Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Kindle collections

The new version of the Kindle software is finally available and I've just spent the last hour cheerfully cataloging my 120+ books. There are some ways in which the implementation is a bit clunky, the way you expect a first release to be, but by and large it's lovely.

I was afraid that we'd get some kind of "folders" solution which would be far less useful than a "tags" solution, and I argued potently for a "tags" solution. This is a perfect example of where tags beat folders. What's the difference? A single document can have multiple tags but can be in only one folder. Folders are more familiar, but tags are far more appropriate, because I might want to look at a list of the books I haven't read, or the sci-fi books, or the books that are samples I have yet to evaluate... and the same book could easily fall into all three categories. With folders, how could I choose? No way to tell if, next time I'm going to want to see a list of books that includes this one, I'll be thinking of one or the other categorization criterion. But since we have tags (Kindle calls it "collections") there's no such problem. I have a collection for Dresden Files books, and another for RPGs, and another for unread books. So Changes shows in Unread, and the new Dresden Files RPG in the RPGs collection, but they both appear in the Dresden collection, too.

It's kind of slow and tedious to categorize a hundred books, but that's a one-time problem. From now on, each book will be catalogued as it arrives. (It would be nice, actually, if they let me specify a collection that new books fall into by default, but if you view By Collection then those show up together anyway since they have no collection, so it's no big deal.) It might be nice if they came up with a way to organize your books on the PC side, just to help you get through that first cataloging, but that's not too important and I'm glad they didn't hold back the release while they developed it.

About the only thing I hope they change soon is that the list of collections uses up a lot of space on the screen. You only get to see nine at a time. Right now I have nineteen of them, so that's a lot of next-page flipping. No reason I can see why the collection names have to be double-spaced or in a single column.

There's a bunch of other new features in this update that I probably won't use. PDF Pan and Zoom is certainly essential if you insist on reading PDFs on the Kindle, but ultimately, reading a PDF that you have to pan and zoom on is a bad idea. PDFs are the most popular ebook format and also the worst, since it was originally designed for an application (printing) that is opposite in design from ebooks. Amazon has to work on making the Kindle better at PDFs to compete, but at the same time, we all have to hope that the whole issue goes away as we move away from PDF ebooks. (Though it might not be too bad on the DX, if your PDF is grayscale.) I don't see myself password-protecting my Kindle any time soon (it's not like I've got a bunch of porn on it). Even bigger fonts are good for some people but not me. I've never wondered what parts of books other people are highlighting. And while I might like to post thoughts about books to Facebook (though not Twitter), I doubt I'd do it on the Kindle's keyboard. Still, these are all useful for someone, and make the Kindle a better product.

I still wonder why they aren't letting us set our own "screen saver" images, though. When the Nook got that months ago I thought we'd finally get it. Kindle 1 allows it through a hack, but they closed off that hack in Kindle 2. What's the big deal?

Now if Kindle can just square away the stupid pricing that a few publishers are forcing on them in an attempt to kill ebooks, we'll be all set.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Magpies on parade

Despite a bounty of sightseeing opportunities (mostly focused on things that are very old, and in some cases, also large), we spent very little of our vacation (excuse me, "holiday") time on sightseeing today. We did spend a little while exploring part of the walls of York, which date back to the mumblety-mumble century. (The plaques should actually say that. No one can actually say which pieces date to which century, but bits of it are from various centuries all the way back about 2000 years.) So I've now peered down a murder hole at the helpless would-be victims milling about between the stores (excuse me, "shops") below.

Otherwise, most of the day was spent wandering between shops looking at their windows, plus planning out tomorrow's full platter of activities. Shopping, it turns out, is slow when done with no list, no objective, no idea what's in what shop, and a pair of women who revel in looking at everything and reading every menu, and are distracted by anything shiny or colorful (excuse me, "colourful"). But that's okay. That's what the day was about. It could be boring at times (however, see yesterday's post concerning the abundant opportunities for a different kind of sightseeing) but it was also relaxing.

Less relaxing were our ongoing struggles with the Internet access. Ultimately, the guys at O2 were unable to get Siobhan's netbook to work with their dongle, and refunded the cost. However, in doing so, they dug us into a little trap. Remember how they'd refunded £10 off the price of the dongles to help make up for the data plan costing £14 more than it was supposed to? The way that yesterday's guy did that made one of the dongles show as only costing us £10 instead of £20, so that's the one they wanted to refund. This would mean we ended up paying the whole increased cost for the change in plans, plus another £4 for the two days (one per dongle) of service we paid for on Siobhan's netbook but never got, for a total loss to us of £10 (my service being £6 over the weekly plan, plus £4 for those two days).

I had to argue with the guy there about it and I don't think he ever really understood how it all added up -- but he did give me another £10 just to shut me up. I feel a little bad about it -- he certainly didn't deserve to be the one yelled at, plus I only reinforced the stereotype of Americans as brash and rude (ironic given how I am really far less so than most). But he didn't really accept my apology, and that's all I could offer. I know the refund we got is actually the right amount, and O2 is still making £34 for one week of slightly dodgy and slow Internet service for me, so the deal is fair for both parties. I just feel bad that I couldn't get there through a reasoned discussion, and I made that guy's day a little worse, after he tried so hard to make it all work.

Back at the apartment (excuse me, "flat") I spent an hour trying to get the one connection we did have to be shared so Siobhan and Suri could get to it on their own netbooks, but ultimately I found this was impossible. The special O2 Connection Manager rebuilds the network connection every time, so any settings I adjust on it, such as sharing it, get reset before they can take effect. So we fell back on plan B -- actually, originally plan A. Siobhan's subscribed for five days to BTOpenZone. Our signal strength here is a little inconsistent, but so far it's working out for her. Her Internet's probably a lot better than mine, in fact. (But mine should keep working on the road tomorrow, where hers wouldn't.)

Incidentally, my mad hacker skillz [sic] helped me get my phone fixed. While the magpies browsed the shiny things at the visitor information center (excuse me, "centre"), I took over their kiosk, which normally just shows their website, and browsed out to the AT&T website, logged into my account, perused the knowledge base, and made some changes to the features on my account. I turned on international dialing, and then turned on and off a $6/month extra roaming plan. Then I returned the kiosk to the York website just where I found it. My phone is now connecting effortlessly to the UK cell (excuse me, "mobile") networks. And I didn't even have to make a long-distance international call to AT&T to make it happen. Sometimes, I rock.

Tomorrow's full day will include us renting (excuse me, "hiring") a car, since it turns out to be only a few pounds more than taking the bus to Castle Howard, even adding the cost of gas (excuse me, "petrol"). But with our own car, we'll be able to go to the castle, and through the scenic moors, and the seaside, and Magpie Café, and a good supermarket. (The supermarket we got to today turns out to be actually smaller than the convenience store, and thus quite disappointing.) We just have to deal with driving on unfamiliar roads; but I think we can manage it, with good maps and navigation help. Even if we get lost and have to backtrack, we'll still save time -- the drive should be about a third as long as the bus trip, so there's plenty of slack to still come out ahead.

Oh, plus we have to deal with driving on the wrong (excuse me, "left") side of the road. Guess we'll just have to be careful.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The outbound leg

There is probably no way to fly to England that isn't at least a little awful. First, there's the unavoidable length of the trip. You have all the overhead of any air travel: a long ride to the airport, a long wait to board, a connecting flight, a layover, and the main flight. Then there's the extra stuff at the England end, including a trip through customs, a wait for a train, a train ride, and the walk from there since we're not hiring a car. But biggest is the fact that that main flight is seven solid hours in a single airplane seat.

Our flight was probably not a particularly bad one. There were no extremely long layovers, no overbooking, no delays, no technical problems with the plane, and only a tiny bit of turbulence. However, there was enough noise (mostly from a f kids) and enough excessive heat in the cabin (added to the dry air) to make it impossible to get even a little sleep, not in such a tiny, cramped space with no legroom and no hiproom. So you can't help arriving exhausted and sore.

And the first thing you face when you arrive is five hours of jet lag adding to the already considerable length of the trip. The result is that you're just touching down in England in time to find a whole new day has snuck up on you. Perhaps in first class you can have enough room and enough comfort to actually get some sleep, in which case, the timing would work in your favor, allowing you to "change phase the easy way" and adjust right over that jet lag. I don't know if first class really is spacious enough to allow for sleep. Coach certainly isn't.

In my case, it was far, far worse because my left knee is still suffering the ill effects of my bike accident from March. The bubble of blood in it makes it very sensitive to being jarred, but worse, holding it still for very long makes it stiffen. By the time we arrived, bending it back was extremely painful, and merely walking on it sometimes felt like it was going to give way. There's nothing like a chronic pain to really season the grumpiness of no sleep and general discomfort.

At least a flight of this length comes with something I haven't seen in years: meals on the plane. If these were any indication, airplane food has not improved in the interval; quite the contrary. They were on a par with the cheaper (but perhaps not the cheapest) of freezer aisle TV dinners. Worse yet, we'd arranged diabetic meals for Suri, but it turns out their idea of a diabetic meal is probably the worst thing for a diabetic -- dinner was mostly made of rice, one of the carbs with the highest impact on blood sugar, for instance. Perhaps the worst part was that it took them more than an hour to collect the trays, making for very uncomfortable waiting with a stack of trash and trays and nowhere to put it. They were also quite skimpy with the beverages; on the whole seven hours I got about ten total ounces of fluid, so by time we arrived I was totally dried out.

Apparently we chose a bad moment to arrive because the queues at Customs were hundreds of people deep and it took us about an hour to get through. When we finally reached the head of the queue, we breezed through, and the customs officer was friendly, and kinda cute. But the last thing I or my knee needed was an hour standing, lugging my carry-on, having nothing to drink. By time it was done we didn't feel we had time to get something to eat before the train, which it turns out was a bad decision since we would go many hours before we got another chance.

The train ride itself was fairly pleasant, despite the train station being a little badly organized without clear instructions and with their train timetables jumbled up and unclear. The chairs were a hundred times better than the plane, but still not too great; there wasn't anywhere near enough legroom, so I found myself laying my head on the table trying to pass out, only to have to keep pulling my leg in from the aisle as people passed, and that act was tremendously painful. In all the train would have been no big deal, even nice, had it not come on the end of almost exactly 24 hours of exhausting, pain-inducing travel.

In the hurry to get our luggage out at arrival, combined with the too-small, too-high luggage racks, I managed to get one of my suitcase's four wheels caught on the rack, then it came down too fast and snapped clean off. This suitcase is brand new and glides like a dream over even difficult terrain due to having four wheels all of which pivot in any direction, making the considerable weight in it no burden at all. Break one of those wheels, though, and the virtue turns fast into a vice as it keeps trying to lurch onto the wounded corner. Try dragging that on cobbled, uneven roads with a wounded knee and your mood's sure to turn from bad to worse fast. I hope this can be repaired on warranty, but even if so, it won't be until we're home, and that's too late to help.

Adding to a general feeling that mere things were conspiring against me was the fact that my phone refused to connect to, and as of now still refuses to connect to, any of the many wireless networks it can see, and there's no reason given, no error message, no idea how to fix it. Siobhan's phone is an identical model with identical software, and every relevant setting is set precisely the same; hers roams instantly and automatically, and mine simply will not connect. This turned out to be a real impediment since I hadn't printed out the many maps and addresses we needed, expecting to easily be able to view them using things like Google Maps and Next2Me, neither of which was loaded onto Siobhan's phone (and loading them would cost us a fortune in roaming data charges). So we suddenly found ourselves unable to easily find some of the key spots we needed to go, such as the shop to buy Internet dongles. I hope I can find a fix since Siobhan and I have no way to keep in touch if we get separated now.

Another problem was that, arriving on a Sunday, we had most of our options for converting currency made unavailable, leaving us only those with absurdly high rates. We didn't take advantage of those, and thus found ourselves scrambling without a way to pay for almost anything. Most stores do take our credit cards, but you have to ask first, since some shops and most automated kiosks and ATMs don't (all cards in the UK and most of Europe use a 'chip and pin' system that the US refuses to adopt), and it's a hassle, and you can't come away with any cash to use for those places where credit cards are not a viable option. At one point we had to resort to gathering piles of loose change from the flat just in hopes of buying a little soda to quench that awful thirst I still had from the plane (remember the plane?).

Dragging my injured suitcase and heavy carry-on (total weight probably 80 pounds) up a flight of stairs on my injured knee while sore, exhausted, and parched was really the icing on the awfulness cake, and I didn't actually get to look at the flat or listen to the instructions of the housekeeper who met us due to being so wracked with pain and so exhausted I couldn't dare risk snapping at her (and she was entirely sweet and nice and wholly undeserving -- she even offered to lend us 20 quid until we could get some cash!). Pity, though, since the flat was actually the first really nice thing, as it's charming, comfortable, well-appointed, and in a very nice location with a lovely view on the river and the bustling part of downtown. (Though that also means it has a constant infusion of the noise of bar-hopping crowds across the river, made all the noisier by the World Cup celebrations. But that bothers Siobhan, not so much me.)

After a couple of hours of recovery including a very nice shower, Siobhan and I finally felt up to the challenge of going back out and dealing with the problems of no currency, no food, no Internet, no phone, and no idea where anything was. That went mostly well; we paid too much for some fairly good Italian food, too much for some supplies at a convenience supermarket (it has only four aisles, yet jars of goose fat are important enough to merit some of its cooler aisle space), and had no luck trying out various ATMs, but we did find everything fairly easy to walk to and to find.

The Internet dongles, however, proved (and as of this writing are still proving) a series of challenges. We found a shop that sold them, and was staffed with friendly, helpful people (albeit people very eager to cheer on World Cup players quite loudly). We bought a pair of dongles in no time and were off. Trying them out, however, ran into three problems. First, the wifi access is spotty at best and unreliable; I've yet to hold down a real connection with it anywhere I've gone. Second, just in the last week or so, they've removed the weekly plan that was ideal for us; buying daily plans would cost a fair bit more.

Back at the shop, they offered to make up to us for most of it by refuding £10 of our purchase price, leaving the increase in cost only £4, and even gave us the £10 in cash (very handy considering the trouble we were having getting any). But it still took us the better part of an hour to sign up for the daily plan, in part because their payment web site is completely hosed. Until you've paid you can't visit any site but the one on which you do payment. However, paying via a Visa forces them to route your web browser through the Verified By Visa page, which of course they won't let you visit, so you get to the very last step in the payment and get stuck with a "page won't load" error every time. Bad design and worse testing. Again, the friendly, helpful shop folk found us a workaround and we finally got signed up, in tiem to find the third problem: Siobhan's netbook seems to be taking lessons from my phone on being inexplicably difficult. Firefox keeps crashing her system, the netbook bogs down at any provocation, and she's having trouble with her dongle not recognizing the cellular network leaving her connection dead in the water since Wifi signals at the flat are way too weak to hold a connection down).

Despite all these problems, our minimal exposure to York has been fairly pleasant. The people are uniformly friendly, the town is welcoming, and if you appreciate girl-watching (even if only at the lizard brain), York seems amazingly well provisioned with attractive young women, combined with an apparent cultural predisposition or fashion inclination towards wearing clothes that show off their assets. The fashion also favors little or no makeup, lots of long hair, and a lot more red (excuse me, 'ginger') hair than I'm used to. Add that to a very pedestrian-heavy city, and who needs museums?

One final observation: one of the oddest things I saw in town was, puttering through an intersection like it was the most ordinary way to pop down the chemist for the weekend, a brand new, entirely too sexy, lime-green Lamborghini, in perfect shape and looking like it just came out of a movie set and was on its way to an auto race. And no one seemed to consider this worth a second glance. The rest of the cars we saw were the usual mix of clunkers and boringly functional cars, yet everyone was totally cavalier about this ultra-high-end sports car inching along through pedestrian-heavy traffic.

After a few hours of rest and recovery I'm feeling a lot better and hoping that tomorrow morning is a nice fresh start. I'd hate to make this trip when I had to do anything on that first day, though. Anyone who flies from the US to the UK for business purposes and can't spare a day must have it incredibly hard being fresh and presentable that first day. I couldn't do it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Moon is a suspense set on a moonbase and starring Sam Rockwell; and when I say 'starring' this is more than usual since he's almost the entire cast, having no one but himself to play off for most of the movie, apart from a computer's disembodied voice (played by Kevin Spacey) and a few video clips of other people now and then. I'm very impressed with his acting, and his ability to carry off a very complicated role single-handedly.

The movie had excellent production values, and the science depicted in it was solid; it deviated from what we know to be possible only in the minimum ways necessary to make the story happen, and didn't focus on them, since they weren't what the story was about.

The story was layered with puzzles and mysteries, and from the start, we're led to thinking that we know what the question is, and maybe have a guess about the answer, only to find out that what we thought might be dragged out for the entire movie was only part of the story, part of the mystery. Thus we're spared the annoying consequence of wondering why the characters (or character) in the movie can't figure out what we can. This also ensured we kept having things to figure out for the entire run of the show.

The rest of my review will involve spoilers and I highly recommend avoiding them if you haven't seen the movie. From here, I'll just conclude: this is a great suspense/thriller and well worth a watch. And Sam Rockwell once again is a marvel.

I was very pleased that, even unto the end, Gerty didn't turn out to be what we have been programmed to expect -- ominous, threatening, creepy. They played with these expectations and kept us on edge, but nothing turned out to be quite what we expected.

I had just one problem with the movie's story, though. There was one small deus ex machina that really couldn't be justified. It doesn't make the slightest bit of sense that the He3 return system could bring back a person. One little throwaway line about how he did the calculations and there'd be some heavy Gs wasn't enough to explain it. Why would anyone build something designed to return compressed He3 so that it could come anywhere near being able to sustain a human life? Even if the forces weren't crushing, and even if his suit can do life support for three days, the temperature gradients on reentry would almost certainly be unconducive to life. The return module probably doesn't come down next to a hotel, either; it probably goes into a remote processing plant that, given how the rest of the company works, is entirely automated and thus devoid of people.

A few lines earlier in the movie to establish something about the return system could have eased this, but I really wondered if the story was going to go another way (the Eliza clearly was a possible way home, for instance). This is a quibble, admittedly; in most movies this wouldn't even make a dent, but this movie holds itself to a much stricter standard so this small failing weighs heavily.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The state of education in this country

I only worked in the education "industry" for a few years, but maybe that's still why I tend to bristle when I see people being dismissively critical of "the state of education in this country" in that very casual armchair-quarterbacking way. People are so quick to be so down on education, and when they remember to back off of the insulting tone to say something nice about the people involved, it feels too little too late, like a half-insincere "present company excluded" or "no offense" thrown onto something hurtful or prejudiced.

That said, even I have to admit that in the years since I worked in education, Dubya's ludicrously-misnamed "No Child Left Behind" initiative has certainly done some damage to the education system. Those teachers I've spoken to are pretty much uniformly in agreement about how terrible that is. So there's a new window of opportunity to be blanket-critical of education without being insulting to the people doing it. Still, the usual cavalier dismissal you hear is more condemnatory of the entire world of education, and everyone and everything in it, so that's no escape clause.

Generally, the criticisms of education fall into two main categories. There's the "what was good enough for my grandfather" camp, and the "today's kids can't spell" camp.

Not only do people romanticize their own youths, and steep the times before them in a heady brew of nostalgia, they also tend to vastly underestimate the amount of change that has happened. With one hand, someone can complain about how our education system lacks the funding to teach kids today's skills -- there's not enough computers, they're not prepared enough for today's economy, etc. -- and with the other hand they are always ready to compare today's teaching with that of their youth as if the challenges of today are precisely the same as twenty years ago.

But more has changed than simply that we use computers now. In my grandfather's time, most people would have one job for life. In my father's time, a person would have one career, and that's how they taught me, but by time I hit the job market it was already true that you couldn't hope to take what you learned in college and make a career out of it; you needed to be ready to constantly retrain yourself, and many of my generation would go through several careers in different industries. Today's kids know they will go through many jobs and many careers; the fundamental mission of education is changed at its most basic level because the goal is not to prepare them for a job and a life, but to instill in them the ability to prepare themselves, because the job that today's graduating senior will have in 20 years doesn't even exist yet, hasn't even been imagined yet.

That's just one example of how the way I was taught was already inadequate by time I graduated, and has had to change several more times since. There are many others. We have to prepare kids for a much more interrelated world than we were prepared for. They need to learn more disciplines, more subjects, and more techniques on how to learn, how to research, how to adapt. They need more survival skills to negotiate our economy, to avoid scams, to compete in a harder job market, to work on the world stage, to thrive without inheritances in a time when mortgages are harder to find. In addition to the knowledge we needed, they need to learn how to be socially conscious, environmentally aware, respectful of diversity, and proponents of justice in a politically complex world. There's more for them to learn about health and wellness, about technology, about culture, and about everyday life, but there's no less for them to learn in the old subjects we had to study in our youth.

Teachers think about this stuff a lot. They're working on figuring out what about education needs to change and how to accomplish it all the time. For every stick-in-the-mud teacher who won't change, there's a hundred others who are eager to figure out how to do right by their students to meet needs no one's imagined yet. But they're always having to struggle against parents and critics who want a modern education for their kids but constantly undermine specific programs and initiatives by making disparaging comparisons to what was good enough for us. They don't usually say it that way; instead, they bemoan how today's kids don't know or can't do this or that thing that we learned, and therefore, our education system has failed. Even when that thing is something nowhere near as important today as it was thought to be in our time.

Which brings us to the other main thing, the complaints about illiteracy. I recently wrote about this a bit in my post about orthographic reform, but there are several facets to this issue.

First, I strongly suspect that today's students are no more or less literate than they were in my time. There's plenty of kids who can't spell, but there always were. What's changed is that today, those kids are writing badly where we can see them -- in their Facebook status updates and tweets and emails and all the other avenues by which the Information Age means more people can get their words in front of your face. (In the past, the cost of getting words in front of your face meant we reserved it generally for those who were good at it. Once everyone in your town has his own printing press, obviously the average quality of printed materials will plummet!)

Second, do today's kids care less about proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar? I suspect it's not nearly as much as we imagine because of the facet I just mentioned, but that might not explain it all away. I grew up when the only grammar checker was my eyes and a bottle of Wite-Out, but if I'd grown up when even a web browser had a built-in spell checker, maybe I'd be less inclined to care so much, just as I care less about being able to sum numbers than the people who came before me without calculators. Is that a bad thing? Right now it is only because computer-based grammar checkers are still not as good as a person; but in fifty years, that'll seem as quaint as when we look back on the history of aviation and laugh at those first primitive aircraft and their failures and weaknesses. We don't imagine people should stick to trains because the first airplanes were crap, and someday soon we'll find it quaint to imagine the only valid way to grammar-check was by hand, uphill both ways in the snow. (Note that I realize very well that there's a big difference between writing grammatically, and writing well, but that's not what this paragraph is about.)

I'm certainly as quick as any, and quicker than most, to bemoan seeing egregious grammar, diction, spelling, and punctuation errors in professional publications, even in the headlines of newspapers; but I think that speaks more to the changes in the world of business (with increasing emphasis on "fast" at the expense of "right") than to anything about our educational system.

Ultimately, I think that our education system is hobbled by chronic, inexcusable underfunding. This is the best reason to offer real criticism, and yet, it's often supported by and inspired by that very same off-hand, unthinking criticism. If we accept the meme that public education is poor in our country, it makes it much easier to cut its funding, which is the only thing (apart from Dubya's absurd policies) that's actually making it fall behind. It's insanely stupid and self-destructive, cutting off our nose to spite our face in the truest sense.

There are other big factors that make the job of our educators much harder. Parents spend less and less time with their children (not always their fault, of course, but it still makes a difference), and are less involved both in motivating them, and in providing them with a good example. There's more marketing of products at school-age kids than ever, providing more distractions to compete with schools. And the United States is mired in a meme of anti-intellectualism, in the idea that being an expert is a strike against you, in an embrace and almost worship of dumbness (which is classified as "normality"), that undermines the very objectives of education. The abilities of learning, reasoning, and self-expression are chronically devalued, and that attitude undercuts the motivation of students every day.

I'm not saying there's no room for criticism, or that the only subjects for criticism should be our underfunding of education and Dubya's mismanagement. But if one feels outraged (and one should!) by these things, and feels a need to criticize the education system, that criticism falls squarely on the shoulders of those who decide how much money to give it, not the people actually doing the work. When it comes down to it, every teacher I have ever known, with virtually no exceptions, was a true hero. They work for peanuts, bringing a level of patience to their job that I could never muster, and every last one of them does it out of a deep conviction of the importance of their work. They care. They have to -- no one would do that hard a job for so little reward and no recognition unless they did it because they believed in it. They should be celebrated, not unconsciously, constantly undercut by well-meaning, unthinking, unfounded criticism. Not just for the fact that they still do the job with so little reward, but also for their many successes. Despite all that's holding them back, they are doing remarkable work.

Friday, June 25, 2010


The misfortune of smashing into plywood on the highway keeps trying to get worse, but for now it's been contained.

The car has been in for repairs all week, and they weren't even sure if it was going to be back before our departure for the UK. We've been driving a rental all along. The repair itself is slated to cost more than $2,000, but I've been blasé about that -- we have a $250 deductible and anything after that's not worth worrying about. I won't go so far as to say it's "not my problem" -- everything that costs the insurance company money costs me money since I'm the one paying for it -- but any single instance of a cost to them is not sufficient cause to worry.

At least until today. Turns out that yesterday, the insurance company repeated the inspection that the auto repair place had done on Monday, and came to a different conclusion. Their conclusion was that, due to the car's mileage, replacing the used exhaust system with a new one constituted a "betterment" and based on that, they would only cover 70% of the cost, which more than tripled our outlay. But they didn't tell us that. Neither did the auto repair people. They just went ahead with the repair using brand new parts. We only found out about it today as a fait accompli. We only found out because we happened to call in to see if it'd be fixed tomorrow (turns out it will).

It had never occurred to us to ask about this possibility, as we've never had a betterment clause invoked, and had never even heard of it. But it really shouldn't've been for us to think of. The auto place should have recognized the possibility during the initial inspection, giving us a chance to investigate repairs with used parts, or at very least a chance to budget for this whammy. And certainly someone should have told us when the inspection was done, before repairs were done which we'd only authorized contingent on the insurance company paying for them.

Now for the good news. Arguing with the insurance company about this on the phone led to a complete waiver of the betterment. I'd been wondering if this incident suggested changing insurance companies (but leaning away from it since it's likely any insurance company could have done this), but now I am far less likely to change. They say it's the auto repair place's fault for going ahead with the repair without telling us, and I'm inclined to agree they get more of the blame than anyone, though there's enough to share some around. But nevertheless they're eating the cost. So, hooray for that.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

It Might Get Loud

I wasn't sure how much to expect from this movie. The premise is straightforward enough: three excellent, innovative guitarists from different generations get together to talk and play. Could have been one hour of boring talking heads being pompous and elitist, and one hour of concert footage I've already seen.

And there was certainly some of both of those. There were a handful of bits of video footage I'd seen plenty of times, like excerpts from The Song Remains The Same. As for pompous elitism, Jack White easily wins as the most elitist and pompous of the three (the other two being Jimmy Page and The Edge), particularly because of his tendency of attributing anything that works for his creative process as being innate in the universal creative process. (For him, the entire process comes down to hardship, in making it difficult for himself in every way possible. Nothing wrong with that, but he seems so utterly convinced that this is universal and the only path to creativity or fulfillment that it hasn't even occurred to him to consider otherwise.)

Jimmy Page, by contrast, came off a lot less elitist than I expected (given some of his comments in recent press, particularly about rhythm games, as well as some older comments from the heyday of Zeppelin). He's also looking clean and sharp -- back in the 80s he looked like a shadow of himself, wasted by hard living, but he's looking healthy (for his age), and his guitar-playing is confident and strong, maybe not flashy or innovative as in the 70s but leaving no doubt that he can still hold his own against anyone.

The Edge seemed quiet, reserved, and in a way, timeless. Back in the 80s when U2 hit its big break, he seems to have gotten comfortable with what he was doing. Since then, he's been innovating how he does it, never resting, but he shows no signs of needing to change what he does, or to reinvent himself. This is something you can see in other musicians from the same time period who managed to survive it; the late 70s and most of the 80s produced so many bands that burned bright and disappeared, but those that endured often have the same quiet sense of comfort about what they're doing that The Edge has. I'd like to see him chatting with the guys from Rush for this reason.

There was also a lot of interesting things I didn't know about all three of them, in the history of each musician, including some adorable bits of footage of each of them in their youth -- Jimmy Page playing skiffle as a teenager, and an early U2 video when they were barely out of high school, were particularly surprising. And there was, naturally, some jamming, and some talk about technique, though very little of the latter. And a lot of talking about the creative process, about their influences, about how they felt about music, about their gear and why they used it the way they did. Along the way we got to see each of them creating music, and exposing us to their influences (one incidental treat there was watching Jimmy Page play air guitar; it's nice to know even one of the greatest guitarists of all time plays air guitar when listening to records).

Somehow it added up to more than the sum of its parts. I can't put my finger on what about it made it so entertaining, so interesting, so absorbing, but it really was. Even Siobhan, who isn't as into music as I am and never tried to learn to play guitar, and who only knows a handful of White Stripes songs, described it as "six kinds of awesome" (and I hadn't even expected her to want to watch it -- she wasn't even in the room when I started it). So if you're interested in rock music at all, this might be worth dropping onto your Netflix queue.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

AV Security Suite versus SpyBot Search and Destroy

I read in the news recently about how a new vulnerability was found in Windows that allowed web pages to infect computers without anyone doing anything other than going to them, regardless of web browser used or its security settings. The news article mentioned how the person who discovered it reported it to Microsoft, and when a week or so went by without a patch, published it to the world, presumably to force Microsoft into action. A few days later, this attack was spotted in the wild, infecting people's computers. This guy must be so proud.

Well, it really is as bad as all that. I did a Google Images search looking for a picture to include in Sunday's blog post, and then followed one of the links, and the resulting page loaded really slow and made my browser jerky so I closed it. This isn't entirely unusual: Flash apps can do that. But a few minutes later I was getting AV Security Suite warnings all over the place. I couldn't open any programs, even Task Manager or Explorer. I couldn't do anything without it telling me everything was installed. Very, very scary.

I was essentially limited to solving the problem using only what happened to be open at that moment. I was able to do a web search and found an article about the virus, though this article only mentioned the old methods of infection that required me to do something or use an insecure browser. That page also was pushing a pay spyware removal program (worse yet, the kind that doesn't tell you it's pay until you've installed it and wasted a half hour scanning before it'll tell you it won't fix the problem without paying). But I wasn't able to get to a copy of SpyBot to install it due to the virus blocking me, so I had to install and run the pay scanner just because it was on my screen and I was able to get to it already. It wouldn't remove the threat, but it did temporarily disable it long enough for me to download and install SpyBot.

It takes an age for the spyware programs to scan everything in the world before they're willing to try to fix anything, and the whole time, my computer's paralyzed. And this is a work computer, so it's pretty scary. But what's really scary is that I had no way to avoid this other than to stay off the Internet entirely. Just using a Google search and then going to one of the results pages was enough to get the infection. I never ran a program, I never clicked OK on anything, I never even saw a message. I only happen to know what page it was because I recognize (in hindsight) that the brief bogging-down of Firefox on that page was the virus installing itself, not some balky Flash app.

So Microsoft can burn in hell for having this vulnerability and not immediately fixing it. The guy who discovered it can burn in hell for being impatient about Microsoft fixing it and deciding to unleash it on the world, as if that would really prompt a fix faster than it would prompt people to misuse it. But most of all, the people who are using it to push scamware and malware can burn in hell twelve times over, because eleven times would be too good for them.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The $173 toll for not speeding

After a frustrating day of going back and forth between car repair places while they traded estimates of costs and when they could do repairs on the car after the road debris damage, I was already a bit cranky. I'd been driving extra slow and careful because my muffler was by this point hanging so low that it scraped at almost any provocation. In fact, though I'd headed from my office to Courtesy Toyota via the Interstate out of habit, I decided to go back by Berlin Street because highway speeds are nerve-wracking and people kept passing me on the Interstate.

But out on Berlin Street between the hospital and the water treatment plant, people were just as cranky about me driving "slow" (around the speed limit, actually), and I was passed by two cars in that short stretch of road.

Then I got pulled over.

For speeding.

The car in front of me also pulled over when the lights flashed. They had just passed me shortly before. I could see them figuring it was them, for sure. Nope. They had been speeding -- why would they get a ticket?

I actually got a $173 ticket. The officer alleges I was doing 59 miles an hour according to his radar in a 40 zone. There's simply no way my car could do 59 without me knowing, with the muffler a centimeter off the ground. There's just no way. I might have been a few miles over the posted limit, but no more than that. The car would have been rattling like an airplane and the muffler scraping if I had been.

All I can figure is that the officer's radar hit another car (maybe the one who'd passed me) and then gave me the blame for it. But there's no way I can contest it because I have no proof. All I could say to the judge is explaining about my muffler damage -- and at least that is well documented since I have not one but two estimates done earlier than the ticket, plus the insurance call two days earlier, and a number of witnesses -- but that won't prove that the officer saying his radar says 59 isn't right. The judge will just conclude that I was going fast and scraping and am lying about it. The fact that my car was damaged might even count against me -- the judge doesn't know that it was really road debris, or that it was really unavoidable, so it all comes down to my credibility. And traffic judges aren't going to spend a lot of time worrying about that.

I'm furious because of all the people I know I probably speed the least, yet I am more likely to get a ticket than any of them. And today I was going slower than usual, and was very likely the only person not speeding on that stretch of road. I guess the lion takes down the injured gazelle, but at least the lion doesn't tell the gazelle it's because he was the fastest. So I get hit with $173 for an undeserved ticket the very day I'm trying to figure out where to pull $250 out of thin air to cover the unexpected car repair costs. There ain't no justice.

Monday, June 21, 2010


On the drive up to the bachelor party, on the interstate at near warp speed, the pickup truck in front of us drove over a piece of plywood that someone had dropped into the highway. It flew up into the air right in front of us and there was zero time to do anything about it. Smash -- it bounced off the front grill, splintered into pieces, and went under the Prius.

When we stopped and checked, we found some superficial damage in front (a piece of grill missing), and our muffler hanging down at an alarming angle. We determined that we could still drive it, so we continued on to the bachelor party, with the Prius engine sounding like a small Cessna prop plane when it was running, and the muffler occasionally scraping on the ground.

We've called it in to the insurance company, and on Monday we'll be getting it evaluated and then we can arrange repairs. Our insurance will even cover a rental car if we need one, but not sure yet if we will.

The whole thing is a bit nerve-wracking, particularly when the muffler scrapes on the road, and the engine check light isn't helping, but all in all we got off pretty easy. A piece of plywood hitting the car at highway speeds could have done far, far worse. Heck, we didn't even miss the bachelor party.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bachelor party laser tag!

Yesterday was Al's bachelor party, and rather than having dancing girls and beer, we had pizza, laser tag, miniature golf, skee-ball, and arcade games. Pizza Putt offers a nice group package -- most commonly birthday parties, but they also do other things like this. They didn't even blink at the lack of any dancing girls for the bachelor party (though a few times they asked about the birthday boy).

The package deal comes with pizza for everyone, unlimited access to the miniature golf course and soda fountain, a card with ten tokens for the arcade, and one game of laser tag. The laser tag was what brought me there: my friend Jay suggested it as an approach to the bachelor party, and Pizza Putt's the only laser tag in the area. The group package worked very well, too.

The invitee list was about thirty people. Of those, ten agreed to come. Of those, five showed up. So it was a little skimpy in terms of numbers, and we waited around a while for the others to show. However, that didn't diminish the fun at all, so far as I could see. I'm sure it would have been nice to have had those other folk there too, though.

The laser tag was only seven and a half minutes, and their "arena" is not terribly huge: it's probably about forty feet on a side, and full of glowing pillars. The suits take the form of a vest with four target areas that glow faintly, two in front and two in back, plus a hand-held gun. We chose to go for a simple every-man-for-himself event with unlimited lives (getting hit just takes you out for five seconds), though they have options for various team games, capture-the-base, etc.

And it was fun! I had hoped it would be, but it was a lot more fun than I'd hoped, and everyone else seemed to have a blast, too. I did very well -- in fact, I scored the best, with the highest score, a two-to-one kill ratio, and a good accuracy, too. I kept finding people stalking each other, taking out one from behind, then darting around a corner and taking out the other, and by time they recovered I was halfway across the arena doing the same thing to someone else. I found it very helpful to stop and listen -- even with all the baffling and echoing you could find people that way and come up on them unprepared. I also had good results with just charging people shooting -- if you focus on the targets, not their guns or faces, you can hit them before they hit you, and then they're left just staring.

Seven and a half minutes is over so fast, and yet when it ended, I was out of breath and coasting on adrenaline, which quickly wore out once the game was over, leaving me surprised at how hard I'd been running the whole time. And still exhilirated. If Pizza Putt was nearby, I would probably be burning a lot of money going there. I could play that free-for-all version for seven-and-a-half out of every ten minutes for three hours and not get bored. And then there's all those other formats to try!

Pizza Putt's pizza is serviceable -- it doesn't compare to Juniors but it's not too bad. Their miniature golf isn't quite what it used to be (they're down to 11 holes and some of them are a little shoddy in spots) but you can't complain too much given that you can play over and over if you like.

Their arcade was a little disappointing, though. Lots of those games that are mostly about trying to win some cheap toy prize or more tokens, like a carnival midway, and relatively few arcade games in the Space Invaders sense of the word. (And most of those were racing games, often with damaged controls.) They did have a surprising number of other goodies mixed in, though, including a small merry-go-round, a bumpercar arena, a batting cage, a miniature bowling alley, and a few other rides you'd expect more at a carnival. Impressive for an indoor facility that's not that big. But I wouldn't've minded a Tempest machine or at least some Donkey Kong in the mix. And while you start with ten tokens, almost everything costs two or more, so that number's fairly deceptive. (The cards are rechargeable, at least.) Nice air hockey tables, though.

Despite having only five people show, I think all five had a blast, and I have to call the event a rousing success. I'd recommend the laser tag bachelor party to anyone. (Not that there's anything wrong with dancing girls, per se. But why not put them in a laser tag vest and chase them around a dimly lit arena with a laser gun instead? I bet that is an attraction that would sell awfully well. I wish I had some investment capital to start that business with.)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Current status of weight loss

When I hit the two year point from the surgery back in February, weight loss had slowed enough that the plateau I was on was just the latest in a series of plateaus. Winter certainly has a tendency to be a plateau anyway. So by time I came out of the end of winter, I'd not only bottomed out at 308, I'd crept back up to as high as 328.

None of this was terribly surprising. In fact, virtually everyone who gets this surgery will stop losing by two years out (and that's a good thing -- if you never stopped, you'd starve to death!), and then regain a small amount of what they lost, and then tend to hold steady. (Or, actually, return to the regular weight curve that the population in general has, which is a small gain per year.)

That said, once the warmer weather made exercise more viable, I have been working on getting back in the habit of it, and it's made a difference. The increase has been stopped and slowly reversed. As of this writing, in mid-June, I'm back down to about 320.

Which isn't much, admittedly. My bike accident took me off exercise right after I got back onto it for a while, and a run of other health issues have also interfered. But really those are minor compared to the fact that I'm not eating as healthy as I would have to, to keep losing weight. Post-surgery my quantities are still substantially reduced, and I absorb less of what I eat, but I don't resist snacking on the kinds of things that dieters can't touch.

I could certainly tighten up my diet and start losing more weight, even get under the arbitrary 300, but I don't feel motivated. After several years of making diet my life, with the intensity necessary to lose 70 pounds in nine months, I'm really hesitant to make it be my whole life again. Nor do I want to give up the good food that I went without for so long. I don't eat badly, it's not junk food and cake every day, and there is good stuff throughout, but I don't eat like a dieter, either.

I could do it all, and my doctor I'm sure would want me to, but I don't find it worth it. My main goal was to get rid of diabetes, and I did that. My secondary goal was to get rid of some of the other health issues associated with my weight, like chronic knee pain and getting tired too easily, and I did that. I have more energy, and can do more things, than in years and years. My tertiary goal was to get rid of the inconveniences of my size, and I made strides there: I can fit in airplane seats and through subway gates, I can buy clothes at local stores, etc., but I also have some inconveniences since I'm still too fat to find movie seats comfortable, or to be able to ignore my size when it comes to picking furniture, and have to be carefully fitted for tuxedos (not like that comes up often!).

So what are my reasons to go back on a rigorous, demanding, life-shaping, denial-filled diet? My weight is not making a significant impact on my health, and it offers only mild inconveniences. The fact that people look at me as "a fat man" doesn't bother me much. If I weighed less, I'd be able to buy more clothes, but I am happy with the clothes I have. I might have more energy, but I don't feel any lack there. I just don't see anything in that that's worth giving up having a few cookies, let alone the kind of all-consuming diet, where you track every calorie and every minute of exercise and end up talking and thinking about nothing but your weight loss, that it would take to make noticeable progress.

So keeping up with my exercise will probably peel off a few more pounds throughout the summer (when injuries, illness, and travel don't preclude it!), and more generally, I will probably hover in the range between 310 and 330 for years. I'm fine with that. It's easy to get so caught up in the downward flow of numbers and start despairing when it ends, to obsess about whether I'm eating too much or the wrong things, as if it were still two years ago. We get warned about people who start abusing their freedoms and gain back what they lost, and so to be vigilant about not being that, we run the risk of obsessing again. But wavering between 310 and 330 is not some kind of slippery slope that can lead me back to 400 again. That's not going to happen because I can eat a whole burger at one sitting, or because I choose a burger once in a while. There's a comfortable range in between the extremes of "gaining it all back" and "giving everything else up again" and I'll stay in it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tuxedo ahoy

I now have the tuxedo I'll be wearing at the wedding on July 4th. (This picture isn't me of course but it is the tuxedo style.) So that's one more thing done for the UK trip.

They were worried about fitting me because of my size and shape -- not just my weight but the profile of my shoulders -- but I'm told it came out fine. (I didn't get to see; while I was trying it on, they were shuffling me in and out of parts of it so much that I never got near a mirror with the whole thing on.) The only caveat is that it looks better with the jacket unbuttoned, so I'm to only close it when the bride requires it, such as during photos.

I'd bought some cufflinks because the woman there said it wouldn't come with any, but it turns out it does, and they're matched to the shirt buttons. So now I have cufflinks I'll never wear. Oh well, I didn't spend much on them.

I already have a partial packing list, so things are moving along well for being prepared for the UK trip. The biggest thing in the air right now is the flat. The landlady apparently likes to rent to people overseas, but not enough to be able to accept payment by any means other than a cheque drawn on a UK bank -- which is nigh impossible to get without a hefty fee for anyone outside the UK. The bride's still a UK resident with an account there, so we've given her the money and she's deposited it; however, she's been kept busy with family matters and wedding planning, and hasn't had a chance to send in the last payment. We're long, long past the point we were supposed to have the payment to the landlady, so she's being quite gracious to cut us slack, so the whole situation is nerve-wracking. She also won't give us the exact address, but we're pretty sure we've got it figured out anyway. (But until we have it complete and certain, I can't register my travel with the Department of State.)

There's also a few things we don't yet have. I got the UK power adapter, so that's settled, but we don't yet have the last bits of jewelry for Siobhan's ensemble -- she can get by without them in a pinch, but she's going to be chewing her nails until they show up anyway.

Still, for being more than a week off the trip, we're pretty well prepared.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I Rock... not really

Way back in January when I preordered my You Rock guitar, apparently I listed my work address rather than home, because at the time we were having trouble getting Fedex to deliver to the house, and I didn't know what kind of shipping they'd be using. It's been a long time, so I'd forgotten all about that. I knew from tracking that it was due to arrive yesterday, but I was still surprised when someone walked up to my desk and handed me my guitar.

It gave me the opportunity to try playing with it a little during lunch, then some more at home in the evening. Some initial impressions:
  • The sound is great. The 25 pre-loaded guitar sounds all sound like real guitars, not synthetics. In essence, it's like a guitar with all the pedals built in. (I imagine it wouldn't satisfy The Edge, but maybe he would like playing around with pre-loading his sonic sculptures into the other 74 sound slots!)
  • The 50 synth sounds are gimmicky but cool. It's neat playing a guitar and having banjo, church organ, harmonica, or choral voices coming out! Not sure what you'd really use that for, though.
  • The feel of the strings is as genuinely guitar-like as you could ask for (a far, far sight better than the Mad Catz one that I saw in that Rock Band 3 video, where it looks literally like an array of plastic buttons).
  • I only fiddled a little bit with the preset melody stuff, but it seems like a good tool for practicing jamming. You can also jam along with the output from your MP3 player or other sound source, which is pretty cool.
  • The idea of being able to switch to any of dozens of tunings instantly is amazing. When I tried to learn guitar before, I always thought there was some great possibilities in some of the tunings, especially open tunings, but it was never worth the trouble of retuning my guitar -- since tuning was always so hard for me (being tone-deaf and all). Being literally one button-tap away from open-E makes that so much more viable.
  • It comes with a sheet of entirely corny stickers. While the plain black of the guitar does seem to want some adornment, I can't imagine wanting to put one of those hideous purple splotches on it!
  • The directions are a bit cluttered with all the other languages. There's a "quick start" bit, but it's on the inside of a huge fold-out. So you have to get past about six pages worth of stuff showing you what pentatonic scales are and how tabulature format is read before you learn where to put the batteries and how to turn on the guitar.
  • Looks like the GameFlex cartridge (not yet included, they're shipping later, I hope soon since my cheapie FrontMan guitar isn't working with the current PS3 firmware and Rock Band 2) is going to make it wireless via a USB port dongle, which is a shame. (My drums are wireless via a USB dongle, as do the FrontMan guitars, so the front of my PS3 has a little cable salad hanging off it which is kind of ugly.) I was hoping for Bluetooth.
  • I remember very, very little of the chords and stuff I knew long ago when I tried to learn to play guitar. Good old D and G chords came right back, but others at best made me say 'that seems familiar' and I don't remember any actual song bits apart from a few really easy things, like the beginning of "And You And I", and the bass line from "Dazed and Confused". Not that surprising after so many years, I suppose.
  • Different guitar sound options don't just change what the strings sound like, but also change how the neck responds. In some, the notes die almost immediately when you finger, so you can't do a lot of hammer-on stuff; in others, plucking is entirely unnecessary.
  • They make a big deal of the mode where even if you play badly it corrects you automatically, but a quick glance at the materials didn't even hint at where that comes in. When I have more time (i.e., at home) I'll learn about that, but since they advertised it so heavily, they ought to make it more prominent.
  • But what I have seen of it seems pretty cool. For instance, you can select a preset track to play along with, and then have it razz you when you play the wrong note -- any note but the correct one comes out as a scratchy noise. So it's literally helping you learn a song. Given that you can download songs onto the guitar from your PC (and it looks like if you have the right software you can even prepare the songs yourself to download), this could be an amazing tool for learning and teaching guitar.
  • The lack of a headstock does make the guitar look odd, but in a "high tech" way (I remember seeing similar things on guitars played by new wave bands in the 80s!), not in a "hey, that guitar's deformed" way. So I don't know how to feel about them selling dummy headstocks, complete with non-functional tuning keys. The vaguely-Telecaster-shaped body is a vestigial remnant of the body of an electric guitar which is itself a vestigial remnant of the acoustic chamber of an acoustic guitar, but it's also functional in that it provides a place for your hands, for the controls, for the electronics. But a hollow, dummy headstock just seems too superficial.
  • I have just purchased a used guitar amp on eBay for <$25 shipped. Just the sort of thing eBay is perfect for. I also found a cable that can play it through my home theater system, but not very well, partially because it's taking headphone-level output into speaker-level inputs (so I have to crank everything so far up to make it audible that it's distorted), and partly because the cable itself is dodgy. I might pick up (or make) a proper 1/4"-to-RCA cable eventually.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sequels better than the originals

Quick. Name a genre movie sequel (or second in a series) that was better than the original. There tend to be two movies that always come up when people answer that question, with a bunch of others that come up less often.

The most common answer I get is Aliens, directed by James Cameron. I'm somewhat unusual in not agreeing, but only by a little: if I had to pick one of the two to be the only one I'd ever get to see again I'd pick Alien (directed by Ridley Scott), but I love both movies, and consider them too different to really compare. The tone is entirely different, and they're practically different genres: the first is horror with a side-dish of sci-fi, while the second is action sci-fi, with a side-dish of horror. Still, there's no question that Aliens is no Temple of Doom, or any of the other sequels that are a great disappointment (no, I refuse to mention that movie about an immortal Scot by name, that would be bad luck).

Not far behind is T2: Judgment Day, also directed by -- this is probably no coincidence -- James Cameron. There's no question that the production values on T2 really shine compared to the lowish-budget feel of the original, so in a lot of ways, T2 shows the promise of what the original could have been. On the other hand, the original's production values are remarkably good for the budget they had, and the film holds up surprisingly well. A few scenes with the endoskeleton at the end look a little clunky, and the pacing on them isn't great. But in most of the film, the budgetary weakness gets turned into opportunity, giving the film a feel that really suits the tone. The Terminator has two other advantages over T2. First, the bigger budget let Cameron indulge himself in some of the set pieces to the detriment of the pacing, notably in the truck chase scene at the beginning, which could afford to be shortened. Second, the original's treatment of time travel is far more intriguing. In the original, time travel cannot change anything, in fact, it ends up being responsible for the things it seeks to prevent, so Skynet's plan was doomed from the start; but you can't really make that obvious at the start without ruining the suspense. (Not like Twelve Monkeys where revealing that didn't take away anything since the suspense wasn't built around the idea that James could change the past.) So they had to change that for T2, or face that same problem, which made time travel watered down to just a conceit for the action, not a mind-blowing twist.

After those two, there's few films that really garner a solid consensus. The Empire Strikes Back is the best-loved of the Star Wars films for many people, but probably not a majority. I've heard people say Godfather 2 achieved the remarkable accomplishment of besting the original, but again, that's far from universal. Feel free to comment with your own nominations.

So what does it say about James Cameron's filmmaking that the two shining lights of sequelmaking are both his? Does it give us hope that sequels to his other films (notably Avatar -- it's not like we're going to see a sequel to True Lies or Titanic any time soon) will be good stuff, avoiding the all-too-common sophomore slump in movie-making?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A free cold with every visit

Sometimes I feel like people will think I'm just faking all my reasons to feel less than my best. After all, I'm still recovering from a bike accident that happened all the way back in March, for crying out loud. (The "blood bubble" in my knee remains. My knee works fine most of the time but even a slight bump against it at the wrong angle can set it off into pain.) And last week I had another kidney stone which was bad enough for me to take a day off work (at a time when that was a very inconvenient day to take off).

So what am I doing nursing a cold today?

Saturday night I had a sore spot in my throat but it was so localized I thought it was more like a scratch I got by swallowing a pill wrong or something. By Sunday night, I had enough sniffles that I thought it was likely I might have a cold, but I wasn't 100% sure. But as I write this on Monday afternoon, I'm deep in the deepest part of a full-blown head cold, with a stuffed-up head, sniffles, coughing and sneezing, and a tendency to get tired easily. I can hope that since it came on so fast it might pass just as fast -- after all, I don't want to be sick at Al's bachelor party at Pizza Putt, and I really don't want to be sick on the flight to the UK.

Just a run of really awful luck? Am I worn out from the ongoing strain of work being impossibly demanding without ever letting up? Am I having some kind of chronic issue?

I think the most likely explanation is a bit of bad luck mixed with the fact that, almost every time I go to a hospital, it seems I get a cold after. People often get sick after visiting hospitals simply because they're full of other sick people.

It'll be hard to take more time off from work after the time I've already missed and the state of some of our projects, but I'll find a way to do enough to make sure I'm ready for lazer tag.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Orthographic reform

My Facebook page has been full of people commenting about the protests at the National Spelling Bee.

Admittedly, the idea of staging a protest at the Spelling Bee to argue for orthographic reform -- that is, a simplification of English spelling, and making it more consistent -- is silly. This is not a subject that warrants picketing and demonstrations, and the people at the spelling bee in particular shouldn't be its object. This was quite obviously a publicity stunt.

At least amongst the people I know, it seems to have had the opposite of the desired effect, though. Without exception every comment I saw was reactionary: people leaping to the defense of English in its current state, and taking the stance that orthographical reform equates to "dumbing down" the language. Often there was a tone in these comments of the curmudgeon who insists that he had to learn the exceptions to the "I before E" rule uphill, in the snow, both ways, and if it was good enough for him it should be good enough for you damned kids.

I don't mean to be contrary at people just because they're being contrary at other people, but I wonder how many of those folks are also arguing for us turning back those very few orthographical reforms that Webster managed to instill into the United States. Should we be putting the unnecessary U back into words like "color", and reversing the letters "er" on the ends of words like "center", just because that was good enough for King George? Perhaps we should go back to Middle English and sing "Svmer is icumen in, lhude sing cuccu!" Has our language been being dumbed down since Chaucer's time?

The fact is, English is wildly and unnecessarily difficult to spell because it's such a total hodgepodge of language origins. There's no justification for "diet" and "diesel" being pronounced entirely differently, and anyone who can look at the word "through" without groaning at the spelling is too inured to the way things are. A popular demonstration of how awful it is is the made-up word "ghoti" which is pronounced "fish": the gh comes from "tough", the o comes from "women", and the ti comes from "nation".

This is a particularly troubling thing because English speakers also tend to refuse to learn other languages, and instead expect everyone else to learn English, especially now that the Internet (having originated in English-speaking lands) is so ubiquitous. And English is one of the hardest languages to learn as a second language. It's not easy even for those born to it; native speakers of English spell it far less well than native speakers of other languages spell their languages. (Cue the "state of education in this country" rant, which I'll be posting about some other day! No, it's not that simple. English is just harder, and more importantly, far more inconsistent.)

Orthographic reform used to be a hotly debated subject, and Webster made the biggest strides in the history of the language towards making changes, by happening to be at the right place at the right time. It's plain that that opportunity will never come again -- orthographic reform is just not going to happen in this language in my lifetime, maybe ever, so this discussion is purely academic. (Heck, we're so change-averse we're still refusing to learn metric, which is just head-in-the-sand stupid.) But that it isn't going to happen has no bearing on whether it would be right for it to happen.

There's nothing special about the current hodgepodge of rules and exceptions that make up the language and particularly its spelling rules. There's no intellectual advantage to be claimed in having inconsistent, erratic spelling rules so tricky that even well-educated English speakers often make mistakes. It's no real basis for proclaiming superiority. If our language were consistent, that wouldn't make our students stupider -- quite the contrary, in fact. The problem with orthographic reform is that it's too hard to make happen (due to the transition and everyone's resistance to change), not that it shouldn't happen.

Let us conclude with some of Mark Twain's writings on the subject. As with many of Twain's writings, it can be taken both humorously and seriously with equal facility.

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform w spelling, so that which and one would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish y replasing it with i and Iear 4 might fiks the g/j anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y and x — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais ch, sh, and th rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Repairing my patio furniture

When patio furniture breaks, it's usually the vinyl stripping that goes, by tearing. Replacing the furniture would cost hundreds of dollars. Professional repair would cost almost as much if it's even possible, but it often isn't. The problem is that they manufacture them by affixing the ends of the vinyl strips (usually with a screw or plastic tap-in rivet) at both ends, then rotate the beams several times, and finally affix the beams to their cross-beams, thus pulling everything nice and tight. If they affix by screwing the beams together, you can unscrew and repeat the process, but if they weld them, you can't take it apart to put it back together.

By starting from the directions here and making a few improvements, I have been able to repair two of my chairs, and have enough materials left for a dozen more repairs, for about $60. My repair won't last as long as the original manufacture, but I can always repeat the repair after a couple of years; it only takes a few minutes.

The materials needed:
  • Replacement vinyl strapping; I bought 50' of it from Patio Furniture Supplies for about $50, delivered, and that'll be enough for many repairs.
  • A grommet kit, bought from a local hardware store for $4; includes grommets and the tools to install them
  • Flat-head screws of the right size, cost a few bucks for way too many
  • Measuring tape
  • Knife
  • Screwdriver
  • Hammer
  • Vise grips
  • Sharpie
To start with, I removed the torn straps:

I used one of the torn straps to measure the length from one screw-hole, around the beam, across, and to the other screw-hole, being sure to pull as tight as I could. Note that these chairs narrow slightly so I had to re-measure for each strap to be replaced. Once I had a measurement, I measured the vinyl stripping and marked it with the Sharpie:

Then cut where marked:

Now I followed the directions in the grommet kit to install a grommet near one end of the strip. First, use the hole-punch (held in place with vice-grips) to cut the hole cleanly to the right size:

The circle of vinyl left over inside the hole punch can be tapped out with a long screw and the same hammer. Then set the grommet on the anvil:

Place the washer, rounded side up, into place on top of the grommet:

Then use the provided tool to tap the grommet closed.

The result is a nice, tight grommet that looks professionally installed:

Repeat at the other end. Then use a screw to affix one end to the frame:

This is the trickiest part. Pull as tight as you possibly can, then a little tighter, to get the other screw-hole to align. If you've cut to the right length, it should require everything you can do to just get the grommet-hole to only partially align with the screw-hole just barely enough to get the other screw to start gripping, whereupon you can tighten it, thus pulling the strap tighter as it straightens out:

Repeat for any other broken straps:

And that's all there is to it. Once I had it figured out, it took about five minutes a strap.

If you've simply lived with torn straps for a while (since the chair is probably still usable with them), it'll feel remarkably improved once you've done this. Sure, the lack of those extra windings will make it not quite as firm a support as when it was new, and while the grommets will provide some protection against tearing, the strap won't last as many years before it tears again. But you can always pop in another strap in five minutes when it does. You can make those chairs last decades instead of years if you keep it up.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Internet while in the UK

We've done a fair bit more planning on those parts of our UK trip that are amenable to planning, while leaving most of the days open to just having a list of possible activities, which we've also fleshed out with a few new options, like the Merchant Adventurers' Hall (be sure to try out their Be A Merchant Adventurer game).

Based on this I think I have a better idea of what I should be planning to pack, how much cash I need to have on hand, and other questions of preparation. There's one big gap, though. We know that the flat we're renting doesn't come with Internet, but it appears to be part of a large block of flats, so we can't speculate on the odds that there'll be someone else's Internet we can, ahem, borrow a bit of.

When I first wrote this post we didn't have any idea from there except a few Internet cafés in the area, but they were all a little removed from the flat -- maybe farther than I'd want to go at the end of a long day in museums or shopping. They were all bars or pubs or clubs, so probably loud, noisy, smoke-filled, and crowded. Some of them had bad hours -- the nearest one closed at 6pm. I wasn't terribly eager to only be able to get to the Internet from any of them.

Then we re-evaluated the clues about where the flat is (we should get a definitive answer soon, but the landlady's being cagey until the final payment has wended its way through currency conversions and gotten to her hands, so we had to correlate images with Google Streetview -- it felt like we were on a TV procedural!). According to BTOpenzone's map, we think there are hotspots there, which we can probably buy service from for... well, a lot of money, really, about $40 for five days, possibly per computer, but at least it means we've got an avenue to pursue. But it's not 100% certain; BTOpen's got weasel-words about not being able to guarantee the hotspots are going to be available, and we're not 100% sure that's where the flat is, and we sure don't know the signal will be good enough.

And then we posted about this on a forum and got a great tip. While BTOpenZone wants £26.99 for five days, for £19.99 we can buy an O2 3G dongle that includes both unlimited access to those same wifi hotspots, everywhere, and access to the 3G network at pay-as-you-go rates. For instance, £7.50 for a week's usage of up to 1G. That means for a total of £26.49 (still £0.50 cheaper) we're getting two more days of 3G usage and unlimited wifi. What a deal! And they even come in two colors, so Siobhan and I can tell ours apart. (She, being recently all girly, will get the pink one, no doubt. The black one would disappear against her black Eee anyway. Not fashionable!)

The preparations I need to make for my absence change a lot between "I'll be online regularly, though not as much", "I'll be online an hour or two each day," "I'll be online a few minutes each day," and "I won't be online for the whole trip", largely due to my activities in Lusternia. There are things I have to do once a day that take ten seconds if I have my computer and Internet, but that would take ages to get someone else able to do, and which would be impossible to do on a cell phone. Knowing which to expect settles a lot of questions.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Lost in my dream

I recently had an odd dream which is coherent enough to retell. Half of the dream was pretty humdrum stuff inspired by our planning for our UK trip; it was about finding the hotel, getting onto the bus, trying to find WiFi signals, etc. But interleaved with that was a very odd bit of dream.

We were at the pool in a hotel chatting with some random people who were there, when Jorge Garcia, best known for playing Hurley on Lost, wandered by. He was just a guest at the same hotel or something, but on seeing me he came over and gave me a big old friendly hug and said it was good to see me, then continued on to wherever he was going. The young girls who were at the pool were curious about this, so I explained... way back at the very beginning, before anyone knew the show was going to be popular, I had a small role on Lost, only a few appearances. (Apparently, in my dream, Lost wasn't a big deal from its pilot, but took a season or two to get traction.) Even in my dream I was surprised by this: not by having had the role, but by the fact that, hey, how did I forget about that? But I was mostly excited at the idea that my picture was on a popular website and that the website might explain some stuff.

And with that surprise came the bigger one. "Hey, that means there's probably a page about me on Lostpedia, with a picture of me, and analysis of my character, and maybe if I go find it I can figure out what my character was doing!" So I was trying to get WiFi on my netbook so I could search Lostpedia for myself, while we were heading somewhere on a bus.

I couldn't get to Lostpedia for some reason but I did find a site that would stream video of the clips that included my character, so I started playing them. Instead of showing on the netbook, they played on the entire world around the bus, so everyone on the bus could see the scenes through the windows, on all sides. No one seemed to mind.

In the first scene, I was one of the crash survivors who had apparently been airline staff -- though I wasn't a pilot, or a flight attendant, so I don't know what I was, but I was definitely airline staff. I was helping to take care of some of the kids on the flight by entertaining them with a game involving a bunch of very thick golden rings with small gems inset on the inner surface, but when these rings were brought near a particular door, they glowed (or maybe the door glowed, I can't recall). Someone (maybe Hurley) commented on how that made no sense, and I said something cagey about how, yes, it did make no sense, as if I knew something I wasn't saying.

The story switched to a flashback in my character's past, which I unfortunately remember very little of. It was back on the mainland and involved some kind of shady dealing in a warehouse and the rings, and it was made clear that I had some mysterious agenda concerning the rings, but in that Lost way, it only tantalized about the mystery.

The next clip was from many episodes later. There was a crashed, but still mostly whole, airplane, and there'd been a fight about who was going to get to go on it. Some villain (who wasn't a character on the real show) was the only one with a gun, and he was marching a row of about 20 people onto the plane; these people had their hands tied in front of them, and to each other in a long line, and were being shepherded onto the plane like prisoners by the guy with the gun. Meanwhile, another bunch of survivors, including at least a few of the actual show characters (I saw Hurley, Jack, Kate, and maybe Sawyer), were standing by, fuming about not being able to get onto the plane, but having no way to stop it.

I and one other airline employee were already on board the plane, sitting on a sort of bench, watching the "prisoners" being marched past us and set into seats. The other employee was in a flight attendant's outfit; he looked a little like Miles, but not that much, and he seemed chipper in a "hey, I'm getting off the island" way. I, however, was scruffy, unshaven, with leaves in my beard and my hair all mussed, wearing torn clothes, and looking very glum as if I didn't want to be leaving but wasn't going to say anything.

The passengers/prisoners were seated (there was no fight in them, they were just mildly surly) and the plane was starting up, there was all the humming of a plane getting ready to go, when someone on the bus (remember the bus?) said something like, "Hey, can we see a scene involving Thomas instead?" The other passengers on the bus seemed to agree, so the bus driver did something, and the scene started to change. I was upset that we weren't going to get to find out what my character was doing, when I woke up.

These clips of old Lost episodes looked really like the show, with the same kind of cinematography (except that in the "boarding the plane" scene, there were more camera angles from above) and lighting (mostly torchlight at night in the jungle), and people acting the same way they did in the show.

I have no idea where any of that came from. I suppose I could blame it on the percocet.