Sunday, December 27, 2009

Patriots Win AFC East!

The Patriots were in rare form today as they handed the Jaguars a 35-7 defeat and clinched their 7th AFC East Division Championship in the last 9 seasons.

Both the offense and defense came to play, and the team as a whole seems to finally be performing up to its potential. While some will cite a weak schedule as the main reason for their current success, I think that it’s only a small factor. There are no gimmes in the NFL, and had the Patriots continued their lackluster ways in these last two games, we could still be battling with the Jets for a playoff spot. Don’t forget that this is the same Jaguars team that gave Indy a run for their money just last week.

There’s been a steady uptick in the play on both sides of the ball, and that’s how you want it this time of year. You want to roll into the playoffs with a full head of steam. The keys to playoff victory are execution and desire, regular season records are meaningless.

I’m hoping that Brady and the rest of the starters are in for at least the first half next week against the Texans. Actually, I’d like to see them in until the game is well in hand. I’m of the opinion that nothing good comes from sitting out your star players this late in the season. You can’t tell me that sitting Peyton and allowing the Jets, the Frickin Jets… to break Indy’s streak was a good thing for the team. Old Peyton looked mighty unhappy on the sidelines, and that unhappiness might be a little seed that blossoms into frustration and doubt as the stress of the playoffs looms.

So, good job men. Congratulations on the victory, and thanks for the new hat for my collection. Just don’t be losing focus or letting your foot off the gas anytime soon, there’s still a lot of football ahead.

That is all.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Tail

It was late on a bitterly cold December night. One of those windy 12 degree New England evenings, the kind we come to know and love by midwinter, but aren’t really ready for when they arrive early. My wife and I had braved the cold to try and wrap up our Christmas shopping. We were both cold and tired on the ride home, but happy none the less, as it seemed we had finished off our pre Christmas checklist and could now coast into the holidays.

I pulled into our driveway, shut the car off, and as I looked down at the ignition to remove the key, I heard and felt a thump, accompanied by both a surprised yelp from my wife, and a plaintive yowl from outside the car. I immediately looked up and saw a pair of great big luminous yellow eyes staring back at me.

We both just sat there for a minute, stunned. There was an animal standing on the hood of the car and staring in the windshield at us. What the heck was it, and why was it so bold? It looked like a raccoon at first, but as our eyes adjusted, we realized it was a good sized cat. A good sized cat that appeared to have just fallen out of the sky…

It cried again and put its paw up on the windshield. It obviously wanted our attention.

I carefully got out of the car, and moved up to the hood. Our new friend responded by coming right over to me and trying to get inside my coat. I usually don’t snuggle on a first date, but this cat was insistent. My wife came around to join me, and the cat moved back and forth between us, prodding us with its head and meowing loudly.

The cat was impressive looking. It was a longhaired brown tabby with a large ruff, similar to our Maine Coon, but under that beautiful coat I could feel that it had no meat on its bones, and the poor thing felt cold. It didn’t take us long to figure out what was needed. My wife stayed with the cat while I went in and got a little kibble and a bowl of water, which the cat dove into with gusto. When it was finished eating, it sat by our door and watched us as we lugged in our packages and started closing up for the night.

Now it was decision time. The cat was obviously sick and emaciated, and it was hella-cold out. The right thing to do was to bring it in, but you have to be careful with sickly strays when you have other pets. We decided to set up a bed and a box in the basement, and call around to all the local Vets and Animal Control in the morning. Hey, maybe we could make someone’s Christmas by reuniting them with their lost pet.

I went back outside and the cat was still there, sitting right by the front door. It came up and rubbed against me, then followed me around to the back of the house. When I opened the back door that leads into our basement, the cat followed me right in with no hesitation. At first it preferred my lap and the inside of my coat to its new bed, so I sat with it tucked against me as my wife filled the box and the bowls. Gradually it ventured to the food and litter box, then curled up on the warm blankets and conked out.

The next morning we took some digital pictures and emailed them to all the Vets offices in a 20 mile radius. We also printed up flyers which we put on every bulletin board and light pole we could find. My wife was tireless in the effort. For the cat’s sake, as well as in the interest of our own pet’s health; we brought it in to our Vet for a complete workup. They were great. Even though they were busy and the holidays were rapidly approaching, they squeezed us in and checked her out. Yes, it was a girl, and after they shaved off some of her matted undercoat, they found that she had been spayed. Blood tests showed that she had been living off of her fat reserves and had a pretty bad urinary tract infection. The Vet felt that between the infection and the malnutrition, she had probably been on her last legs when she gave herself up to us. A full course of antibiotics and lots of TLC were prescribed.

On the plus side, she had tested negative for feLV and FIV, and didn’t appear to have any fleas or ticks, so we’d be able to integrate her into the household a little more without fear. She also appeared to be about a year old, and in otherwise good condition. A well cared for housecat that had fallen on tough times.

Checking out, I was stumped when they asked for a name to go on the cat’s file. When I said “Hopefully, we won’t be keeping her for long”, they just laughed. They know us all to well. My wife suggested that we call her Noelle, seeing as it was Christmas and all, and I quickly agreed. We took her home and set her back up in her basement nest, but this time we left the door open so that she could come up if she liked. The next few days she stayed put in the basement, mostly sleeping. She would get up for her food, and readily allowed me to pill her twice a day, but that was it. This was one sick and exhausted cat.

Our big old Maine Coon, Ted, came down to investigate once or twice during those first few days, but he kept his distance, and he didn’t appear all too happy about this new development. He kept going to the basement stairs and looking back at us, as if to say “Don’t you guys realize that there’s a stranger down there?” No sir, he didn’t like it one bit.

As she started to feel better, Noelle began to investigate her new surroundings. Her first move was to the laundry room, where we’d find her either sleeping on top of the dryer, or nestled in a basket of clothes. When one of our other cats would come down, she’d hop up into the rafters above the washer and dryer. I think her little adventure in the wild had heightened her survival instincts, and she wasn’t taking any chances. It was priceless to watch, they’d tip toe around, checking her bed out, even going into the laundry room, and all the while she was watching them silently from her lofty perch. Ted reminded me of John Belushi in the scene from Animal House, where he’s sneaking across the campus at night. All exaggerated moves that wouldn’t fool a blind man.

Right after Christmas, she started venturing upstairs, and that’s when the real fun began. We like to refer to those times as the “Stair Wars” period. One of the established “guests” always seemed to be stationed by the stairs, like little cat sentries. Not a problem for Miss Noelle, she’s one tough chick who knows how to get what she wants. Her ultimate weapon is a rising howl that seems to strike fear in the hearts of the others. She’d creep slowly up until she was face to face with one of them, and then just stare them down for a while. The minute they’d flinch, she’d let out that blood curdling howl and bolt right for them. They would always panic and turn tail, not even Teddy the Lion Hearted could withstand her fury.

It didn’t take her long to stake out her territory, and of all places it was under the Christmas tree. She loves sleeping on the tree skirt, especially when the tree lights are on, and she has no end of fun climbing up into the lower branches and reaching through to bat at the ornaments. Very fitting behavior for a Christmas cat, I’d say.

Meanwhile, my wife and I would freeze every time the phone rang that holiday season. We’d passed the point of no return, so to speak. As well intentioned as we were, we were really starting to get attached to Noelle. The thought of giving her up was a real downer.

It turned out that we were worrying for no reason. As we approach another Christmas, Noelle, the cat that magically dropped out of the sky and into our lives, is still with us. No one ever claimed her, much to our relief, and we actually have a theory about where she may have come from. About two or three weeks before we found her, there was an estate sale around the corner from us. Someone had passed and the relatives were in from out of town to settle things up. At one point there were people lined up down the street for a chance to get in, everyone loves a bargain. We think she may have been part of the household and gotten out during all the hubbub, only to be forgotten. We’ll never know for sure, we’re just glad she found us.

Of course, Noelle has taken up residence under the tree again this Christmas. She loves to lay there amongst all the presents and stare at the lights. I think it’s a comforting thing for her, the symbol of a new warm and loving home. There’s still a little tension between her and Ted, but things have mellowed a bit. We lost our two oldest cats this year. Zoë was 16, and little Phoebe was 15. Phoebe left us just a few weeks ago, and the dynamic in the house has changed dramatically since then. Little Peep was Ted’s running mate. She was the Yin to his Yang, and they were certainly an odd couple; Ted, the big 18 lb Coon, and Phoebe, the little 5 lb Peep. He’s been kind of lost without her, and it’s awful hard for him to guard against “Noelle encroachment” all by himself. I think he’s just resigned himself to being pestered. Get used to it Ted, women can be very bossy.

So, that’s my little Christmas tail, and now it’s time for me to wrap this up and get wrapping. I leave you with this; if fate puts you in a position to help someone out this holiday season, whether it’s a fellow human or a stray animal, take a chance. You won’t regret it.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Not Such Deep Thoughts; Special Decking The Halls Edition

The last couple of weeks I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my free time either decking the halls, or aimlessly wandering through malls. Neither activity ranks very highly on the old berry funometer, but it has given me a lot of time to think (uh-oh…), and now it’s time to share those thoughts with you, if only to exorcise them from my brain. So, without further ado, I bring you a Special Decking The Halls Edition of Not Such Deep Thoughts:

Come on Randy, you better watch out. Santa knows that you’ve been dogging it, and pouting, and if things keep going like they’ve been going, I see a lump of coal in your future. On the other hand, were you to start hustling and playing through to the whistle, you just might be spending this holiday season with visions of a shiny new ring dancing in your head. From here on in, try thinking of each catch as a layaway payment towards the big bling.

Every time I go up in the attic, I smash my head on something. Get the tree, smash my head. Look for ornaments, smash my head. Bloody gashes on my dome are not a good look for me.

The Sox have given us an early present with the acquisition of Lackey and Cameron. Adrian Gonzalez would be the capper Theo, but please don’t go giving up Ellsbury to make it happen. Dump Buchholz if you want, but not Ellsbury.

Why on God’s green earth are the plugs on the pre-strung lights that are attached to our tree labeled C8, C12, C26 and G2, and why are the labels on 3 of the 4 marked with different colored dots? There are only 2 outlets on the main cord, and neither one is labeled or colored. I really wish I could find those directions…

I usually like Target’s holiday commercials. In previous years they’ve always been fast paced, colorful and set to infectious music. This year’s campaign is just depressing. I know they’re trying to pound home the “good deals in a bad economy” theme, but they just feel uncomfortable. I can’t help thinking that the families are going to erupt into a knock down drag out domestic dispute at any moment. “You bought a flat panel TV? I thought we discussed overspending” and “You spent too much, I’m really not that into you” are not the stuff of holiday memories, they're just creepy and depressing. Is it how Christmas plays out in a lot of families? Yes, but who wants to be reminded of that.

And speaking of bad holiday commercials, how about that strange one for the Kindle? You know the one; it has a woman who morphs from a mustachioed magician to Daniel Boone firing a musket, and its set to a sickly sweet song called “Fly me away”. The woman in the commercial is actually an Amazon contest winner who wrote the jingle herself, and as impressive as that is, it just doesn’t seem to fit the product to me. I get the whole “Kindle can bring you a gazillion different books and fly your mind away to wherever you want to go” thing, very artsy-fartsy, but the first few times I saw it I honestly thought it was going to be an ad for Southwest or Jet Blue. Besides, the Kindle is a sexy device; you need to show it off. You see it for about 2 seconds at the beginning of the commercial, then nothing but unrelated fluff for the rest of the spot. The money would have been better spent on a close up of the device as it changed screens between countless newspapers, magazines and books. Simple and to the point.

The best Christmas album ever made is Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. It’s a must have for your collection. Don’t just dismiss it as a silly cartoon soundtrack, the man was a genius. The album is comprised of full versions of those all too familiar snippets from the cartoon, and his piano work floats and soars through each track against a backdrop of incredible jazz bass and percussion. The recording quality is fantastic, to boot. When I listen to it, it feels as if each note reaches in and gently massages the stress centers of my brain.

Malls suck during the holidays. They’re hot and crowded, the parking lots are like a demolition derby, and the food courts are like a middle school mixer.

I’m off now until the start of the New Year, and there’s nothing like it. It allows me to slow the pace down and actually enjoy the holidays. I’d been slogging my way towards this break like a Foreign Legionnaire slowly making his way towards an oasis, sand sucking at my feet with every step, a prayer on my lips that it was not a mirage I was seeing on the horizon. This past year has not been a memorable one on a lot of fronts, and now that I’ve finally made it to the finish, it feels like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. As a great man, and one of my role models growing up, once said; “Nothin to do but eat and sleep… and live off the fat of the land. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.”

If you’re listening Santa, all I want for Christmas this year is some quality family time and rest. Lots and lots of rest.

That is all.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Say it ain’t so, Pat….

Our beloved mascot Pat Patriot was arrested in a prostitution sting this Friday in Rhode Island.

He was initially charged with one count of solicitation. A second charge of hindering a police investigation was added when he couldn’t remove his gloves for finger printing.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Tale Of Two Teams

Looks like I spoke too soon last week when I said that the Pats had a virtual lock on the AFC East. I expected this to be a rocky season, but come on. Brady’s getting hammered, the tight ends are missing in action, and as inexperienced as the secondary is, they can’t take all the blame on defense. Coverage becomes really difficult when the opposing QB has all day in the pocket.

It’s been a tale of two teams all season. There’s the first half (quarter?) Pats, that come out firing on all cylinders, and then there’s the second half Pats, who sputter and stall, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory all too often. Why are they breaking down so consistently? Maybe the goings on this week in Foxboro gives us a clue.

Four players were sent home for arriving late for practice on Wednesday. Although it was a nasty morning, Bill wasn’t taking any excuses and he sent them packing. That the coach would send Moss and Thomas home at a time when he needs them most says a lot. It says that he needs their attention more than they need practice. They have the ability; they just don’t have the drive.

I’m in awe of Moss and his abilities most of the time, but the trailing off on routes stuff just ticks me off, and maybe it ticks Bill off a little also. I know Adalius should be a force to reckon with, but this year he’s not. Belichick has already sat him out with no apparent injuries, and his sound bites are those of an unhappy man.

Now I’m not saying these guys are the main problem with this team, but I am saying they are symptomatic of the bigger picture. You can have all the talent in the world on your team, but it won’t matter a bit unless you are a team, and the ’09 Patriots are not.

Are they unhappy with the coaching? Maybe. This team needs an offensive coordinator desperately. They’re just too predictable, and they fail to make the adjustments needed as the game progresses. There’s also been some pretty strange play calling and a clear lack of communication amongst the coaching staff and the team, evidenced by the delay of game penalties, unnecessary time outs, punt team coming on even though Belichick is waving the offense to stay out there… I smell confusion in the ranks.

Are they lost without a clear leader amongst them? Maybe. A lot of the on field leadership left with Bruschi, Vrabel, Seymour and Harrison, and no one seems to be stepping up to fill those shoes.

They clearly needed a slap to wake them up, hell, they need an epiphany. Is it too late? No, but it will be soon. A team can gain a lot of momentum sweeping out, even against inferior teams. It’s a confidence builder and it gets a team rolling downhill into the playoffs.

Would they go far we’re they to make it? Yes, but only if they get that team thing going. The most memorable image for me of Super Bowl 36 will always be the way they came out onto the field en masse, and then stood huddled together on the sideline, hopping and chanting. You just knew they we’re there to kick some ass, and they did.

Come on guys, how about a little of that ass kicking attitude this Sunday? I know you’ve got it in you.

That is all.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Verizon FiOS Set Top Box Issues

Firmware download hoses up HDMI port

Verizon pushed down a firmware upgrade for their set top boxes on December 1st, and for the last week anytime you hit the guide function you were forced to see a message touting the new interactive services that the upgrade was enabling. You then needed to hit the OK key to proceed to the program guide, which was a pain, but a relatively small pain compared to the real problems that the upgrade caused for me.

Since the upgrade, my Motorola HD QIP 7000 set top box power cycles constantly when I try to shut it off. It wouldn’t be so bad if the box wasn’t in the bedroom, but it is.

The first night I noticed it, I had fallen asleep with the TV's sleep timer on, only to be awakened by a “Click”. At first I thought it was the TV turning off at the predetermined time, but it kept happening. Click, pause, Click, pause, Click, pause, over and over and over. It was very annoying.

I finally got up, flipped on the lights, and watched as the box first turned on, Click, then cycled through a couple of error code screens (8888 followed by ----), briefly showed the channel display, then… Click, shut itself off, only to repeat the process in an endless cycle. I had to unplug the darn thing so that I could finally get some sleep.

Next day I called Verizon and as soon as I mentioned the 8888/---- error codes, they knew what the problem was. Seems the new firmware update they’re so proud of breaks the HDMI port. When the QIP 7000 is connected via HDMI cable to a TV, and the TV is switched off, the box takes leave of its senses. Everything is fine as long as the TV is on, but once you shut it off, the box starts cycling. Sure enough, when I unplugged the HDMI cable from the TV, the box fell silent.

The good news is, they know what the problem is.

The bad news is, they don’t have a fix for it yet.

Until they do, you need to switch over to a set of component cables. You can also use coax or composite cables, but only component and HDMI give you a Hi Def signal on these boxes. The tech support person apologized for the inconvenience and promised to overnight me a set of composite cables. He also said that once the problem was fixed and I switched back to HDMI, I could hang on to the component cables, compliments of Verizon. Wowzers, such a deal…

Before I hung up, I asked how they were going to notify me when the problem was fixed. I got put on hold for a minute, and when the tech returned he informed me that I wouldn’t, I should just check and see if the HDMI cable works every once in a while. Nice.

I should mention that I haven’t had any problems with my HD DVR QIP 7216 downstairs; it works fine, HDMI connection and all. This problem seems to be strictly limited to the HD QIP 7000 model, although there’s also a possibility that the problem is with specific types of TV’s. I’ve got the 7000 connected to a 1 year old Vizio and the 7216 connected to a 3 year old Samsung. HDMI connectors and cables are required to be backwards compatible between versions, and the tech never asked me what type of TV I had, so it’s probably not an issue, but you never know. If I get ambitious maybe I’ll try swapping the boxes, just to satisfy my own curiosity.

As soon as the new set of component cables arrived I hooked them up, and the problem is now solved. No more power cycling, and I actually think the picture is a little bit better than it was with the HDMI cable.

How is that possible? Well, it’s hard to explain, but the quality of the picture is determined in large part by how the components (TV and cable box) process the signal being received. There’s a great write up here on the eacoustics forum that explains it better than I can. The quality of the cables also factors in, and the component cables I received today appear to be of much better quality than the HDMI cable they originally gave me.

By the way, while I was waiting impatiently for the arrival of my new component cables, I was unplugging the HDMI cable before I turned things off. It’s a better temporary solution than unplugging the set top box. If you leave the box powered down you’ll not only miss the guide updates, you’ll also miss the fix, when and if they ever send it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Theo Gets Scutaro, Kraft Getting Chickens

The Sox continued their time honored holiday tradition of buying a new short stop every season with the acquisition of Marco Scutaro. When reached for comment, Theo said his long term goal is to set a Major League record for most players on the payroll that play for other teams and most players at a single position during a given GM’s tenure.

I think he’s already got both of them in the bag. Way to go, Theo!

In other Boston sports news, Robert Kraft has applied for a permit to raise chickens. In a statement to the press, Mr. Kraft said:

"Funding for the Stadium Footbridge has been removed from the stimulus package, and we see this as an innovative way to fund the project. For years my friends have been telling me about the wonderful times they have at this little chicken ranch in Nevada, so I figured why not open one up here. I’m sure the money saved on the flights will be spent on eggs and such. We’ve even been toying with the idea of painting little Pats helmets on the eggs. Very unique. Our slogan will be “Brown Eggs Are Local Eggs, And Local Eggs Are Pats.” I made that up."

And so did I. All kidding aside, although the Sox do seem to be a bit obsessed about finding the “right” shortstop, Scutaro may turn out to be a good acquisition. He’s definitely an offensive upgrade at short, and he really flashed some leather last year, but I liked having Gonzo back. He was a proven commodity from a defensive standpoint, and contrary to peoples fears, he turned out to be no slouch at the plate, either. All in all, I’d rather see them concentrating their efforts on resigning Bay.

As for Mr. Kraft and his chickens, whatever that man wants to do is all right with me. He’s a great guy and he’s done so much for both the franchise and New England in general, that I couldn’t find it in my heart to begrudge him over a few chickens. If he wanted to start an Alpaca farm, I’d be first in line for a big fuzzy hat and matching sweater. They’d be awesome for those late December games…

And speaking of games, don’t be jumping ship on our Pats just yet. I think we all tend to forget that this was a Brady-less team last year, and there’s going to be some fits and starts as they all readjust. Are they a consistent “top tier team”? Of course not, did you really expect them to be? Can they pull it together and close out the season on a high note? Yes, and that would be more than I expected of them. Hey, I’ve watched some pretty bad football over the years, and I’ll tell you this; a team that’s 7-4 with 5 games to go, and a virtual lock on the AFC East, is worth watching.

That is all.