Thursday, June 18, 2009

Then one cheerleading camp....

School is out, and all the good suburban moms and dads know what that means, right? Summer camp! After typing that exclamation point, I had to take a moment, breathe in deeply, then sigh. Back in my day, summer camp meant what it was supposed to mean...smelly cabins, giant rectangular trunks with broken corner hinges, bug juice, tube socks, beaten-up metal canoes, horseback riding, mud, swim lessons, dirt trails, and wearing the same filthy t-shirt for ten days straight. Some of my greatest childhood memories were from Outdoor Adventure Camp at Camp Jewell in Colbrook, CT, spending 5 days sleeping under lean-to's in the Adirondack mountains and waking up to find our backpacks stolen by bears during the night. Now THAT was summer camp.

The term "Summer Camp" has been completely watered down this day and age. Write a check for some sort of activity that involves getting your child out of the house for more than eight minutes, and it's called summer camp. For some reason, summer camps have been refined and diluted so much that only one activity can happen at any one camp. Of course we've got the sports camps. Soccer. Football. Checkers. There's the arts and crafts categories. Art camp. Weaving camp. Wicker basket making camp. And let's not forget about the performing arts. Acting camp. Violin camp. Yodeling camp. Now how the hell am I going to be able to pack an entire trunk to get my kid through a week of yodeling camp, I ask you??

But today I'm going to talk about cheer leading camp.

Upon arriving at the local middle school where the camp was to be held, I noticed that the parking lot was busier than the kiss-and-run lot at LaGuardia. Every color, shape and model of minivan was there jockeying for a parking space. Once we found ours we headed toward the front door to be greeted by half a dozen incredibly chipper and bouncy teenagers wearing matching pink t-shirts and short shorts with paws on the butt cheeks. Their arms waving in the air, they yelled to us, "HI THERE! ARE YOU GUYS READY FOR...
C H E E R L E A D I N G C A M P ????!!!!


They led us into the lobby, where we were engulfed by a swarm of these teenage jumping beans, poised and ready to guide our children to their respective cheer teams. As we followed them into the gym, our jaws hit the floor.

The gym was filled with perhaps 400 kids, all wearing the same matching pink shirts and short shorts with the paws on the butt cheeks. They were yelling and screaming like only young girls can do. They were doing cartwheels. Leaping in the air. Clapping hands. The decibel level was so high, as was the relative pitch, that my eardrums immediately burst apart and collapsed into a sopping mess onto each of my shoulders. I'm not even sure how to describe it, other than to say it made me think that the Disney Channel had exploded in the gym.

Actually, it reminded me of what it must be like to attend a terrorist training camp. New recruits to the gathering of zealots, being brainwashed to believe in the cause. Someone call's time to raise the threat level to pink.


Friday was the big show. All the parents were herded to their respective positions on the bleachers and, one by one, each group got up to perform what they'd learned and practiced all week. I felt lucky that I'd lost all ability to hear that first day of drop-off, because the volume level was turned up way past eleven.

While I will fully admit it was very cute seeing my 5- and 8-year olds ra-ra'ing to the "Go Team Go!" mantra, I also saw right through the school district's evil plot. This was no summer camp. This was a recruiting session. Scouts were on hand taking copious notes and names for future placement on the high school cheer team. Start feeding your kids soy protein now, folks, cuz they're going to need to build some muscle mass if they're going to support the human pyramid during the big Thanksgiving Day game in a few years.

I did, however, notice one hole in the armor of this cheer army. If in fact the secret evil plan was to assimilate children into the Borg that is school spirit, they let slip two incidents that definitely gave parents pause, making them think twice about what their kids were getting into. First, there was one of the team leaders, recovering from what was obviously a recent cheering injury. On her arm she wore a brace that looked like it came straight from the set of Terminator. Second was the finale of the big show, when the Varsity high school cheering team got up to show off their prowess, tossed one of the young ladies high in the air, only to miss her on the way down and allow her to land flat on her back. While she avoided traction that day, it was a close call, and enough to make many of the parents wonder how soon yodeling camp would start.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Unemployment, facial hair and water fowl

Hockey players apparently have a tradition of not shaving their facial hair during the season playoffs. Known as the playoff beard, this superstitious act is somehow supposed to increase a team's ability to win the Stanley Cup. Yeah, brilliant idea and so original, too. Back in '92, I myself didn't shower the entire two weeks of finals at Carnegie Mellon University, and look at me now - unemployed.

So speaking of that, I realized I've been a bit lazy in chronicling my adventures into the world of the economic recession. Go figure, rather than blogging I figured my time was better spent actually job hunting rather than blogging about job hunting. But I had quite a productive day thus far and a little bit of literary inspiration, so I thought I'd touch base with my loyal followers. Oh, and while I considered growing facial hair during my time off, I figured that showing up to a career fair looking like the Unibomber was probably not in anybody's best interest, so that's out.

First, the good news is that I've made progress. I actually had two phone-based interviews and one face-to-face meeting with a local company, and it looks very promising. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I care too much about my career and reputation to spout opinions about the company or the job opportunity, so I will leave it at that and simply update y'all when they realize they can't survive without my world-class talents and offer to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to come join their team. That aside, I thought share some thoughts about being laid off.

First of all, it's really nice not having to get up in the morning. However, my brain and my clogged sinuses still team up to drag my lazy ass out of bed each morning at 6:30, which is great because I've found that for the next half hour, before the crazy munchkins rouse and severely limit any chance of productivity, I can get a lot done.

It's apparently a myth that, once you're laid off, you'll have a wealth of time to get all those projects done you've been putting off. That's crap. Sure, I get to spend a bit more time in the Spousal Avoidance Center lately (that's the workshop, FYI) but don't expect that in the first couple of months you're going to tack an outdoor kitchen onto the back of the house or anything. Not to mention that once she hears you're laid off, your wife is probably going to make the tough decision to put the house cleaner on temporary furlough, so you'll be stuck cleaning the bathrooms. Yeah, make sure to put that on the to-do list.

And speaking of to-do lists, expect that once you're laid off you'll be spending the first couple of months getting your proverbial ducks in a row. Making folders for everything, organizing your contact lists, putting a to-do list's all pretty endless. I've come to rely on Evernote, which I use to store all my job hunting information from notes on individual companies to my daily to-do lists and accomplishments. Evernote is handy because it's web based, so as long as you have internet access you can access your notes from anywhere. And that's very important when you're standing in line at a career fair trying to remember the name of the guy at ACME Widgets that you ran into a couple of weeks back. Of course, no matter how organized you are, once you get those ducks in a row you need to keep paying attention to them, otherwise this might happen:

And that's not good. Do I even need to break down the whole falling-through-the-cracks metaphor here?

Unemployment compensation has been an interesting experience. First off, the idea of standing in line at the unemployment office is no longer the reality. You sign up online. Wait for your paperwork, then once every other week you log into the site and answer four questions (Still unemployed? Yes. Still looking for work? Yes) and a few days later you get a direct deposit to your bank account. However there's one bit of governmental stupidity I'd like to share regarding this whole process.

When you first apply, you're sent a 29-page document with details of the program. In the back of the book, Appendix A contains a 5-page chart that enables you to figure out how much you're going to get as an unemployment benefit. In short, the chart starts with, "If you made between $800 and $812 per quarter, you're eligible for $35 unemployment compensation per week." The next line shows that you will make $36 if you made between $813 and$817 per quarter. And so on, for five pages.

So let's think about this. $800 per quarter, that's $3,200 per year. Most of you well-edumacated folks reading this blog probably make much more than that annually. I know I did, so I figured I'd have to scan pretty far down the chart to find where I stood. But wouldn't you know the end of page 5 the last entry states that if you made $13,888 per quarter or more, you make $$558 per week in unemployment benefits. Couldn't they just say at the beginning that if your annual salary was $55,552 or greater, you make the max? Ah, government.

But frankly, I shouldn't complain too much about this. Uncle Sam is sending me money and all-in-all it's a pretty painless process. Not like those folks handling COBRA.

COBRA is a pain in the butt. My former company offered to pay for many weeks of COBRA payments (and hopefully I will be gainfully employed well before I have to pay for it myself) but in order to do this, they use a third-party administrator. Between my old company, the administrator, blue Cross, and myself, there are way too many cooks in the soup right now. As a result it's been two months and our doctor still can't get Blue Cross to recognize that we exist. As a result I've got a stack of medical bills on the corner of my desk that seems to grow by the day. Joy.

Okay, my break is done. Tune in next time when our hero talks about how useless newspaper want ads are in this day and age, and how to avoid driving his family completely nuts with his constant presence in the house.

Friday, June 12, 2009


This afternoon we decided to take advantage of our family membership to the Carnegie Museums and check out the members-only preview of Roboworld, the newest exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center. I thought I'd take a moment during the intermission between periods of the Stanley Cup game to blogify an opinion.

First, I should mention that, as new members of the museums, we did not realize that members need to pre-register for members-only events. When we showed up there at no specific time, we were told that a)there were timed entries and the next one was in three hours, and b)all the time slots were sold out. Crap. However, when the time came we were able to talk to a guy behind the counter and weasel our way in for the 5pm slot without too much trouble. Next time, I'll make sure to read the fine print.

The new exhibit is on the 2nd floor, by the planetarium. I believe it replaced some sort of construction-themed exhibit, though it's been a while so I don't remember exactly. The entry to the exhibit is guarded by Andy, a humanoid robot on a pedestal that answers questions and moves around on his stand. However he doesn't directly answer questions you ask; instead he simply spouts answers to pre-programmed questions selected from a computer kiosk to his side. Standard, but not exactly mind-blowing.

Once in the exhibit, the first thing I noticed is how "fresh" everything was. When I think of science centers, I tend to think of kiosks with fading CRT screens, buttons that don't work, big "out of order" signs, and generally worn out, abused crap. Not here. Everything was bright and shiny, and all the computers worked. By this, I was impressed. Around the sides were replicas of everyone's favorite bots from Hollywood (R2D2, Hal, the usual). throughout the space were stand-alone exhibits allowing visitors to understand how vision sensors created images for robots to process, how proximity sensors allowed for obstacle avoidance, etc. McKesson had an exhibit showing a robotic pharmacy where little packets of drugs were selected by computer for distribution to hospital patients. And Aethon had a "helper bot", a faceless box that moved around to different destinations in an imaginary hospital. There were various other small kiosks that were very interesting, plus a robotic "wall of fame" that consisted of a timeline painted on the wall with some sort of sliding LCD that would show highlights of the timeline when you slid it to a certain date. But then, there were a couple of highlights.

First, there was the robotic air hockey game (there's a video at the link). This was a typical air hockey table, and on the other end was a robotic arm with an air hockey paddle attached to it. each player was given 45 seconds to see if they could score against the robot. Most can't, it seems. I watched 8 or so kids try and fail, and then decided to try myself. I scored, but it took some effort.

Another major highlight was the robotic basketball player. This was simply a robotic arm on a stand in an area surrounded by a net. At the end of the arm was a fork, which picked up a basketball, and tossed it high into a basketball net. It made the short virtually every time, and afterwards would make a series of movements that obviously implied the robot was programmed to talk some smack to its opponents. Very cool.

The final highlight was the craft for kids. It consisted of a styrofoam square with a 9-volt battery and a motor attached to it. When the battery was connected, the unit would vibrate and move across the floor like a bug. The kids got to decorate these with feathers and foamies. Nat and Jess loved them.

As I'm writing this, I'm noticing that there are more items on this exhibit list than were at the actual show. We don't recall seeing the Foosbot or the Hazard Bots anywhere. Perhaps we just missed them.

So overall, I'd rate the new exhibit somewhere between a B+ and A-. I think it could have more. With CMU just down the road, I expected more. No Mars Rover. No CMU self-driving vehicles. No Asimo. No Pleo. Not even a Roomba. But if you've going to the Science Center, check it out.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Hampton Bay Ceiling Fan Warranty Service

I wrote the title of this post specifically with the hope that anyone looking for customer service for a Hampton Bay ceiling fan comes across this post after a Google search. I thought perhaps my recent experience might be enlightening to some.

During the big renovation, we installed a Hampton Bay ceiling fan in our new master bedroom. For two years it's worked flawlessly, but recently it began making a random "clicking" noise at odd times. And, by "odd times" I mean usually 4:30 in the morning. After removing the blades, the light covers, and any other parts of the fan I could while still able to run the fan, I determined that the noise was coming from within the motor housing.

As luck would have it, the motors in Hampton Bay fans have a lifetime warranty. The rest of the body of the fan, however, only has a one-year warranty. I know this because being the anal retentive person that I am, I still had all the paperwork and even the receipt for the fan from my purchase two years ago. So off I went, in search of warranty service.

Of course, my first stop was the Web. It was there that I discovered that Hampton Bay DOES NOT EXIST. In fact Hampton Bay is simply a brand name made up by Home Depot marketing geniuses, and the fans themselves are made by a variety of unknown fan manufacturers around the world. Thus, I discovered how extra-fortuitous it was that I kept all the paperwork, because on the warranty card there was a number to call (the number for my fan was 800-527-0998 but your mileage may vary, because like I said the fans are made by different manufacturers). I called it, and got something called "The Mica Group". As soon as I said the words "Hampton Bay ceiling fan" they transferred me to another company called "The Madison Avenue Company". Odd.

It was surprisingly easy to get a customer service rep on the phone. she asked me the name of the model fan, which was listed on the instructions. She wasn't curious to know the serial number. I told her about my problem, and she agreed it "sounded" like a motor problem. She did ask me, however, to remove the remote control unit from inside the fan and hard-wire it directly to the power line, to rule out the possibility that the receiver was making noise. After telling her I already did that (sure I did...), she confirmed it was warranty replacement time.

She then put me on hold while she called my local Home Depot. After a few minutes she got back on the line, and told me if I stopped in and talked to Ron, he'd swap out a replacement. And wouldn't you know it...that's exactly what happened. I brought the old fan back in an old shipping box. As luck would have it, they still carried the same model fan, and in less than two hours I had a new (and quiet) ceiling fan hanging in the bedroom.

So, the moral of the story...DO NOT throw out your paperwork or receipt when you buy a Hampton Bay product. File it away for future reference, cuz ya never know...