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December 22, 2009

The Birds

I never really thought of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" as a scary movie. It was tense, and well-acted and directed, of course, but scary? I never thought so.

My guess is that for a large number of people, birds are not thought of as predators. They are cute and (relatively) small. We see more of them in a parental capacity or sucking nectar from flowers than we do eating flesh, so it is hard to see them as predators. Even when watching an osprey, hawk, or eagle grabbing fish out of the stream, we rarely consider them "predatory" for some reason.

The other day, as I was puttering about the house, I notice a shadow infrequently obstructing the sun shining through the window. After a couple of times, I went and looked to find out what it was. What I saw astounded me.

A flock/gaggle/group/horde of hundreds of ravenous birds, all small and cute, were flying from yard to yard in the neighborhood en masse and devouring thousands of worms, caterpillars, and similar bugs on each lawn. And they weren't nice about it. Sometimes a two birds would grab the same worm and would pull it apart in their frenzy to eat it. They would squeak and squawk at one another, and attempt to drive each other away from the choicest caterpillars.

What surprised and, frankly, scared me the most was how they did all this with near-military precision and as a unit. And they killed and ate more bugs than any chemical bug spray would have taken care of.

I managed to get a few pics of this ravenous horde in progress. As you can see, they strangely respected each yard's boundaries and did one lawn at a time as a group. It was a little eerie.






I'll never look at a group of birds again with quite the same naivety.

When the Milk is Free

So, the last few times I've gone to Variety.com, Variety's online site, within seconds of starting to view the page a full-page ad for Variety asking me to become a member and sign in has displayed. The sign-up has a small charge, it appears. Not as much as getting the mag for a year. However, and here's the thing that a lot of online sites seem to not understand: the vast majority of people who are used to getting the milk for free will refuse to pay for the cow and will move on to other locations where they can continue to get milk for free.

And I'm just like that-- I have eliminated the links to Variety.com from my home page and just won't go to their site any more unless and until the information is free. It is WAY too easy to get any entertainment industry news from a variety of other sources for free still, so I'm certainly not going to pay for it.

Variety may argue that they provide a service that is worth paying for and the price is reasonable. I would counter with the fact that any price is unreasonable when I can get the same, or virtually the same, information for free elsewhere. Add in the fact I have never, not once, read an article on Variety.com that didn't include at least two typos, errors, grammar mistakes, or poor wording choices that change the meaning of the sentence and, for me at least, Variety's decision to ask me to pay for their service becomes a recipe for disaster.

Variety.com may have the information first, but if it is virtually unreadable due to errors and mistakes, faulty reporting, or bad editing, then I'll go elsewhere and get it later. I'd rather have it later and right than sooner and wrong. Something all news sources may want to consider, frankly.

So, Variety lost a small amount of click count and definitely lost out on revenue today. I suspect they will find that my few clicks per week and subscription rate isn't the only one they lose out on and their attempt to save their business by making people pay for it will actually hasten the mag's demise. We'll see.

December 11, 2009

Economics 101

All the experts know that there is simply only one way to solve a recession/depression -- for people to spend money. It is a little counter-intuitive to those who don't understand the way economics work, but that is the simple truth.

What I don't understand is why the President or some of his top people don't do PSAs that state this. Maybe have Al Gore come on and do a send-up of his Oscar winning movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and show bar graphs and pie-charts that explain that when you spend money, it trickles through the economy and impacts, literally, hundreds of other people, jobs, and businesses.

For example, you go down to your local eatery of choice. You spend $50 for you and your honey to have a nice meal. That $50 and your presence at the restaurant causes the owner to have to hire and pay a server, a cook, a dishwasher/cleaner (each of whom then have money to spend on their own things). The owner also has to buy groceries from his distributor so he can make your meal, which then gives money to that distributor. Who then has to buy his goods from the manufacturers of the food products, which gives them money. And on each step of the way, each person or business who gets paid has to in turn spend more money on personnel to work the jobs and on other goods and services, all the way to the farmer who owned the cow and had to pay for water, grain, breeding, people to work the farm, etc.

Now, this system is slow. It provides for a strong foundation and is the most solid way to bring an economy out of a recession, but it is slow. Which is why so many countries in recessions go a faster route that works nearly the same way- war. War brings people into the military, and pays them to be there. It also pays for various businesses to make uniforms, guns, ammunition, bombs, electronics, food/rations, tires, oil, and everything else needed by the military to equip, train, and maintain those military people in the war. The same trickle down effect of the money pervading the country's economy works, but it works much faster than the first method.

This method of trickling money through an entire economy is so useful and successful that many charities have switched to this method of "donating" money to poor countries. Rather than just sending in experts to build something in a third-world country, they provide very small "micro loans" to an existing (or new) business owner. The act of that business owner building his business, hiring more people, buying his goods and services is more successful at raising the economy of the entire region than just giving the people food or sending in experts to build stuff for them. And, more importantly, it teaches them independence and the value of the money to them and their community.

This simple concept is foreign to so many, as they don't pay attention or do not take any sort of simple economics class. So, have our leadership or hire some high-profile actors to do PSAs to get this information out to the general public. By spending money you actually save the country and will, in the long-term, have more money to spend/save as you see fit.


Caveat: This message does not address the need for people to only spend within their means and to save for their future responsibly. These ideas would need their own PSAs and may be addressed in future blog posts by this author, as he sees fit or gets riled up about something.

December 3, 2009

Sometimes You Know

Sometimes you know you have made the right or wrong decision by the physical reactions your body has to the choice.

If you get sick, develop severe headaches, start sweating profusely, even start suffering tremors, you likely have made a bad decision and should rethink things.

If those symptoms go away, or minor aches and pains ease "for no reason," or your happiness level goes through the roof, it was likely the right decision for you.

November 28, 2009

Champions Online Lag

Lag is a sometimes fact of life for massively multiplayer online game players. Even the best games have periods of time, either daily, weekly, or monthly, where their servers or the connections to the servers are not as good as others, and the large number of gamers connecting to the application causes the game to slow down and "rubberbanding" and other effects to occur.

I have played or currently play World of Warcraft (WoW), Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO), Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO), City of Heroes (COH), EverQuest (EQ), and some games that could be played online with smaller groups, like Diablo II, NeverWinter Nights (NWN), et al.

I cannot remember ever having the lag issues in any of those games like I experience each and every time I connect to the Champions Online servers.

I build my own machines; have since 1987 when my dad and I built my first PC. I know the quality of the products and the capabilities of the hardware within my box. It is built to be a gaming machine. I am currently playing LotRO, DDO, and COH without any noticeable lag, rubberbanding, disconnection, or load issues. I play most of those game on the highest allowed settings for video with barely a decline in my Frames Per Second (FPS)-- and certainly nothing to worry about or even that I notice. We have the next-to-fastest available DSL connection provided by our ISP. I have a gigabit network card in my machine.

When I connect to Champions Online, however, it is a different story. I get frequent disconnects (although this particular aspect of the game issues seems to have been mostly rectified; the last few days have seen no disconnects). Rubberbanding is so bad that my character frequently runs completely past a combat before my video can refresh and show it to me. I suffer many defeats because I don't know how low my health is getting due to the refresh issues.

The developers introduced proxy servers for the US and EU that you could use which, they claimed, should help with the server issues. I tried them both today. While both improved the lag slightly, the issues remained and the game is still almost unplayable due to these issues.

What is the most frustrating is that if you contact Cryptic, they turn it around and tell you it is your ISP, network card, router/modem, or video card/drivers. If you post on the game boards, you get a bunch of people telling you how it is not Cryptic's fault regardless of the overwhelming evidence of posts that says it is an issue. I was on the boards today trying to find if anyone had some suggestions for things to do to relieve lag issues in the game; I found 10 lag-related posts, each with many multiple of pages of responses. In each, a quick count indicated about a 2 to 1 ratio of those having lag issues to those who are not... but in every case, the conclusion was that those who were not were somehow "right" and those of us with issues were "wrong." And in all cases, the 'fanbois' tried to explain how it was our ISP's fault or our machine's fault.

It was particularly amusing to read the detailed post of on fanboi who put where he was located, his machine specs, his ISP and network specs, and told everyone how he hasn't had issues from Closed Beta through to today. Another poster wrote a response that indicated he is in the same area, uses the same ISP, and has a better machine and network, and he has had nothing but issues-- yet somehow the first poster's response to that was that the second guy must be an idiot, must not have set something up right, and/or must have viruses or spyware on his machine if he has issues.*
*Note: I, too, have a better machine and set up than that poster, and I had minor issues in closed beta and slightly more issues in open beta, and now find the game unplayable in Live.
It is sort of the same mentality you see in conspiracy theorists, who must ignore copious quantities of facts in order to maintain their theories. These fanbois will continue to claim it is somehow our fault, our ISP's fault, or some other issue is at stake even after we do each and every one of the tests or suggestions they claim will solve the issue. I've pinged the servers and received faster ping return times than fanbois-- but still it can't be the server, they say. I've done throughput testing and had faster throughputs than the fanbois-- but still it can't be the server, they say. I've done all the video tweaking the fanbois insist will solve the problem to no effect-- but still it can't be the servers, they say. They ignore all this data that, taken individually and as a whole indicates that for a large number of people all over America, Canada, and the world, server lag and connection is an issue.

I worked for a company once that had one really bad manager. Every department he lead had the highest employee turnover rate in the company. I know people who went to HR to complain. I know people who went to that manager's superiors to complain. I know people who talked about it with the then owner and CEO of the company. I know a number of people who, during their exit interview, specifically said they were leaving due to that manager's poor decisions, bad leadership, and improper conduct. And the company's response each and every time was "It's an isolated incidence." It seems to be the same with the fanbois who refuse to admit there may be something wrong with Champions Online servers; at what point do the overwhelming number of "isolated incidences" finally point to the real problem?

The problem is that I like Champions Online. I don't like it as much as City of Heroes, but it has some differences that make it fun, I enjoy the more "cartoony" graphics, and some aspects of the combat system are an improvement over COH's. I really want to like and play this game. However, the consistently horrible lag issues that I experience make me avoid it and I will simply go back to the other games I can play virtually lag-free.

Maybe I'll check in on Champions Online on their next free play period and see if any improvements have been made. 'Cause I'd really like to give them my money and have fun with the game.

November 25, 2009

NFL Football; Injuries, Longer Season

I think there are two easy solutions that will help the NFL in two areas: injuries (especially concussions) and the fear of playing 17-18 games in a regular season.

1. Do away with the roster limit of 53 people. This is an anachronism from an earlier time when teams frequently had two-way players and special teams was primarily filled with generalist instead of specialists. Today's NFL needs more players on a team for a variety of reasons, but injuries are the primary one. As it is, coaches play fast and loose with the injured reserve list and practice squad in order to carry closer to 60 players on their roster than the 53 mandated by the NFL. I say, do away with the limit all together. If a Jerry Jones or a Dan Snyder wants to pay the luxury taxes involved and load up with 60, 70, 80 players, let them!

Many may say that the more income-rich teams could then buy the Super Bowl like the Yankees do in MLB. I don't think so. There are so many fewer games in which to shine, players are so much more egotistical, and everyone is vying for playing time so much that I don't think the stars and super stars of the NFL will be willing to sign with the team willing to pay the most if they are going to be the third, fourth, or fifth string option in case of injuries or special match ups.

I also feel that if a team is mismanaged or badly coached, throwing more players at it will not solve the inherent problem. Yes, the coach may have more talent to use, but if he fails to use the talent he's got, what will more do for him?

Lastly, with more players in any one position to choose from, a coach can have more player rotation during a game and that may minimize the injury and fatigue issues that players face today.

2. Do away with protection. I know this seems like an oxymoron, but by doing away with the huge pads and helmets that NFL players use, or at least curbing their size and protective capabilities, the NFL would actually help its players to play smarter, tackle better, and have fewer injuries. Look at any other sport in the world and compare it to the NFL; in nearly every case the players wear less gear to no gear and the rates of injuries are much, much lower. Take rugby, for instance. Nearly as violent and with as much potential for injury as American football, yet it has a microscopic injury problem in comparison.

Players in the NFL are either taught or come to simply play by lowering their head and hitting. Leaping into the air at full speed and ramming shoulders into shoulders, stomachs, and chests. They think little about the penalties for spearing and on nearly every play you can see someone on the field lower their helmet and leap head-first into another player. Do you think these players would do that if they had minimal head or body protection? Some few might, but the majority would switch to trying to make a classic, by the book tackle instead, as the classic tackle actually minimizes damage to either player and has the benefit of being a better, more sure way of actually stopping the player being tackled than simply hitting him and hoping he goes down. How often do you see these huge hits and the guy with the ball simply bounces off, pushes the hitter aside, and keeps going? I saw it on at least four plays in the three games I watched this last weekend alone -- and, in each case, a classic tackle would have been more effective at stopping the player's momentum, holding him long enough for help to arrive, and keeping him from gaining too many yards.

As a last, non-enumerated point: If the NFL is serious about going to a 17-18 regular season schedule, without doing anything to solve the injury issue, they will be forced to increase the roster size.

In the end, a longer season may help the NFL understand that it needs to increase or do away with the roster limits, allowing more players to play. More players may help keep existing players fresher, as coaches figure out new rotation schemes with the increase in players at any one position. And, if the NFL cuts back on the safety equipment that makes players feel invulnerable, the players will be forced to learn new techniques and styles of play that keep them from injuring themselves and others.

November 18, 2009

Insurance "Debate"

If the President of the United States tells you to do something, you do it or make your very best effort. Right or wrong, good or bad, President Obama asked our leadership to come up with a plan for "universal" health care for all Americans, so that Americans can enjoy the same basic privilege of every other industrial nation. He outlined the following minimum requirements for this plan to be signed into law.

The Democrats, those of the same party as the President and the party with a majority on both sides of Congress, went to it with relish. They turned in a massive, bloated, and potentially problematic law that may not solve the problem, but at least covered what the President asked for in most ways. By all accounts, they tried to get Republicans to help with the plan and got a little bit of cooperation.

And the Republicans.... did nothing. Well, not nothing. They poo-pooed the plan the Democrats came up with, they poo-pooed the President and the President's proposal. Even after the President came right out and told them, if you have better ideas, we're open to them. Tell us. Prior to, during, and after the speech by the President and the Democrats creation of the bill, the Republicans have consistently and without conscious have lied about what the President said the bill should be and what the Democrats have come up with.

My parents taught me to take active participation in anything that is important to me. In this way, if I have an opinion, I can express it and possibly get my needs addressed in whatever is going on. Oftentimes, by expressing those opinions and needs, I am speaking for those who may not have a voice or feel they can speak up. Oftentimes, expressing these things changes the end result for all, but for the better of the group as a whole.

The Republicans have had every opportunity to be a part of this plan. To provide ideas and to constructively help this country in ways that will be immeasurable down the line to future generations. They have had every chance to look at the plethora of models around the world for universal health care, find the parts they like and are ideologically close to theirs and try to institute them. To come up with their own ideas and work them into the bargain. I'm certain that the Republicans help and ideas would have improved the plan the Democrats came up with in many ways.

Instead, the vast majority of them just want to sit this one out and make disparaging comments about everything and everyone involved. I see nothing constructive or helpful coming from them on this debate.

So, frankly, they must live with what is proposed unless and until they can come up with their own plan. Of course, nothing they come up with on their own will pass Congress without Democratic buy-in, so it seems like working with the Dems instead of against them would be best for both sides.

I used to be a proud Republican. I used to engender most of the party's ideals and beliefs. But the party slowly became exclusionary, ignored the moderates, voted based on hyperbole and fraction, and lied to me and the American people in general so often that I just couldn't align with them any more. Not that the Democrats were any better, mind you, so I disassociated from either party and voted my conscience based on the best information I could find.

The best info I can find on universal health care is that it can and should be cheap, easy, impact taxes and the economy of a national minimally, and should put the care of the individual in the hands of the doctor, not insurance companies. Canada is one of the world's worst models, yet they manage to do most of this. Japan, Germany, France, and other nations are paragons of what universal health care can and should be, and they hit all of these criteria. There are abundant examples of how this process can and should work, how it can be cost-effective, and how to keep the government out of the American people's health business.

Yet the Democrats are making the wheel anew, instead of looking to existing, working examples and modeling after them. The result is a bloated plan that may not serve the public in the best ways possible. The Republicans, meanwhile, are doing nothing except lying to the people, exaggerating the costs and effects, and throwing negativity at it without doing anything at all.

Is this what we deserve from our leadership, America?

November 9, 2009

Gun Laws and Tragedies

One of my favorite sportswriters is Peter King from SI. While I find his NFL knowledge timely and well-researched, he frequently digresses into politics and non-football related topics. Those digressions usually wind up being fairly knee-jerk reactions that do not have his usual research or thought-out responses.

A case in point. In his most current Monday Morning Quarterback article, he has this little throw-out near the end:
My heart goes out to the victims of the Fort Hood and Orlando shootings and their loved ones. Senseless, senseless incidents. I will not go quietly into the night on this one. America needs to do something about idiots with handguns. How many more Fort Hoods and Orlandos do there have to be before our political leaders have the guts to severely restrict access to murderous weapons?
While I definitely agree with the sentiment he shows for the victims, the rest of that is, in essence, an anti-gun diatribe that has little to do with the facts. Because of this, I took the time to write him a response:
America has literally thousands of very restrictive gun laws on the books, that are specifically designed to keep guns of all sorts out of the hands of nut cases, criminals, and even average citizens. The problem is that those laws are not a high priority to enforce and there are a lot of loopholes. If our incredible police force had the manpower, which they simply don't, to allow them to put in the effort to enforce those laws, gun crimes would significantly drop.

Secondly, the vast, vast majority of gun owners you never read about. The vast, vast majority follow the laws, don't use their weapons to commit crimes, and, for the most part, are law-abiding citizens. The majority of gun crimes are committed by criminals who a) can't legally procure a gun, so get it illegally and b) would commit the crime using something other than a gun anyway if a gun was not available to them. The only thing more gun laws do is make it harder for those who follow the law to get the gun of their choice. Not one of the thousands of laws on the books stops a criminal from illegally obtaining a weapon.

Lastly, far more violent crimes are committed by knives (kitchen, pocket, hunting, etc.), should we ban all knives? Far more violence is committed by those with blunt weapons (bats, chains, crowbars, rocks) than by knives or guns, should we ban everything blunt that could conceivably be used for violence? The problem is not the weapon of choice, it is the person who uses it. Never forget that.

These facts are easily found by even a cursory search online. While Fort Hood was a tragedy, it was the individual who decided to use the gun to shoot some 30+ people who should be blamed, nothing and no one else. It is his fault and he should pay for his decision to commit these acts of violence.
I simply do not understand why a large portion of the American public insists on blaming the weapon for the crime that was committed. I own guns. I know for an absolute fact from personal experience that you can leave a Government Model Colt .45 semi-automatic handgun cocked, locked, and loaded and nothing bad will happen for years on end unless someone/thing handles the gun. The only time, barring something being made improperly or broken, that a gun or ammunition will harm anyone is when someone or something intervenes on the weapon, handles it, and causes it to go off.

I was raised in a household with guns. At an early age, my father taught both his children to respect the tool that a gun is, to understand the consequences of using that tool, and showed us how to use it properly. We took gun safety courses. I have a gun license. My parents left a loaded gun in a drawer by the bed for home defense.

And nothing bad ever happened.

Nothing bad happened because my parents were educated in gun safety, rules, and etiquette, they educated their children, and we all respected that this tool had one purpose and was deadly efficient at performing that duty.

I got angry when I was a child. I had screaming arguments with my parents and sibling at times. I had huge arguments with friends/enemies who lived around me, or while at school, or on bus trips to other cities. And never once did it even dawn on me to grab my father's easily accessible, loaded weapon and shoot anyone. Instead, I worked out my problems with the person, or avoided them, or on very rare occasion got into fisticuffs with them. This is all because I was educated on the weapon and knew that it wasn't meant to be used in those cases; there were better solutions that didn't involve deadly force.

Some people are broken. Some are idiots. Some are amoral and just don't give a shit. Some are so depressed/angry/hurt they see no other solution but horrific violence (to themselves or others). These people will ALWAYS find some way to act out their need for violence regardless of whether they can get their hands on a gun. People have committed violence against themselves and others long before guns were created and will continue to do so long after guns become passe or something more lethal comes along.

The UK has some of the most restrictive gun laws of any industrial nation. On a per capita basis, you are about twice as likely to be the victim of a crime involving a knife in the UK as you are of a gun in the United States. This indicates that if guns were done away with as a whole, crime wouldn't go away, but criminals would use whatever other threatening weapon was available to them.

The biggest issues with guns are the combination of 1) impulse control in the human being with access to the gun and 2) the deadly efficiency of the tool. If you suddenly get the idea to do someone or yourself fatal harm using, say, a baseball bat, there is a lack of immediacy to the results; in nearly every case it takes multiple hits with the bat to kill someone, is bloody/messy, and the violence takes real effort to the one performing it. In most cases, the same is true with knives, rocks, and even overdoses-- each takes time and possible reapplication of the tool to get the result needed. They each take surprising effort to accomplish your goal.

Guns, on the other hand, are much better at being immediately fatal. If you fire a reasonably powered gun into someone else or yourself, especially in the upper chest or head, the chances of you or the person dying immediately or after one application is much higher than using most other forms of violence. There is no chance to "take it back" or "quit while you're ahead" or show remorse. And this is why the entire country has legally enforceable waiting periods between when you purchase a gun and when you can take possession of the gun. However, criminals don't get their guns from reputable gun dealers who abide by these laws. And those who are "in a fit of passion" or similar, will simply turn to the next most fatal object they can get their hands on in order to enact the violence they feel.

We have thousands of gun laws per state and for the entire nation. These laws spell out who can and can't have a gun. They spell out which types of guns are okay for citizens and which are not okay. They limit magazine size, where you can shoot, what you can shoot, when you can shoot. They even regulate when you can have, get, purchase, and possess your gun. There are state laws that say the same thing as federal laws.

The one thing that these laws do not seem to understand is the base truth that criminals don't follow these rules. Criminals do not go to the gun shop and legally purchase the gun (because they can't-- if they have a record, they will be caught on the background check and disallowed from the purchase). In general, the only people affected by gun laws are those who are following the gun laws already; who are, generally speaking, the people least likely to mishandle or misuse the weapon.

The violence committed with guns of all sorts is heinous. I do not dispute that. But let's never forget that it is the PERSON who uses the gun who is at fault. And it is against that person whom we should turn our anger, frustration, and hatred over the heinous act. The person should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Last Dance?

I grilled steaks last night. It took forever to cook them, as they were good, thick, Costco steaks and high quality. I actually thought they were done after 18 minutes of cooking (I even cut into one to check, something I try to avoid doing). However, they were not done cooking and I took them back out for another 6 minutes with the grill on high.

When I brought them back into the house this time, they were a nice medium... a bit of pink in the middle with a nice sear on the outside. And boy were they juicy and tender.

However, the sadness is that we are rapidly running out of grilling days. It is November now, and the temps are getting to or below freezing at night and the days aren't warming up much. The rains have started, and we've even seen some flurries and some light dustings on the ground once or twice.

It is nearly time to roll the grill into the shed for the winter. My wife is fighting it as long as she can, but even she knows the inevitable is just about here.

The good thing is that I am getting fairly good at broiling. I showed her we could have steaks during the winter and, while maybe not as good as the grill, they still can be pretty tasty and will suffice until the next spring when we can roll out the grill again.

November 3, 2009

Milk

Today we went across the border. While there, we picked up two gallons of milk, in plastic jugs, for a cost of $3.32 USD each, or $6.64 total. In SJ, we can only purchase up to a 2 litre amount in handy plastic jugs and those cost us $3.72 CND each. Since the two dollars are close to the same value right now, that indicates that in America, an hour and a half away from here, in a location that does not have a bottling and distribution center in the same city, we pay approximately the same amount of money for almost twice the amount of milk.

The other thing we cannot fathom is why Baxter, the main milk producer/distributor available in SJ, does not provide larger than a 2L plastic jug. Oh, you can purchase more milk than that, you just have to buy it in bags. Yes, you read that correctly, bags. You can purchase a 4L bag (which, in almost every case, is actually two 2L bags sold together in one larger bag), but you then have to pour that milk into something else in order to drink/use it effectively.

Now, the Baxter milk plant is on the road I take to the hospital for my doctor visits. It is right here in SJ. There is virtually no shipping cost associated with them providing milk to the greater SJ area, as they are right here in town. Why is the milk, considered a staple food by most governments, so much more expensive? Why can't Baxter bottle the milk in more convenient bulk packages?

This mystery baffles me. It makes no sense to me that this product (among many others) is so much more expensive here. It further causes me to shake my head that we can't get bulk milk in anything except a damn bag.

October 29, 2009

Gas Stations

You live in a town with only one gas station, which sits on one corner of a crossroad. As this is the only gas station in the town, you are at the mercy of whatever the owner charges for gas.

Soon, a second gas station is put up on the corner opposite. The first gas station owner now has competition and must be more careful with raising rates and being competitive with amenities and other considerations, or you will start getting gas from the other gas station. However, there is still some chance for collusion between the two, as they are the only game in town and might find ways between themselves to increase their profits at the expense of the people who live there.

The town continues to grow and soon a third gas station is built on the third corner of the crossroad. Now, both existing gas station owners have competition from another gas station. The opportunities for collusion go down with more diverse ownership, and the competition for customers goes up. The people of the town have a lot more choice and can pick which gas station to use depending on their immediate or long-term needs.

Finally, the government steps in and builds its own gas station. It is a no-frills gas station, without bathrooms or any food/beverages, there are no full-serve lanes, and there is not a mechanic on duty. However, it can charge really cheap rates for gas. Initially, the other three owners cry foul because many of the town's people use the cheaper gas as an excuse to go to the new gas station. However, after the initial thrill of the cost, they soon realize they like having full-serve, even though they pay more. They like having a mechanic to look things over and fix their cars when something isn't right. They like getting food and beverages for the long trip ahead. Soon, many realize that it is worth the higher cost of gas at the other stations in order to get the service and amenities they want. However, those who simply cannot afford those other services continue to use the cheapest government-run gas station for what they need most-- gas to run their car.

----
Now, replace "gas" with "insurance" and "gas station" with "insurance company/ies" and you have the health care debate explained in simple terms.

A public option will NOT raise rates or cause insurance companies to go out of business. It provides more competition and an additional, no-frills option for those who cannot afford more or better coverage. If you like your current insurance company and results, don't change. But if you think you need more, or less, coverage, you will have yet another option to choose from. Hopefully, insurance companies will then also create their own option in a similar coverage amount and cost to the public option, giving them access to more clients and more income -- which will further lower rates for all, as they have more clients and money coming in.

And, more importantly, if an insurance company drops your coverage (which is supposed to become illegal, but we'll see if the reality holds true to the desired goal), you have an option that cannot deny you coverage. For those with pre-existing conditions are very expensive treatments, this is a godsend.

October 28, 2009

Random Thoughts

It personally pleases me whenever a public figure actually speaks his or her mind and uses "inappropriate" language. Political Correctness has been the norm for far too long and I am just waiting for the day someone uses a term like "faggot," acknowledges the use of the word, and then does NOT apologize for it or "go to rehab for anger issues." Yes, he or she will have some backlash at first. But when a movie company wants to sell tickets, that person will be hired. When a team wants to win, that person will have a job. And, you know what? They will be successful, the people will mostly forget or forgive, and those who were somewhat offended by the use will realize that life went on. If the person continues on that path and if people are truly offended, they will stop seeking out that person's products, team, or whatever. Why can't we admit that many of these words are simply ways to vent anger and frustration and move on? Why can't we hurt feelings any more?

Realistically, would you rather hire Mel Gibson to be in your movie, knowing that a small contingent of Jews are going to avoid the movie and possibly picket a few locations, or do you want the extra $50 million in box office his name alone brings to the project?

While on the subject, it irritates the hell out of me that women can't be gay. I see the phrase "gay and lesbian" far too often and used by people who are educated enough that they should know that "gay" encompasses female homosexuality. In some ways, I am more offended by men being called "gay" and "homosexual" while women are only ever referred to as "lesbian" -- we don't need yet another term when talking about the group as a whole as "gay" or "homosexual" encompasses both males and females. A "lesbian" is simply a homosexual/gay woman. The word derives from the island of Lesbos and the reputedly homosexual women who followed the female poet and orator Sapphos who lived on that island.

If you keep your penis in your pants and bribes out of your pockets, 95% of all news stories relating to government would cease to exist. How hard is it really to take the attention home to your wife? How difficult is it really to say no to the bribes.

Why not have a system wherein all political donations go into some sort of pot and then is apportioned out based on seat, level, and seniority to those within the political party for campaign use? In this way, an individual cannot be as tempted by large sums of money or feel like they are voting against their best fiscal backer and won't get reelected.

Let's say, for example, that in any given year the total amount of money donated to each person in the Republican party adds up to $100 million a year. Let's say that, rather than a company or person having to donate $5,000 to this senator, and $10,000 to this Representative, and $1,000 to this other person, instead it/he just writes one check for $16,000 to the Republican Party Campaign Fund. The money is then apportioned out by the oversight committee with more money given to people whose seats are more in question and where the fight will be tougher. Maybe $20 million per year is set aside for the Presidential campaign, so each year they have around $80 million to start with. The individuals in question are not swayed by this company or person, as they don't know where or from whom the money for their campaign came from. It is much harder to feel beholden to certain groups or people if you don't know how much they contributed and if "their" money was siphoned back to you for use on your campaign.

While it is uncomfortable to acknowledge and awkward to discuss, the slew of bombings and suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan is actually a good thing. History shows us that bombings and suicide bombers are nearly always the last gasp of an extremist group before they fade off into the sunset. It is just sad the lives they take with them as they fade.

I have absolutely no issue with people having faith and going to church. But I do have an issue with people who stop thinking the moment they (re)discover their faith. They literally blind themselves and only can hear or see that which their religious leaders tell them, regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For example, one such person recently posted a link in Facebook to an article about the "evils" of Halloween. This article had no research done on it, for it ignored all the history before certain leaders of the Catholic church got involved with Halloween in the dark ages and corrupted its meaning, ignored that most of what she was talking about concerning the evils of the holiday were lies the church spread in order to take power away from certain groups that challenged the church at the time, and ignored that most religions today feel that Halloween is nothing that should worry anyone -- many, in fact, take it as a time to reinforce the faith of their parishioners by having celebrations and special events. Instead, this writer talked about how covens of witches were going around to stores and cursing the candy so that children's souls would be tainted, among other things. Come on, really? That's the best you can come up with?

If every single site that allowed two-way communication required that you sign up with something that positively identified each person, the internet would be a much happier place. Most of the negatives come from anonymous people anonymously attacking those who have expressed different feelings, opinions, or facts that these people disagree with. How often would YOU post death threats toward, argue with, or verbally abuse another person if all that person had to do was click your name and have your address and phone number? You'd really think twice before calling someone names or issuing death threats if you could actually be held accountable for it, wouldn't you?

October 24, 2009

Marathon Man

So the dream I dreamed all night long involved me having a secret Macguffin of some sort and running from those who wanted it. And by running I mean the dream started in something that looked a lot like my home town area of 29 Palms and ended with me still hiding out in someplace cold and very wet, much like where I live now.

The upshot of all this is that I am now awake, my body is sore as hell, and I'm tired. There is nothing worse than waking up from a "good night's rest" tired. And by a good night's rest I mean that I went to bed at a decent time, fell asleep at a decent time, and slept the entire night through. But I'm so damn tired now, in the morning, and feel beat up from the many harrowing escapes, runs, and fights I was in to keep the mysterious Macguffin from "their" hands.

I can barely twist side to side because my ribs ache so much. Both hands and wrists are sore from the bare knuckle fights I had along the way. And my feet and legs are simply tired from the huge distances and long hours I had to spend running.

Now I'm going to spend the day fatigued when I did everything right and should feel rested and willing. It is sometimes hard to believe your brain can be so powerful as to convince you that you are in these types of situations! I may have to look for a nap sometime this afternoon.

October 23, 2009

First Flame

It got cold enough in the house yesterday that I went down to the basement, clear some things away from the stove, and lit our first fire of the winter to warm things up. I didn't make a "John-special" that would drive us out of the house with heat; my goal was to start it around 2:30 pm, tend it until around 7-8 pm, and then let it die down. I figured the residual heat and the fact it was supposed to be a little warmer and dryer today would carry us.

My wife was sure happy to come home to a warmer house. When it gets down to around 20 C she starts complaining, and the last few days have been low 19s, so she's been making a lot of comments. When she got home yesterday, it was 23 C.

The tending plan worked well; it was still plenty warm last night when we went to bed, even though I had stopped looking after things at around 8. This morning, sure enough, the house is still pretty warm with most of the house registering in the 21-22 C range.

I don't think we'll be needing a fire every day already, but it sure felt nice to wipe the frostiness from the house and take off my sweater last night.

October 21, 2009

Musically Inclined

M and I have come to the belief that most artists today don't know a) how to finish their songs and b) when to finish them either.

I am a big fan of Prince. I've enjoyed his music from the early 80s on. However, the vast majority of his songs are between 1 and 2 minutes too long. He lingers. He gets lost in the guitar strokes and carries them well past when they are viable. And he's not alone.

I can't tell you how often I get the inkling to flip the station after about 3 minutes of a song. I'm not saying these are bad songs; quite the contrary, many of today's songs I find quite worthwhile and filled with meaning. But the artists drive that point home with one two many repeats of the refrain, one too many guitar, drum, or keyboard solos, or way too many nonsense lyrics, grunts, and moans.

I'm not a big fan of the Beatles, or Elvis. I respect them, of course, but just never found their music or their points to be relevant to me. However, especially their earlier stuff, was tight. It was succinct. It made its point and then they ended it. Same with the early Motown stuff.

Music in general had this opinion -- no song should be longer than 3 minutes, and 2 minutes is often better. There were many reasons for this, but it came down to playing as much different music on the radio as possible during the day. Shorter songs meant more songs could be played.

In the late 60s and into the 70s, this changed. You started having songs like Bohemian Rhapsody and artists like Pink Floyd, The Who, and Led Zepplin that crafted operatic albums with lengthy songs. Soon, artists of all genres were stretching what it meant to be "radio-friendly."

In the 70s and especially the 80s (and now), the new class of artists that were studio/album only performers started to become more popular to both the labels and to the audience. These artists didn't have to tour, so there was no real need to make songs that fit into a live performance venue.

Now, don't get me wrong, there are plenty of lengthy songs that I find perfectly enjoyable and like listening to the entire song no matter the length. November Rain is about 8 minutes long, and I enjoy it all. The aforementioned Bohemian Rhapsody is about 6 minutes long. Prince has a number of his (older) hits that are long and enjoyable (Purple Rain) or short and to the point (Baby I'm a Star). But these kernels are found amidst a plethora of chaff.

Ultimately, I'd like to hear more songs on the radio that, by minute 2 or 3, I'm not reaching for the tuner to see what else is on.

Rogues

Recently, SJ had a severe down pour that lasted about two and a half days of nearly constant rain. A few days ago, I was sitting in the office with the window slightly open (the office gets very warm and stuffy) and M had gone to bed.

I heard some strange sounds from outside the window. I couldn't place them, so I moved to the bathroom window to get a better look but did not see anything. Returning to my chair in the office, I heard strange sounds again. This time I moved to the larger windows on the double-doors in our kitchen and looked out. I noticed that Romy was sitting looking out the windows intently.

This is what caused me to stop looking out into the yard for whatever I heard and instead look where Romy was looking... and directly on the other side of the glass was a a large, cat-like face wearing a mask looking back first at Romy and then at me!

I flipped on the light and found three raccoons on the porch outside our kitchen doors. I would guess two of the three to be about 25 pounds and a bit bigger than Romy in both length and girth, with the third being about the equivalent size to our cat (but maybe still heavier).

The one at the door obviously was smart enough to know what it was seeing, and actually walked over to where I was standing, made eye-contact with me, and scratched on the door like a cat or dog to be let in. The other two kept curling into a ball and trying to avoid the rain.

I woke up M and asked her what, if anything, I should do about the situation. She didn't know, but I convinced her to come take a look. We stood fascinated for a short time while the three raccoons moved around, curled up together, and then slowly moved on down the stairs and off the porch into the darkness.

M could tell I was pretty amped up by the encounter. This was the closest to raccoons I've been, and I found the creatures fascinating to watch. They are very smart animals, problem solvers, but these particular 'coons looked so wet and forlorn that I almost wanted to let them in (yes, I realize that would be a horrible idea and they would never leave, let alone what sorts of potential disease and bugs they would bring with them).

Raccoons have moved up on my list of favorite animals because of the encounter. Now if I can just get them to stop knocking over our compost bin and strewing the contents over the yard.

*Not the raccoons I saw, just a generic pic off the internet of some 'coons

October 17, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Taking a book that is some ten lines long and turning it into a 90 minute movie is a challenge. Having that book be beloved by millions makes it doubly difficult. In most respects, Spike Jonze has succeeded.

In the book, Max is mischievously bad. He acts up and his mother sends him to bed without dinner. There, his imagination takes over and he "sails" to a land of the Wild Things where he is soon crowned King and leads them in a wild rumpus. However, he soon grows lonely and homesick and "returns" from that land to his bedroom to find that his mother has set out his dinner, still hot. Basically, it shows that, even if his mother has to punish him for being bad, she always loves him.

In the movie, Max comes from a family of divorce, whose father is absent, sister ignores him and wants to be with kids her own age, and whose mother is overworked and stressed out. He acts out in ways that are not mischievous; he directly opposes his mother and physically attacks her, biting her hard on the shoulder (assault), and speaking out at her in despicable ways. He then actually runs away from the house and throws a temper tantrum in the woods. He finds a small sailboat, boards it, and sails away in the dead of night. At no time is this shown to be a figurative adventure; it appears to the audience that this small boy actually sails away and is on the boat at least all that night and well into the next day.

He lands on an island where he finds strange creatures. He soon lies his way into being their king, and then leads them on a wild rumpus that involves many dangerous and violent escapades. At first the Wild Things are happy and enjoy his leadership, as they come together as a group and are having fun without reservation. Soon, however, his antics start causing rifts between the Wild Things and they stop trusting his opinions. Carroll, his closest friend among the Wild Things, finally goes ape and chases him with the intent to eat him. Max escapes and decides he must go home again, as he is lonely and misses his mom. The other Wild Things help him leave and Carroll comes to his senses and says goodbye too.

Max arrives back at the same dock he left at night and runs home, to find his mom waiting up for him. She hugs him tight, makes him dinner, and falls asleep watching him eat.

My biggest areas of praise for the movie are:
  • It does not talk down to children in any way. It presents the story straight, without platitudes or overly obvious metaphors and allows children to make up their own minds about it.
  • The music and pacing seemed spot on.
  • The use of actual puppets rather than CGI was a great choice. It made everything more real and allowed the child to actually "make eye contact" and be "there" with the creatures. Too often directors rely on CGI when a puppet or a person in some sort of costume would be a better choice.
  • The dialog was spot on and felt like what a child would say. It didn't feel forced or phony.
  • The action was believable.
  • The male lead, Max Record, was exceptionally believable in the role of Max.
  • The Wild Things accurately represent various aspects of Max's personality and life at home, and he learns valuable lessons by interacting with them.
My areas of complaint are:
  • There is NEVER a time in a movie or a TV show that shaky-cam is viable. Making your audience sick to its stomach and headachy is never a wise or smart choice. And otherwise excellent movies (like this one, or any of the Bourne movies, for example) can be graded down a notch because of it.
  • My wife pointed this one out to me: The main character and plot are very male-centric. Girls/females may not "get" everything about it, as they aren't as into building forts, telling stories, and adversarial play.
  • The child in the movie should be spanked and possibly sent to juvenile hall for his actions. The fact that he is so bad to his mother and then she apparently completely forgives him because he ran away and came back may send the wrong message to children who miss the message of Max's time with the Wild Things... all they may learn is that you can be a horrible felonious child, run away to avoid punishment for your actions, and all will be forgiven when you return. It would have been nice to show Max accepting responsibility for his actions (which he did with the Wild Things but never does with his family).
  • It is not clear whether Max's time with the Wild Things is a flight of fantasy or if he really ran away and was gone for a few days. This was much clearer in the book and should have been as clear in the movie to help children more fully understand what is going on.
Spike Jonze has taken Maurice Sendak's much-beloved classic children's book and turned it into a film that may become a classic children's movie. It is finely crafted and beautifully adapted. It does not speak down to its audience. Its deficiencies are in the use of shaky-cam and the fact that boy is too bad to just be forgiven by his mother. Without an adult there to discuss the film and explain a few of the finer points, some children may come away with the wrong message.

All in all, this movie would get a solid A grade, but the shaky-cam use knocks that down to an A- and the lack of clarity on the final message of the film further knocks it down to a B+. Still, well worth a watch by both parents and children, especially as a tool to spark conversation on the merits of what Max did and what he learned.

October 11, 2009

The Pass-Thru's the Thing

We have a rather complicated setup with our electronics in the front room of our house in order to get cable, our DirecTV, and TiVo to all function at the same time. One thing that made this slightly better was finding and purchasing a special pass-through cabel from Paterson Technology. This device hooks up from the TiVo USB to the DirecTV USB slot and changes the channels correctly for us.

The great thing about the Paterson pass-thru device is that you can flash the ROM on it and set it to redirect what the TiVo sends to the correct channel on the DirecTV. This was important when we got the HD receiver in that room, as we only have Standard channels via DirecTV and that meant that every channel that the TiVo turned to that had both an HD and an SD channel option needed to be redirected to the SD channel for us to view it. In other words, TNT is channel 245. However, the HD is 245 (1) and the SD is 245 (2). So if the TiVo changed to channel 245 without the pass-thru cable, we got 245 (1) and recorded an hour of a black screen.

A few days ago while I was trying to watch some TV, I noticed that every time I changed the channel in the front room, it was going to the next channel. By that I mean that I would enter 245 and I would get 246 (or whatever the next channel that was programmed). As we had the pass-thru cable set to use a redirection of "Next Channel" in order to get the SD programming in channel slot 2, I quickly realized that something had changed on the DirecTV and that the redirection was no longer needed.

All of this is a very long, technical explanation that shows a problem we had been having-- for awhile, our pass-thru was unable to consistently change the channels on the DirecTV, and we were frequently recording the wrong channel/show. A reset of the DirecTV unit would solve the issue, but it was annoying to deal with as we would get excited to sit and watch a favorite show and get something horrible like The Office instead, or the dreaded black screen.

Now that the DirecTV seems to have solved the issue and we no longer have to the redirection, the pass-thru and the TiVo are easily changing the channels and everything we have wanted to record in the living room has recorded with no issues.

What I find ironic is that we called DirecTV as well as emailing their support and reviewing their FAQs, all of which said this is how the system was supposed to be working the entire time. We complained about it and, as usual, got lied to by inept telephone personnel who didn't know as much about the system as we do.

We're hopeful that DirecTV now has its head out of its ass and it will continue to function as it is now. We're quite happy with the new setup and love that we can easily and quickly change channels and that our TiVo is recording the correct shows.

September 29, 2009

The Question?

I've recently run into a spat of women who all speak every sentence as though it is a question by raising their voice at the end. My first thought is that anyone who does this is unsure of themselves, but then the last two to do it were experts in their field and were providing me with their expertise; both came across as intelligent, assured, and accomplished women, yet every single sentence sounded like a question.

I'm not sure how women get into this speech pattern, but it is one that happens to annoy me to no end. The last woman with whom I spoke was a doctor of veterinary medicine and was helping me with a mild issue M and I had discovered with our cat (nothing to note here; we just wanted some advice). Literally every sentence this woman uttered to me during our 10 minute phone conversation sounded like a question. While she was obviously smart, caring, and knew her stuff, during and after the conversation I was left with a feeling inadequacy over her answers as the questioning lilt of her voice made me wonder if she was making it up as she went along. Intellectually I know better, but emotionally that is how I respond.

A recent woman was providing me with assistance and I felt like she didn't know what she was talking about whenever she used the lilting question voice. When getting assistance, I want someone who is assured and confident and tells me what is what, not who is questioning what is going on and expecting me to provide the answers -- at least, that's how it sounds when everything is a question.

I am left to wonder what causes women (I have never run across a man who uses this particular speech pattern) to use this method of communication and how we can stop it. It makes otherwise smart and interesting women to sound like inconsequential and unassertive.

Printer

Right before leaving for vacation, the black and white Samsung ML-1210 laser printer I purchased in 2001 stopped working correctly. It was frustrating because the printer still functioned but I couldn't get it to grab and feed paper. I opened it up, cleaned things out, tried to adjust the feeder bits, etc., but no dice-- it just didn't want to grab paper either through the multi-page feed or the single-page feeder any more.

Since moving, M and I have found it very nice to have a laser B/W printer for quick things (like printing from the internet) and for text-based items and leaving her color ink jet for pictures and things that we need color on.

The other day M found a Brother HL-2170W printer on sale for $120. Since I still hadn't been able to get my 8-year old printer to function, we discussed it. All of the Brother's technical specs were better than my old printer and it is network-able using either wireless or wired. Rather than pay a ton of money to get the old printer to work properly again (and likely have to send it to Samsung or an authorized dealer to fix), we decided to put the repair money toward this and just get a new one.
  • Installation was a breeze. My PC is running Win7 RTM and the OS just found it the instant it was networked and installed the proper drivers and I could print immediately. M's machine is using XP Media Ed. and I had to use the installation CD, but her's too then immediately found it and could use it. This should allow friends with laptops to access the printer from their PCs, too (as long as they have access to the network, of course).
  • It prints fast... about twice as fast as my old laser and without the long warm up and page find. And we went from 600x600 to 2400x600, so the quality of the printer output is much crisper and nicer.
  • It has a 250-sheet tray paper feeder. That's about 200 sheets more than my old multi-page feeder could hold without jamming.
I think we're going to be happy with the new printer. And my hope is that it will give us the same years of service that the last printer did.

September 24, 2009

The Trip West

My wife and I flew to SoCal recently for both work (her-- a conference) and vacation (both of us).

The flight out on September 10 was beautiful. I don't like flying that much, but have gotten used to it in the last few years with all the trips back and forth from SoCal to here. This series of flights was smooth, all on time or early, and with no hassles or issues. The closest we came to having a problem was when we checked into the Maple Leaf Lounge; the man running the desk was unsure if we were supposed to be there. We girded for a fight, but he found us in the PC quickly and let us in.

Knowing that nearly every time I travel, especially by air, one way or the other is hell on earth, we immediately started joking about the trip back.

And then we did the trip back.

The plane at John Wayne (SNA) run by United took forever to board and then the flight attendants had the gall to ask us to hurry about sitting so they could push off from the gate and make their "on time" departure. What many fliers don't know is that a plane is considered as "on time" if they leave the gate on or before the designated time of departure-- it does not matter how long that plane sits on the tarmac or that it is 10 feet from that gate the entire time, it is considered by the FAA as an on time departure.

The flight from SNA to Chicago O'hare was very bumpy. The pilot had to put on the seat belt sign a number of times and the plane felt like it was getting tossed around pretty good.

In Chicago we made our way to the Air Canada flight with no issues. However, we sat on the tarmac for a bit until the pilot came on and informed us that during the visual inspection of the plane, a seal was noticed to be missing and they were waiting for maintenance to bring equipment over to get a better view and possibly fix the issue. It took about 40 minutes before all that was accomplished and we could leave. The flight itself was fine and we got to Toronto without issue.

In Toronto, however, we discovered my checked bag hadn't made it. My wife's bag was there, but mine was not. We filled out a form at baggage claim, were told that there were a few flights from Chicago yet to land and that my bag may be on one of them, handed the form over to customs, and proceeded to the Maple Leaf Lounge. The woman there was starting to become insistent that we did not have the proper ID to get in. After losing my bag and already a long travel day, I bristled and started attacking back. I said, "The proof of our payment is right there. Either let us in or give us our $60 back."

She finally looked us up in the computer and found us on the approved list and let us in. I gave a weak apology for my statement, which she accepted, and M and I entered and got some snacks and drinks.

The flight from Toronto to SJ was under some duress because the pilot announced that the fog was horrible in SJ and it might become too thick to land the plane, at which time we would be diverted to Fredericton. We also sat there for quite a bit while they "reset" some sort of computer error.

Luckily, while thick, the fog did not prevent us from landing. So our 12:10 am AT arrival became a 12:45 am arrival. My bag was still not there, so I had to fill out the exact same form I filled in Toronto again and have them start another trace on it. They assured me that most bags were found and delivered within 24 hours but gave me a number and claim ticket to use just in case.

M's mom drove us home and we were in bed by 2 am local time.

Thankfully, my bag arrived the next day around 8 pm, so all is well in the end.

September 16, 2009

Ram Johnson: Part 2, Moons

Previously

When they got back to the office, a small one over a cartoonist's gallery at the Orange Circle, Ram headed straight to his office to think, ignoring the nods and hellos from his office staff and secretary. They looked to Keiko, and she just shrugged. They had all seen him in these moods before when he couldn't figure out a particularly tough case. He could be moody and noncommunicative for days on end.

Keiko similarly headed to her office, but she was all business; she wanted to get the pictures of the crime scene into the database and print out any she thought warranted it for their board.

Ram's detective agency was doing pretty solid business. Unfortunately, southern California has enough gang activity, rich people doing stupid things, businesses playing underhand, and out-and-out criminal activity that most PIs work steadily. Ram was well-respected in the business, but didn't flaunt it; he had his modest business front, a small house, and employees who were loyal and reliable. He only took cases he felt passionately about and then worked them until there was some sort of completion. There were few open but inactive cases at the firm.

When Keiko emerged from her office, one of only three enclosed spaces within the loft, the first being Ram's office, the second being her office, and the third being an interrogation or holding cell area, Randy walked over to her.

"He's in a funk? So it's definitely another one?" he said.

"Sure looks like it," she answered. They walked together to the "observation deck" area where they had pictures and notes up of their current cases. She pinned a couple of photos of the crime scene up in the area marked for the Martinez family abduction. Realistically they were working the entire crime now; Ram wouldn't let this one go until he figured it out and had answers for the Martinezes, which likely meant he would have answers for all the other families as well.

Randy was a medium height and medium build white male, a good looking kid, who had a strong eye for detail and was an excellent lock pick. He was most often assigned to repossession work, as he was good at charming women and very good at stealing from men. He was also a good guy to have at your side in a fistfight. He didn't know any special fighting skills, and had no formal training, but was a scrapper and didn't go down easily.

Pam walked over, carefully avoiding the pictures in the observation deck. "This might take his mind off things for a bit," she said, and handed Keiko the phone messages.

Pam was a tall and very attractive black woman. Most people who met her instantly thought of Iman, as Pam bore a striking resemblance to the supermodel, and most asked her why she wasn't modeling instead of working as a receptionist for a PI in California. She had her reasons; Ram had saved her from an abusive family life when she was young and had been a positive father figure to her ever since. She felt a need to make sure he was all right and looked after him, as he sometimes got so obsessive over cases that he would sleep in his office and wouldn't think to eat.

Keiko flipped through the phone messages. Most were simply updates or call-ins from informants they had cultivated or people for whom they were working. One message stood out to her, though; James Jones, an informant who had his ear to the ground, had spotted a skip named Matt "Baller" Young they were looking for going into Blackie's Bar in Newport Beach. He was staying nearby and keeping an eye out for them. He expected his usual "finder's fee" if they got there in time to collect him. The message was only an hour old, so Whitey was likely still at the bar.

She smiled. "Thanks, Pam. This is just what Ram needs," she said and all three smiled. Keiko walked toward his office and knocked once before opening the door.

"We have a lead on Baller. He's in Newport Beach at Blackie's Bar. It's an hour old, so he's likely still there."

Ram turned to her. As she suspected, he had been staring at his personal observation deck pictures of the Martinez crime with his feet on the edge of his deck and his hands in almost a prayer-like position, with his index fingers just touching the end of his nose. It was his most typical deep-concentration position. She couldn't count the number of times that position had suddenl elicited an "a-ha" moment from Ram and he had grabbed the team and headed out to a successful resolution on a case. So far, it had yielded nothing for the Martinezes, but Keiko knew it was just a matter of time before something clicked, or a clue materialized, and Ram Johnson was off to break the case.

She first handed him the message concerning Baller, and then the stack of other messages. He read the message over three times before snapping out of his reverie. He suddenly seemed energized and somehow larger, as he stood and said, "Tell Randy to grab his stuff and go get the truck. I'll be out in a minute."

Keiko smiled as she closed the door. Once Ram made a decision, he was all business and ready to go. When he walked out of the office, his attention would be fully on the skip Baller Young. Randy, who liked movies, often attributed the mysterious "getting ready" that Ram did in his office to the famous scene in The Hustler when Jackie Gleason is getting beat by Paul Newman and takes a moment to go into the restroom, compose himself, and then comes out focused and determined and beats "Fast" Eddie in their first showdown. Like his namesake from a medieval siege, Ram was able to let go of all other distractions and focus on the current task or issue and plow through it with single-minded determination. Once done, he would then relax his focus and let in the other cases and the distractions of daily life.

Ram came out a few moments later and Randy fell in step with him as they headed out the front door. Keiko had the car ready and waiting outfront.

It only took them 20 minutes to reach Blackie's, just off PCH, in Newport Beach, from their office in Orange. Keiko nearly always drove; she had a Zen-like ability to read traffic patterns and know the streets and avoid most of the traffic snarls that always plagued the area.

They parked about two short blocks away from the bar, in the parking area of a great hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant. James had already spotted them, hurried over, and got in the back of the SUV.

"Best I can tell, he's still in there. I haven't seen him leave by the front since I got here," he said as soon as the door was closed.

"You did good, James," said Ram. "Wait here with Keiko."

Ram and Randy got out of the truck and made their way down and across the street to the bar. The day was getting long, and the temperatures were easing a bit, but it was still sunny and warm outside. Ram pointed toward the back and Randy quickly jogged toward the beach side of the bar to watch for Baller. No words were needed; Randy knew to wait for the skip to jump or for a quick call on his cell to tell him it was all clear and come back to the truck. Ram was point.

Walking into Blackie's Bar was like stepping out of southern California and into a dark meat locker. Blackie always had the AC turned up full blast and the lights turned down low. His clientelle generally didn't have social gatherings and, frankly, didn't prefer to know there were other people in the place.

While his clothes didn't match Blackie's usual customers' attire, Ram still seemed somehow to blend in the moment the doors closed. An older man with sunken eyes and faded tattooes on his arms and shoulders nodded to him from behind the bar; Blackie knew better than to protest Ram's incursion into his place. If he let Ram do his work, he would be out quickly and with a minimum of fuss. If he impeded Ram in any way, or alerted whomever Ram was after, Blackie would pay for that mistake with constant raids, license issues, and whatever else Ram could think of. No, it was better to just stand aside and let him work.

Ram waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark room, and then surveyed it for his quarry. The tall, thin former high school basketball star had dreams of playing in the NBA crushed when he blew out his knee in the CIF championship game going for a razzle-dazzle dunk. "Baller," so-named for his basketball skills, soon was a gang-banger, part-time drug peddler, and sometime woman beater. It was this last act that had him currently in Ram's sights; Baller had beaten up his girlfriend in a drug-fueled rage, been arrested, and then skipped on his bail and court date. When the girlfriend had brought it to Ram's attention, along with the pictures of how she looked the night of the beating, he had assured her that Baller would be held accountable for his actions.

He quickly spotted the boy at the far end of the bar nursing a beer and trying to hunch down to look shorter than his six foot seven frame suggested. Ram walked toward him. He sat on the stool next to him.

"Baller, if you come with me quietly I'll treat you with respect and everything will go smoothly and you will have an easy time until you are turned over to the police tomorrow. If you run or make trouble, I will come down on you... hard," Ram said quietly, making sure that only Baller would hear him.

The boy sat still for a moment, still looking into his half-drunk beer. Then, without much warning, he threw the last bit of beer into Ram's face and punched him in the stomach, before launching himself toward the back door of the bar.

Ram, slightly surprised by the beer and hardly affected by the punch, sighed inwardly and then walked toward the back door. As he opened it, he heard a yelp and a crash. As he stepped outside and let his eyes readjust to the sunny beach, he saw Baller laying next to an overturned table and some dishes at the beach-bar restaurant next door to Blackie's with Randy standing over him with his sap out.

Ram walked over to the scene and knelt next to the scared boy holding his head. With asp-like speed, Ram grabbed the boys crotch and neck, squeezing both hard with vice-like hands, causing the boy to let out a barely-audible scream of pain. Ram leaned down and whispered into his ear, "That was a mistake, boy. I don't like those who beat up women, especially ones so much smaller than themselves. If you had come quietly, you would have saved yourself a lot of pain."

He then lifted the boy bodily off the ground and threw him once more against the broken table. He kick Baller twice in the chest and stomach, knocking the wind out of the boy, and then punched him hard enough in the face to knock the boy unconscious.

Ram turned to Randy and said, "Get this scum into cuffs and put him in the cage." Ram turned, ignoring the few beach-goers who were present and watching, and walked back into Blackie's. Randy cuffed Baller, then slapped him until he woke up and then, half carrying, half leading him, took him toward the street. He was actually surprised that Ram had taken it so easy on the boy; the last woman-beater that had run had to spend three weeks in the hospital before being arraigned on his charges.

Inside, Ram discreetly gave Blackie a hundred dollars for the inconvenience, and then left out the front door.

Keiko, seeing Randy come out with the skip in cuffs, quickly pulled the SUV up and popped the rear door. The back was a small, uncomfortable area that was completely caged into which they put those who resisted. The only way to open the back door was from a trunk release level in the driver's cockpit. Randy rolled the barely conscious but already bruising Baller into the cage and closed the door.

Ram and Randy got in.

"You did very well, James. We just need to get your statement on record for our files and we'll give you your money at the office," said Ram as he got in the truck.

"Sure thing, Ram," every one of Ram's stoolies knew that Ram kept an official statement from them as a just in case measure. That inconvenience was far outweighed by the benefits of being Ram's friend; he paid well for information and would help you if you had troubles of your own. James had once been accused of a crime and Ram had overturned a lot of ugly rocks to find the real culprit and get James cleared. James owed him.

Randy and Keiko dragged Baller into the office and locked him in the interrogation room, while James sat with Pam and she typed down his statement and he signed it. He then went to Ram's office to get his cash.

"Thanks again, James," said Ram as he handed over $250 in cash.

"Hey, no problem, Ram. Anything for you. I'll let you know if I hear anything else on the street," said James. As he turned to leave the office, he saw the picgtures of the Martinez case up on Ram's personal observation wall.

"Hey Ram, you have a case concerning the Lycos of North Los Angeles?" he asked.

"Why do you ask?"

"I just see their sign up on your case wall, is all," he said.

Ram became energized. "What do you mean, James? What is their sign?"

James walked over to the case wall and pointed at the "spider" symbol picture that had blown up to an 8x10 picture and pointed, "This. It's on its side, but I would recognize that gang sign anywhere. Those guys are creepy and word on the street is they have their fingers in a lot of things."

James took the picture off the board, rotated it 90 degrees and then traced his fingers around the symbols as he spoke.

"See this circle supposedly represents the waxing moon, this middle one the full moon, and the third one the waning moon. The two lines in the middle of the second moon show that the full moon lasts for three nights. It's not a very good likeness of the symbol, though... I guess it was too small to get the detail their jackets have."

Ram walked around his desk and took the picture from James, staring intently. Now that James had pointed it out, he could see it clearly. Because of how small the image was carved on the bodies, the moon-shapes had always blended a bit together and, with the two lines bisecting the center circle, had made it look more like a spider or even an ant than what it was.

"James, here's another $100 for that tid-bit. You may have just broken another case," said Ram, handing him a crisp bill out of his pocket.

September 14, 2009

Brick and Mortar

I specifically waited until my wife and I were in SoCal before going to a book store for the two items I wanted to get my father for his upcoming birthday. We stopped by two stores and, at the second (Barnes and Noble), we actually spoke with a worker at the Information desk concerning one of the two books.

You see, my dad was born and raised in Detroit, MI. There is a book out now called Goodfellows that talks about the championship high school football system at one of the schools nearby to where he lived. I thought he might like reading about that as he is from there and because he is a football fan.

We looked up the book in the B&N computer and saw "In Stock". Yay, we thought, we can get both books, buy a bag or some wrapping paper (or use some of my mother's when we visit her) and wrap these up for dad and give them to him for his b-day.

But no. In Stock meant that the company as a whole had it somewhere. When we clicked on the more details section, no store in Southern California had it-- it was available in Michigan (333), Rhode Island (19), and one other location (1), but not in SoCal. We then flagged down the person working the desk and asked him about it.

The worker, who gets paid to be at and assist people at the brick and mortar store, suggested we go online either with his company or through Amazon.com to get the book. He suggested this as it would be less expensive than buying it in the physical store AND it would ship faster to the location. We asked him about transferring stock from one store with it to one here where we could get it... and he said it would still be faster to order it online and ship it to a residence rather than doing that!

People wonder why brick and mortar stores are closing down left and right. They wonder why many people are losing jobs and not able to find replacement jobs. Well, why the man's candor was appreciated, his responses show exactly why this can happen.

I'm left wondering why that brick and mortar store is even there, in the end.

September 12, 2009

Did Repubs Even Listen?

We picked up one physical newspaper and I have since looked at a few virtual newspapers online and I'm left shaking my head and bewildered at many comments made by Republican representatives in the House and Senate concerning President Obama's health care plan speech made earlier this week.

It seems like they didn't listen at all, as the vast majority of the statements made by the Repubs are diametrically opposed to what Obama said. Here are some examples, from The Denver Post:

"... what the Democrats' plan proposes is a government takeover of the entire health care industry that will force Americans out of their current plans and will have a tremendous cost that can only result in higher taxes and a larger deficit." Rep. Doug Lamborn.

"I heard loud and clear from my constituents this August that the current Democrat proposals are unacceptable -- they won't help reduce costs and they'll kill millions of small-business jobs." Rep. Mike Coffman

In no way did Obama's plan hint at a government takeover of the industry. In fact, he went out of his way to say and ensure that it was the opposite-- he WANTS insurance companies to be around for more competition and he specifically said in no way will anyone with insurance be forced to change or switch that insurance. He also said (and I am dubious of this claim myself, but I'm just reminding you of what he said in his speech) that a bipartisan group of economists believes they can pay for this plan without raising taxes and without increasing the deficit.

As to the second... I find it incredible that Coffman reps for a group made up entirely of psychics and prognosticators! They found a plan that Obama had YET TO PROPOSE OR INTRODUCE so unacceptable. Also, apparently none of them, or the rep himself, understood anything about the tax credits and incentives that Obama believes will make the plans affordable to small-business owners.

While I'm not entirely sold on everything Obama said in his speech, I find it ironic that so many reps of either house, primarily Repubs, are saying and doing exactly what Obama said they would do (and actually took them to task and said they shouldn't continue saying).

Shortly after the speech, Rep. Charles Boustany actually said in an interview "Replacing your family's current health care with government-run health care is not the answer" and he's right-- which is why Obama specifically said that is NOT what his plan will do, should do, or wants to do. Weren't you listening? If you could not listen to this simple, fairly straightforward speech and understand that, then how can you listen to your thousands, perhaps millions of people who you represent in Louisiana?

I have my doubts about Obama's plan. I doubt it can be done without taxes or without increasing the deficit. While I applaud the comments about cutting waste from the Medicaid and Medicare programs to help the funding, I am dubious about whether that can happen, how quickly, and how much money will be saved.

When he spoke of cutting "other programs" and "government waste" I cringed; the representatives of the states with these unnamed programs will fight for them hard and long and might make it impossible to rid our bloated government of this waste... especially is it may affect the Rep's pocketbook directly.

Also, on a couple of these key points that the Repubs seem to be most anxious, Obama specifically said he was looking for THEM to give HIM ideas and plans to solve the issue/problem he brought up within the framework of his overall goals... so why aren't they proposing their own plans? Why are they instead only saying that his plan will not work without saying what they would do that would work? If you want a say, and you want to make sure that the plan covers areas in which you have concerns, then DO something, SAY something positive to get the results you want, don't just poo-poo what is out there now.

The good things I got from Obama's speech:
  • Making it illegal to deny a person from having or getting insurance due to pre-existing conditions. As one who has a pre-existing condition and lived a long time with that fear driving me, I know first-hand that no one should have that fear or pay those exhorbitant costs when changing jobs or fired from a job.
  • Making it illegal for a company to drop or change coverage when you get sick and have to use the insurance. The entire point of insurance is to have it when you need it; the company underwriting your policy shouldn't be able to yank that out from under you just when you need it most and after you've paid hundreds to thousands of dollars into it.
Obama's goals and the plans he proposed are legitimate first steps in the direction toward a universal system. I think there are a lot of good ideas in those plans and goals and I think America should look outside her boarders at the many similar systems that work in other countries. Namely, I think America should look at the French, Japanese, and German systems of universal health care, each of which has a piece of the solution and would make for a good model of what is right and how to work it. Whereas as many of my friends and acquaintances point to the Canadian system as a plan, it does not work well, has huge delays, and requires taxation that Americans would never find acceptible, so should not be considered (except maybe for drug costs).

The one thing that Repubs are absolutely right about and that they should keep an eye on as the Dems move forward with their plans to meet the goals the President proposed is that competition is absolutely essential to making this work. If at any time any of the plans do away with competition (and, FYI, the President's planned "gov't option" was specifically and repeatedly mentioned as only one option, not getting rid of or interfering with any existing insurance options), it should be decried and denounced.

Until then, I suggest the Repubs take up the Dems and President's challenge and actually start thinking about and proposing ideas that will meet Obama's goals but are in some way more palatable to their thinking. It is time to either shit or get of the toilet and DO SOMETHING instead of simply playing devil's advocate and otherwise not getting hands dirty.

August 31, 2009

Procession

I was amazed when we left the church and drove in a funeral procession to the grave site for M's grandfather. Without a police escort, on both sides of the street, traffic came to a veritable halt. People on the streets removed hats as we passed. Without a cop and completely on their own, traffic allowed us through intersections without issue.

The last time I saw a funeral procession was in Irvine. I was driving to a store on a weekend and saw a police motorcycle ride up to an intersection on (I think it was) Jamboree and begin to wave all directions to stop. The funeral procession arrived and he waved it through as the police escort at the rear of the procession sped past him to do the same at the next intersection.

It so happened that I was turning to follow that same direction, and I noted that traffic on both sides of the street did not stop for the funeral. Some cars had to be "convinced" by the escort to get out of the way of the funeral by pulling into the slow lane! Traffic on the opposite side of the road didn't pull over or even slow down. And I can't remember a single person below the age of 50 bowing a head or removing a hat.

There is something to be said for being in a town (well, really, a big city) where people still pull over for a funeral procession and remove any head coverings.

August 21, 2009

Windows 7

I downloaded the RC for Windows 7 and have planned to install it somewhere for testing for quite some time. M decided she wanted to test it for work-related reasons, so I installed it on her older laptop. Just this week, after successfully using it on the laptop for about a month, I decided to try to update my desktop PC with the OS.

Now, I have been successfully using Vista since release. I love Vista. Yes, it has some quirks that you have to turn off and some different behaviors from XP/98/95 that you need to relearn, but overall it has been:

A. More stable than XP, requiring no "just because" reinstalls.
B. Faster than XP.
C. Chock full of nice gadgets and extras that XP didn't have inherently; for example, the Snip tool.

Of course, prior to going from XP to Vista, I paid attention, ran the compatibility wizard, and read the suggested minimums and the suggested "full value" requirements and was prepared. I knew what I was getting into and didn't rely on a third party vendor's determination that something was "Vista Compatible" (of those who tell me they hate Vista, most have never actually used it for more than a few minutes. Of those who have, most were tricked into thinking the machine they got could run all the Vista bells and whistles by the "Vista Compatible" proclamation, when this was not actually true).

In order for Windows 7 to impress me, it has to be as stable, as fast, and have as good an amount of nifty tools and features as Vista.

What I have discovered so far:
The Clean Install I did on the laptop went very smoothly and incredibly fast. In not much over 30 minutes we were up and running. This did not include all the additional software uploads required (like the Office Suite, work-related programs, and MacAfee).

The Upgrade Install I attempted on my PC hanged each time on the final step (of five steps) at 72% complete. I attempted it three times and each time it got to the exact same spot and stopped. The first time I left it running at this point for 4 hours to see if it was just a really big file being moved/copied/installed. The second two times I waited an hour and a half-hour before aborting. The Custom Install I did worked the first time and in under an hour.

Obviously I cannot speak to stability yet. However, the laptop has been running Win7 for over a month now and we have seen some incredible boosts to its performance. This laptop is a few years old now and was having some stability issues and performance problems prior to the installation. Since then, it is booting much faster and a few of performance issues seem to be gone or minimized. I'm only now using it hard again, as I went back to work on another contract, and it is handling everything I'm throwing at it very easily and well, including multiple monitors, VNC connections, internet and network connections, Office Suite use, screen captures, picture modifications, playing music, and everything else I do in an average day with it.

One thing we noted almost immediately; the laptop has older USB drivers and is an older machine. When we wanted to transfer some very large files using USB thumb drives, my suped-up Vista machine (this was prior to my upgrade) would transfer the file at a pretty fast rate, much faster than M's PC would (about 2.5-3x the speed of her multimedia machine running XP). However, when we transferred the exact same file from the exact same USB drive on the laptop running Win7, it was transferring at about 11x the same speed!

Yesterday and today I have spent some time setting up, redownloading, and installing many of the applications I "lost" when I did the Clean Install (they aren't lost, they are in a folder called Windows.old, I'm just leery about copying them over instead of reinstalling from scratch with the new OS). My download speeds seem to be faster and more consistent now than they were with Vista (and I had good transfer rates in that OS). For example, downloading the rather large COH and Open Office files, I was averaging around 350 kb/s. In Vista I usually was between 250 and 300 best-case; still great, but not as good.

I'm also noting that, in Vista with the new ASRock motherboard I installed recently, I was having trouble with the OS reporting the network speed as 10 mbps instead of the default 100 mbps it should have. And sometimes it would bounce to 0 mbps even though I was currently online! So far with the new OS it has been consistently reading at 100 mbps each and every time I've given the network a surprise inspection.

I did make the mistake of installing the non-Win7 Beta of Trend Micro Internet Security and that completely hosed me for a couple of hours. Something about that caused me to lose all administrator rights to my machine, and I had to roll back to prior to the install to recover from that. I found the beta and have had no issues since. Also discovered that the rollback feature works very quickly and easily. Booting from off or sleep mode also appears to be pretty quick (hard to tell if it is faster than Vista right now, but it is pretty quick and feels faster than before).

The UAC that so many hated in Vista is still in evidence. I've been slowly turning down the settings trying to find a happy medium between letting it run and turning it off entirely. At this point, I'm close to turning it off entirely, as I did in Vista. Microsoft needs to learn; if we click "Ok, let this program run" we should have an option to make that the permanent position of the UAC and not get that window again for that program. I do not like, for example, having to tell the OS every single time that City of Heroes and LOTRO are okay and please let them run. Hell, just typing this in explanation moves me another step closer to just switching it off.

I did have some trouble with getting my Logitech G15 keyboard to work properly in Win 7. I could use it as a keyboard, and I could set up my profiles for my games, but when I went into COH and tried to use my carefully crafted macros/binds from the G keys, they wouldn't work. After much internet reading, trial and error, and tinkering, I now have it working ... I logged into COH on one of my more complex characters and was able to use all of the binds for the character without difficulty. So that pleases me (hell, if I hadn't been able to get that working, this may have been a short test of the new OS!).

There is one nifty feature I was looking forward to using that I can't seem to get to work; if you move a window to the upper left or right, it is supposed to "snap" to half the screen, allowing you to snap a second window to the other half. This is useful for comparing documents, copying from one folder to another, etc. I simply cannot make it work. I read the help detail on it and, instead of getting the little screen indicator at half the screen size, I am always getting it full-screen. However, I can right-click the toolbar and select "show windows side by side" and it will perform the action for me. Not as convenient as the drag method, but still useful.

I'm happy the Snip tool is still here and I really like the small but effective changes to the Calculator gadget. I just found and have fallen in love with the sticky notes-- this was a gadget for the gadget bar in Vista, that they have taken out and made more readily available outside of the gadget arena.

I do not like how some of the features, like Sharing, display on the icons. I shared my printer so M could print to it, and the icon didn't change at all (in Vista and earlier, a special "sharing" graphic displayed right on the icon). However, at the bottom of the screen, the sharing image I was expecting was visible-- it just wasn't obvious or easy to see.

So far I haven't run into any hardware compatibility issues with Win 7. Everything I read says this should remain true; many testers are finding hardware they could never make work in Vista is now functioning again with Win7.