I’d do really well as a blogger if all I did was to borrow content from Exler. So here it is, two appropriations in a row.

This is Axis of Awesome with an awesome demonstration that a huge number of modern hits are written with only the same four chords.

That makes me happy. I kinda play guitar that way…

Warning: Three or four occurrences of the f-word. Nothing excessive, but not safe for small children.


Pixel attack

April 28th, 2010

I’m far from being prolific in my blogging these days, for a great number of reasons. Instead of recounting those reasons, I’ll just borrow content elsewhere on this occasion. This clip is nothing short of brilliant.

Via Exler.

Idle Amusements

What I learned over the weekend

April 26th, 2010

Even if the assembly manual for a fairly complicated contraption explicitly states that two people are needed to successfully complete the work, a determined and resourceful individual should be able to come up with ways of achieving the desired end result all by himself.

If said individual has a history of back problems directly linked to working with heavy objects, there is no surer way to a relapse than an attempt to do something that normally requires two people all by oneself.


A visit to the MMA

April 19th, 2010

I wonder how many Parisians visit Louvre more than once in their adult lives, if ever. Or Londoners National Gallery. Or Madrileños Prado. Outside of a small group of art students and fanatical art lovers, I doubt that the majority of local population ever finds time in their busy daily routines to come in and admire the magnificent collections in their top museums.

I’ve lived in or around New York City for nearly two decades (with the obvious notable interruption of three recent years). During the first months of immigration, I visited Metropolitan Museum of Art at least half a dozen times. And yet, the last time I’ve set foot there was probably sometime in 1992.

On Sunday, having left the children in the care of willing grandparents, Natasha and I went for a day in the City. The main aim of the outing was to get together with our cousins who reside in Manhattan and whom we see much too infrequently. But when we were contemplating our specific plans for the day, Natasha had a brilliant idea: Why not spend a couple of hours at the Metropolitan before proceeding to our usual combo of food, drinks and catching up.

I don’t offer any resistance when a trip to an art museum becomes a possibility. And I’ve long felt a tinge of embarrassment that I had visited many of the Old World’s foremost art collections in the last 7-8 years, but neglected the one in my own backyard for so long. It was high time to rectify that.

We started with the respectable Impressionist collection, headlined by several wonderful Monets and Renoirs, but also including works by Van Gogh, Signac, Manet, Degas, Gauguin, Seurat, Cézanne. We then proceeded to earlier centuries, to Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Titian and Goya, Rubens and Ruisdael, van Dyck and Lorraine, Vermeer and Tintoretto, and scores of others. There is only one Canaletto in the collection, but several Guardis, which do just as nicely.

We also visited the Musical Instruments rooms and walked through the Greek Sculpture section and the Middle East art section.

I do not feel knowledgeable enough to lend an opinion on whether the Metropolitan can fully compete with Louvre or Hermitage on the strength of its art collection, but there is little doubt that said collection belongs to the top tier in the Western World. We probably covered less than 5% of what is on display at the museum. We were very much impressed by what we saw, having forgotten how good the Met’s collection was after all those years.

The Metropolitan is one of two museums in New York City that work on “suggested” admission-fee basis, i.e. you can enter it virtually for free even though there is a posted “recommended” adult admission price of $20. And here is what I find weird. In London, many major museums have free admissions and they are truly “free” – you walk in and simply proceed to the exhibits that interest you (except for “special” exhibitions, which carry a separate admission price). Each exit at such museums is adorned with a large donations box, and after a pleasant visit, you can’t help it but feel compelled to put some money in.

The Metropolitan works differently. You have to get a ticket. You come to the ticket desk, tell the person who sits behind it how many of you are there, and hear her respond with the total, “Eighty dollars”. You feel that you are entitled to pay less, and yet are confronted with the embarrassment of having to actually transact with someone who will know that you paid less. I am no psychologist, but I am pretty sure that most people would view themselves as not donating under these circumstances but rather as falling prey to extortion. I suspect that a fair share of people feel sufficiently embarrassed and pressured in this situation to fork over the full suggested amount (to say nothing of people who possess neither enough English skills nor the advance knowledge of the museum to realize what “recommended” admission price means), even though they are completely within their rights to pay next to nothing for entry. Quite possibly, this helps to at least partially cover for all of those visitors who pay no heed to the unspoken shaming and give the person at the ticket desk just a dollar or two. She will still welcome them to the museum and give them the bright lapel pins that perform the function of tickets…

Anyway. After having fed our inner art lovers for a couple of hours, we moved to another part of Manhattan, for a nice repast at an Italian bistro in SoHo. A couple of years ago in London, such trips combining a museum visit and a great meal out were a staple of our weekend routine. It was nice to recapture the feeling a little bit in New York City.

I wonder if I will have the same positive impression of the Hermitage when I finally decide to visit St Petersburg. The last time I visited was in 1990…

Fine Arts, NYC Album

Photo-books revisited: Adoramapix vs Picaboo, MyPublisher, Blurb

April 16th, 2010

It has been almost a year and a half since I performed my review of three photo-book services (MyPublisher, Picaboo and Blurb). Since then, I did not have much time to engage in projects that would either involve any of the aforementioned services or bring me in contact with something new. And then, several weeks ago, a representative from Adoramapix reached out to me with an offer that I could not pass up: A free book in exchange for the review of their service and product.

I played around with the Adoramapix photo-book builder, created a neat highlights album of our European travels, and in the process got myself a new favorite for future photo-book-making.
Read more…


On store hours

April 12th, 2010
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One of the things that we always liked the least in Europe is the intent of people in the service sector to have lives outside of their shops. What do you mean, you are closed for three hours in the middle of the day? Are you so dumb as to lose potential customers by madly waving your hands at them and shouting J’ai fermé! at 4:58pm on a perfectly good Monday1? Used to – spoiled by it! – having places of commerce in America stay open late into the night and practically never “enjoying” days off2, we were constantly rubbed the wrong way by shops closing early on a weekday or never opening on a Sunday in most of the places that we’ve been to3.

Contrast that with a run-of-the-mill experience in our neck of woods.

We need to buy some stuff at a local Home Depot. For one reason or another, we are only able to get to the store around 9pm on a weekday night. 9:03, to be precise. The store schedule posted at the door suggests that the place closes at 9pm, but the doors slide open, a couple of cash registers are operating, and a store worker does not exhibit any displeasure with late walk-ins asking for assistance in finding whatever it is that they are looking to get. There are probably no more than a dozen shoppers all together in the huge store at this hour, and I have no clue whether their combined spend that evening covers the expense of staff wages and electricity to keep the store open, but, at the very least, there is little doubt that each one of those late customers will come back and spend at this store again and again.

For all of my natural inclination to European lifestyle, I am perpetually baffled why this notion of doing something extra for the customer so that they keep bringing back their business remains a largely foreign concept in the good old Europe.

1 True story – happened to us at a random shoe store in Avignon.

2 Northern Jersey’s Bergen County has inane local regulations that keep shopping centers closed on Sundays. I am pretty sure similar examples elsewhere in this big country do exist, but they are mostly exceptions, in my experience.

3 Prime tourist locations normally operate in more American-like way. Shops on Champs-Elysées stay open pretty late into the evening. But step a few blocks away, and Paris – or any other top destination in Europe – is not much different from the rest of the Old World: Closing early, staying shut on Sundays, etc.

European living, Re-pat's culture shock

Becky’s three words

April 8th, 2010

My eldest daughter seems to be the primary source of material for my blog lately. At her request, I am putting up another of her drama class projects, so that it is publicized to my considerably larger audience.

The assignment was to select 3 words that either described the person, evoked a specific emotion or simply had a certain meaning, and then display them in a 10-second video-clip in some creative way. Becky’s pick was technically 4 words – but who’s counting? – and her presentation idea was to actually perform the action somewhat opposite to the words being shown.

Here’s how it turned out.

Uncredited editing by yours truly.

Family Album


April 5th, 2010

Becky has recently taken to riding her bike around the neighborhood. Weather being what it’s been the last few days, she obviously doesn’t wear track-suits on her rides.

We live about half a mile away from a synagogue. There are some people who drive to services there, but many people walk, so on Saturdays and on holidays, we see a greater number of pedestrians on the streets than usual.

Imagine a group of adolescent Jewish boys, in their formal temple-going attire, walking to attend a service. Towards them, in the opposite direction, comes a leggy, pretty teenage girl on a bike, wearing shorts and a tank top.

They stare. She notices. She smiles and waves. They keep staring.

One of them walks into a tree.



The system simply had to go at that very moment

April 3rd, 2010

A friend was buying event tickets online. She typed in her credit card number and all of the required information and received the following response on the screen:

Your transaction could not be completed because of Reason #2.

Who designs these things, anyway?


Confessions of a stupid homeowner

April 1st, 2010

Hello, my name is Ilya and for a pretty smart guy I must be the stupidest homeowner in the Western Hemisphere.

April Fools’ Day came early this year, and, boy, did it make me feel like a fool!

Remember my note about not having any water damage in the mid-March big storm? It was not due to luck, as it turned out, but simply due to French drains not being overflowed yet…

The constant rain at the start of this week did not feel all that threatening. It was unending for over 48 hours, true, but it was not exceptionally heavy. The glass doorway referenced in the same aforementioned post did not show any sign of leaking (and I am yet to get around to figuring out how to seal that). You can imagine my dismay when I stepped into a wet patch of carpet in my basement on Tuesday night.

Quick examination found two areas of wetness in different parts of basement, both of them, thankfully, not the primary-usage areas. Natasha and I spent a couple of hours mopping up the puddle in a non-carpeted area, but recognized that we weren’t getting anywhere with that. With the damage seemingly localized, we decided to wait until the morning before proceeding with any other actions.

Now, the house supposedly has a sump pump, only I never heard it working. In fact, I’ve never opened before the door behind which it was supposed to be located. My delayed first instinct after seeing the water in the basement was to go check the sump pump. There’s limited lighting in that corner of the basement. I open the door, turn on the flash light, and discover a unit that could only be the central vacuum device seating on the wall. There is a pile of hoses underneath it on the floor. My first thought is: Ah, those must be the vacuum hoses that we could not find when we at first wanted to try using the central vacuum. My second thought is: Damn, I don’t think the house has a sump pump; they must have lied to us on the disclosure (and I expressly remember the inspector unable to get to that door during the house inspection, on account of a lot of rubbish filling up that area of the basement utility space).

In the morning next day, I see the wet spots spreading. The TV space and, most importantly, my home office are not yet affected, but carpet being carpet, the moisture will get there eventually.

I start calling water extraction/restoration services and get two of them to schedule emergency visits to the house. One guy inquires about the size of the basement, rattles off a dozen things that they would do to fix the water problem, and quotes me $1800 for the work. Little idea that I have whether all of that is necessary, I nonetheless agree 4pm appointment.

The other company sends an inspector over around 2pm. He takes some measurements of wetness, takes a look around, and produces an estimate for $3900 to extract water, dry everything, find and fix the problem, etc. He takes me on my word that there is no sump pump in the house. I’m pretty sure I heard the other guy mention exactly the same activities as he does, so I politely thank him for his time and promise him that I’ll call him back later in the day if I decide to go for it. He might still be waiting.

In the meantime, before noon, Natasha goes to Home Depot and buys a nearly-industrial-strength 9-gallon wet/dry vacuum, and we start homegrown attempt at drying the floors. After 20 or so buckets, we can see the results somewhat, but in at least one non-carpeted area the water seems to be continuously arriving almost as fast as we remove it.

Around 3:40pm I get the phone call from the other water extraction service. The crew van got into a fender-bender or something, and they would only be able to come to the house by 6:30pm or so. I am annoyed but I see little choice but to say yes, they should still come.

In the next half an hour, I make a bit more progress with the vacuum, plus the handyman neighbor tells me over the phone that houses in this area are required by code to have sump pumps. While I assure him that I looked, he insists on coming over and checking himself, in an hour or so. I am happy with any help I can get. I do, however, decide to cancel the service call, given that no one but me thinks it is a good idea.

The good neighbor comes in, goes to the putative sump pump enclosure and exclaims: “You better believe it’s there!” He picks up the pile of hoses on the bottom and it turns out that they are covering the sump pump hole. The hole is overflowing with water. The hoses are actually sump pump hoses that need to be extended through the window to the side lawn. The sump pump is disconnected and does not work even when plugged in.

Oh man! The pump was always there, but it must have been disconnected since before we moved in. I never properly checked, and now we have backed up French drains all around the perimeter that cause the partial flooding. Believe me, I have never felt stupider in my entire life.

The neighbor then brings over the pump from his pool, spends good half an hour setting it up, and voilà, the hole starts emptying, the water starts flowing in, and almost immediately the one most troublesome area no longer appears to get fresh amounts of water.

I am buying a new sump pump, and the neighbor even volunteered to install it for me, so the monetary damage will be fairly small. (Maybe, luck is involved; if not for that crew van fender-bender, I might have already shelled out $1800 and had my basement all torn apart by 5pm last night.) We’ll dry all of the affected carpets and will likely have to replace carpeting in the entire basement, but I don’t think we’ll ever run into this problem again.

Still, how stupid was that!