I keep telling myself I’ll get around to updating this blog, and I’ve evidently been kidding myself. Time to acknowledge the evidence and admit that I’m just not keeping up with this thing anymore, and start planning for the eventual sunset of it entirely. Which feels like a shame… I’ve been blogging fairly regularly for 8 years, and I like having a record of what I’ve been up to, so it’s difficult to give up on it entirely. But between trying to spend time with my fiancée and everything else going on in my life both work and play, there really just isn’t room for journaling anymore.

Thank you to those of you who took an interest in my adventures. I’ll do my best to continue to keep you informed one way or another. Let’s hang out some time.


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A snowstorm effect

Well, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: if you’re one of the few people who ever actually read this blog, you probably are already aware that I returned from my Florida vacation engaged to one Miss Elizabeth Richmond. I proposed in a parking lot adjoining the beach on an unseasonably frosty night. I might not be the most conventionally romantic kind of guy, but I like to think I make up for it by dispensing with the pretentiousness.

We’re planning a Seattle wedding sometime in the late summer of 2013. I thought this was the perfect amount of time to allow for some peace and relaxation (you know, before we get married and have to start planning the next stages of our lives together), but apparently I don’t understand much about how these things work and instead appear to have signed on for an extended marathon of planning… a planathon, I suppose. Elizabeth has been mostly patient with my bewilderment at all this, but I guess for most women the engagement period is more like the final, critical stage of planning that began sometime shortly after they were shown their first Disney movie.

So it’s had something of a snowstorm effect on our lives already, and every day we are discovering anew what kind of give-and-take between us will satisfy both her desire to get things arranged and my desire to play Skyrim instead.

In the midst of all of this a much more literal snowstorm incapacitated most of Seattle last week, as three-to-five inches of snow will easily do over here. So we’ve been hunkering down for the most part and going just a bit stir-crazy, although this one has probably been more benign than the blizzards we’ve had in the past couple of years. We were actually both out and about a fair bit this weekend, and unless another storm hits it looks like this one was not too much of a problem.

The weather hasn’t helped me get back into the swing of things after returning from vacation. I had planned to start attending Broadway Fit regularly, and that hasn’t happened. I also haven’t been back in an improv show yet (at least that hasn’t been cancelled). Hopefully this week will start to see the remedy of those things, as I’m afraid of becoming listless. My next theatrical project will be assistant-directing Amadeus at SecondStory, but that doesn’t go on until April and I’m not sure when production will start on it.

Speaking of productions, I was hoping to have photos of Joseph and my vacation posted before making this update, but I suppose it will have to wait until I’ve fixed that listlessness problem.


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More of an adventure

‘Twas the day before the night before Christmas and seeing as I had the day off of work, I thought I would finally get around to posting an update.

Joseph came and went, oh so quickly like such shows tend to do. I don’t think I really had much of an emotional response to it until it was over, when I suddenly felt the loss of it all. I didn’t really get a chance to bond with this cast the way I have some others… perhaps we were all just too busy, or too aloof or something. All I know is that as we finished striking and people started saying their good-byes I all of a sudden felt the absence and regret for not having made more of it… I suppose this show had to end for me to properly appreciate it.

It’s one that I personally struggled with quite a bit, initially just with the mechanics of it (as the dancing and singing were both extremely challenging), but later more with the acting side. By the end of it I could do the choreography in my sleep, but was still fighting a constant, uphill battle with my portrayal of Potiphar and trying to make him both comic and believable. At the end of the day I feel like my performances were pretty uneven, and if I were to go by the audience responses (which I generally try to avoid, but in the end I suppose they have the final say), then they definitely ran the gamut. It was nervewracking, knowing that I was cast primarily for my acting and comedy skills and clearly not my singing and dancing skills, I felt all the more pressure to prove myself and demonstrate that whatever I lacked in the latter I could make up for in the former. You never want anyone to regret trusting you with a role.

It didn’t help matters that a cold was circulating around the cast and I naturally picked it up just in time for our final three shows. It’s been making itself at home in my chest and lungs since the beginning of the week, and it wound up impeding my performance a lot more than I’d hoped. Even little things I’d never anticipated, like bowing down with your head touching the ground for a minute or so is difficult when you can feel your sinuses draining towards your eyes the entire time. I got through it, though, and while perhaps not outstandingly I like to think I still kept it respectable.

I do think I’ll keep going back to Broadway Fit in the new year. It was great exercise and a relatively inexpensive way to keep improving at my stage movement, even if only marginally.

As if life wasn’t busy enough with work and Joseph, Elizabeth and I took a whirlwind trip to New York City with our travel buddies, Colin and Ashley (with whom we’d previously gone to Las Vegas). It was very much an impulsive splurge in response to a sale by Alaska Airlines where tickets from Seattle to NYC were $100 each direction, easily the lowest I’ve seen them in years. As a group, we decided it was too good an opportunity to pass on, especially with the shows currently on Broadway that we’d all wanted to see. We worked it so that we flew into Newark at midnight, were there for Tuesday and Wednesday (enough time to see two evening shows and one matinée) and then were gone the next morning.

It was less of a vacation and more of an adventure, as we were going on a shoestring budget, with no time to rest and the entire city to see. We dragged ourselves around the bulk of Manhattan both days, before schlepping back to the airport Howard Johnson’s in New Jersey, one of the trashiest and noisiest hotels I have stayed in but marginally functional as a base camp. Our primary targets were to see The Book of Mormon and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Book of Mormon had been such a notorious hit (it cleaned up at the Tony’s) that tickets were only available through “resellers” (basically scalpers with a legitimate-looking storefront), and cost us an arm and a leg. Elizabeth wanted to see How to Succeed because it was starring Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame), and it was a rare opportunity as he was leaving the show at the end of the month (along with John Larroquette, who piqued my interest).

Perhaps the biggest theatrical treat came in our third show, however. Elizabeth had wanted to see War Horse, but our contact for tickets didn’t come through for us. I jumped at the chance to see the original cast of Venus in Fur, a new play by David Ives, who is one of my favourite contemporary playwrights, but there were almost no cancellations at the box office. It happened that we were meandering around Times Square when someone noticed the marquee for Follies, a revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical featuring Bernadette Peters. We figured a chance to see (living legend) Bernadette Peters was as worthwhile a way to spend our time on Broadway as anything, so we went to the box office and were relieved to discover they still had tickets. After some discussion we dished out the extra for tenth row orchestra seats, which as it turns out was probably the best decision we could have made for a show like that.

Despite my general familiarity with Sondheim I didn’t know Follies at all, and didn’t really know what to expect. What I got was probably the best show I’ve ever seen on Broadway. There were no weak links: all triple-threats, with some of the best singing, dancing and acting I’ve seen in my life. Bernadette may be the star, but she was hardly the stand-out, with all four of the leads just spectacular, and the rest of the ensemble knocking it out of the park. As the play went on we found ourselves increasingly dumbfounded as they would surprise us with something more impressive than anything we’d seen so far, and then proceed to top it with something new. I’m personally not used to seeing someone nail a passion-fueled, emotionally wrenching scene and then perform a song-and-dance number that rivals the best I’ve seen. We were told afterward that there were seven generations of Broadway performers on that stage, and it was truly a sight to behold.

Book of Mormon and How to Succeed were also a grand time, Book of Mormon in particular was hysterical and a real treat to get to see with the originating cast. They were great experiences, although I won’t remember being moved by them the way I was by Follies.

In other news, I turned 32 just four days ago. (It may not seem like a very significant age, but for computer scientists it’s a milestone.) Elizabeth surprised me with an overnight stay at the Willows Lodge, conveniently located in Woodinville, about a fifteen minute drive from us. Comparing it to the Howard Johnson we stayed at in Newark would be like comparing a Cadillac to a bicycle. We had a delightful time and (importantly) a relaxing time, with dinner at the Barking Frog that was some of the best food I’ve had in ages, hot-tubbing and jacuzzi time as well as just lying around and resting in a five-star environment. Unfortunately it was also when my cold started to kick in, so that was some unwelcome timing. It was still a great little retreat for both of us, though.

Now with the Christmas holiday around the corner, I finally have some time off, and we’ll be off to Florida in just a week. A welcome change, for sure!


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Look like a real champ

Ack… it’s American Thanksgiving, and the first time in over a month that I’ve felt relaxed enough to post an update to this thing.

There isn’t an awful lot of news to report on. I’ve been working like crazy on both the dancing and singing for Joseph, which opens in only a couple of weeks. It’s terribly difficult but I’m doing okay, at least when I’m not actually in the moment where we’re performing the scene. It will get to where it needs to be in time, but it’s still nervewracking. There are a lot of men and women in this show who are more “pro” than I am (or at least vastly better equipped with the necessary skills to be in the chorus of a show like this) and it’s hard not to feel like the odd man out.

Combine that with work suddenly getting extremely busy. I’d been assigned to a different project and was suddenly crunching in a way I hadn’t for months. It seems like the worst of that is over, but I should be careful about jinxing it.

The good news is that my replacement green card finally arrived. The previous one had arrived about five months earlier, but had the incorrect date of birth on it. It took longer than the average posted time (3.5 months) and I was getting quite stressed about it. When it finally arrived, everything correct this time, I was more relieved than anything else. Now my biggest dilemma is that I’m required by law to carry it with me everywhere I go, but I now have first-hand knowledge of how painful they are to replace if lost or stolen ($450 fee, the forms and biometrics appointment, and up to 6 months of waiting where you’re in a tough spot if you need to travel internationally). Conversely, the fine if you’re “caught” without it is a maximum of $100 and 30 days in jail. The jailtime wouldn’t be cool (although I can’t imagine anyone has ever had to serve such a term) and I wouldn’t want a misdemeanor on my record, but it seems absurd to me that the fine is less than a quarter of the replacement fee. I’ve decided to carry it with me in spite of what seems like poor reasoning. After all, the odds of my wallet getting lost or stolen (just recently there was a rash of personal effects stolen from improvisers at Theatresports while they were performing) are immeasurably greater than the odds of any local authorities asking to see my card. There is a huge divergence of opinion on the Internet regarding this matter. Some people carry a color photocopy in their wallet, but this is still clearly agains the law and the typical response to that is to see how effective it is if you’re pulled over carrying a photocopy of your driver’s license. I wish I had a good solution to this.

I had a little adventure in home-ownership the other day: my kitchen faucet has always been somewhat leaky, and even though I successfully repaired it back in March it recently began leaking again, even worse than it had before. Since I was evidently unable to do anything long-term to fix it, I decided to run over to Home Depot and just pony up for a new faucet. It seemed almost like poor judgment that I hadn’t done so the first time: sure, it was more expensive, but installing a new faucet is actually a pretty straightforward process, a whole lot less mysterious and error-prone than repairing a thirty-year-old existing faucet.

I estimated it would take less than an hour of work, but it wound up being over seven hours total, accounted for over an afternoon/evening and the following morning. All because I had no idea what I was getting into trying to remove the existing faucet. It’s difficult enough when you’re crammed into a 1-foot-by-2.5-foot opening underneath the cabinet, and the furthest bolt holding the sink in place is about three feet away from you, and there are two sink basins, a garbage disposal and drainage pipes blocking both your arms and vision. The nuts on these bolts were rusted in place, and the majority of my time was spent just getting them to move. I’d already bought a basin wrench to help reach the nut, but I wound up having to buy an even larger one to get sufficient leverage. I had to let them soak in WD-40 multiple times and strike them with a hammer before I could finally summon up enough strength to get them to turn, even the tiniest bit. Even after that, removing the first was a slow, laborious and painful chore. The second one – the further away of the two – proved even more difficult, though: when I finally applied enough force to free the nut, I also disconnected the bolt from whatever was holding it in place, so it would now spin freely when I tried to turn the nut. This meant the only way I could get it to move was by holding the bolt still somehow, which was nearly impossible to do.

I finally managed to get a large and strong enough pair of pliers in there with my other arm to hold the bolt steady (a feat enough in itself, as getting both my arms near the bolt with all of those obstacles was nearly impossible) while I twisted the nut off with the basin wrench. It took multiple tries and multiple bursts of strength, until I finally was able to pull the faucet out enough to jam the pliers in place from above while I twisted the nut the rest of the way off.

Even that wasn’t the end of my difficulties. After putting the new faucet in, I was dismayed to realize that the old inlet valve on the hot water had a built-in tube that didn’t match the new faucet line… and as I tried manipulating the thirty-year-old tube, it snapped off. So the next morning I needed to return to Home Depot and get a new inlet valve, which meant shutting off the water supply to the condo… of course, water still leaks from the pipes after you shut off the source, so I was dealing with the constant dripping and spilling of water as I attempted to install the new valve. I got really anxious when Elizabeth first turned the water back on and it started leaking out the end of the valve… it was already very tightly installed, and they caution you about over-tightening. Still, I tightened it some more and the leak went away, and after all that I finally have a shiny new faucet with a removable spray head that most importantly doesn’t leak and had better not for the remaining days I live in this condo.

My entire body is still sore and tender from the experience. Next to going into the crawl space it’s easily the most difficult task I’ve undertaken in this field. I was a total wreck at rehearsal that night as well, and the dirt that wouldn’t come off my hands or out from under my nails must have made me look like a real champ. At least it’s done, though, and next time if it’s going down this sort of road I’ll know to call a plumber.


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A busy winter

While I normally begrudge a medical professional attempting to sell me on a product that they clearly receive sponsorship for, we were able to find a deal at Costco, so Elizabeth and I bought a pair of Sonicare toothbrushes. I’ve had electric toothbrushes before so wasn’t expecting much, but it’s exceeded my expectations so far. It’s comfortable to use and has made flossing much easier, but what I especially like about it is that it operates on a four-cycle system that I know has me brushing far more effectively than I was before. So I’ve been advocating it, only to hear from other users of it that they’re susceptible to mold growth if you don’t remove the head after every use, and that the rubber casing can deteriorate to the point where water will damage it. That reminded me of my initial experience with the device, and its infuriating instruction manual that wouldn’t say what the flashing light on the front meant (I eventually had to look it up on the Internet). So: good R&D; problems with the execution and manufacturing. I’d still recommend the product, but they’re good caveats to be aware of.

Build Your Own Musical has its closing night tonight, following which I’ll be playing in Theatresports. The casts for BYOM have been smaller (especially for this extension of the run) and I got to play a more prominent role in the show last night, which was nice, although I let myself down in my big solo number. It’s a fun format for a show, though, and a great payoff for the audience in the second half. I hope I’ll be able to do it again.

In response to the insane dance call for Joseph, I sought out my director/choreographer’s advice on how to best prepare for the show. He told me about a drop-in class he teaches for the 5th Avenue Theatre called “Broadway Fit” and suggested I attend. It’s twice a week at a time that’s really hard to get into the city, but I decided to take a shot at it and it wound up being terribly fun, as well as thoroughly exhausting. The class is basically him teaching us extremely difficult choreography to a musical theatre number at breakneck pace. I am definitely at the bottom rung of skill level in attendance, but it’s also really go-at-your-own-pace and terribly non-judgmental (the choreography is difficult for everyone, including him). I don’t predict that I’ll get measurably better by the time we get into rehearsals next month, but it’s a great workout and a good chance for me to get to know what kind of things to expect from him in the show.

I’m looking forward to some of the new video games coming out next month as well. Arkham City, Zelda: Skyward Sword, Skyrim, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 are all on the list. It’s been at least a year since I’ve found a video game that interested me enough to purchase it. Between that list, Joseph, and Theatresports, it’s gonna be a busy winter.


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The credibility of their profession

Quite a bit happened in the last couple of weeks. I went to the dentist for the first time in several years… I know, I know, I’m horrible, but I had such a bad experience the last time I went to one that it took some pressure from Elizabeth to get me out to one.

Growing up in Canada, I found it natural to trust my dentist and assume that anything they did was simply looking out for my best interests. After moving to the States I found I had to become a lot more defensive about how I went about dealing with the dentist (and, in fairness, healthcare in general). It wasn’t a lesson I learned overnight, though, but only after paying considerable out-of-pocket amounts for extra cleaning procedures. Procedures I didn’t feel I necessarily needed, but that I was “sold” on by the dentist, who in hindsight seemed more interested in racking up insurance claims than they were doing what was best for my health, and wouldn’t hesitate to use his or her authority to make it seem like I was just expected to go along with whatever they proposed.

The thing is, I actually have remarkably resilient teeth, a small but kind-of-awesome genetic trait that I inherited from my dad. I’ve only ever had one tiny filling (which I don’t even remember getting), and while build-ups and deposits have accumulated over the years I’ve never had an actual cavity. The hygenist at the new place was actually extremely surprised to see that I have all of my teeth, including my molars. In her inspection she found what she was nearly certain was a cavity, but it didn’t show at all on the x-rays and the dentist confirmed that it was just a pocket that had a lifetime of accumulation. He told me that the decay will someday reach the point where I need fillings and that in the future one of my specific molars would get infected and require fixing, but that there was no real urgency or need to remove my molars. (Contrast to the dentist I last went to, that tried to persuade me to undergo the operation, claiming that my molars were in danger of becoming impacted in the next couple of years. They didn’t.)

Of course, it’s entirely likely that this new dentist was more amicable only because I explained to him the reason why I didn’t resume seeing my previous dentists. It’s a bit of a conundrum for me, because I am all in favour of acting in the best interests of my oral health and don’t want him to withhold his professional opinion just to placate me, but I’ve already been bitten (excuse the pun) too many times by people whom I felt borrowed from the credibility of their profession so they could twist my needs to fit their agendas.

Anyway, it’s still a miserable and painful experience but now that I’m feeling more in control of the situation I’ll be going back to this new guy regularly. My business is his to lose, and I think he understands that.

The other big news is that I am lined up to be in another show come Christmastime: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at SecondStory Repertory, the same place I did recently Spelling Bee. I wasn’t expecting to get in. On the one hand I had a lot going for me: they know me and like me over at SecondStory, and the show has eleven brothers for pete’s sake (and that’s not counting leads). On the other hand, the director (who didn’t know me from Adam) is fairly well-known in the region for his heavy dance and choreography focus and Joseph is such a spectacle song-and-dance show to begin with, I was expecting him to fill his quota with the people who could give his show the oomph he wants it to have (there were a LOT of people that auditioned for this show, the majority a whole lot more talented than I am when it comes to singing and dancing).

Frankly, I was overjoyed just to be invited to callbacks. This was the first audition I’ve ever done where I was asked only to sing and not to deliver a monologue, and for someone who usually manages to stay pretty level-headed in auditions, being asked to prove myself on the merits of my singing alone scared the pants off of me. Add to that it being the first time I was trying out new songs I’d been working on with my voice teacher, and I was nearly a nervous wreck. It was extremely affirming to see my song land with both the comedy and characterization I intended. Yes, the song I chose naturally caters to my strengths as a comedic performer and conveniently sidesteps the areas I’m weakest in when it comes to singing, but I’ve been working with my current voice teacher a little over a year now, and getting my voice to the place where I can deliver a song effectively enough to just let my singing get out of the way of my acting is a huge landmark for me.

The callbacks themselves were insanely hard as far as the dance went (as a number of way more experienced dancer friends of mine who were there confirmed with me) and I wasn’t adequately prepared for the singing, so I don’t suppose the process did me any favours, except inasmuch as I was able to demonstrate during the singing portion that my audition song wasn’t just a fluke and that I really could act and do comedy. I’m pretty positive that’s what got me in the show over the other men – and even got me the character role of Potiphar in addition to being a brother – and writing as someone who deeply, deeply envies his more talented and skilled friends, it’s validating to feel like every now and then the third leg of musical performance is given enough importance to compensate for the other two.

In the midst of all of this, I’ve been keeping up with Build Your Own Musical and Theatresports, the former of which is extending its run for a week. I’m glad I’m doing this show but it’s been kind of a middling experience for me. I still have yet to play more than a background role in any of the musicals we’ve done, in part because I’m being tentative when I see us straying from our director’s mandate. The shows we’ve been putting on are funny and entertaining, but I wouldn’t say they hit the primary goals that have been set out for us. I don’t know if I can be in a major role unless I’m prepared to compromise on that? With only a handful of shows left, I suppose I’d better figure it out.


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Too many pixels wasted

It can be difficult to remember to slow down and enjoy what little summer we get when so much is happening. It’s been unexpectedly and surprisingly warm and sunny these past few days, and I reckon I very nearly missed it doing little things like catching up on sleep.

Build Your Own Musical made it through rehearsals and had its opening weekend. We feel under-rehearsed but the show is a lot of fun, and I in particular have valued a lot of what I’ve learned just from going through the process. Musical improv, unfortunately, isn’t much like riding a bike for me: if I don’t keep up at it regularly the skill evapourates from me like morning dew in a sunnier climate than this. Between the thought-out and extremely precise philosophy our director has and the sheer repetition of doing this show, I feel much more renewed in this area. As a bonus, I’ve been able to incorporate what I’ve been learning from my vocal teacher this past year, and it’s been extremely helpful. When it comes to singing I’ve always struggled with technique and lessons have been a matter of baby steps; I may still be delinquent when stood next to some of my more talented/skilled counterparts but I’ve made a lot of significant advancements and I’m proud of them.

In the meantime I’m keeping up with Theatresports at the Intiman, and that continues to be surreal. Unexpected Productions is also now doing shows at Edmonds Community College, which has a pretty spectacular new black-box theatre that they just completed before cancelling their theatre program, leaving it wide open and unused. I did a show there last weekend since the Intiman was closed for Bumbershoot, and it’s no Intiman but it’s still pretty sweet: ultra-modern, large and spacious (seats 220), great amenities (dressing rooms, scene shop, costume department, etc.)… no fly gallery or orchestra pit and the wings are pretty small, but still, it’s a pretty kickass space for a college that no longer seems to need or want it.

I’ve finally got around to posting some photos from the vacation. They’re pretty random, I’m afraid, and perhaps a few too many pixels wasted on random shots of animals (or Elizabeth feeding animals), but there are some nice ones nonetheless:

Family at Cottage

The director of the staged reading of When The Boogeyman Spent The Night also posted a highlight video and a full number from the show; the interested may choose to check them out:



Here’s a free closeup of my makeup job:

photo 2

That’s about it. Throw in an overnight business trip to Portland (a bit inconvenient but I do generally enjoy taking the train) and call it an update. Really it might not seem like much, but when you’re rehearsing several days/nights a week and then doing improv shows late at night on the weekends, it tends to consume most of what you’ve got.


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Up into space

It’s been over a month since my last post, as I went away on vacation for two weeks and then have taken a while to readjust to life at home.

The visit to Canada went well. Elizabeth and I spent five days in Toronto, seeing the sights and giving me the opportunity to reconnect with a few of my old friends. Then we took off for the cottage, where we had a week and a half of practically nothing to do other than read and relax out by the water. The worst part had to be the colds that she and I came down with almost immediately after arriving in Toronto; mine managed to stay with me for the entire the vacation, although thankfully it didn’t ruin it.

The weather was excellent for most of it; oppressively hot at times (especially our first few days in Toronto), but for the most part just nice and sunny and warm and great for relaxing outdoors and swimming in the lake. The only day it rained was on our anniversary, when the skies let loose and ruined my plans: I had intended to take Elizabeth horseback riding but instead had to postpone until the following day. We had a good time out at a ranch that was still getting up and running; my horse was mercifully docile and we went on a great little trail-ride tour of the property. It was my first time on a horse since one time I went on a trail ride when I was a kid, and while there were a few awkward moments on the whole it went pretty smoothly. There are a few photos and I will get around to posting them eventually.

The ecology of the cottage is something that keeps changing: when I was a kid ducks were a pretty uncommon sight, and now they’re practically a fixture and act like they own the place. In the same way, frogs used to hang out in our corner of the bay and I’ve not seen any the past few times I’ve been. The past couple of years have seen the introduction of a new tenant, though: turtles. There haven’t been many of them – only two on this vacation, although one we saw sunning itself on a rock was still quite young and small, suggesting the population may be growing. The other one was about the length of my arm and we discovered it attacking a duck, who was quacking manically as it tried to reach the shore from the middle of the bay. We could only tell that it was caught on something, but couldn’t see what until it was near the shore and I could see the turtle gripping the duck’s foot in its mouth, letting itself be dragged towards shore. Not being sure what to do and perhaps being more scared of the turtle than a man in his thirties ought to be, I grabbed a rock and began whacking the turtle with it, just hoping to startle it into letting go of the duck’s foot. Eventually I got the two of them separated, but not without the turtle ripping off a chunk of the duck’s foot as a souvenir. The duck sat in shock on the beach for a while, and I wasn’t sure if I’d done it any favour by intervening, but I left it a few pieces of bread so that it might get some energy back. We were able to identify the hobbled duck the following day as it was sunning itself on a floating dock along with a bunch of other ducks, so while I don’t know if it will ultimately survive or for how long there at least appears to be some hope for it.

Being at the cottage is much nicer now that my parents have high-speed internet there. I actually brought a couple of inexpensive wireless routers I purchased here back to Canada with me to set up for them both in their condo and at the cottage, so that we could get a nice strong signal down at the waterfront. This was a working vacation for me, and I must say it was pretty sweet being able to work on my laptop in a chaise lounge down on the lower deck, with the sun, the waves and the breeze all there keeping me company. In what was more of an experiment than something I actually decided to use more than a couple of times, I found I could actually stream recorded television from my fancy-pants box at home in Redmond all the way to my parents’ cottage in Muskoka. That’s pretty impressive, I think, especially since the cottage Internet is delivered by satellite, so not only is the video streaming over 2,000 miles but is actually being sent up into space before being blasted back down to the little cottage outside of rural Gravenhurst, just so I could watch the Thundercats premiere.

The time spent in Toronto was at my parents’ new condo around Yonge and Finch, which is actually quite nice, although there are a lot of stairs. My parents have always had a good knack for managing their living spaces, and I was surprised to see the vast majority of furniture from my old house had been successfully repurposed and rearranged in the new place. That was a good time, too: we got a package to go see a number of tourist spots, although between the amount of walking in hot weather and our colds we only really got out to three of the five sights. We went to Casa Loma, the Toronto Zoo and the ROM, but left the CN Tower after realizing it was a three hour wait to ascend it, and gave the Science Centre a miss. We also took a jaunt out to Hamilton to see my old university stomping grounds, and we got to hang out with one of my old roommates as well, which was nice.

Sometimes you remember things as being better than they are, but I’m glad to say that my revisiting some Canadian restaurant chains, especially Swiss Chalet, Harvey’s and Pizza Pizza were not a disappointment. God, I miss them out here.

Oh, I also grew a beard over the holiday, for the first time since 2007. It has to come off this week, though, as I’m going in to have my biometrics recorded for my replacement green card, and I don’t really want it trapped for the next ten years in its holographic imagery. I may give it another chance after that appointment, though.

It’s been slow to adjust back to normal life, especially since so much has changed all of a sudden. Elizabeth, in particular, received her license and has opened her massage practice, so her schedule is completely different and still in a transient state. I’ve also begun performing Theatresports at the Intiman, which is crazy in all kinds of ways… for starters, I’m pretty sure the height of the lobby alone exceeds the entire width of the stage we had at the Market Theatre. And we’ve confirmed that the entire Market Theatre could fit into the backstage space we aren’t using at the Intiman.

It’s taken some adjusting to performing there, and it doesn’t help that we’re currently dealing with relatively small audiences in a theatre that seats over 400. It’s fun and exciting, though, and feels just the tiniest bit naughty, like something must have gone horribly wrong for our ragtag ensemble of performers to have the run of one of Seattle’s most impressive and dignified (not to mention award-winning) professional theatres, a kind of inmates-running-the-asylum scenario. (And of course, it is because things went rather badly for the Intiman that we were able to step in and make use of their space. It still feels bizarre, though.)

I’ve also enlisted myself in another improv show that we will be running there in September: Build Your Own Musical, a show that will give me the opportunity to really expand on my musical improv skill, so I am excited for that.

That’s all for now! More updates as I regain further consciousness.


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DVR replacement

I began writing this post back in April, and haven’t gotten around to finishing it until just now. This chronicles the saga of my new home entertainment system.

After months of preparations, planning, payments, and patiently waiting for a backordered component to arrive, I have my new condo-wide DVR replacement installed and working.

As a baseline, before this I had an HD DVR from Comcast in the living room and a standard-def set-top-box in the bedroom. Basically that meant we could only watch recorded TV in the living room (or pause live TV, or set new recordings there), and the bedroom could only display the standard-def channels (I was unwilling to pay the extra $8/month or so for Comcast to give us a HD box). Also, the living room DVR was constantly filling up due to its limited capacity, and because it only had two tuners we were frequently annoyed by being forced to change channels when we shouldn’t have had to, such as when one recording was ending and another was beginning but there was the tiniest bit of overlap.

The end result  of the new system is, in my opinion, well worth it, in spite of the hefty price tag. Here is a rundown of what I have now compared to what I had before:

  • High-definition TV simultaneously for both the living room and the bedroom.
  • A centralized DVR that’s accessible from the living room and bedroom, so that recordings are set and shared on a common guide between both rooms (and we can do things like pause a show in one room and resume it in the other).
  • A sleek, high-def interface that is far sexier than Comcast’s boilerplate standard-def interface, with no space in the guide wasted by ads, or any of those new, annoying popup ads that have been appearing during commercials.
  • Ability to watch/record up to four simultaneous channels between the two rooms. (Comcast DVR handled only 2 streams.)
  • Ability to skip commercials automatically on recorded TV. (It’s hit-and-miss technology but effective for the most part, and awesome when it works.)
  • A drive that can hold about 180 hours of HD television, and over 4 times that amount standard-def. (Comcast DVR held about 20 hours of HD.)
  • As far as Comcast is concerned, it’s only a single outlet with zero hardware rental fees.
  • Only major downside is no access to On Demand, Comcast’s interactive TV service.

Comparison with other options:

  • Multiple Comcast DVRs: High-def DVRs for both rooms would have been hella expensive, and we wouldn’t have been able to share recordings between the two rooms, switch what room we were watching TV in, etc. Only real plus is that this includes On Demand for quick access to a rotating library of shows and movies. Cost: about $32/month.
  • Multiple TiVos: Even more expensive (either in monthly fees or in lifetime purchase, as well as the cost of renting a second CableCARD/outlet fee from Comcast), and I’d have the same two-tuner limit as the current DVR. It would be possible to transfer TV shows between them, but inconvenient to do so, without the same shared guide prinicple. No On Demand. Cost: $600 + about $42/month, or $800 + about $12/month.
  • Moxi: This is a lot closer to what I was looking for in terms of functionality and very nearly won, although for the price and the target demographic (nerds like myself) I really felt it should have offered more. The fact that it runs Netflix only if you have a separate server running 24/7, for example, is a big cop-out, and I was sceptical about their “Emmy-award winning” guide that online reviews have not been as kind to. At the end of the day I decided I didn’t want to pay that kind of money just to be locked into another vendor platform. No On Demand. Cost: $800, no monthly fee.

In the end I decided to go whole-hog and roll my own system, building my own computer (first time!) from the ground up. I purchased the Ceton 4-stream tuner card, which was expensive at $400 but would save me from ever having to pay CableCARD rental or additional outlet fees since it could handle 4 streams in a single card.

The Ceton card had certain other implications: I would have to build a Windows machine and use Windows Media Center as my DVR software, since (at the time of this writing) that is the only compatible option. I had no qualms about this based upon everything I read online, though: other options such as XBMC, MythTV, etc. are all great for hobbyists and tinkerers who want to be free of the shackles of Windows, etc. but for someone who just wants a great user experience without all the heavy lifting, WMC is the way to go, and what I would recommend in a heartbeat to anyone else looking for a similar solution.

The setup with such systems is that you have a main computer somewhere that acts as the centralized TV processor and DVR, and then one or more Extenders anywhere else in the home you want to access the TV and DVR. The Extender is like a dumb terminal that has everything streamed to it from over the network, including the guide and live television. So in my case it would be main HTPC in the living room, and Extender in the bedroom. At the time of this writing, most Extenders that are compatible with WMC have been discontinued and do not receive much in the way of support or updates except for one: the XBox 360.

This became the greatest source of concern, because the XBox 360 is a closed platform. If I didn’t like something about how the DVR or remote control in the living room worked it should be easy enough to tweak the remote control’s settings in Windows. That wouldn’t be possible on the XBox 360: there are fewer remotes to choose from, and however they function out of the box would basically be what I was stuck with. I didn’t want a user experience that felt inferior to what I could get with the Comcast remote control. For example, the Comcast remote could skip ahead 30 seconds with the press of a button (although I had to go online to figure out how to enable it). Would the XBox 360 remote have a similar feature? If not, there probably wasn’t a way I would be able to configure it to have one. Online discussion forums seemed woefully neglectful when it came to this kind of subject, but I will address it later in this post.

Here’s the rundown of what I purchased initially (approximate prices):

  • Silverstone SG02 MicroATX chassis – $75 – This seemed like the best compromise between footprint, elegance and features for what I wanted to build. I decided I wanted 2 external 5.25″ bays for both an IR receiver/display and a CD drive, and 2 internal 3.5″ bays so I could have both a huge hard drive to record TV on and a small solid-state drive for the operating system to run super-fast.
  • 3 SilenX 80mm fans – $36 – To replace and augment the existing single fan in the chassis. I probably did not need all three of these, but at the price point I figured it didn’t hurt and was better than the cost of running too hot.
  • Intel Core i3 550 3.2 GHz processor – $125 – This seemed the best bang-for-the-buck at the time, low power-consumption without requiring a separate graphics card. A DVR HTPC doesn’t need a lot of processing power (Ceton requires 2.0 GHz and recommends 2.7 GHz): at most it is decompressing a single stream to display on the TV; the other ones are either getting written directly to the hard drive or streamed to the extender without any additional processing required. I may occasionally use it for things like playing old games in emulation as well, but 3.2 GHz is still plenty for that kind of thing.
  • ASRock H55M/USB3 motherboard – $89 – I don’t know a lot about motherboards so I basically went by reviews on Newegg while making sure it matched my space requirements (MicroATX form factor), supported the CPU I had selected, and had an HDMI-out port for the television. No complaints so far.
  • 4GB of RAM in 2x 2GB sticks – $45 – Details aren’t really important here; I just went by price and reviews on Newegg.
  • Zumax 400W power supply – $25 – I picked this off the shelf from Fry’s after the OCZ 500W modular power supply I ordered was defective (made a churning noise). 500W was overkill but I wanted the modular feature to reduce the wiring in my device… it turned out that this was really unnecessary and the space savings were minimal at best. Even 400W is still overkill for this kind of system, but the price was right and it had SATA cables for two out of three of my drives (for the third I used an adapter that came with it).
  • Antec VERIS Multimedia Station Elite – $61 – This nifty little piece of hardware goes into one of the 5.25″ bays in the case and acts as both an infrared receiver for the remote and fancy LED display that you would expect to see on a device like this. There are not a lot of competitors to this product, which made it an easy choice. It comes with a super-cool looking remote that turned out to be insufficient (explained later). If I didn’t care about having a display on the front of the case I could have purchased a remote that had a USB infrared receiver, although that would have broken the appliance-like nature of this computer.
  • 60GB OCZ solid-state drive – $115 – This was a splurge, but having a small SSD for the operating system means shorter boot times (even though the intent is to leave the device on 24/7), less heat, noise and power-consumption.
  • Hitachi 2TB 7K200 7200 RPM drive – $120 – 2 terrabytes to hold enough recorded TV that I will hopefully never again have to think about how much space is on it or whether I want to record standard-def instead of high-def. Performance is important on these drives, especially if you’re recording multiple shows, so 7200 RPM is recommended over 5400 RPM or the variable-speed “green” drives that are popular. I could have gotten away with 1 TB or 1.5 TB and been fine, but the cost increase to 2 TB was marginal enough that it seemed worthwhile.
  • ASUS Blu-Ray burner with LightScribe – $100 – Definitely another splurge as I already have a Blu-Ray player, but I figured it would be neat to be able to burn BluRays (and LightScribe sounds very cool to me). I went through two similar-featured but less-expensive LG burners that were both defective before deciding it wasn’t worth the heartache, and waited until this model was on sale. Steer clear of LG optical drives! This seems to be one area of technology where you truly get what you pay for.
  • Arctic Silver 5 Thermal Compound – $6 – While this CPU was in very little danger of running hot, I’d seen from the reviews that the default cooling compound wasn’t very effective and figured that for $6 it was better safe than sorry.
  • Ceton 4-Tuner PC Card – $425 – The expensive but magical little device that would make everything possible. Note that ever since these became more widely supplied the price has dropped to around $300.
  • Windows 7 Home Premium operating system – $100 – I actually got this at a substantial discount from the price I’ve listed here through a friend that works at Microsoft, although I won’t list the price here. All versions of Windows 7 includes Windows Media Center, the software that powers the DVR.
  • XBox 360 S 4GB – $200 – As with Windows, I was able to get this at a discount from the price I’ve listed. This is the Extender for the bedroom. Didn’t bother with the hard drive (don’t need it; don’t want the noise from it).

In addition to this, I’ve purchased the following:

  • Logitech Harmony 300i remote – $40 – It turns out that the remote included with the Antec VERIS, while good for operating a computer, is not so simple or straightforward for operating a DVR. The Logitech remote is pretty inexpensive, feels great and isn’t too complicated.
  • Universal Media Remote for the XBox 360 – $20. I’m not crazy about this remote but Elizabeth likes it and it gets the job done. There are a few other options out there as well, but they look to be hit-and-miss.
  • Logitech diNovo Mini Keyboard – $80 – It’s impractical to run a device like this entirely in the absence of a keyboard and mouse. The diNovo Mini is sleek and stylish and gets the job done without the constant presence of a full-sized keyboard/mouse cramping the living room. Note that these are normally $150 but every now and then Logitech puts up some heavily discounted “dented box” stock on their website. The VisionTek Candyboard is a popular, less-expensive alternative. (A USB keyboard and mouse are still necessary during the initial installation phase.)

All-in cost: about $1,400, no monthly equipment fees (from Comcast, TiVo or anyone).

One thing you might notice is that I don’t mention any wireless networking components. Last year I wired my condo up with Ethernet cables to all major parts of it, and I am now running a Gigabit network enabling extremely fast communication between devices. Wired is really the best way to go with this sort of setup to make it reliable as possible. You can go wireless as well, and you sort of take your chances with the consistency of the signal strength, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.

It took me several hours to assemble everything. Parts of it were trickier than others… for example, you have to put a scary amount of pressure on the CPU case lever to secure it to the motherboard. I’d also never applied thermal compound to a CPU before, and there are far too many different opinions and videos out there as to how you should do so. Cable management in the relatively small chassis is also a real hassle… I can’t imagine how I would have managed a Mini-ITX chassis had I opted for the super-small form factor.

At the end of the day I was able to get Windows 7 installed and everything working pretty smoothly. The system has exceeded my expectations in most regards, and delivered on all of its promises. We get full HDTV and DVR capabilities in the bedroom as though we had our own set-top box in there. The Windows Media Center software is far more sexy than anything else out there… it looks and feels great. There are a few issues:

  • Unsurprisingly, things crash from time-to-time. It’s not perfect. Some of this may be due to elements like the commercial-skipping software that runs in the background; it’s possible that a vanilla installation of Windows 7 without any of the bonus features wouldn’t have these problems.
  • Speaking of commercial skipping: the software to do this comes in several parts and is fairly complicated to install and set up. It’s great when it works and annoying as hell when it doesn’t. It can be toggled on and off with the channel up/down buttons, though, on both the main HTPC and the XBox extender.
  • The Media Center great and reliable at performing its built-in functions, but extensions tend to be hit-and-miss. For example, we can watch Netflix and Hulu with PlayOn software (another $60 for a lifetime license), but the Media Center integration options tend to be buggy. Sometimes (although infrequently) it will just crash, and you need to restart Media Center.
  • Likewise, I’ve used the main PC to play old Super Nintendo games with an emulator and my Playstation 3 controller. But the Media Center integration is buggy and problematic, especially when it comes to audio. You might be able to get by with a remote control alone if all you are doing is watching TV, but if you’re doing other things like gaming or using premium video services you really do need a keyboard/mouse on hand.
  • There are a couple of issues that arise out of the power-saving features. For example, if the system goes to sleep and wakes up, audio through the HDMI connection stops working until I play a live or recorded TV show. This is acceptable most of the time, but annoying if I’m trying to do something like Netflix or gaming.
  • Similarly, the hard drive has a power/disk-saving feature that, whenever it goes to sleep, causes it to take a good ten seconds or so to start watching TV or a recording again while it is spinning up. This and the audio issue could probably be fixed if I just disabled all power-saving features, but I am reluctant to do so.

None of these details are enough to make me regret my purchase. Having the centralized, networked system with dumb terminals is great… especially as a software engineer, it’s bothered me how antiquated Comcast and TiVo are… this is how a modern system should be.


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Positively terrorize

Been an eventful couple of weeks. Elizabeth and I kind of fell into being cast in a staged reading of a new children’s musical, being held at the prestigious Seattle Repertory Theatre. The play is called When The Boogeyman Spent The Night, in which I take up the mantle of the eponymous Boogeyman, a tired, grumpy and sarcastic ghoul (typecasting? …actually, the question mark is unneeded, the perpetrators have already plainly acknowledged it as typecasting). We do the reading next week and have precious little time to prepare in the midst of millions of other things going on in our lives, but from the one rehearsal we’ve had so far it’s clearly going to be a blast. The five of us performing are all good friends, one of whom plays a little boy that I get to positively terrorize. Who could ask for anything more?

We almost couldn’t make the scheduling commitment; our three main nights (split between two rehearsals and the performance) are precisely sandwiched between a weekend holiday at the beach in Moclips, WA with Elizabeth’s family, and our two-week vacation in Canada.

We’ve already been plenty busy. Elizabeth had her graduation ceremony last week – a major milestone for her – and just yesterday we had a follow-up barbecue party at our place to celebrate both her graduation and upcoming birthday. I also had my last Theatresports that I’ll be performing at the Market Theatre, at least until the renovation is completed and we move back in. I felt a sudden nostalgia upon its completion, a sort of sadness for a chapter that’s ending, even though not all that much ought to be changing. I helped out with organizing stuff and cleaning out for the move today (a process that’s being spread out over several weekends; today was the only day I am available), and it’s amazing how much history is in that place, as I went through records of concessions sales that were over 20 years old and threw out instruction manuals for 286 computers and the like. Among the spoils were some pricelessly old headshots of some of our current ensemble members, which I fully intend to scan and post online for all of our amusement.

We’ve had a few days of summer and that’s been nice, but have yet to experience the monstrous heat wave that typically occurs for a brief period each year. I actually snapped a little earlier this spring and bought a portable air conditioner after a short heat wave we experienced, thinking I could get a good price on last-year models (which I did), and that by getting a portable one I could trundle it in and out of our storage locker so that it wouldn’t be taking up space for the vast majority of the year when it isn’t needed. So far it’s proven a good plan except that we haven’t needed it a single day yet. Which is just as well, as it’s noisy as hell (pretty much all of the portable ones are), but I hope I’m not made entirely a chump for purchasing it.

That’s all to report!


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