Copyright

All blog posts, unless otherwise noted, are copyrighted to the Author (that's me) and may not be used without written permission.

Monday, December 31, 2012

PC Woes

When I rebuilt our computers last year, I did not re-install the OS on my machine as I usually do with a newly built machine. Instead, I re-installed the old hard drive and simply updated the OS as needed so it worked with the new parts. Then, when I decided to get an SSD (solid state drive), I used the OS copying software that came with it to move everything from my then current boot drive to the new drive, rather than installing the OS from scratch and re-installing the additional programs.

Over the last couple of months, the machine has had some quirks. I'd suddenly drop all Ethernet/internet connections for no reason. Some of my games would suddenly eject me and I'd be unceremoniously dumped back to the desktop. Occasionally, my file transfer speeds would dip to incredible lows. Sometimes I would plug USB devices and nothing would happen; the OS wouldn't recognize them, the system wouldn't read them. I'd lose some or all of my headset's abilities. On some rare occasions, my machine would simply freeze and only turning off the power would resolve anything.

I finally had enough two weeks ago, when my system kept shutting off, freezing, and refusing to recognize my Ethernet connection. When I would reboot or restart, it wouldn't even POST. I thought, 'Uh oh, I've somehow ruined yet another BIOS on my motherboard.' However, after some time, the BIOS POSTed and I was able to run again, in fits and starts. I decided it was time to format the SSD, wipe it clean, and re-install the OS from scratch. Before doing so, I decided to use my TrendMicro virus scanner "recovery disk" (via USB drive) to do a full, deep scan of the BIOS and everything on the OS. Sure enough, the virus scan found a couple of deep-seeded programs it marked as viruses and deleted. A couple were masquerading as Steam files, a couple were pretending to be game files, and a couple of others that the virus catcher apparently didn't catch (or I had not correctly set the program to scan) "live." I eliminated those and tested my system for a while before continuing with the re-install  sure enough, my system was running faster and smoother. I still had some of the issues, though, so I proceeded with my plan.

Since re-installing Windows 7 to the SSD and rearranging some of my cabling on the motherboard, I have had none of the previous issues resurface. I am very slowly re-installing my old applications, so that I can keep an eye on how the system works for at least a day or two before moving on to another application. Currently, all of my game apps and Steam are working better, faster, and more consistently than before.

This just goes to show you that you should do what you know is right and not rely on new methods that haven't been tried and tested; I have decades of experience knowing that, when you do a major rebuild, you should install "fresh" and slowly, but I ignored it in favor of the SSD's software. On top of the apparent viruses (or virus-like programs) that were found, my system was doing things it shouldn't and it was systemically worsening. Next time, if there is a next time, you can be assured I'll go back to my roots and do what I know is the right way.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Running Out of Excuses

The House Republicans are running out of options and excuses. Their Plan B, which, contrary to what Mr. Boehner and his cronies were saying, would have lowered taxes on those making between $200k and $1 million, raised them for everyone else (with those making less than $30k hit the hardest), and moved a bunch of cuts even deeper into social programs, was soundly defeated last night.

Apparently, when the American people spoke and elected Mr. Obama to a second term, the House Republicans figured that was just a ruse of some sort. They didn't really want to follow the President's plan to get the economy on track and to avoid the so-called Fiscal Cliff. Of course, the defections in the Republican party seem to indicate that even some of the Republicans are seeing the writing on the wall and realize they have to actually debate in good faith and that nothing can be marked as off the table. I think Mr. Boehner's time in office is nearing an end, unless he becomes a lot more cooperative.

I've shown in previous posts that raising taxes is a necessity. I've spoken about cutting where cuts should be made. I'm all in favor of military spending cuts, one of the largest areas of waste, duplication of effort, unused buildings and land, and unneeded expenses -- and I'm a military brat who is gung-ho behind our troops and their efforts.

I am not saying that the President is 100% right or that the Republicans should just capitulate. However, saying that no cuts in military and raising taxes on the richest 20% is off the table is not going to get it done and just gets you in deeper. These two things need and have to happen. Matter of fact, raising taxes on the richest 20% and cutting spending on the military are the two places where we can make up the deficit in the easiest, least painful, and most expedient way. Oh, and cutting into Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? Not smart when the largest voting segment is senior citizens, many of whom rely on those three plans. Not smart at all.

My guess is that a silent majority of 80% of the people, regardless of political standing, can see that the Republicans are doing nothing, and trying to keep things at the same status quo that has gotten us into this mess in the first place. Most of their positions on these financial items are unsupportable, both historically and logically.

It is frustrating to see them continue to try everything but bowing to the will of the American people and doing what is best for them and America in general. Just look at the New Deal, look at what Reagan did in the 1980s, and look at what Mr. Obama is trying to do now; it worked the last two times that Republicans initiated these types of plans, there is no reason to believe that it will not work this time, even though a... *shudder*... Democrat is espousing the idea. Get on board, vote for it, and let's get this DONE. NOW.

Oh, and while we're at it, let's put in term limits in both the House and Senate. It is obvious that we need more turn-over and to get rid of career politicians who simply become more and more ingrained in ideology and less and less in tune with America and its people.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lincoln

Lincoln reminded me a lot of There Will Be Blood -- a phenomenal performance in an otherwise average film. Actually, the acting all-around (Sally Field, David Straithairn, James Spader, et al) was all very well-done.

The movie, like, it seems, every movie I see these days, is too long. Every scene with Mary Lincoln involving their dead eldest son or their still living oldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), could have been cut without sacrificing anything. Pretty much every scene with JGL's Robert/"Bob" Lincoln could have been cut without sacrificing the story. There were so many characters who just popped up for brief cameos and were barely seen again (as it involves many one-off conversations with a multitude of congressmen), that I thought many of them could have been cut, as well. I would also cut everything that happens after Lincoln gets dressed for the Ford Theater and walks away down the hallway. We KNOW what happens there, and the scenes of grief that are shown afterward, plus Lincoln's earlier speech, just feel maudlin in comparison with leaving us on the melancholy "high" note of him winning the war, getting his amendment, and heading out to be with his wife, knowing what is to happen there.

Another thing that bothered me, besides too many characters and a lengthy running time, is the glossing over of how important free blacks were to keeping Lincoln on task for this project, as well as for helping him to get the word out and changing congressmen's minds. This movie makes it seem like Lincoln was the entire spearhead and reason for the amendment, and that only the white men in the story were critical to its success, which we know from history simply isn't true. It comes off a bit like a "white man solves the black man's problems" movie -- again. Actually, when will Hollywood stop rewriting history so overtly to make it seem like every other race is absolutely useless and reliant on white men to save them?

Now, none of these quibbles is to say this is not one of the best movies of the year with some of the best performances of the year. I will be shocked if DDL doesn't win another Oscar for this performance (I certainly haven't seen anything that stands up as a contender to it this year). Sally Field will likely be nominated. Tommy Lee Jones may get a support nod. The cinematography and score are both top-notch, and Spielberg will probably get a nod for director (although I don't think the direction is really anything special). But the movie has its flaws, and is not as powerful or as purpose-built as it could be or should be.

In the end, this is a very good film, and one of the best of this year. See it for the performances. But the movie is too long, has too many characters to keep track of, and takes a few too many detours while telling this compelling story. I rate this a B- (it is a C- movie with A performances, so I "averaged" it to a B-).

Monday, December 10, 2012

City of Heroes Gone

NCSoft, the owner of Paragon Studios and City of Heroes (and Villains), suddenly decided to close up the studio and the game, with November 30, 2012 being the go-dark date. This came as a great surprise to both Paragon Studios and the fans, as the game was still profitable, although niche, and the studio had a lot of plans, including a full update about to launch. Instead, they started to shutter the business and prepare for the death of the game.

The big problem with playing an MMORPG is that it is online; in other words, the user, once they have "purchased" the game, is at the mercy of the game's owners and developers. When they decide the game is finished, the user cannot keep playing on their own. Once the servers are turned off, that is it. It is over. Kaput.

It has happened to a number of games, although most manage to eek out an existence on small servers with minimal staff (or even with programming-minded non-professionals taking over). What is frustrating about this decision is that the game was only 8 years old (there are many older MMORPGs still going), it was still profitable and had a decent fan-base, and it had developers who truly cared about the project and were actively trying to keep it successful and make it even more successful.

NCSoft bought the IP from Cryptic Studios, who first made City of Heroes. NCSoft is based in South Korea and has made a name for itself in the Asian market for MMORPGs. However, they had little to no footprint in America or Europe, as their games did not resonate with western audiences. City of Heroes allowed them to have a successful franchise in those areas. For the most part, they left Paragon Studios alone to continue developing the game as they saw fit. The game's audience had dwindled down to a fairly robust (for the genre) core of die-hard fans. They got a bit of a boost when they went Free to Play, but that was temporary. Again, though, all signs (including Paragon Studio personnel who should know) pointed to the game continuing to be profitable in its market.

What is disconcerting is that many of the "big names" who enjoyed the game came out of the woodwork and offered to help the company, the studio, and the game when NCSoft made the sudden and unexpected decision to shutter the game. Mercedes Lackey, Neil Gaiman, and John C. Wright, among others, protested and offered their support. Companies were interested in purchasing the IP from NCSoft, but were rebuffed (or NCSoft asked for 4-6 times what the IP was actually worth, which is the same as a complete rebuff).

In the end, NCSoft could not be swayed and the game did, in fact, go dark on the designated day.

I'm sad and a bit angry at this. I can tell you that I will think twice before purchasing or signing on to play any  NCSoft property in the future. Not only are most of their efforts not amenable to western game playing, but the way they handled this game closure tells me they are not to good business people.

But mostly I'm sad for the game, the many dozens (oh, who am I kidding, hundreds) of hours I spent in the game for most of the last 8 years, and the many friendships I nurtured within the world. I went from an MMO newbie to one a grizzled veteran who helped the newbies in the game. I played for the better part of two years with three of my close friends, we created a large super team together (Pax Equitas), and they helped get me most of the way to my first level 50. I continued playing even after each found other life concerns that took them away from the game. I found new people to play with, new heroes to help, and new challenges. I told many stories, helped many people, and was helped and touched by many more.

Red Thorn, Seraphim Angel, Shield Sentinel, Qu'en, All-American Girl, Gilgamesh, Water Wraith, and all the (many, many, many) other heroes, may you Rest in Peace. Your fight is over, but not forgotten.

Red Thorn in the center of one protest toward the end of City of Heroes. Various other heroes stand with him.
ADDENDUM:
A year later, and it still doesn't make much sense.
http://www.pcpowerplay.com.au/2013/11/no-more-heroes-the-fall-of-the-first-superhero-mmo/

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Fiscal Cliffs

Maybe we should fall off the upcoming Fiscal Cliff, as they are calling it. This would dramatically cut many services (including the military) and would raise taxes on everyone. It would, in many ways, solve many of America's current financial issues. It would also, maybe, finally convince people to demand reform from their career politicians.

From the Great Depression until the 1980s, taxes were much, much higher than they are now, both income and capital gains taxes. The rich, especially, had high taxes. And, during this time of really high taxes, America's economy grew like never before, the middle class grew, and we became the biggest economy in the world. During this time, job growth was phenomenal, the social contract between businesses, the government, and the people was strong. Prosperity ensued.

In the last thirty years of constant tax breaks, career politicians, and a steadily widening gap between the Republicans and Democrats, we have seen our economy falter, we've seen the social contract break down and disappear, and we've seen businesses take their business overseas. We've seen two really bad recessions and multiple depressions in the economy. We have seen an increase in our debt to astronomic proportions.

President Obama is following the Republican playbook for fixing the economy. He has taken a whole lot of the New Deal (yes, my history-minded friends, this was introduced by FDR, a Democrat. However, history shows us that it is made up of almost entirely ideas and plans first espoused by Herbert Hoover, a Republican) and quite a bit from Reagan-omics from the early 1980s. There is very little new in Mr. Obama's plan, actually. Yet today's Republicans say it is "too Democratic," "too Liberal," and "too Socialist." Yes, the Republican plan Mr. Obama is following is too "not-Republican."

In addition, the Republicans have finally put forth a plan -- which is identical in all ways to the plan they put into the Fiscal Cliff only they have removed the "take it from the military" part and moved those cuts entirely to entitlement areas. The numbers and figures stay the same. Or, in other words, the current Republicans have done NOTHING NEW and still think the government can somehow save itself by not bringing in any more money and by cutting more and more, especially in areas outside of the military (the singles biggest spending area of the US Government, by the way, and larger than the next 10 countries spend on military combined). Well, their plan saves about $1.4 trillion a year out of a debt at $14 trillion. Mr. Obama's plan, which includes both cuts and tax increases on the richest folks, would equal a difference of about $4.4 trillion a year.

There are approximately 315 million people in American. Of that, approximately half are workers who pay taxes of some sort. From the Great Depression through to the mid-1990s or so, the greatest amount of wealth in America was in the hands of the middle class. They made up the biggest majority of people, too. So, you had 100 million or so people paying a small percentage of taxes, but it was spread out over so many people that it allowed the US government to bring in a huge sum of money to fund everything. Basically, approximately 80 percent of the wealth was in the hands of 80 percent of people. This had the strange effect of making the rich richer. It also had the strange effect of making the poor less poor, as they had more and more opportunities to rise into the middle class. Win-win-win.

While it is very hard to compare decades, most economists seem to agree that from the late 1970s through to today, the richest percentage of people grew their incomes by close to 300% while the middle class grew theirs by approximately 40%. By all accounts, now approximately 85% of all the wealth in America is in the hands of approximately 20% of the population. Approximately 35% of that wealth is in the hands of only 1% of the population. From what I'm gathering, it looks to be about 4 million people in America make $200,000 or more.

For perspective, the population of America was about 225 million in 1980. That means approximately 110 million people paying taxes (generally speaking, you take approximately 50% of the total population as active workers, with 50% being retired, too young, or out of work). So, the majority of wealth (about 80%) was in 88 million people's hands. Today, there are approximately 315 million people in America. About 158 million people paying taxes. Of those, 85% of the wealth is consolidated in approximately 31.6 million people. That means 15% of the wealth is spread out over 126 million people.

Taxation works by a simple premise: you go where the money is. The middle class, while having more people, now has only 15% of the money. So the bulk of the money is with a smaller percentage of people, who have a much, much higher percentage of the wealth.

Let's put it in perspective with some static examples.

Pre-1990s taxation scheme

1000 people have jobs, make money. The Government needs $10,000 to fund everything.

(Note: Population number based on who has the wealth. Per estimates above, 80% of the wealth was in middle class, approximately 10% in upper class, and approximately 10% (total) in lower class. Wealthiest taxed more, middle class taxed a reasonable amount, and lower class taxed less, or not all. Used as an example only.)

  • 100 (Upper class): Taxed $17.50/each ($1,750)
  • 800 (Middle class): Taxed $10/each ($8,000)
  • 50 (Lower class, but still taxable people): Taxed $5/each ($250)
  • 50 (Lower class, but under the taxable minimum): Taxed $0/each
So, the sum total is that the government needs $10,000 and they easily make it, with no one side being taxed "too much." Everyone is happy and the economy grows/prospers.

Post-1990 taxation scheme

1000 people have jobs, make money. The Government needs $10,000 to fund everything.

(Note: Population based on who has the wealth. Per estimates above, approximately 85% of wealth is in upper class, approximately 15% is in the middle and lower classes. Wealthiest taxed less than middle class, middle class taxed at same "reasonable" rate even though their wealth has stayed the same or declined, lower classes taxed about the the same. Used as an example only.)
  • 850 (Upper class): Taxed $7.50/each ($6,375)
  • 100 (Middle class): Taxed $10/each ($1,000)
  • 25 (Lower class): Taxed $5/each ($125)
  • 25 (Lower class, below minimums): Taxed $0/each ($0)
The government needs $10,000 and is bringing in a total of $7,500. It is no wonder the government is in debt. Every year, the government is short $2,500 for all services rendered. Cutting what you fund may work, but there are certain minimums that the population won't let the government go below and there are certain requirements, like military, where cuts can be hazardous.

One obvious way to get that number up is to find where the money is and make those with the majority of the money pay more. Let's run those number again, only this time we'll break out the Upper Class and give them higher tax rates.

Suggested taxation scheme

1000 people have jobs, make money. The Government needs $10,000 to fund everything.

(Note: Population based on who has the wealth. Per estimates above, approximately 85% of wealth is in upper class, approximately 15% is in the middle and lower classes. Wealthiest taxed more than middle class, middle class taxed at a lower "reasonable" rate because their wealth has stayed the same or declined, lower classes taxed about the the same. Used as an example only.)
  • 350 (Highest Upper class ($1 million or more)): Taxed $17.50/each ($6,125)
  • 500 (Lower Upper class $200,000 to $1 million)): Taxed $15.00/each ($7,500)
  • 100 (Middle class): Taxed 7.50/each ($750)
  • 25 (Lower class): Taxed $5/each ($125)
  • 25 (Lower class, below minimums): Taxed $0/each ($0)
The government needs $10,000 and is bringing in a total of $14,500. They went where the money was. Since there were fewer physical people, they had to raise the tax rates per-person, but not an unreasonable amount compared to the income they have. And the government suddenly has a surplus of money, and all current project, programs, and other spending (like military) need not be cut at all. And, the government could start paying back the loans to other countries it has made, bringing the deficit down quickly.

(Note: I grant that I used static population numbers and static government spending/need numbers, and that is unrealistic for the eras in question. The point is made, however, that taxation needs to go where the money is, and pay a percentage based on the population who has that money. Also, note that I put the taxation amounts for the richest people to at or below the amount they were being taxed in the first example.)

I AM NOT ADVOCATED THAT THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD ONLY RAISE TAXES WITHOUT ALSO CUTTING PROGRAMS. There is a lot of waste in the American government and we should cut military spending by at least 25%, we should cut all duplicated programs and jobs, we should eliminate all excess buildings, we should put in place requirements that the government not pay on any contracts that are overdue or over-budget. There are a lot of places left where cuts can go.

Now, is taxation this simple? Of course not. But simple logic can be used to figure out that the Republican's plan by itself simply cannot work. As long as the wealth is in the hands of a few, those few have to pay more in taxes or we will always run at a deficit. Look to your own house: you have a finite amount of money coming in and you have certain things you must pay for (rent/mortgage, car, gas, utilities) in order to keep that job and stay alive. You can cut everything else but it will not change the amount coming in or the amount you need to spend on the bare minimums. At some point, if you want to get out of debt, you have to get a second job, a pay raise, or a bonus of some sort. In other words, you have to bring more money in. When people are making the choices between medications or food, or food and rent, there are serious issues. You've cut all you can cut.

If you want the economy to turn around, you need to give the majority of people money to spend, you need to tax where the money is, and you need to cut out all frivolous and unnecessary spending. I think I have shown that the middle class has the majority of people but they simply do not have the wealth to spend any more. I think I have shown that the minority who has the wealth are where taxes should be increased. The only thing left, really, is deciding what should be cut and what cannot be cut. And there are plenty of places for the Republicans and Democrats to fight over in this area.

But, to make this long story only slightly longer, we can and should vote out of office those politicians, like Mr. Boehner and his cronies, who are adamantly obfuscating and obstructing this process. We need to hear from the silent majority of people who can see the simple logic of the facts as I've presented them, and insist our politicians do what we want them to do. Now.

(End Note: All of the percentages and figures I used, except for my simple examples, were taking from a variety of places both right- and left-wing on the internet. The data is easy to find and corroborate/correlate. Because of this, I did not link to the specific sites or locations.)

Monday, December 03, 2012

Blue October

I recently came across a band that has turned around my thinking, at least for today, called Blue October. I am not sure what genre most people would classify Blue October, as they have a lot of pop, many rock or even light metal, a couple of near rap, a couple of dance, and more than one slower songs. I guess a generic "pop/rock" will suffice for my needs.

Blue October first came to my notice with the songs released off of Foiled, their 2006 album, but I didn't learn about them until 2007. Somehow I was completely oblivious to this release or the videos from it (probably due in large part to the fact that music video channels never play music videos any more, but that is a different blog). I was listening to some videos via YouTube.com and Blue October came up on the side panel. It was the video for Into The Ocean. I watched it and was just blown away. I then watched the video for Hate Me and was similarly blown away. Knowing there were two songs I enjoyed so much, my wife purchased that album for my birthday that year.

In general, I think most people like music that they identify with. You connect with the pain, joy, honesty, or some other expression that the person or band emotes. Blue October performs songs that I pretty much have no connection to. The lead singer, Justin Furstenfeld, sings about his drug use/abuse, his toxic relationships with both family and lovers, his child, and his mental issues, none of which I have experienced. He sings with raw passion and great emotion, and I am more of a closed-off, introverted person.

What I connect to, I think, is twofold: First, the emotional and raw way Mr. Furstenfeld sings about anything in his life, and puts it out there for all to hear and see. I have a hard time with that, constantly thinking that it is always better to keep your pain and disappointments to yourself or those closest to you. Secondly, I am impressed with how he can write such bitter, angry, depressed, emotional songs and make them sound so upbeat and positive. It is sort of like the "Every Breath You Take" syndrome in that a lot of people just hear the music and the sound of Justin's voice and think many of the songs are positive when the lyrics are talking about him watching his wife have graphic infidelities, his hatred of himself and his drug problems, his murderous intent toward those who have wronged him, and other situations.

I have written poetry off and on since I was in High School. My poetry, while it has been praised on more than one occasion, tends to sound cold and clinic, because that is who I am. My strong inability to pour my emotions out on my sleeve for all to see makes my poems come across a bit technical. Mr. Furstenfeld's lyrics, however, are the opposite; they don't always work as "poetry," the rhyme and meter may be slightly off or forced in a song or in a chorus, but the raw, powerful, emotion with which he sings overcomes that. The honesty and feeling overwhelm me and I am entranced. In my Windows Media Player, there are two songs on Foiled that get 3 stars, Overweight and Everlasting Friend. Every other song gets either four or five stars, with three five-stars (Hate Me, Into the Ocean, and Congratulations).

Since Foiled I lost track of the band, content to bask in the admiration for that album. I was once again listening to some new music on YouTube.com when I noticed a Blue October song I didn't recognize in the right pane. I clicked and was blown away yet again. I soon discovered that they have released a couple more studio albums since Foiled, so I went to Amazon and listened to snippets of each album. Confident that I liked enough, I bought Approaching Normal and Any Man In America. After two listens each, I have two albums with no song receiving less than three stars and most of the songs getting four. As of right now, I only have two songs (one from each album) listed at five stars, but that may change as I listen some more. Frankly, it is unheard of for me to find three albums with no songs rated below a three and a total of five songs rated at five stars.

Blue October is not a band for everyone. I can completely understand why someone may not like them or not connect with their style of music. I am quite happy that I have found a band that I can enjoy so much, as the music industry has not produced much I've enjoyed the last ten years. Even tried and true favorites have been disappointments. The fact that I have purchased (or had purchased for me) three albums by one band is pretty significant.

Now to see if I like the songs on their other albums. Who knows, maybe a few more purchases are in my future?