Sunday, December 02, 2007

1984 All Over Again

I just got home from seeing something I've wished for half my life: Van Halen, complete with David Lee Roth, in concert.  Well, "complete" isn't quite the word, but more on that later.  The last time I saw Van Halen in concert was circa 1990 with the Monsters of Rock tour.  That was during the "Van Hagar" days, with Sammy Hagar on vocals.  Sammy had laryngitis that day, and the headliner part of the show was a disappointment (The Scorpions, who were on just before Van Halen, were great)
Tonight's show was at The Rose Garden Arena, here in Portland, which doesn't have the greatest sound in the world (okay, for concerts, it sucks), but it's the largest venue we have and it was needed.  I got tickets today, from Tickets Unlimited.  Given that I got them day-of-show, I can't complain too much about the bundle of cables hanging in front of us at the corner of the stage, other than to say I can't believe riggers can't come up with a better way to run those things.  Other than the cables, the seats were good.

I'm sorry to report that the band wasn't as tight as they could be.  Diamond Dave seemed to forget the lyrics to a couple of the songs, and there were times when everyone seemed to stumble around on the bridges, trying to find the beat that was there just a minute ago.

Thirty years after a lot of the music they played came out, David Lee Roth can still handle the vocals.  His signature falsetto squeaks came out fewer times, but he's not in his twenties any more.  Just like it was 1984, Roth jumped and kicked regularly throughout the show, showing that the years haven't slowed him down much at all.  He really seemed to enjoy his re-found position as the frontman for a band that helped define rock n' roll in the late seventies and early eighties.

Alex van Halen doesn't look like he's changed since the last time I saw the band in concert.  I think he's wearing the same headband.  A several-minute-long drum solo showed that he's still got it.  Alex has always been a somewhat better than average, but not phenomenal rock drummer.  He hasn't lost anything.

I hardly recognized Eddie van Halen with his short hair and no cigarette hanging out of his mouth.  Oddly, during a long guitar solo, where he was the only one on stage, he started by sitting on the edge of the stage and playing some discordant melody that seemed to wander around aimlessly.  He drifted from that to some of his signature fretboard tapping, but there was nothing about it that seemed any better than things I've seen my neighbor play (my neighbor is a professional guitar player, but he's not Eddie van Halen).  But then he got up, signaled "excuse me a second" to the crowd, and went over to the control pedals.  Stomp, stomp, stomp, he reset the pedals, jammed a chord, and his guitar screamed.  From there, he went on a frenetic romp that included stealing one of Alex's drum sticks and using it to hammer the strings right over the Humbucker pickup.  After discarding the drumstick into the crowd, he fell into more fretboard tapping, this time showing us that he is still Eddie van Halen, guitar hero.

Eddie, Alex, Dave and... who?

The biggest surprise of the night was Wolfgang van Halen, son of Eddie and Valerie Bertinelli. Sixteen year old "Wolfie" has replaced founding band member Michael Anthony as the bassist.  I feared that Eddie's choice to put his teenage son on stage in place of the veteran Anthony meant that the senior van Halen had "jumped the shark."  It was not the case.  I guess growing up van Halen means that you've got the music already in you, and it sure came out.  The biggest surprise of the biggest surprise was that young van Halen harmonizes with his father to sound just like Eddie and Michael did in 1976.  Hey, hey, hey!

Even though the overall synergy of the band wasn't as good as I'd hoped, I still had a great time.  I snapped some pics of the show with my phone camera.  I'll put them up as soon as I can extract them from my piece-of-crap Samsung SPH-900.  The tour has been extended into 2008, and tickets for the second leg of the show have just gone on sale.  This must mean that David and Eddie aren't fighting, and things are going well.  Considering all the sold-out shows on the roster, I'm sure the money is good, and welcomed by a band that has faltered for years without a solid frontman.  Hopefully they keep it together long enough to produce another album.  I can hope, right?

Update for the a.m.

I got some sleep, and decided there was more: I have to say that I miss rock concerts.  I've been to a few over the last few years, all of them here in Portland.  I don't know if things are the same elsewhere, but this "assigned seating" is for the birds.  It should be an option for the bleachers, but GA on the floor should be available, too.  I've mentioned this to a few people, and it seems that the advent of "mosh pits" where people have gotten seriously hurt by spun-up slam dancers made promoters think twice about  general admission tickets.  I hate to sound like an old man, but "back in my day" the worst you had to worry about most nights was getting elbowed in the face while people on the rail dove for guitar picks that came flying off the stage.  I loved the feeling of being packed in, waving back and forth with the crowd, everyone moving as one giant, band-adoring entity.  At the aforementioned Monsters of Rock tour, I remember hollering to my buddy Jac, standing right next to me.  "Check it out!"  We were packed in so tight I could pick both feet off the floor and not fall down.  More than once, girls I'd never met before asked to climb up on my shoulders to get the perfect view.  Being tall has its advantages, I guess.  None of them ever took their tops off while sitting on my shoulders, but I saw it happen a few feet from me.  I can't imagine that happening at last night's concert at all.

Last night, as at many other concerts I've been to in recent years, security guards made sure that no one leaves their assigned seat area.  Stand in front of your seat and you're fine.  God forbid you should move over into that somewhat larger, completely unused space ten feet to the left because you feel the urge to let loose and dance.  Some guy with a flashlight will appear immediately and hustle you back to your seat, saying, "Stay there or leave."  They don't seem to care if you're getting drunk or smoking a spliff, just don't do any of it outside of your designated space.

I've got to put a call out to the guy who was standing right in front of us.  About every fifteen minutes, on cue, he would let out the most horrendous stink I've encountered in years.  I don't know what he ate before the concert, but it obviously died a horrible death and was taking its revenge.  Listen up, buddy: the restroom is at the top of the stairs.  Do us all a favor and go take a crap.

Okay, enough of that.  Van Halen is back together again, at least the most important parts.  Rock concerts, at least here in Portland, are lame.  I've got to start going somewhere else, like Seattle or The Gorge.  There's nothing else to say.  Back in my day, things were better.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Beware the City of Portland

Okay, so it's not the whole city, it's the City of Portland Water Bureau.
On Thursday, November 29th, I received a notice from them that my payment was overdue.  The postmark on the envelope is November 26th even though the "printed on" date for the notice is November 21st.  It must take them quite a while to get things in the mail. The due date on the reminder is November 28th for service billed through October 11th.  October 11th?  I was out of town on vacation then, and it's likely that the bill got lost in the slew of mail I had waiting for me when I returned.  Okay, I accept the $0.47 "Water Late Carrying Charge" and the $1.22 "Sewer Late Carrying Charge, as well as the $5.00 "Reminder Letter" charge.  I was late, after all.

Considering I got the notice on November 29th, and it's tough to pay a bill before you get it, I figured we'd send them a check this weekend and all would be fine.  Oh, no.  It's not to be.  Today, December 1, I receive an shutoff notice from them with a "Pre-shut off notice" fee of $10.00.  The print date on it is November 28th.  So they printed this shut off notice before I even got the first notice.

A couple of years ago, Solimar Systems installed a new high-speed printing system that was supposed to take care of the horrible delays in the billing system for the Water Bureau.  It evidently works very well, generating lots of income for the Bureau in the form of shut of notice charges that are seemingly unavoidable.  Well, except by paying your bills on time.

Note to self: don't trifle with the City of Portland Water Bureau.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Book Review: Devlin's Razor

Devlin's Razor is a novel of The Continuing Time by Jodi Moran.  Other novels in this series, by Daniel Keys Moran include the trilogy Emerald Eyes, The Long Run and The Last Dancer.  Devlin's Razor is a murder mystery surrounding the character Harry Devlin, who is referred to as The Prophet Harry in the other novels.
Devlin's Razor differs dramatically from the trilogy noted above, as well as other stories in The Continuing Time like LeftBehind, in that it is not science fiction.  There are no cyborgs, space travel, laser weapons or alien races; the whole story could have taken place last year in Los Angeles and it might not have made the news.  Still, it's a good story, and well worth reading as a background piece for the other stories or as a standalone novel, whether or not you're a fan of either of the Morans.

I've commented elsewhere that Devlin's Razor is told in the voice of The Sunset Strip novels, such as Terminal Freedom that was written by Daniel and Jodi together.  This is yet another departure from the rest of The Continuing Time stories, though given that Jodi Moran wrote Devlin's Razor alone, it's understandable.  While the change of voice doesn't detract from the story being told, it is a distraction for a reader looking for the more hard-edged writing from, say Emerald Eyes.  Devlin's Razor isn't exactly a rollicking, headlong crash of an adventure, but more of a character-filled whodunnit that seems like a colored-in version of a game of Clue.

The story of Devlin's Razor follows the painter Harry, accused of the murder of Phil Sullivan, the owner of the restaurant where Harry works as a waiter.  Phil is married to Gayle Eris Sullivan, the leader of the Eris commune that eventually becomes the root of the Erisian cult, which plays heavily in the other novels.  The murder case is investigated by two of L.A.'s finest, Detective Ted and Detective Joy, who are drawn about as two-dimensionally as possible.  Throughout the story, you don't get the impression that they, nor any of the other police characters, exist outside of their interaction with the plot.  This two-dimensionality extends somewhat to the other characters, though not nearly as much.

Harry lives with his girlfriend Iselma, who at one time had an affair with Sullivan and is currently having an affair with Sullivan's lawyer.  Iselma is petulant and selfish, and it's hard to say why Harry loves her so much, particularly given that he's aware of her indiscretions, a point that figures heavily into the detective's case against him.  Most readers recognize that things would be better between Harry and Iselma if they would sit down and actually talk to one another.

The supporting characters in the story are the most fun aspect of the whole book.  Normally I tire of large casts, as I can't keep everyone straight.  These characters, though, have such distinct aspects to them that they're easy to follow.  There's Harry's cousin Spike, the Catholic priest and one of Harry's best friends.  Harry and Spike are joined by Swami Dave, the eternally happy Hare Krishna, Julian the wise and always stoned Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in the war and spends 90% of his time on the bottom step of Harry's apartment stairs, and the twisted lawyer Jack, who plays as the main antagonist to the story.

One thing Jodi Moran does a very good job at is giving subtle clues throughout the story that support the big reveal at the end.  I don't read murder mysteries very often at all, and I was surprised how it all fit together.  Fans of the genre may feel differently, finding that the real culprit's identity was obvious fifty pages back.

Devlin's Razor will likely be published only in electronic format, though there has been mention of a "print on demand" service making hardcopies available.  If you're looking for an easy-to-read murder mystery packed full of interesting, if not deep characters, or if you've always wondered who The Prophet Harry was when reading novels of The Continuing Time, look no further.  If you're looking for hard-edged science fiction, with characters like Trent Castanaveras and Mohammed Vance, wait for AI War, Daniel Keys Moran's next novel to be  published next year.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Adventures in Dentistry, and Other Miscellany

With the exception of an update or two to the essay about my grandfather, it's been a year, more or less, since I posted here.  I've been saving up, and it's time to let you know what's been going on.
In the last year, I turned 40, got a new job, bought a motorcycle, paid off the note on the cafe, and took another trip to Hawaii.  Oh, yeah, and got some dental work done.

Pretty Blondes with Sharp Tools

Normally dentistry isn't something that people like to talk about much, which is understandable due to the amount of discomfort and the horrible invasion of privacy involved.  I mean, really, having someone stick their hands and a set of sharp tools into the largest, most important orifice in your body* is terribly invasive on both a physical and emotional level.  It's no wonder that dentists rank right up there with politicians as most reviled for their professions.  But I digress...

The new job brought new dental insurance and the need to find a new dentist.  Since she's really good at this sort of thing, I asked my wife to find a dentist for me.  She recommended one based on their office's proximity to mine and that "the receptionist sounded cute."  I made an appointment for what would be my first cleaning in sixteen months.
As a side note, I'll tell you that, not only is the receptionist cute, the office is veritably swarming with beautiful women, the preponderance of them being blonde haired and blue eyed.  This includes one of the two dentists at the office.  I predict more regularity in my adherence to the cleaning schedule for my teeth.  But, as I said, that was just a side note.
I've been surviving, as it were, for years with cracked metal fillings in my mouth, something I had waved my previous dentist off from, as the insurance I had at my last job wasn't good enough to cover the lion's share of the costs to repair them.  The new insurance is much better, though, and it seemed like a good time to get them fixed.

The latest technology for doing this sort of thing is fascinating, at least to me.  It's called Cerec, and is a wonder of modern system integration.  The dentist (or her assistant) took pictures of my teeth with some special kind of camera that got right up against each tooth.  Multiple images from several angles were captured and then fed into a computer that proceeded to make a 3-D model of my teeth from the photos.  With the "original state" captured, they numbed me up and carved out the metal amalgam from four of my teeth (there are many more; I had a terrible time with cavities as a kid).  Following that, more photos created another 3-D model of my teeth without the fillings.  Subtraction of the second model from the first left the computer with a model of the missing pieces from the teeth.  These "missing piece" models were sent to a bench-top CNC mill that proceeded to carve fillings out of small blocks of porcelain.   A little bit of cement and some fine-tuning of fit later, I had brand-new non-metallic fillings in my teeth.  At a quick glance, you can't tell that they aren't natural.  The whole process took about two and a half hours for the four teeth.  I, for one, was amazed.

* Yes, level of importance for bodily orifices is subjective.  YMMV.

Getting Things Straight

I never had braces as a kid, even though I had among the crookedest teeth in my school.  As an adult, I've attempted to embark on the journey of straightening my teeth on several occasions, but, for a variety of reasons or excuses, hadn't actually gotten under way.  During my first visit to my new dentist, I was given information on Invisalign, an alternative to traditional wire braces.  They seemed a good fit for my needs, and so I chose to pursue that option.  One huge advantage: everything would be done at the dentist office, with no referrals out to orthodontists.

After installing the porcelain fillings, silicone-like castings were taken of my teeth and sent off to the Invisalign mothership where more 3-D models were created, this time of all my teeth.  A few weeks later, a set of plastic trays arrived at the dentist's office along with a nifty animation of how my teeth would progress over the forty weeks it will take to straighten my teeth.  Yes, forty weeks, not three years that wire braces were going to take (three years is 156 weeks, if you want direct comparison, nearly four times as long).  A few little buttons were glued to the sides of four of my teeth to act as handles for the trays to grip while doing their work.  I wear the trays at all times except when I'm eating or drinking anything but water, and change traysets every two weeks.  Each progressive tray set is slightly different than the last, and the change from the first to the last goes from the crooked teeth I have now to the straight teeth I'll have in nine months.

As for discomfort, the worst part is taking the trays out so I can eat.  I expect it to get better over time, but right now it really wrenches at my teeth to remove the trays.  Wearing them is only slightly uncomfortable.  If you push on one of your teeth with your finger, you will feel what I feel in all my teeth while wearing the trays.  Not too bad overall.  I've had the trays just over a week, and so far am really happy with the product.  I can brush and floss normally, and when the trays are in, people don't even know I'm wearing them unless I point them out.  If you're in need of braces, I'd ask your dentist about them.  The cost is about the same, and the results, assuming they work as advertised, are the same as well.

I Caught Me a Hog

Every day since I sold my last motorcycle twenty years ago I've wanted another motorcycle.  This year, I finally bought one.  It's a 1995 Harley Davidson FXDL Dyna Lowrider with around 46K miles on it.  At this point I don't need to worry a lot about depreciation, as it will be worth what I paid for it for many years if I take good care of it.  Of course, I have the bug now.  I put running boards on to replace the passenger pegs and a backrest pad so Jen could ride in comfort (she loves the bike, by the way), a different set of highway pegs to accommodate my size twelve feet, and switched the shocks out from the cushy ones the previous owner had to the stock ones, which they provided in the sale.  It's not going to stop there, I can tell you.  A better seat will be the next upgrade, and eventually forward controls so I can shift and brake with my feet on the highway pegs.  I've been thinking of going to a two-into-one tailpipe setup so that I can put larger bags on for travel, and going from the fixed small plexiglass windshield to a removable larger fairing with a radio.  Before 1995, the Dyna Lowrider was called a "convertible" because it could easily switch from being a road bike to a street cruiser.  I like that concept and will try to expand on it as I modify the bike.  The one downside to this being a long-term bike for me is that the frame is a little short.  If I can't adjust the fit by modding the seat, I may need to trade it for a Softtail or Road Glide.  Of course, Jen wants me to get a Road King, which she has fallen for.  Time will tell.  It's good to have a bike again.

DKM Writes Again!

Every year or so, I do a Google search on Daniel Keys Moran, my all-time favorite science fiction author (his rank as my favorite was arrived at in a complicated fashion, and there are a lot of authors that I like for a variety of reasons.  Some have a better command of language, but DKM has a great sense of story).  Mr. Moran, for a variety of reasons, was away from the world for several years.  This fall, I did a search and found him again.  And guess what!  He's writing!  I'm all a-twitter about it, really, and I'm not the only one.  If you want evidence, read the comments attached to his blog posts.  If you just want to read his writing, go here.  I suggest starting with the novel Emerald Eyes.  For an easily-digestable sample, check out the short story Realtime.  It's not in The Continuing Time universe like the trilogy of Emerald Eyes, The Long Run and The Last Dancer, but it's closely related and in the same voice.

I've had the privilege in the last few weeks to proofread one of his novels, Devlin's Razor, soon to be published.  It's written in conjunction with his sister, Jodi Moran.  I'll post a review of it as soon as I finish with this update.

New Job

Last June would have marked my eighth anniversary working for Portland General Electric, our local electric utility, which rose to some level of national recognition as one of Enron's holdings.  I say "would have," because in May, while on vacation, I interviewed for a job with a wind power company also headquartered in downtown Portland.  I hadn't even been looking for a job, which is, I suppose, when opportunities are most likely to come along.  Things went fast, and before I was finished with vacation, I had accepted the position I interviewed for.  IT people experienced in energy are somewhat rare, particularly in Portland, and I'm certain that helped solidify their desire to employ me.

I've always been a proponent of renewable energy resources, and with our declining supply of natural gas, we've got to figure something out.  I still hold out hope that nuclear will make a comeback, and think that helium-cooled pebble-bed reactors are the next big thing in that arena.  Until then, expect to see wind farms cropping up in your neighborhood.  If you want electricity to remain affordable, support their construction.

Anyhow, after about six months at the new job, I'm really liking it.  The company is dynamic and fast growing, and we're part of something larger, having recently been purchased by Iberdrola, one of the world's largest providers of renewable energy.

The Gladiator Project

Just over a year ago, I bought and drove home a 1965 Jeep Gladiator pickup for $500.  I say, "drove home," because it's significant that it was drivable.  The margin was slim, to be sure.  I've been working on it with the help of friends for some time, and much progress is being made.  Pictures are available in my photo archive.  New gauges are in, as well as a replacement steering column, a rebuilt carburetor, and a new distributor with electronic ignition.  By the time I'm done, I should have around $3,000 in a solid work truck with a classy look to it.

That's it for this update.  Hopefully the next won't take a year to put in place.  No promises, though.