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December 27, 2008

Skip It!

My sister got me the WALL-E DVD, which is one of my favorite movies of the year (and I'm still not sure if it beats, is tied with, or just loses to The Dark Knight as the year's best so far, but it is close).

Being that it is a Disney production, the DVD starts with a whole bunch of snippets and adverts that I cannot skip, fast forward, or otherwise get beyond to get to the menu. Disney is by far and away the worst at this practice, but nearly all of the DVD producers do something similar.

It irritates me to no end that I cannot skip these "features" and just get to the movie, the menu, or the special features. I already bought the product, don't beat me over the head with ... more product. These types of things should always be optional and I should always have the ability to press menu, at any time and from anywhere on the DVD, and get the freaking menu to display!

December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas

Yes, you read that right... Christmas.

I'm feeling much more in the spirit today than usual. More than a little of that has to do with my Christmas-loving wife, of course. She has brightened the holiday with a tree, lights, and good cheer to help my usually curmudgeonly self out of my typical holiday funk.

So, happy Christmas. Be safe, be happy, be healthy this holiday, and don't take things too seriously. Relax and enjoy the day.



Now, back to our regularly scheduled rants and ravings....

December 24, 2008

A Small Memory

I recently reread The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, because I thought it had in it a scene that I have had in my memory for some time now. It didn't, but this is a favorite from my teen years, so I enjoyed rereading it anyway.
Then I asked my sister, who has a great memory for things she reads. Unfortunately, my description of the scene was just too vague.
Basically, I told her, I remembered a scene where a girl is with a guy who likes to dress up in costumes and he was some sort of detective. The scene in particular is him wearing something on his face and standing behind her while she looks at him in a mirror. She realizes that the thing she thinks is on one side of the face is actually on the other, and this leads to solving the mystery. I also explained that I remember it being written in a similar style to Ellen Raskin's book, which is why I thought it was in The Westing Game.
My sister couldn't remember that scene, but had some suggestions for ways I could search for it and maybe at least narrow down the book list.
In the meantime, M ordered some more Raskin novels from the local library. One of them caught my eye and the moment I looked at the cover I knew-- that was the book!
I read The Tattooed Potato last night. Sure enough, starting on page 55 of the book is the exact scene I remembered; Garson is an artist who is helping the police with some detective work. Dickory is his new assistant. They are trying to solve the case that the Inspector has given them, and Garson paints a mole on his cheek and asks Dickory which side of his face it is on while she looks at him in a mirror. And the realization that she guesses the wrong side due to the reflection allows them to narrow down who the criminal is and gets the Inspector an arrest. And it was written in Raskin's style because Raskin wrote it!
Both are good books and I may add them to my wish list.

December 22, 2008

The Lion, et al

The story in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is primarily about the four main characters learning lessons and growing as individuals. There are moments in the book where this is really pointed out, like when Lucy tells Aslan to hold on a minute after administering the juice of the flower berry to Edmund and Aslan getting cross with her and asking if more should die for her brother. Each child learns to grow up (to a degree, as well as literally) and becomes a better, more caring, and more understanding person because of the lessons he or she learns during the course of the story.

(I grant that, if you want to look hard enough, there are religious allegories. However, I would argue that a) those are not the point of the first book and b) that most children, the aim of these stories, will not recognize or get those allegories with the exception of the obvious "Aslan allows himself to be killed for the sins of another and rises from the dead because of it" one.)

In the movie, the makers changed most of the story to be "more visual". As a general rule, I have no argument with that. However, this caused Edmund to be presented as a much more surly and argumentative child than he ever appears as in the book. On top of this, some of the lessons the children learned are glossed over (Peter's learning to be a leader and king/thinking about those beyond his family) or forgotten/left out altogether (Lucy's, mentioned above). Scenes are completely changed or added to, my guess is, give the movie more of a sense of urgency (the children following Edmund all the way to the point of seeing him enter the Witch's house, Edmund in prison with a woeful Mr. Tumnus, changing a battle that is mostly skipped over in the book (because it is not needed to be told-- you are following a different story) into a grand battle shown from multiple perspectives at the end.

In the play, due to the writer's need to condense the plot and "talk down" to the admitted children's audience, they combined much and skipped over even more. For example, Lucy and Edmund both reach Narnia at the same time, but head off in different direction so that Lucy can meet Tumnus and Edmund the White Witch. Susan and Peter come on shortly thereafter and they all meet up. In the story, it is an important point when Edmund has a talk with Aslan after being rescued but you never find out what is said; in the play, their conversation is a duet all about what is said. It is also an important point made by Susan that she and Lucy must never tell Edmund what Aslan does for him as "it would be too horrible." In the play, Edmund goes with them and watches Aslan being killed in his place and then Peter and the Beavers show up and there is a pretty, but forgettable, song about the glory of Aslan and his sacrifice. Lucy once again does not need to learn her lesson with the healing draught. Susan is much less likable for most of the play, and Edmund once more is way overdone in his surliness and bad behavior.

My point in saying this is the same point I continue to make with other source material (be they comic books being turned into movies or simply books being made into movies or TV shows); you are pulling from a certain source material for a reason-- you have a built-in audience with built-in expectations. When you change for change's sake, you threaten your foundation audience. If that audience gives you a bad review, you will not get much if any new audience on top of that foundation. We have seen this to be true on a number of occasions, but a couple stand out to me:
  • The recent horrible, horrible attempt called The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. They changed so much as to make the much-loved and award-winning novel unrecognizable to the core audience. The word spread and the move absolutely tanked at the home and world-wide box office.

  • Catwoman. Riding high on some hits, DC/Warner Bros decided to go for something with a strong female lead. However, again, they took 60 years+ of source material, threw it out the door, and started from scratch and made something unrecognizable to the core audience of comic book readers. Word got out, movie tanked.

  • Even TV shows are not immune to this. The Starsky & Hutch movie went far from the source material (which was predominantly a lighter drama) and became a full-on comedy; it tanked at the BO.
When producers/writers stay close to the source material, generally modest to large hits ensue. As examples of this:
  • Batman Begins/The Dark Knight
  • Jaws (the original)
  • Harry Potter series
  • Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
  • Da Vinci Code
  • Spider-man 1 and 2
So, in the end, I am a little disappointed in the first Narnia movie, but not enough that I didn't purchase it. However, I would not go back, nor would I recommend anyone who enjoys the book going, to see the musical. It is important that any version of the story try to include the morals and lessons that are so integral to the story and important to the characters when presenting the story in other media. In the case of the musical, in particular, the writers failed in this.

December 19, 2008

Narnia... Redux

So, this has been The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe month. First, my wife and I read the book to each other (don't laugh, try reading to your loved one in bed and see how he/she likes it). Next, we watched the recent live-action/CGI movie. Tonight we saw a musical "based" on the book.

I need time to fully process what I'm going to say, so expect a further post on this subject in the near future. But I think I can boil it down to this: you are making a musical and/or movie because of the source material. So why would you stray so far from the source to the point where the basic premise and reason for the source material is no longer there?

More later after I digest tonight's show.

It Hurt My Eye!

Being a desert rat through and through I am not accustomed to the temperatures of my new location. It is -12c with a wind chill making it close to -25c outside. We needed gas on the way home and I did the "manly" thing and offered to pump it. I was okay everywhere except my face, where the wind and the shear cold stung so bad it hurt my eye. I put up the hood on my coat, but to no avail; no matter what I did, the incredible cold continued to feel like a weight on my right eye.

My eye is now tender and I have a "headache" directly behind the outside corner where it stung. That is insane!

December 16, 2008

Financial Customer Service Takes a Hit

I have been a member of American Express Blue for, well, a long time. At least 8 years. In all of that time, I have always either paid off the card in full, paid off a sum much more than the minimum amount, or paid the minimum. The few times there has been a dispute on the card, the company has admitted it was its fault and the extra charges or whatever were credited off.

In November, I looked online at my balance due, which was around $42. Now, granted, that was just the monthly payment amount as, with the expenses of everything involved in the lead up to, the moving, and certain expenses since moving, I'm carrying a much larger overall balance than usual. I reviewed my statement, then logged into my bank and sent AmEx $100. More than enough to cover the $42 I saw due and take another small bite out of the overall balance until I find work and can start making more serious payments. As a note, I keep the tab with the CC balance up for reference when I log into my bank account to make the payment, so I can decide how much and review both before clicking Send on anything.

On December 12 I again checked my AmEx statement online. I saw that the balance due was $183, that my payment had a due date of Dec. 28, logged onto my bank and sent the company $200, and thought that was it until my next check/payment cycle in mid-January.

Today, just a little bit ago, I received an email notice that my card was on hold until such time as they received the $183 in full. "What the hell?" I said out loud to no one in particular (M has gone to bed). I immediately logged on to my AmEx account and saw that it still showed $183 due and a due date of Dec. 28. Nothing else on it showed any reason to make me think that anything was wrong with the account.

I called support and finally got to Robert in Past Due Accounts. He told me that my payment of $100 in November was $42 short of the full amount. Which, on hindsight, makes sense with the balance I'm carrying right now. However, when it comes to money and these accounts in particular, I am very careful and I nearly always pay more than the minimum balance. Either my statement in November was incorrectly showing me something, or the company added a late fee, or something happened that caused what I saw online. Robert tried to be helpful but, with the credit crisis where it is, he (and AmEx) were no longer willing to be very helpful. I explained that I had paid the amount due and then some in November, and that I had already paid the full amount due for this month and then some. I wanted my card taken off hold. He expressly refused to do that, but apologized profusely for what he granted was some sort of error or miscommunication between me and his company.

What I am frustrated by is the fact that I told him to scan through my account and see how long I've been a member and if he could find any cases of me not paying at least the minimum every month. He agreed that he could not. He did find a whopping total of two instances where I was late in making a payment (but granted it was by a few days only, so the check was likely delayed in the mail or was too close to the payment due date when sent). He agreed that I was an outstanding customer and commented that he wished more customers had my history. Yet he still wouldn't budge on the issue. My history with the company, being in great standing in general, and his acknowledging that there must have been some sort of typographical or other error which caused me to pay less than the amount due last month made no difference in how I was treated.

I agreed with him that he is part of a business and that a business needs to make money. However, when he started saying, "If we did what you are asking for the millions of customers we have..." I cut him off. I said, "I don't want you to do this for millions of people; I want you to do it for me. Because of my great standing with your company, history of excellent payment, long time use of the card and membership." But he refused.

I understand that AmEx needs to clamp down in these times and that they have to make profits and keep their noses clean to weather the financial storm. However, what the company is choosing to do is lump a bunch of people with excellent credit histories in with the miscreants, thieves, and reprobates that may take advantage. I am now angry with my treatment, angry that the company no longer considers me a valuable resource, and is no longer willing to make me happy as a customer.

But, I think the anger primarily stems from having my good history, my good name, called into question by this company. As if my many years of excellence no longer matters and no longer counts for anything. That's what hurts the most. I have spent years accruing a good financial history in general, a credit score higher than 95% of Americans, and had that all questioned by Robert during our phone conversation. Yes, I know he didn't question it directly, but that was what he was (without his knowledge) attacking when he said there was nothing he could for me.

Then, I can't help but think, why should I bother keeping the good credit history? I already lived through SoCal and watching people who earned half what I did buying houses that were many times what I could afford. People changing cars more often than their hairstyles or underwear. I watched people run up huge credit card bills and then just walk away from them. I saw people use bankruptcy laws as just another part of their financial portfolio. All through it I kept myself clean and above-board and did my best to live within my means. And, today, because of the mess all those other people created (and the financial institutions that catered to them), my history and value as a member of American Express was called into question and I was lumped in with them.

Long story made not too much longer, my bank says they sent the check on Saturday. Which means AmEx should have it Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest, if all works out as it usually does. And my card will be freed immediately.

My faith in AmEx will not be so easily repaired.

Update 12/16/08
Today I received the email that AmEx received my payment for $200 and all is right with my account again. So, on the surface, it seems like much ado about nothing. However, my point is still valid; I am not to blame for the credit/financial crisis in America and I don't appreciate being treated like someone who is to blame. I have a great credit history with that company in particular and in general and should be treated accordingly.

December 10, 2008

I'm Shocked, Shocked I Say!

This is my result of this particular quiz.

Your results:

You are Superman

You are mild-mannered, good, strong and you love to help others.











Superman
75%
Supergirl
60%
Hulk
60%
Robin
57%
Spider-Man
55%
Wonder Woman
55%
Green Lantern
55%
Batman
40%
The Flash
40%
Catwoman
30%
Iron Man
30%


Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz

December 7, 2008

Challah Bread

M and I watch a show called Anna and Kristina's Grocery Bags. In this show, the two hosts, Anna and Kristina, take an existing, popular cook book, try out some recipes from it, and then make some recipes on-camera and serve them to a chef who is expert in that genre of food.

During one of the shows, they tried French Toast made with Challah bread. The expert really enjoyed it and said that he won't make French Toast without that type of bread. I told M that I had eaten challah bread before, and that it was a sweeter bread and quite good. M really likes French Toast, so, when she spotted some challah at a store, picked up a loaf with the express intent of me making her French Toast.

Yesterday (and this morning), I set about doing so. Used my usual mixture of two eggs, a bit of milk for thickening, a splash of vanilla for flavor, and a small pinch of cinnamon. Cut three thick slices of the challah (a good solid inch), soaked liberally in the sauce, and put it on a frying pan set to a medium low (about 4.5 on the dial). Cooked them until they weren't wet anymore, but not so much the egg had fried to being "eggy."

M loved it. It was the first time I had used the cinnamon with her (she's not a big fan, and doesn't want it to be overpowering, which I didn't make it). She has since said that challah is the only way to go with French Toast from now on.

I highly recommend it if you like French Toast. Find and use some Challah bread, keep the cinnamon down (only enough to enhance the vanilla, not enough to make it cinnamony), and cook it over medium low heat for a bit longer. It was good enough that even I enjoyed it, and I'm not a huge fan of French Toast.

Give it a try.

November 29, 2008

Extra Lines?

I started noting recently that friends and family who used Blogger were posting items that had extra line feeds. I then found my own posts starting to include extra line feeds.

Somewhere along the way, the people from Google behind Blogger have modified their auto-generated HTML coding to include the "div" and "/div" codes in each paragraph. However, they did not program the auto-generator to create the code correctly or insert it correctly, thus leading to extra line feeds.

What is extra fun is that the Preview button doesn't express the extra line feeds, so it looks the way you want it until you click Publish Post. At this time, the incorrectly placed div codes come into play and your published entry has the extra line feeds.

I have taken to clicking the "Edit Html" tab and scanning through my posts and editing out all of these codes, and then making the page look the way I want it (whether by manually adding standard spacing or deleting extra spacing), prior to clicking the Publish Post button.

While I appreciate the free nature of the blogging tool provided by Blogger, I am disappointed that they would modify the coding in such a way to add irrelevant and incorrectly used HTML code that causes me to have to do extra effort to present a clean post. It makes for extra work that I do not want and makes me consider moving to a different service or hosting my own.

Thanxgiving

M and I prepared a 13 pound turkey, stuffing, a couple of different kinds of veggies, mashed and sweet potatoes, home-baked bread, crescent rolls, and apple pie for Thanksgiving.

We had a good time cooking together. Sandra came over and gave M a pie lesson (and it turned out beautifully), and she again helped us with gravy mixing when the time came.

The turkey was an odd cooking experience. We went with the 20 minutes per pound theory, but also put it in a cooking bag. After barely over 2 hours of cooking, both the pop-up thermometer and our good electronic thermometer said the bird was done... which was about an hour and a half minimum before we were expecting it to be. Figuing that something was not kosher with the thermometer, we started eyeballing it from there. We wound up taking it out about a half hour before we thought it should be done, which was a good thing, because the turkey was definitely done and was starting to get a bit dry (not bad, just starting).


I carved that up while I put in the crescent rolls, and microwaved the two green veggies in microwave steamer bags (these things work great!), and M worked on finishing the two potato dishes and got the stuffing ready. We then put everything on the table for out two guests (Sandra and our friend Jenn), and I popped the pie in to bake while we ate.

Everything was scrum-dilly-icious! Everyone ate way too much, which is the way it should be.

The one detraction to the day was the poor performance by the Lions on their annual Thanxgiving NFL game. Usually, even if they are having a bad year, they perform well-enough to make the game exciting, even if they lose. Not so, this game. It took them all of two plays to start sucking. And then it was all downhill from there, culminating in a 47-10 blow out loss. *sigh

November 24, 2008

Tidbits

It was fun to wake up Saturday morning to the first snowfall of the season. Seeing everything covered in a gentle blanket of white was pleasing. Since then, we have had temperatures hit -10c (-20c with wind chill), which I do not find anywhere near as nice. These temperatures sneak up on me because I look outside and I see a sunny, cloudless sky and my brain automatically thinks "Nice day." While that may be true, it has not built up a knowledge base that, while pretty or nice, the day may be cold as hell. Needless to say, my hands got pretty cold before I remembered to put on my gloves. I need to get better about that, but I think only experience and time will teach me that lesson.

Saturday morning we decided to try for Calais for mail and some Thanxgiving shopping. However, even after getting an all-wheel drive vehicle from Alex, we only made it about five miles out of town before we decided to turn around. The better part of valor said that, with the slow speeds we would have to average on the trip, the later start we got due to weather considerations, and the time limit we had on reaching an open Calais post office to pick up our packages, it just wasn't in the dice.

Saturday night we went to watch Chicago at the SJ Theater. Even though I helped my mother with nearly every one of her productions, and had friends in many of them, I find it strange to see many of my new friends up on a very professional stage singing, dancing, acting. Our friend T-L absolutely belted her songs as Mama Morton. She didn't really need the microphone at all and I could tell she had to reign it in a bit when she had the duet with the woman playing Velma; Velma had a good voice, but nowhere near the power or clarity of our friend! Another surprise (to me, as I don't know everyone well yet and do not know where their strengths lie) was our friend Matt. While the role of Amos doesn't require a lot of singing or dancing, I was pleasantly surprised by the job Matt did in covering both aspects. And our friend Jenn did the choreography for the entire show. I asked and she confirmed that it is exceptionally difficult to come up with choreography that is engaging to the audience, showcases each individual's talents, and accommodates those in the cast who have no training and little skill at dancing. That's one headache I leave in her capable hands. Neither of us liked the minimilist stage presentation, but my guess is that the crew wanted to cut down on the size of the stage and keep the focus on the singing and dancing. In those regardless, the minimilist approach worked.

Today I drove down on my own to Calais and got everything. The trip today was easy, I averaged great mileage for the tank down and back (1/4 tank for the whole trip), and had my first experience paying duty on items brought over the border ($18.50). There was virtually no wait on either side (to America there were about 8 cars ahead of me turning onto the bridge (plus a full bridge), but moved fast. Coming back, I was behind two cars when they opened the second window and all of us cruised through. If I hadn't needed to pay duty, I almost could have blinked and missed it!

The trip would not have been as good had I not used the portal XM we own. I put it on the 90s channel and cruised the entire way. For someone who hates talking (talk radio, DJs talking, phone requests, even commercials that talk) as much as I do, you would think I would have succumbed to the XM/Sirius use long before moving in with my wife. I do love it now, though.

Back to the trip: during one stretch of almost 30 minutes I quite literally did not see a car on the same side of the road I was driving. During that same stretch, I only saw 11 cars on the other side. It was fun to see the big-rigs filled with Christmas trees leaving Canada one after another; I'm sure at least some of those trees are bound for Southern California.

I think we're set for Thanxgiving now. We have a turkey, we have some home-baked bread to bake that day, and the rest of the ingredients we'll get here. I'm looking forward, with some horror and trepidation, to seeing the Lions play on TV. This is the only scheduled game of the season on TV, but they are an aweful 0-11 and have little chance of winning a game this year. Which is too bad, as Marinelli is a good coach and had turned things around so much last season. Just goes to show you that pre-season doesn't count for much (the Lions were 4-0).

November 15, 2008

Quantum of Solace

While there is not anything fundamentally wrong with this movie, I cannot grade it above a B for one reason-- shaky-cam. When will directors learn that, if you are directing an action sequence that is inherently filled with danger and suspense, you don't need to make your audience sick by adding a shaky-cam. Unless the use of shaky-cam is integral to the plot (for example, Blair Witch or Cloverfield), buy a fucking steady-cam harness and film it right!

Now that that is out of my system I feel better.

The acting by Craig and Dench is superb again. They both hit home runs with their portrayals of Bond and M. Wright, as Felix Leiter, seemed to think looking constipated equaled angst. Amalric was okay as the main villain, but really wasn't given much to work with. While Arterton was beautiful and did what she could with her role, the role really should have been written out of the movie and all her scenes should have been given to the other Bond girl, Kurylenko.

The plot was a bit confused and this was mainly because of the main girl, Camille. Bond was partly motivated by revenge and partly his duty to go after those who killed Vesper in Casino Royale. Camille's interference and need for revenge watered down his plot. And then there was the somewhat underdeveloped main plot of Greene buying worthless desert under which there was a ton of water that he was somehow holding ransom and using to topple governments. This was not presented in a way that allowed the audience to get on board and seemed to almost get in the way of Bond's need for revenge, as the focus of the movie shifted to him helping Camille get her's instead.

Most of the action and fight scenes were superb, except for the use of shaky-cam. Would have been considered great, actually, except for this fact. By themselves, Craig and Dench almost make me grade up against the grade down for the use of the shaky-cam, but they can't quite push it that far (tells you how irritated I am that people continue to use the device).

I have little idea how it ends because our sound kept cutting in and out and the final resolution of the story was the worst section. About 15 people complained and wanted passes or their money back. I normally would be leading the charge, but this is the fourth or fifth time, so I'm instead going to complain to corporate about this cinema, since I know the local manager could give a rat's ass.

All-in-all a good outing, exciting, and I was entertained. Not as good as Casino Royale, but as good or better than many of the Bond movies.

November 11, 2008

A Little Ego Boost

M asked me to review some documents one of her coworkers put together for her company. Not knowing the audience, intent, or how much latitude I would have in editing them, I jumped in intending to do the basics; make sure the document was parallel, check for consistency, review grammar and punctuation, etc. Nothing major. When I was done, I was pleased with the result but had a lot of questions. However, as this was not my project nor did I know the audience, I simply passed the document back to M and let her review my changes.

During the review, the changes I made caused her to ask me a ton of questions -- all questions I had thought of but chose not to ask as this was someone else's project -- and started her on the path of editing my edits as she realized that the document did not go into the depths she was hoping for.

In the end, after her umpteenth question to me and my umpteenth 'item to consider,' she said to me, "Tech writing is hard."

Most companies think having writers on staff is a luxury. Writers are often the first to be let go during layoffs and the last to be rehired. Many companies actually insist that technical writers have experience in programming before hiring them. For example, Microsoft used to insist that all their technical writers have five years of programming experience. Yet, most people point to Microsoft as a primary example of poor manuals and even worse help files.

Technical writers are bridges between the application (be it a program, or some other item, action, or process that needs to be explained) and the lay-people who will use the application. While having knowledge of programming (and any other technical aspect involved in the application, whatever it is) is a good trait to have, too much knowledge can lead to bad technical writing. This is because the technical knowledge gets in the way of the writer's ability to "speak" to the audience. In most cases, the audience is a person with little technical savvy and who just wants to use the application and have it work.

In grade school or junior high, many teachers use the exercise of having their students write out all the steps involved in telling someone who is not from this planet (but, inextricably, knows the language) how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Most children write something like "Step 1, open the peanut butter jar, Step 2, spread on bread, Step 3, open jelly jar, Step 4, spread on bread, Step 5, eat." However, this skips many, many steps that someone who has never experienced this activity would have to take. For example, what are you spreading it with? How do you open the jar(s)? What does "spread" mean? Where did you get the bread? What kind of bread is it and does it have multiple sides onto which the spreading may occur? Maybe one child out of 100 writes more than about 10-15 steps for this assignment, and that one kid is the one who may have what it takes to be a technical writer.

Assumptions are the killers of good manuals and help files. Each time a technical writer makes an assumption for the audience, it increases the likelihood that someone will not "get it," will become lost or confused, and will not be helped by the information provided. Each time a person reaches this point, one of two things happens: either the person contacts customer support or their opinion of the help provided decreases until they stop using it altogether and they figure out some way of moving on without the knowledge they need (and often resulting in bad data, poor use of the application, and/or errors of various magnitude).

In my last job, I often said the help files and manuals were the user's first interaction with the company at a time when that user was confused and possibly angry. If what we wrote helped them answer their question or solve their problem, the entire company looks good as a result. If it doesn't, then the company looks bad and, if the user chooses to get assistance from support, they are already on their way toward being upset. The best technical writer can, and should, put support out of a job.

A great way to tell the quality of the technical writing involved in a project or application is to check the Index. If the index is one page or less for a standard book-sized manual, you probably will find the manual less than helpful. An index is a microcosm of the technical writer's ability to think about every way in which a user may try to look up or find the information they need within the manual. If the index only tells you the term as that application uses it, the user may not be comfortable or knowledgeable enough to know that term or to know to look up the activity they want to do by that term. So you should always have a more common term or phrase to describe the activity that is a likely way in which a user may name what they want to do. For example, one application I use terms all bullets of any sort as a List. And "List" is the only term by which the index refers to this process. Since I wanted a simple bullet, it took me quite a while before I found this action in the help file I was reviewing. The technical writer who put the help file together should have included terms like "bullets," "numbered lists," and maybe even "special characters" in the index, so people used to terms from other applications could find the same action in this application.

In the end, I got a big kick and a bit of an ego boost out of my wife's assertion that technical writing is hard. Yes, it is! Not everyone can divorce themselves from the technical aspects of what the application does to tell a person the actions they need to take to use it. And, while having technical knowledge is beneficial, it is important not to let that get in the way of making sure that someone without that same knowledge can get the job done.

October 31, 2008

Dead Motherboard

My machine has been acting a little funny the last few days and not like the smooth gaming rig it has been since I built it. Last night I set my machine to go to Sleep mode and, when I decided to check email just prior to going to bed, it wouldn't come on. I managed to get it to run the BIOS, but then it died on POST.

Something was wrong with the BIOS.

This morning I read up on how to re-flash my BIOS for this motherboard, downloaded a known good as well as the current BIOS, put them on a USB, and managed to boot the system into the BIOS. I followed the directions, but the flash utility would not downgrade the BIOS to the known good. Since I was slightly afraid the current BIOS might be causing the problem, I wasn't really wanting to try that one, but I did anyway. Sure enough, it failed the flash and now my machine is dead to the world.

Didn't really want to buy a new MB right now, but if I want to get up and running, I must. Without a BIOS, a machine goes nowhere really, really fast.

I'm hopeful that I can go to the place that Andrew showed me the other day and get a replacement today, as I'd like to get up and running. I'm going to double-check my older MB parts to see if any of them can run my current rig, but I'm pretty sure they cannot.

Didn't really need this right now.

Addendum 10/31/08
Called a place that my BIL Andrew recommended. They had virtually the same motherboard in stock, but an upgraded model (a couple of bells and whistles I didn't have on mine). Were willing to sell it to me for $80 CDN. Same board online is selling for between $120 and $140 CDN. Got them to agree to give my money back if the board didn't work, then went home and installed it. I'm up and running and everything seems okay. Will knock wood, but unless this is a bad board, I should be good to go now.

October 30, 2008

Brief Tax Note

I finally got my tax refund (in the full amount, but without the $600 incentive I really should be entitled to) deposited in my account on Friday of last week. So, many months late and without much fanfare, I finally have my taxes done (regardless of the fact I intially sent them to the IRS at the beginning of March!).

Yay.

Addendum 10/31/08
Checked my account this morning and I had the $600 incentive check deposited in the account. Yay!

October 24, 2008

Selfless Acts

One of my good friends, Matt, has kidney disease and has been on a personal dialysis machine for a while now. Another of my friends, Annemarie, took it upon herself to be checked for compatibility with the first friend and found they are a good match for kidney donation.

Today, they are both in surgery as she gives one of her healthy kidneys to him.

As I type this, they should both be in the middle of surgery.

My thoughts and prayers are with them both for their safety during the procedure and a quick and healthy recovery afterward.

Addendum
1. 10/24/08 I got an email that both patients are "doing as well as the surgeons could have hoped for" after the surgery. The next few days are important for both as one is recovering and the other is in ICU recovering. Keep sending any spare thoughts and well-wishes to SoCal to aid in their recovery!

2. 10/27/08 Got another note that Annemarie has been released and is doing okay. As of today, Matt should be released as well, and continuing his recovery at home.

3. 10/31/08 Just got word that Matt had a set back; the immune suppression drugs caused him to get a bad infection, so he had to stay in the hospital longer. However, this appears to not be related in any way to the transplant, just the meds. He is scheduled to get out today now, as long as nothing else comes up.

Heroics, Super or Otherwise

Articles are suggesting that the NBC hit show Heroes may be in trouble. It is losing audience and the blog-sphere and comments boards are fairly negative. Warner Brothers recently announced, to almost universally negative reactions from fans, that they plan on taking their comic book movies (and they specifically mentioned Superman) in a darker direction after the success of The Dark Knight.

Here's what the suits at NBC and Warner Bros either don't know or have forgotten: people who like comic books like heroes. While it is true that anti-heroes and bad-assery will show momentary favor, those of us who like super heroes want our heroes to be, ultimately, heroic. We all go through our Punisher and our Wolverine phase. But the way in which those characters have stayed viable throughout the years is by having authors that show the inherent goodness inside the rage and the revenge. I mean, you don't hear much from Lobo these days, because he was too much of a one-note character. He rarely was a hero and that's what audiences ultimately want.

This season, Heroes has turned nearly everyone into a villain of some degree. We no longer have Claire and Peter to rely on to be the "good guys" and Hiro has become such a joke as to be not very funny any more.

The Dark Knight worked as a "darker" movie because Batman is an inherently darker product than Superman. Batman chooses to use fear as his main weapon against criminals and, ultimately, that same fear to keep the average Joes from becoming criminals. For as much as people say the Big Blue Boy Scout's modus operandi (doesn't kill, value system ala the 1950s, etc.) makes for boring stories, we need him to always be the one filled with hope, the one who sees the best in humanity, and the one with all the power who constantly and consistently does the right thing-- especially when we know we wouldn't. He is the Christ figure of comic book products-- the one with absolute power who is not corrupted absolutely. Superman wants his example to lift up humanity and bring out its inherent goodness, while Batman wants to scare humanity into being law-abiding and force it, through fear, to supress its penchant for evil.

Another arena that showed this need for super hero fans to be heroic can be found in one of my favorite games, City of Heroes. COH introduced first an Arena, where heroes could fight each other, and then the expansion called City of Villains wherein you can play the same game from the bad-guy's perspective. Both of these expansions have been financial and fan-based failures; again, the vast majority of people who like super heroes secretly want to be a super hero-- we simply don't want to be villains. From what I've been able to gather from talking on boards with fans, there is about a 4:1 ratio of people playing COH versus COV. And the Arena is nearly always silent and empty.

How would I fix NBC's Heroes? Immediately shift Peter and Claire back to being heroes. Make Hiro expand from being the comic relief and allow him to develop into the hero that the show itself has hinted he becomes. No matter how dark you go, you have to always have a hero. Constantly shifting sides and moral gray areas only work for short periods of time and then the audience wants its heroes to overcome and be even better than before.

How would I make an interesting Superman movie? I would take world events as they are right now and show them through the prism of someone who has the power and desire to change it and the morals and values to know he shouldn't. Can you imagine what it would be like for someone with Superman's value systems and abilities to have lived through September 11? He would probably feel absolutely horrible that he was somewhere else and couldn't save those killed by the terrorists in the first place, a huge amount of revenge toward those who did it, and he would have the ability to literally go over there and do something quite permanent about it. Honestly, how many Americans had the thought, no matter how fleeting it may have been, that we should have turned wherever we found Al Queda into a flat pane of glass about three feet thick with our nuclear arsenal? Now, imagine actually having the power to single-handedly do it. But Superman can't. He knows that it is a very slippery slope and he would quickly become a world despot if he allowed himself to let loose in such a manner with all that power. Add in a super villain of the Metallo, Brainiac, or Darkseid level as, say, the ultimate power behind Al Queda, end it with some sort of hopeful message about using your power to its fullest against the right target (in this case the super villain and not just willynilly against anyone in the middle east), and you have yourself a Superman movie I want to see.

City of Heroes, meanwhile, has already corrected its "mistake;" the company has made both products one game and you can play either side you want. There are a couple of zones you can play hero versus villain in, and they have added an end-game feature that allows the heroes and villains to work together against a common threat. The vast majority of upcoming changes are for the heroes side, or universal, but they aren't doing a lot of work on only the villain side of things.

So, NBC and Warner Bros should take a long, hard look at their properties and ask themselves, does "dark" work for this product? Is the character ultimate heroic? If the answer is no to one or both of those questions, a rewrite of the script is required.

October 21, 2008

Calvin and Hobbes

I find myself missing Calvin and Hobbes. I have not found a comic that spoke so directly to me and my friends like that comic did on such a consistent basis.

While ostensibly about a child and his imaginary friend, Bill Watterson managed to actually speak to all levels on a variety of subjects. Calvin was smart, sassy, crude at times, sly, creative, and surprisingly emotional. Hobbes was just as intelligent, but also more conscientious and equally as emotional. The parents were always smart and seemed warm and caring, even when Calvin was at his worst.

The comic strip managed to hit the right balance between funny for funny's sake and having a message that only the best comics (of any type) can do. The strip touched on religion, war, economics, bigotry and a host of other adult topics as seen through the innocence of this one child's eyes. Many strips since (as well as before) have tried to hit the right balance between message and humor, but few really get it right.

I understand why Watterson stopped when he did; he felt that he had taken it as far as he could and that he needed a break. He did not want to compromise the integrity of the strip or the stories being told. It is also special to note that, even during the 10 years that Calvin and Hobbes reigned supreme, Watterson did not commercialize his strip beyond the book collections; nearly any Calvin and Hobbes related item, decal, poster or any other item that is not a collection of the strips is a knockoff product.

Watterson wrote the following to the newspapers that carried the strip:
I will be stopping Calvin and Hobbes at the end of the year. This was not a recent or an easy decision, and I leave with some sadness. My interests have shifted however, and I believe I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises. I have not yet decided on future projects, but my relationship with Universal Press Syndicate will continue. That so many newspapers would carry Calvin and Hobbes is an honor I'll long be proud of, and I've greatly appreciated your support and indulgence over the last decade. Drawing this comic strip has been a privilege and a pleasure, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity.
So few people go out on top and even fewer stick with the decision. I think it says something about Watterson that he went out at the height of the strip's popularity and left us with a finite amount of high-quality product to look back on fondly.

But this doesn't stop me from missing it.

October 20, 2008

They Don't Build 'Em Like THAT Any More

M was home today, so we ran some errands. One of those errands was finding and purchasing some book shelves at Home Depot. These shelves had the color that M likes, were five shelves high (6'), and they had a few of them on hand, so we could get two that matched. And the price was fairly right at $65; we wanted them for the basement and didn't mind having lower-quality particle board and veneer down there, or that they wouldn't match with the other book shelf we already owned. Win-win, or so we thought.

We finished our errands, carried the shelves inside, and I set to work building the first one fairly soon after. These shelves were of the IKEA style, put-it-together-yourself variety. As it was using the same style of attachments as my computer desk, I didn't worry about it-- I knew how strongly those fasteners could hold.

Nearly immediately I recognized I was going to need assistance, so I called M down to the basement and we set to work. She kept me honest with the directions (which I was struggling with) and lent a hand with the picking up and holding of things as we attached them to each other.

We got through the main steps, had only the backer board left to attach, and decided it would be best to stand it up to nail that on. We very carefully stood it up and immediately every single screw came ripping out of every single screw hole. Large chunks of the press board came off around each screw. The thing was so wobbly with the screws barely attached to anything and the large chunks of missing press board that, and I kid you not nor do I use hyperbole when I say, when M set the single sheet of paper on which the instructions were printed on the "permanent" shelf, it came completely unattached from the side boards and fell with a crash and took the bottom shelf/brace, which was barely holding on, out with it. As M said, "That was just like a cartoon or a comedy show-- no one will ever believe us!"

Lest you think we're completely inept, both M and I have separately and as a couple put together a variety of similar "Sauder-style"/IKEA-type furniture. We have experienced various of the more common issues with this type of furniture purchase, including missing parts, extra parts, ill-fitting joints, and the occasional particle board issue. However, neither of us has seen every single screw rip out of the particle board in every single attachment location all at the same time. It was like the particle board was intensely dry and powdery and the small amount of screw threads that were used were not enough to really get into the meat of the board and hold fast.

Needless to say, we packed it all back into the box, decided not to even try putting together the second book case we purchased, and immediately headed back to Home Depot to return them both. Luckily, Home Depot has virtually a no-questions-asked return policy, so returning the two were easy. However, now we are still without book shelves for our copious quantities of books. Oh well, we'll start looking for some new ones tomorrow.

And we got a full refund on the purchase, even though we bought a third item (a new smoke alarm). The girl didn't pay close attention and just refunded the full amount to us. So, bonus.

October 9, 2008

The Rise and Fall

Every fall I like to tell my TiVo to catch quite a few of the new shows. I watch a few episodes of each and then decide if I'm going to make it a regular program or delete the season pass. While I do this with the new shows, I also evaluate my enjoyment level of existing season passes and eliminate any that have tanked.

So far this early fall TV season, I have removed Two and a Half Men and CSI:Miami from my existing season passes. 2.5 Men seems to have seriously gone off the end and is completely one-note now (which is saying something, because it was only a 2 note show to begin with).You know it is time to stop watching when you find you are looking forward to reading the cue cards at the end credits than the show itself. CSI:Miami has been getting more ridiculous every season but, like a train wreck, I kept watching. The first two shows of this season were so predictable, poorly acted, and over the top that I just tuned out. And, dammit, why can't David Caruso frame himself straight on to the camera and/or lift his damn head up?

The only new show that has been removed from the season pass list so far is Knight Rider. This show started decently with an okay two-hour premier, however, the first two episodes of the series were so awful that M and I were laughing our way through it. The special effects were anything but special, the CGI was so blatantly obvious as to ruin the immersion, and the final straw was when KITT transformed into a truck.

Heroes is moving closer to the line, too. Never thought I would say that about a serious show presenting a realistic look at super powered individuals. However, while it is true that this season is superior to most of season 2, I just don't buy what they are doing. It feels totally obvious and ruins my immersion to have so many characters completely change their personalities seemingly overnight. People laugh a bit at Superman, but there is a reason why the character has existed successfully for 70 years now-- his consistency of character. Yes, he may be a "big blue boy scout" but it is that moral fiber and constant... well, goodness... that is what makes him the character that everyone knows and loves.

Heroes has taken its main protagonist, Peter, and turned him dark, sullen, and stupid. Claire (whose name means 'light' in French) has turned all bad and uncaring, Hiro has become a ridiculous caricature of his more light-hearted character (and what happened to the promise of seeing him slowly morph into the bad-ass sword wielder we glimpse in season 1? Has that been thrown out the window?), Sylar is suddenly a good guy, HRG actually changed last season from a scary know-it-all bad guy (ala Cigarette Man from X-Files) to a warm, caring, sensitive good guy with a name and a family. Plus, why does it always have to be about the world in jeapardy? Why can't the season-long backstory be about one of the characters, or an intrigue, or countries using the super-powered for evil, or something that doesn't involve the destruction of the earth or society? I mean, we saved the damn cheerleader, so the world is saved, right? Move on.

I'm also unsure of how long I will remain interested in Fringe. The show started strongly and I enjoyed the main female lead and the interplay between Joshua Jackson and John Noble. However, the last episode was way too X-Files for me and I'm simply not that interested in aliens. I also find it very hard to believe that damn near everything the team stumbles across just happens to be related to some experiment that Walter Bishop was working on in the 70s. I'll give this one another episode or two before deciding, but it is not looking good.

I'm pleased that Life has remained the quality show that I remember from last season. The main two characters are strong and interesting. I am not caring for the addition of Donal Logue, whom I normally enjoy, but I think he'll grow on me. And I did not care for the CGI/wax figure of the liquid nitrogen doctor, though. I thought that was over the top and didn't fit with the feel or tone of the show.

Chuck has come back strong, with little to no drop off from its first season. The characters and the quality of the show is running on a good tact.

I am hopeful that Chritian Slater's new show will be interesting. I've always been a fan of Slater's and I think it is sad that we have seen so little of him on the screen (and too much of him in the gossip columns). However, I will admit that my incredulity is already stretched by the premise. It better be good to keep me more than a couple of episodes.

House is doing what I vocally claimed might be the death of the show as early as season one. Procedurals tend to start strong and can make it about 2-3 seasons on average before moving away from the procedures being the focus and to the characters being the focus. House used to primarily be about this cantankerous doctor who always bit the hand that fed him and how he got results with these extreme cases (primarily because he went against the grain). These days, the procedural portion is being shunted to the background and we are learning more and more about the interns, House's life and "friends," and stories that show that House really isn't "that bad" deep down inside. Sorry, but that is not why I tuned it originally, nor why I continue to watch the show. And, like with ER and a host of other shows, if it continues down this path I will tune out.

One surprise I've found so far in this young season is Smallville. It really seems to be moving forward at a decent clip. While I miss Michael Rosenbaum, the rest of the cast and the new editions have stepped it up a bit. However, I expect that to grind to a halt when Kristin Kreuk comes back for her story arc. I guess the writers found some moxy and mojo knowing this is the final season of the show. Of course, there are also some rumors that, because the show is doing well (highest-rated show on the CW right now), that there may be a season 9. I hope not.

Addendum -- 10/20/08
Life on Mars bit the big one after only an episode and about 20 minutes. There are too many other, good shows to waste time with one about which we are, at best, luke-warm. So another one bites the dust.

October 7, 2008

And Happiness Ensued

The final piece of our Tivo-DirecTV puzzle was the fact we had to use an IR blaster in order for the Tivos to change the channels on the DirecTV receivers. IR blasters are notoriously unreliable and we found this truism to be doubly true. Occasionally we would record an hour of black screen, sometimes we would record the wrong channel-- it all depended on how the IR blaster was working, if there was interference, and/or if there were two copies of the channel.

M and I looked high and low for a solution, but were unable to come up with anything. However, about two weeks ago, I was on the boards for one or the other of these systems and, about 20 posts down, saw a link someone had posted to an article about channel changing and Tivo/DirecTV. I read the article, which was about 2 years old and about a company on that was creating a device that would allow users to take advantage of the USB port on the back of the DirecTV tuner and the serial port connection on the Tivo and have it change channels.

I followed the link there and found a company called Paterson Technology , in WA. When I searched the site, I discovered the product in question was available for purchase, read some reviews of it by happy customers, and then perused the online documentation for it. It sure seemed like exactly what we needed to solve our problem. Our Tivo units and the two different types of DirecTV tuners were both listed on the list of supported hardware. Even better, they had put a chip into the device with some firmware that would allow you to program a "pass through" code that would take the Tivo channel request and change it to something else so that the DirecTV would go to the correct channel. This was, apparently, because they found their customers were annoyed by having two copies of the same channel, one in SD and one in HD, and the DirecTV tuner never seemed to default to the correct one. Gee, that sounded familiar!

I excitedly forwarded the information to M to review (she was out of town at a conference at the time) and she agreed it sounded like a good purchase and exactly what we needed. We agreed to just bite the bullet and order two, one for the bedroom and one for the living room, assuming we could return them if they didn't work.

The devices arrived yesterday and today I installed them.

*queue heavenly choir voices and ray of light shining down on the two entertainment systems*

The bedroom was the simpler install. I simply found the serial cable for the Tivo, plugged it in, plugged the serial connector side into the serial connector side of the new device, and then the USB side of the new device into the DirecTV receiver, uninstalled the IR blaster, and reset the Tivo to use the serial connection instead of the IR blaster, and we had instant success. Not only does it change channels faster, but there should be virtually zero chance of it changing to the wrong satellite channel because it is now all "hardwired."

The living room setup was trickier. On this setup, we have the HD/SD channel issue , which required me to use the firmware on the device to tell it how to change channels in order for us to receive the correct, SD version of each of the satellite channels. When I was finished going through it and programming it, we only had six channels not functioning correctly, but I was able to read the help files and figure out a secondary way to update those six and, when I last tested it, all of our dual channels were changing to the SD version we require.

This product is simple, does only and exactly what it says it should, was easy to install and update, and appears, as of right now, to work beautifully. I am very impressed with Paterson Technology's product and feel it was well-worth the $42 (each) the cable device costs. If you are having a similar issue with your Tivo and DirecTV system (either the IR blaster not working all the time or with HD/SD channel issues), I am highly recommending this device.

October 2, 2008

TomTom

I was very disappointed a week or so ago when I went to turn on and use my TomTom and nothing happened. And I mean nothing. The only thing that happened was the little green "charging" light came on when I plugged it in. Other than that, nada. I tried the reset on it (which, for my device, involves simply holding the On/Off switch down for around 20-25 seconds), but still no go.

I called the TomTom support number and he had me walk through some very limited testing (which mostly involved me holding down the on switch while he was on the phone). He agreed it was not working and that I would have to send it in. Luckily, it is still under warranty (only got it a couple months ago), and I sent it into a Canadian depot that would "fix it or send you a new/refurbished one that is known to work." He said the RMA I got was only good for a month and that, once they received it, it could be upwards of three weeks to get it back.

Well, yesterday it returned; much faster than anticipated. It very definitely a different device, as it has totally different serial numbers on it.

I just finished re-installing my updates and standard programs on it off of TomTom's online updater. M and I are heading to Augusta tomorrow for her work, so it will be nice to have the device (even if M knows the way). Hopefully I won't have any more trouble with it.

September 25, 2008

Wood

So, I mentioned earlier and was frankly somewhat proud of the amount of wood I had ranked on my own. I wound up over 4 days of work getting nearly 1 and 2/3 ranks done on my own, but it took a huge toll. However, I had many other tasks and then got a bit sick, so not much stacking occured this last week.

M was at a conference and took today and tomorrow off to unwind. Using some of her suggestions (getting her dad's wheelbarrow and working together), we set to at about 11 am. We broke for about 40 minutes for lunch and worked until 5pm.

We broke the task into two section: I filled the wheelbarrow and hauled it into the house and dumped it, M stacked the wood into the ranks. I occasionally also helped her with ranking the wood, but she (very importantly) also managed the projected and reminded me to break often and drink lots of water (went through 4 bottles of water).

This is the result outside:
Figure 1: The pile of wood outside

And inside:
Figure 2: Nearly 4 ranks of wood inside

So, in aboutt 5.5 hours of stacking wood into ranks, we got more done than I got done on my own in 4 days of work (at about 3-4 hours per day). We didn't clean up or get the last little bit of kindling/starter wood inside because my back locked up and my arthritic hands and feet were aching by this time. I was just done/finished.

However, we are short on our wood. The fourth rank is not as high as the others, and it should be, plus we should have another quarter rank of wood in front of that (see Figure 2). So there is a bit more stacking to go.

September 24, 2008

Lions Finally Make Move

In what, at this point, seems like a surprising move to end mediocrity, the Detroit Lions NFL team fired Matt Millen as the president of the organization.

Why I say this seems surprising is because the team has been the league worst during Millen's tenure, yet the Fords held onto him despite that. Millen fired coaches left and right, and the Fords held onto him. Millen made some of the worst draft choices ever (only 2 of the draft choices during his time have amounted to much of anything, and a third only did after leaving the team... some of his #1 picks are out of football altogether right now!).

Per one article, "The 0-3 start dropped Millen to 31-84 overall, giving the Lions at least 10 more losses than any other NFL team over the past seven-plus seasons."

Millen was hired with no qualifications. From that point on he proved that he lived up to his qualifications and those of us who were devout Lions fans watched a team that, albeit not great, had some talent and was doing okay in the division sink like a stone and become a laughingstock in the league. Millen should have been fired at least 4 seasons ago, but probably after his second when he proved his lack of qualifications was no fluke.

Amen that the Fords finally grew a pair and fired this freakishly bad club manager.

September 22, 2008

Mobile Desires

I am missing my work laptop. I never thought I would miss a laptop, but there it is.

Laptops sort of grow on you. I fought getting one for a long time at work and then was forced to update to one and found I liked the flexibility. Suddenly, if I wasn't feeling well, I could call in and work from home. When I started my relationship with my now wife, I could take my work with me on the "working vacations" and it allowed us to be together a lot more often than we otherwise could have.

And then, since the company had a sort of "don't ask, don't tell-- as long as it isn't porn or illegal" policy, I used it for things like taking files for either DMing or playing Dungeons and Dragons with me, I could take notes on it, I had my stories and poems on thumb drives that I could then push in and work on at a moment's notice.

Right now, I'm sitting in the office typing this and some other things, watching MNF on the small TV, and wishing my wife's laptop (which she obviously has with her during her conference in FL) was still here so I could be doing these out in the front room or, better yet, in bed.

I think I may need to look into getting a laptop of my own as either a replacement for this desktop or in addition to it sometime in the future (after a job is secured and our moving-related debts are surmounted). If I replace my desktop, I might go with a "mobile desktop" system, as I will still want to play my games on the new PC. However, laptops have closed the gap so much with the new dual- and quad-core processors and tons of memory that I may not need to go that route necessarily (it used to be, if you were a gamer, you either got the highest-end notebook or a mobile desktop, but that has changed in the last few years).

Secondarily, I'm wondering if something like the Asus EEE might suffice for my basic needs. I used one briefly when my mom was here (she got one for her trip from PA to here), and, if I can install something like OpenOffice on it okay, it might do enough to help me with my mobile blogging, DnD, and writing desires. I'd probably have to get the upper end of that type of machine though to run a program like Word or OpenOffice, or Adobe.

Anyway, something to think about for the (near) future.

Of course, there is the other side of things:

So Why?

Being in the location in which I now reside, I'm starting to see how totally screwed Canadians are in the simplest of things. Take, for example, Amazon. There is, I'm sure only Canadians know, both an "amazon.com" and an "amazon.ca" to service either Americans or Canadians.

I was just looking for an item to purchase, one that I know is currently out and available. Since I wanted to avoid the hassle of going to Calais to get it, I looked first on ".ca". Not only is the price higher (by quite a bit more than can be explained by the slight difference in the two dollars right now) but on ".ca" it says the item normally ships in 1 to 3 weeks. Yet, if I don't mind either paying more to ship it to Canada or pay less to ship it to Calais, the exact same item from ".com" can ship within 16 hours of my placing the order right now.

What the hell?

What I am starting to realize, too, is that most of these small discrepancies between the states and here are generally caused by Canada/Canadian legislation. For example, Canada knows it has poor TV and cannot compete with American productions (which, ironically, are so often filmed in Canada), so it passed legislation forcing a certain minimum amount of Canadian fare on its networks. Rather than allow the competition and rising to the challenge, it has denied itself the competition and its people suffer with the mediocre results.

I've been in contact with a few different companies via email about some issues or lack of service(s) and, to a one, each has replied back that they would love to provide the service/content/whatever to Canada, and in a few cases that they are in negotiations with the Canadian gov't to provide it, but that it is difficult, costly, and time-consuming to get the appropriate approvals from the Canadian gov't and either they are in process or have chosen not to due to those inconveniences. So, again, the Canadian gov't avoids competition and its people suffer the results.

This, coupled with the Canadian service industry's desire to apologize for a lack of service or bad service rather than simply providing good service, is one of the things that will likely take me the longest to "get used to." I doubt I will ever truly accept it, but I imagine at some point I will stop railing against it.

September 19, 2008

Getting Older

I'm definitely not as young as I used to be. My wife had to be to the airport by 5 am for her flight to a conference. We got up at 4 am to get ready and go. Came back from dropping her off and couldn't get back to sleep, so started my day. I reprogrammed both TiVos as well as I could, and then started working on the wood. Didn't do much on the wood before I realized how hungry I was. Came in to eat, and then decided to relax for just a moment before going back out. Next thing I know it is 3pm and I've slept for about 4.5 hours.

*sigh

September 18, 2008

A Break and New Tasks

I haven't done anything with the wood today. I have one and a half ranks of wood in, and have made a big dent into the initial load of wood that was delivered by my FIL. But I needed time off from that activity and have been working on other things.

Yesterday, after working on the wood all morning, I stopped and working on wiring a new coaxial cable from the satellite dish (which can accept up to 4 discreet lines from it; we're now using 2) to the bedroom. I couldn't finish the project until after M got home, as I didn't want to punch holes in the wall without her seeing the project and having a say in where.

Late last night we got the wiring done and today I spent the early afternoon moving TiVos around and setting up the satellite receivers in each room. We now have it is installed so that the single tuner TiVo is in the front room with the HD receiver, and we will use it to record stuff on the networks primarily. The dual tuner TiVo is in the bedroom with the SD receiver, and is setup to get both cable and satellite. Since the SD receiver does not have the channel changing issue of the HD receiver (see post), we are setting up the TiVo in there to do the bulk of the recording. Then, we will use the TiVo transfer functions to copy programs between the two TiVos and watch where we are most comfortable (most likely in the front room, or on a PC if we need to or are going to be away for awhile).

I also checked the older TiVo and contacted Weaknees.com about a potential problem. It turns out that when you add additional hard drive space to a TiVo, the primary drive "marries" itself to the secondary drive. When M had the primary drive fail on her in December and bought a replacement primary, it no longer could speak with the secondary drive. Due to an interesting twist, the techs at Weaknees are not certain that a new secondary drive can be married to our new primary drive (a lot of technical reasons I won't go into here). So, if we want to get more room now, we have to either send both our new primary and our older secondary drives to them and they will do what they can, or we purchase a larger primary.

With shipping issues and costs, it will likely be less expensive to simply get a larger primary drive for that one if it turns out we need it with our current arrangement. But we will delay that decision for a bit while we see how our setup works now. On the plus side, both those drives are high-quality, 80 gig drives, and M and I both have uses for them in our PCs. So we may repurpose, reformat, and reuse them with our computers if we do get a new, bigger primary (we are going to do that with the secondary anyway, as it doesn't work for the TiVo any more).

I will have to hit the huge pile of wood again tomorrow, but my aging, arthritic body needed a day off and some of the aches and pains are finally lessening. I need to remember to take more breaks and not carry as much when I start back on this tomorrow.

September 17, 2008

And That New Task Is...

Taking all of this...


And putting it here, in nice ranks...



I often commented that simply living here was going to make me get into better shape. Tasks like this one prove it!

*sigh

BTW, just doing that half a rank, which barely put a dent in the pile of wood outside, took me a few hours and I'm sore as hell today due to it. Oh well, one log at a time and it will get done.

September 15, 2008

The Shelving Unit

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my tasks was to make a shelving unit that will store all of our DVDs and CDs. Currently, we have way too many for a conventional storage system, and we reused a bookshelf from the office to suffice while this one was built. Using this bookshelf led to the general knowledge of about how big to make the shelving unit, which was helpful.

After much debate, we settled on a general size and "design" (simpler the better, as I hadn't worked with wood in many years), and off I went to get wood and begin.


Boards purchased, laid out, and ready for sanding.

Then came the inevitable sanding. Luckily, I have a power sander my father got me a long ways back, which is a good size, works well, and for which I had a bunch of existing sanding paper in the grits that I needed.


First pass at sanding boards.

This is me during the sanding phase.


Sorry, ladies, but I'm already spoken for!

Once the initial sanding was done, I did a dry-fit of the boards and the design to see if there were any immediate gotchas that were going to need resolving.


A dry run of the boards and design.

Then it was back to more sanding, work on the gotchas, and making the whole thing as square as I could given my limited means. Once that was done, I moved on to what I thought was going to be a dry-fit with hardware, but turned out to be the permanent fitting.


Dry-fit on the floor and upright after screwing it all together.

It turns out that some of the boards were a bit more warped when put together than they appeared when looked at as separate boards. Because of this, I didn't think I could unscrew the unit, stain and varnish it, and put it back together again. I felt it was necessary, in order to complete the project, to keep this dry-fit together and go for the staining and the varnishing as a whole unit.

(Pictures of staining missing -- they are on the internal memory card for the camera and I can't find the wire needed to move them off onto my PC.)

After getting the entire shelving unit stained, it was on to the varnish/polyurethane and final sanding phase of the project.


Caught in the act of sanding.

The finished product after sanding, staining, polyurethane-ing, sanding, reattaching the backer boards, and cleaning/dusting.


No matter what angle I put it at, or how I used the flash, I got sun spots in the picture. Try to ignore them.

Finally, the end product in the room, on the wall, with movies.


Looks pretty good, doesn't it?

It turned out not to have as much free space left on it as I was hoping, but we still have a full shelf+ to expand, and each shelf holds nearly 50 regularly-sized DVDs. Unfortunately, it isn't big enough to hold all of our CDs as well as the DVDs. I guess I miss-judged the quantity of movies we had as a couple! But it does well for the DVDs and does allow for quite a bit of expansion, so it works, looks decent, and fits in the space.

Now, on to the next project....

September 13, 2008

DirecTV, part three

So, we called and spoke with our friendly neighborhood DirecTV representative tonight, thanks again to my buddy Chris.

Previously, I had mentioned that we had three options we saw as available to resolve the outstanding DirecTV issue (either using the TiVo or manually entering the numeric code for a channel caused the HD DTV receiver to go to the HD version of that channel as the default for numeric entry for any channel number that has both feeds; i.e., USA Network is available in both a High Def (HD) and Standard Def (SD) on channel 242. The HD receiver defaults to the 242 HD version, which we don't get/pay for. Only by using the Guide or the Channel Up/Down buttons and manually editing the guide and preferred channels lists can we go to the 242 SD.

So, the three options as we saw/researched them appeared to be:
  1. Receiving a new channel lineup from DTV that only includes the SD channel list; no HD channels would be set to our receiver allow it to default to the SD channels.
  2. Re-enabling the SD tuner and using both the HD and SD tuners and the two TiVos to mix and match until we got everything working close to the way we want it.
  3. Canceling the HD tuner, going back to only the SD tuner and saying Fuck It loudly and often. (This may not be a direct quote from the previous entry on this subject.)
We spoke with Joe this time, our first male service representative. Joe is working and living in Texas, way down south on the coast, and wasn't getting more than some rain and a lot of humidity from Ike. He also simply couldn't get what I initially asked him/explained to him. I explained the issue to him and that we wanted DirecTV to resend our channel line up without the HD channels on it as the resolution to this problem at least four times (but I think it may have been 5). He finally understood what we were asking well enough to go ask someone if he could do that for us. Nope. If you have an HD receiver, it doesn't matter that you are not paying for the HD channels, those channels are sent to your receiver and just not enabled-- so you get black screens with the "Channel not purchased" error code. Very useful *sarcasm*, especially considering that DTV knows exactly which channels we are paying for, they can enable/disable individual channels (proved by their special packages where you can purchase individual and small groups of channels), and, if you have your DTV receiver hooked up to a phone line, they can push all sorts of individual items on and off your system, but they choose not to in this particular circumstance.
Note: M did some research and it turns out that their HD receiver software originally defaulted to the SD channel for dual definition channels. They only switched that fairly recently; we didn't see a specific time, but it was within the last couple of years at most. Had they not made that change, we would not have this problem.

Note 2: I don't understand why they don't just separate the HD and SD channels. People who have SD would then have no problem, and people with HD would have no problem. Yeah, so USA Network would be on, say, 242 (SD) and 2242 (HD). Who cares? As long as the receiver knows what it is doing and pushes the right channel output to whatever input you have it attached to on your recording device or TV, it doesn't matter where it is. Add into this the availability of setting up channel Favorites and personalized channel lists and the argument to have the SD and HD versions on different designations just becomes stronger. And, yes, I will be informing them of this in a letter/email in the very near future.
So, next up I asked him to re-enable the SD receiver. I explained that I wanted to add that to our existing account for use in the bedroom. His first response, "So, you want to cancel the HD and switch to the SD?" No. I want to I add the SD to the same account for the additional $4.99 a month and have two receivers on the account. It took a couple more tries, but I got him to do that.

Because of Chris' help, we were having this phone call from our front room and had set up the SD receiver for testing purposes prior to the phone call. So when Joe said, "It should be working," we were able to test it immediately and find it was not working. So poor Joe had to do some more work to re-enable it, but by the time we hung up, we had a working HD and SD receiver.

Now, we're going to pair the Dual Tuner TiVo and the SD receiver and the Single Tuner TiVo with the HD receiver. (Since the dual works like a single on satellite channels anyway, we might as well put the single with it. And that way we can have the dual working with the most channels and resolving the most conflicts by having both satellite and cable channels to choose from.) We will decide in which room each pair is going to go, re-do all of our Season Passes on both TiVos depending on the satellite-only or satellite+cable setup of that room/system, and then we should be done.

Outside of this, we need to decide if we're running a separate coaxial line from the dish to the bedroom, or if we're running a splice from the existing line to the bedroom (we're leaning toward new line, as that will provide the lease degradation of signal), and then setting up the permanent solution in the bedroom.

Things we have learned along the way:
  1. DirecTV has a great product that their poor customer service, arrogant and abusive business practices, and Machiavellian and narrow-vision procedures completely obfuscate. If this wasn't our only real option for what we wanted, we would have given up a long time ago and gone with a competitor or just with the cable services available.
  2. It amazed me when we knew more about their systems and services than those with whom we talked. M said it best when she said, "Do they not know how their own system works? They should all have to use it and understand it before they can talk to customers!" Amen, wife, amen. I mean, trying to convince me that my dish somehow is "talking back" to the satellite-- give me a break! This is a unidirectional communication system-- unless you have the receiver hooked to a phone line. Trying to tell me that I cannot have an HD receiver without also getting HD service? Unreal. How many dozens of people are doing just what we're dong-- trying simply to have local channels for which they must have the HD receiver and dish but do not want HD services? Trying to inform me that the channel guide preferences and setups can resolve my lineup issues, even though I've just told you that I used them/followed them and they did NOT solve the problem? Get real.
  3. DirecTV does not want you using any sort of recording method except what they provide you. Luckily, TiVo is smarter and better than they are, and can overcome a lot of these issues. Probably why they are limping back to TiVo and having them do the software for their DVRs again, starting in 2009.
  4. Thank god for Weaknees.com, eBay, and our own smarts. The people at weaknees consistently provided email answers to questions we had, usually within an hour. eBay had vendors with great reputations to choose from, and we got exactly what we ordered and better instructions from the vendor than anything we got from DTV. And, well, I'm always the first to praise my own or my wife's brilliance. ;-)
  5. I'm just happy that DirecTV has not outsourced their customer support. I can only imagine how much longer I would be on the phone and how many more calls I would have to make to them had that been the case.
  6. The new dish does provide a better signal capture and picture than the previous one. And it has outputs for up to 4 lines on it (which may be handy when we re-wire).
  7. If you are okay with having DirecTV come out, do their own installation, get you setup on the TV, and you hold firm to exactly what you want (assuming you know going in), you are okay. If you don't like conflict, or if you have special needs/setup issues, you are pretty much on your own. And if you don't want them coming out to do the dish setup, prepare for battle or go through eBay or a third-party vendor. From what I read, it is nearly always better to go through a well-spoken-of third party installation company than DirecTV. That's just sad.

September 10, 2008

You Can't Always Get What You Want, Or What You Need, Either!

So, we got what we wanted: we have local channels via our satellite dish. Yay. Go team!

Except...

It broke the TiVo setup. You see, DirecTV doesn't want you using a TiVo for their satellite service (or any other non-DTV DVR), so they make it as hard as possible to begin with (this came about when they decided to break from having TiVo as their default DVR software provider a few years ago and they went with their "own" software, which was such a knockoff of TiVo's that TiVo sued them and won. And I'm ignoring that they are in bed together again as of September 3).

Beyond making it so difficult, however, is the fact that the TiVo must send channel commands to the new HD receiver via entering the number of the channel it wants to record, and the new HD DTV receiver defaults to HD channels, even if you, like we did, choose not to get HD programming. So, for example, USA Network is on channel 242. 242 is also USA HD, which we don't get. So, if the TiVo sends "242" to the DTV receiver and it defaults to the HD channel, we get an hour of a black screen with a message that reads, "Channel not purchased. Contact Customer Service."

The thing that makes us laugh is that the SD channels used to be the default. They only recently updated their software to default to the HD channels instead, but didn't provide any means of blocking the receiver from getting them if you choose not to get HD.

Why might you choose not to get HD but pay for an HD reciever? Well, two reasons; 1. DirecTV aggressively upsells you on the benefits and reasons for getting one and you relent, even though you do not have an HD TV (or they just charge you for it and send it to you, regardless of what you want) or, 2. You are like us, you desperately want local channels and those are purposely only sent through the HD satellites to force you to pay for an upgrade to the new dish and receiver or to make you pay the higher costs for the HD dish and receiver.

The one benefit we see is that the new dish accepts up to four inputs, so we can add a new cable (or maybe split the current one) and run a line to the old SD receiver, add it back onto our account for a nominal extra fee per month, and set that receiver up to do the bulk of the recording via the TiVo (since we know from experience that it defaults to the proper non-HD channels that we can see/record). The only time this won't work is when we are recording from the local channels. We'll still need to figure something out there, or find the cable of version of as many of them as possible.

One thing I did confirm tonight; you can use the Autotune function on the DTV receiver to tell it to change to a specific channel at a specific time, and, if the TiVo is trying to record something, it will get the feed of whatever channel the Autotune switches to. So, for example, I had Eureka scheduled for this evening. We set that TiVo recording to one minute earlier than usual, and then set the Autotune for the same show to switch on-time to the SD channel. One minute after beginning to record the blank screen of the HD channel, the Autotune changed to the non-HD channel and the TiVo recorded the episode. So there is a sort of work-around for it, awkward though that is.

I am utterly dumbfounded as to why the DTV receiver doesn't have a "do not use/show" option anywhere for this type of use to disable those channels you don't get. DirecTV knows exactly which channels we paid for and which we didn't, so why would they even send the ones to the system that we don't get? It is almost as frustrating to be watching the satellite without the TiVo and still see the HD channels we don't get listed on the guide, etc.

So, we are left with one of three options, as best we can tell:
1. See if they can resend the channel lineup without including those channels we are not paying for.
2. Re-enable the SD receiver and mix and match our programming/TiVos until we get a decent 80/20 rule for recording stuff.
Note: We have the entire house wired for network, and both Tivo's on it, so we can easily copy recorded programs from one to the other TiVo within the house. So we can watch whatever is recorded on either TiVo.
3. Cancel the HD receiver, cancelling the local channels we worked so hard to get, and go back to what was working before (SD receiver + cable channels) and live with it until the next stupid thing DirecTV does.

Or, of course, the super-secret options that DirecTV really wants us to go with: either pay for HD service or buy/upgrade to a DirecTV receiver with DVR functionality. I love my TiVo and the TiVo service offers so many additional things that cable/satellite DVRs just don't do, why would I want to go with that second option? And as to the first, they claim it is $100 upfront charge for HD programming plus a minimum agreement of 12 months at $10/month. That's an additional $220 on an already too-expensive experiment trying to get us the TV we want to watch.

So, we're back to pondering our decisions again.