Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Hermit of Iapetus, Part XII

Read previous installations here.

Let the record show that when Liam and I greeted each other, the following exchange took place:

"Welcome to Iapetus, son. I hope you don't regret coming already."

"Not yet. Is there somewhere I can go to change? I've been sick in my suit."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sorting of the Legos


Just a few minutes ago, I finished what has become a quarterly ritual at our house: The Sorting of the Legos. It's very important to do this once an a while, because, over time as the kids play with their blocks, they get shuffled from room to room, moved upstairs and then downstairs and are hastily pit away when it's tome to go to bed, all the little parts -- which they need constantly -- get shuffled to the bottom of the general Lego box, where they have to be searched out. More often than not, it's Mom or Dad doing the sorting, because the kids sort like this:

[shuffle shuffle] I CAN'T FIND ANYTHING!

So we sort the little stuff into compartment boxes, making it easier for the kids to fond the parts they're looking for. We also have a smaller hellbox filled with people parts, accessories, and wheels and wheel-associated accoutrements.

Then there's the Dead Box. That's where the broken Legos, the orphaned hands and arms, and the amputee Lego men and women end up. Occasionally, I'll perform surgery on the broken Lego men, putting them back together with parts from the Dead Box. I do my best to make sure the arms and hands match, first because the kids insist and second because I'm pretty anal about it myself. The Dead Box is also where parts - mostly men - go into time out when the kids getto fighting.

It pays to have a system, I suppose. And it feels good to have the quarterly sorting done. I'm off to a nap.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPod Touch, like a pretentious pseudosnob.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Serendipity in Sisters

One of the best things about wandering around this Earth: Stopping once and a while to enjoy the view. We did this last spring when we stopped at Sisters, Oregon, on the way to the coast and found a classic car show in full swing. Read about it here.

The Hermit of Iapetus, Part XI


Read the past installations starting here.

As the Bubble carrying Liam from the Mars-Saturn Shuttle caught the planet's sunglow and glinted like a star, I watched him fall.

Did I look like that, a meteor, a snowflake, Glinda, Good Witch of the North, falling from the pitch black of the sky, falling from the stars as the rings of Saturn and that enormous yellow planet hung at a crazy angle over the dark horizon? A native of Iapetus might have looked at that moving object, perhaps thinking it was yet another visitor from the debris-strewn space around its mother planet. In its life, the native has seen dozens of objects fall from the sky. This one looks to be on the big side, but not necessarily out of the ordinary. Another wandering bauble that becomes a smear and then a streak and then an explosion of rock and ice on a hillside or plain nearby; dust that flies into the sky and wanders into the stars, perhaps taking bits of the original object with it.

But this object is different. As it moves across the stars, tiny flashes of light emerge from its leading edge. At it approaches, it does not continue to accelerate. It gets slower and slower. Its shape changes from a point of light into a slowly growing orb, Saturnlight glinting off the edges and also off the object in the center, a wad surrounded by a clear sphere of ice.

Closer still, it's clear the object inside the sphere is moving. Appendages stroke the inside of the sphere, clearly hollow. The lights on its leading edge transform into jets of gas, spurting out of the sphere, slowing its descent. The object -- it has to be a being -- inside the sphere braces appendages against the sphere, as other appendages stroke its side, seemingly activating the jets, keeping its lower appendages oriented towards the moon's surface.

The being inside the sphere is clearly Liam. He's grown a beard, but I recognize the nose, the eyes, the dirty brown hair, the toothy grin. He sees me below. I'm sure he looks puzzled. How did I know where he would be descending, how would I know to be there watching, watching as he descends from the sky to the surface of a moonlet that has grown over the past several hours from a point of light to a sphere to a world. It looms.

How did I know? I got lucky. I saw the star descending and guessed where it would fall. I hoped to be near enough to see him -- and have him see me -- before he landed. It's a lonely place to land, as I know from experience. I could not, I laughed, let the squirrels be the only welcome he received.

For the last few hours, I've tried to figure out what I'll say to him when he emerges from the Bubble. "About time you got here," I think, or "Let me show you around." They seem pedestrian. Boring. But fitting.

Three or four minutes now.

Recliner Catapult



(What the kids did comes at about 2:04. Thanks, by the way, Mr. Deitch, for such a fine visual to use with my post.)

I got a call from Michelle shortly before 5 pm yesterday. When I picked up the phone, she was using that voice that meant she was mad. Mad. I was quickly relieved to find out I was not the one she was mad about. But then I, also, had to put on the mad face.

The boys broke the recliner. As far as we can tell, the ten-year-old tried to catapult the five-year-old off the chair. Something went snappo. This morning, I tried to fix it. Not being an expert on recliner repair, I gave up quickly after putting just a single screw back in place. I didn't want to risk breaking anything else.

Now, I know we didn't just suffer an earthquake or have to dig any loved ones out of the rubble. Relatively speaking, this is a non-disaster. So don't get all preachy on me.

It'll cost us, at least at this point, $65 to fix. The part, inexplicably, was still under warranty, even after I explained how the chair got broken in the first place. That tells me this is a labor-intensive job and that the part, while all metally and complicated, is cheap to manufacture. Oh well. At least that's a sop the furniture store can throw our way. I'll take whatever sop I can get at this point. And since the boys broke the chair, they're going to pay for it through their allowance money. Too bad. They were so close to getting that Lego "Jungle Cutter." Whatever that is.

I'm just tired of thing breaking. Earlier this week I sat in my desk chair at home and one of the wheels went snap. What else is going to happen? I just hope I don't break the chair I'm sitting in now -- one of the little chairs from the kids' writing table. It sits about a foot off the ground, so I'm squatting at the keyboard right now, typing like a madman.

This is, by the way, my 1,000th post. Not an auspicious one by any means, but still it's a meaningless round-number milestone that must be marked with some kind of celebration. So I might go make a quesadilla for lunch.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Heat

I really enjoy our wood stove. I like the feel of the heat, the white noise if the blower, the fact that I'm heating my house burning someone else's trash that would get burned whether it were in a place where it's heat would benefit me or not. I'm lying on the couch by the stove now, soaking in the warm, slightly smoky ambiance.

We buy our wood from an outfit that builds log homes. We buy their scrap, not the nifty logs that are so popular. We can get a winter's worth of wood for about $50. It doesn't completely replace our gas furnace, but it does mean the furnace runs a lot less.

Another benefit: I never have to worry about identity theft with a wood stove. Nor do I have to buy a shredder. Every February, after the taxes are done, I go through our filing cabinet and discard the old bills and other paperwork we no longer need and spend the next month shoving it all into the stove. Up the chimney it goes.

And the ash, we throw into the garden. Over the past few years, we've made the soil better, adding this extra matter to the clay in the garden. That --and the turkey manure -- I'm convinced gave us a bumper tomato crop last year.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPod Touch, like a pretentious pseudosnob.

Yay! First Spam Comment!

This humble blog is working its way up in the world, for it has received its first spamalicious blog comment.

Now, I visit a lot of blogs. It's always fun to read the spam comments, which are almost always along the lines of "Those are great pix/comments/thoughts! You can learn more about [Subject X] at my blog." That's about what I got today.

Not that I mind. I mean, I'm already a fan of the Idaho National Laboratory on Facebook. I work there (albeit on the waste cleanup side, not the slicker, sweeter, much more socially acceptable research side where I am anxiously engaged in trying to get a job).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

State of the Union




I have to confess: He does give a good speech. And I've grown cynical over the last year, hearing the flowery speeches but seeing little action. But then I realized, hell, could I get done in a year what President Obama bit off? Probably not. Not, certainly, given the animosity from the GOP who say no to everything, even if it's good, and the blind insistence from the Democrats that they get everything they want or nothing at all.

Two bits to tonight's State of the Union stood out to me. First, clean energy:
[T]o create more of these clean-energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives, and that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.
It means making tough decisions about opening new off-shore areas for oil and gas development.

It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean-coal technologies.

And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.
Here, big bugaboos for the left. He did indeed say "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." This is big news for Idaho and the Idaho National Laboratory, where work on the Next Generation Nuclear Plant is underway, and where French energy giant Areva plans to build a $2 billion uranium enrichment plan, despite what State Rep. Tom Loertscher might have to say about the situation. Clean coal. New off-shore oil and gas development. The left is going to hate this. But if we want energy independence -- which we could have had thirty or forty years ago if the left had't been the Party of No as much as they accuse the Republicans of being such today -- we've got to do this. Especially nuclear. I have never understood why, with Idaho's nuclear legacy, that we do not have commercial nuclear power in this state. We need this.

Then there's health care. I like what I'm hearing, if I'm not perfectly pleased with the bills currently being debated in Washington:
I took on health care because of the stories I've heard, from Americans with pre-existing conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage, patients who've been denied coverage, families, even those with insurance, who are just one illness away from financial ruin.

After nearly a century of trying -- Democratic administrations, Republican administrations -- we are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans.

Our approach would preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan. It would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses.

And according to the Congressional Budget Office, the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress, our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades.

Still, this is a complex issue. And the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering, "What's in it for me?"

But I also know this problem is not going away. By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small-business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether.
I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber.

As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed. There's a reason why many doctors, nurses, and health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo.

But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.

Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform, not now, not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done.
Here, bugaboos for the Right. I'd like to hear the GOP answer this challenge -- if they think what's being proposed is so terrible, where are their ideas? And don't tell me the private market or the status quo. I've seen the status quo. I saw my Dad cash in his retirement savings in the 1980s because of a quadruple arterial bypass operation he had to have to live that he couldn't afford otherwise because we couldn't afford health insurance. I've seen my own private sector health care premiums soar even without us ever filing a claim. The status quo stinks, GOP. If you're the Party of No, I left you with good reason, and good riddance.

I like as well that on health care he's sending a message also to the Democrats and to the mass media. So you don't have that filibuster-proof Senate majority. Don't crumple and give way. Don't listen to the media who want you to give way so they can blame it all on the GOP and their Party of No attitude. Sincerely, and with due diligence, get off your fat, federally-pensioned and insured fannies and see if you can't make the system better for the rest of us. And if you can't, GOP, I'd like to see all of your heinies off the Cadillac health and pension plans you get in the federal system and deal with life as it's tossed to the rest of us. You can have the health insurance policy that I have for my family that will cover us if we have a catastrophic accident, but won't cover us for the incidentals, making us not want to use what the private sector asks us to pay for. You want to talk about rat holes, GOP? Live on the insurance I've had for a year. Pay that $300 monthly premium and then don't ever use the insurance because it won't pay unless I'm in a car crash, and then when it does, whoa nellie do my premiums go up, up, up.

A few other topics: I can't say I'm thrilled with what's being proposed to help the middle class. What's being proposed won't help my family much at all. But there are families out there it will help. So go for it. See what you can do as a bipartisan congress to make things better.

A full transcript of the State of the Union -- without media spin -- is available here. Read it.

Republican response by Gov. McDonnell of Virginia is here. Read it, too. And Gov. McDonnell, what is worse? A government that tries to do too much, or a government that does too little? And to hear the GOP squawk about budget deficits just makes me laugh out loud. Pot, Meet Mr. Kettle.

. . . With all that Knowledge You Have . . .



See? The 1970s Steve Jobs DOES look like Uncle Rico. Hair. Mustache. Watch. Smirk. And they both look like they've got all the answers. Really legit.

The iPad is no Savior



Steve Jobs with an Uncle Rico vibe

So now we have the iPad.

First of all, great name. Much better than the iTablet a lot of folks were anticipating. From iPod to iPad with one vowel change. Classy.

Will I own one? Depends on the price. Sure, it appears to be handier for surfing the Web and reading than your standard laptop. I have used a laptop for reading and watching movies while on the bus home from work, and it's cumbersome. First I had trouble with my wrists banging on the touch pad for the mouse. Then I got a micro-mouse and had to juggle it while trying to work or entertain myself. So to have a touchscreen, now that would be nice. Even nicer, in my opinion, if it had cutting board-style handles, so I could hold it like a cutting board or book while I watch. I know I've come too close a few times to dropping my Compaq laptop, and I can't imagine dropping an iPad would be a good experience, given the fact that its front surface appears to be about 99 percent glass.

That's another issue -- fragility. These things have got to be rugged, in my opinion, or it'll end in tears. I felt sick to the stomach for weeks after my first iPod Touch went through the clothes washer and died, and that was only a $300 investment. Engadget.com is telling us that a 16 GB iPad will cost $499 -- as inexpensive as a laptop if you hold a blind eye to memory comparisons. A 64 GB iPad, $699, and that's if you go for the wifi-only model. Want connectivity all the time? That'll cost you extra, and I'll be curious to see if it's over the much-hated AT&T 3G network. A 64 GB with 3G capability will run $829. It's a spendy little object.

And a 10-hour battery life? I'm skeptical.

And do I want a bulky object like this? Sure, it's less bulky than an ordinary laptop. But compared to the iPod Touch, which I love, it's huge. And huge definitely isn't better. I like the privacy of my little 3.5 inch screen. I can put it in a pocket if I want to. Of couse, that's how the first one ended up going through the clothes washer.

And the other issue -- Apple is notorious for putting a product on the market and thn, a year later, introducing a better model that's less expensive. I'm hesitant to be an early adopter, especially with Apple.

But would I, could I use one? Probably. I didn't need an iPod Touch until I had one and sent it through the washer. So having an iPad, once I got over the price, fragility and other factors, might be a good thing. But there's a limit on how much I'm willing to pay to get over that "I have to have it" hump.

And I have to laugh a bit. CNN reports that traditional publishers -- magazines and newspapers, to be exact -- are salivating that the advent of an Apple iPad could help them revive their fortunes with subscriptions and such. Well, that remains to be seen. True, the iPad offers full color. But that's hardly enough, in my opinion, to get these publishers a huge rush of online subscriptions. I'm nto sure a product, at this point, is going to change how people consume their news. And since this thing has a web browser, why pay for waht's already out there, on the Internet, for free? The iPad isn't going to be a publishing savior.

I'm fascinated with our fixation on objects and technology as saviors of this or that. The advent of the home computer and the Internet -- objects, arguably -- haven't really helped newspapers, music distributors, et cetera. They've hurt. What they need to do is to figure out how to get back into the public psyche. Just because the iPad appears isn't going to mean that we're suddenly willing to subscribe to online newspapers or online magazines. We've probved that supposition wrong time and again with our access to computers and smart phones, time and again, with the industry aiding and abetting us by offering their stuff for free. The advent of the printing press didn't suddenly mean that everyone was literate, or cared to be literate. That change took hundreds of years of further advancement, and even today, with our access to education and information, literacy isn't a given. The printing press, ad its beginning, got a few people excited. It wasn't until more people could read -- and the development of the quattro -- that printing really took off. To assume a hunk of technology like the iPad is going to explode quickly and permeate our collective psyche as much as printed books or the Internet have is foolishness.

Update: The folks over at Engadget got their gadgety hands on an iPad and took it for a drive. Ther principal criticism: no multitasking. Bummer. So why buy one when a less expensive laptop will do what you want? This no-multitasking fetish that Apple has for its products (neitehr the iPhone nor the iPod Touch allow for multitasking) is an options deficit for a crowd that likes its options.

Another Update: Time Magazine has this nonsensical reportage -- if you can even call it that -- from Peter Ha re: the iPad. iThink he lost me from the get go. If this is twitter reporting, or live event reporting, then can we go back to the old print media? I didn't learn a thing from this one.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Review: A Small Town in Germany



I’ll warn you, it starts slow. But then it takes you screaming down odd twisted paths and leaves you dumped at the end of the line, wholly unsatisfied, but ready to read another book by John le Carre.


There, my one-paragraph review of “A Small Town in Germany,” the first of le Carre’s books I’ve read, following my long-standing policy of reading books that typically come to me through thrift store purchases, outright donations or are discovered being smuggled into the house baked inside loaves of bread.

The one sympathetic character in the book is the one you don’t get to meet. The rest of them are anti-heroes at best, schemers at worst – which is probably an accurate reflection of the seedier side of mankind – the decent guy is the one you never meet. But then he’s not decent, then, is he? I won’t spoil any plots, but be ready to discover there are no white hats in this roundup.

I’ll ding it one star for crude sexual references that add nothing to the plot nor to the overall contemptible anti-hero’s persona. The book, and its characters, are brutal, brutish, ugly and inhuman, as inhuman as the Nazis who inevitably become the book’s shadow villains. Nazis, of course, are perfect villains, because that’s their shtick. “Nazis. I hate these guys,” is an apt line to steal from Indiana Jones when reading this book.

Le Carre has an interesting style. No one is omniscient in this book. We learn along with the characters, and as little as possible, to boot. Nor are we left with a clear-cut understanding as to how the plot is sewn together. There is much left unsaid that le Carre leaves to the reader to fill in. That’s admirable in a spy novel, because the true impulse is to wrap up everything in a neat package at the end like an Agatha Christie novel. The flaw with that premise is that life rarely comes in such neatly-wrapped packages. Le Carre captures that frustration well, and plays it to great narrative advantage.

Best. Blog Post. Ever.

Is here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

It's Tax Time!


I finally have enough paperwork to start on our taxes in earnest. Why I should involve Ernest, who, while being a nice guy, isn't exactly the brightest guy in the world, is beyond me. Must be because he was man enough to admit he'd lost his finding device.

Anyway, it's tax time at our house. A few days ago, a friend of mine asked how we always managed to get good news at tax time, rather than bad. Three simple reasons, and they're all asleep right now. I hear a lot of people, of course, get upset that because of the child tax credit, people with children have an unfair advantage over those who do not. To them I say this: Bullcookies. I'll trade you any year you like, pal. Kids are way more expensive than the little tax refund we get for having a few extra dependents lying around the house. Yes, I know that since we opted to have children we ought to be prepared for the expenses. And we are. And we don't look at our kids through a spreadsheet, either, figuring out the costs and benefits of having children. We just had kids because, on occasion, they're fun to have around. For example, thanks to my kids and a round of Mad Libs, we now have a new rallying cry at our house: "Let's Get Frumpy!" And we do that a lot, folks. Oh, we do.

Because of our dependents and associated tax credits, tax time at our house is a happy time. And this happy time couldn't come at a more fortuitous time, because with the refund we get we can knock out our credit card debt once and for all. Then we re-jigger and cut up the superfluous cards and set ourselves on the road to fiscal responsibility. Take that, Karl Marx.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Climate Change Keystone Kops



I thought, at one time, that scientists were supposed to be rational beings. As Climategate continues to snowball -- though you couldn't tell if you're reading American news media outlets as the scandal seems, at least to the news folks, to be a purely British phenomenon -- additional revelations keep emerging that demonstrate how scientists and climate change true believers are using scare tactics, not science, to push their agendas.

This is a critical error. If scientists and true believers want to convince skeptics that climate change is real -- and I believe they do a fairly good job in some aspects of this -- I have to confess they end up looking like the Keystone Kops when their exaggerations and half-truths come to life.

The Times Online offers this report revealing that in 2007, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change incorrectly linked global warming to an increase in natural disasters, based on an unpublished and unreviewed study that when it was published, the Times said, "had a new caveat. It said: 'We find insufficient evidence to claim a statistical relationship between global temperature increase and catastrophe losses."

The cited study, written by Robert Muir-Wood, suggested that a 2 percent annual increase in catastrophes from 1970 to 2005 coincided with a period of global warming. He cautioned, however, as the Times Online reports:
Muir-Wood was, however, careful to point out that almost all this increase could be accounted for by the exceptionally strong hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005. There were also other more technical factors that could cause bias, such as exchange rates which meant that disasters hitting the US would appear to cost proportionately more in insurance payouts.

Despite such caveats, the IPCC report used the study in its section on disasters and hazards, but cited only the 1970-2005 result.
Roger Pielke, an environmental studies professor at Colorado University, who commissioned the study, chided the UN for cherry-picking information from Muir-Wood's study. The Times Online says:
Pielke has also told the IPCC that citing one section of Muir-Wood's paper in preference to the rest of his work, and all the other peer-reviewed literature, was wrong.

He said: "All the literature published before and since the IPCC report shows that rising disaster losses can be explained entirely by social change. People have looked hard for evidence that global warming plays a part but can't find it. Muir-Wood's study actually confirmed that."
To me, this illustrates that the true believers of climate change will look for any bit of evidence to support their claims -- even evidence they have to take out of context or misinterpret deliberately in order to use it as proof. Muir-Wood and Pielke were interested in presenting data as it relates to the real world. Those interpreting their data to present it as it relates to the religion of climate change do themselves and their cause a disservice, and once again offer evidence to skeptics that their claims overall must be questioned.

Also this week, the Daily Mail Online offers a report showing that claims that the Himilayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 were that -- just claims. In fact, the individual cited making the claim says he said no such thing and admits that the number was pulled out of the air. He and others accuse the UN of taking the claim for fact in the same IPCC report when it had never been proven in order to put political pressure on world governments to act to curb climate change.

Noble reasons, I suppose, but nobility fades when the route taken there is unethical at best, scientifically wrong at worst.

The Daily Mail Online says:
Professor Graham Cogley, a glacier expert at Trent University in Canada, who began to raise doubts in scientific circles last year, said the claim multiplies the rate at which glaciers have been seen to melt by a factor of about 25.

‘My educated guess is that there will be somewhat less ice in 2035 than there is now,’ he said.

“But there is no way the glaciers will be close to disappearing. It doesn’t seem to me that exaggerating the problem’s seriousness is going to help solve it.’

One of the problems bedevilling Himalayan glacier research is a lack of reliable data. But an authoritative report published last November by the Indian government said: ‘Himalayan glaciers have not in any way exhibited, especially in recent years, an abnormal annual retreat.’
Let me empahsize something Prof. Graham Cogley says: "It doesn't seem to me that exaggerating the problem's seriousness is going to help solve it." All it does is fuel the skeptics and do-nothings who want to find evidence against climate change as badly as those who believe in it want to find evidence that it is imminent.

Of course you'll notice another telling fact in these reports" Both were done by British newspapers. The British press seems to regard this as newsworthy, this Climategate. Not so the American press, which is toeing the climate change line simply by ignoring these things. Or, if not ignoring, at least capably burying the stories next to the tide schedules on page 39.

Now I Understand


Earlier this evening, as I was headed out to the garbage can with the kids' SpongeBob Square Pants magic sticker playset and their el-cheapo Etch-a-Sketch knockoff, it suddenly dawned on me:

This is probably what happened to Mr. Rockbottom.

Mr. Rockbottom was a stuffed cat I had as a kid, and dearly loved. He went everywhere with me. I bought him pseudo-backpacks that were really canteen cases from the army surplus store, then took him next door to the sandblasting place and filled his backpacks with pumice, that magic rock that floats. When he sprung a hole and lost his stuffing, I remember clearly sitting on the edge of our gravel driveway, singing happily away as I stuffed him with gravel and sewed him up. That my older brothers took him and used him as a weapon in their disputes I could not control.

Eventually, Mr. Rockbottom disappeared. I spent a few months looking for him, at first frenzied, then halfheartedly. I spent most of the time looking in the garage, on the random shelves, for example. I don't know why.

So as I was discarding the toys -- plus another two bags o' plastic crap that have yet to go outside --I realized it was probably a night like this that Mr. Rockbottom met his untimely demise. I'm pleased, however, to still have my teddy bears that my grandmother made for me. I'll never give them up.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Oh, Look at All the Decent People

I'm glad I'm not the only one having a problem with this.

Fraser Speirs, a computer teacher, school IT officer and software developer is concerned that Apple's App Store, while allowing parents to block the downloading of mature-rated apps, does nothing to screen such apps from the store itself -- leaving his students exposed -- pardon the pun -- to the apps' icons, descriptions and other such nonsense that he'd rather not his students see.

I wrote about my similar concerns about the app store and these undesirable apps earlier this year. I think Speirs and I see eye to eye -- neither one of us are asking that the apps be banned. I think we're both on the same line in saying that the iPod Touch's ability to block downloading such apps also include filtering them out of the store, or at least preventing their icons and descriptions from being shown on devices where the controls are in place.

Speirs brings up another good point: The only way you can block such apps completely is to block the app store completely, which reduces teh functionality and desirability of the Apple devices in the first place.

I'd like to see Apple reprogram the parental blocking feature to screen out the apps that are blocked. If we don't want them downloaded onto our devices, it should go without saying that we don't want them displayed when we browse the app store. Surely Apple's developers are intelligent enough to figure this out. This is a solution that satisfies both worlds: Those who want or don't mind the apps don't have to lift a finger. Those who don't have the option of blocking the browsing as well as the downloading.

Ca ne s'use pas Vite



There is much lamentation in Laredo, Texas, as the city's last bookstore closes, leaving this city of about 250,000 without a store dedicated to pulp. And I have to wonder: Why is everyone so worried?

Truth be told, it's been more than a year since the last time I went into a bricks-and-mortar store for new books and actually bought a new book.

I'm not an illiterate slob, however, as readers of this blog will know all too well. I just have alternate sources in Sugar City -- population 1,245 -- and Rexburg -- population 26,000 or so -- both of which don't have new bookstores either.

I'm a magnet for books. I don't have to go out to find them. They find me. In the past year, we've had four huge boxes of books figuratively abandoned on our doorstep. We don't keep them all, but we keep a fair share of them.

And when I get an itch for a "new" book, I head not to the Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls, population 60,000 and 26 miles away, but to the Deseret Industries thrift store in Rexburg, which has a pretty good book selection. No, I don't often find the most recent titles, but I'm not interested in the most recent titles. In fact, I have a lot more fun poking through the stacks at the DI and other used book sources than I do wandering the sterile shelves at a new book store. It's like what Obelix says about menhirs in Obelix et Compagnie: "Quand les gens en ont un, ils n'en veulent pas d'autre. Ca ne s'use pas vite." Or, in other words, "When someone has one menhir, they don't want another one. They don't wear out very quickly."

I'm the opposite on the wanting. I always want more books. And that they don't wear out quickly is why I can afford to buy lots of books at the thrift stores, because I can get them for fifty cents, a dollar, two dollars. I'm always swimming in books. It's great.

I'm sure they have thrift stores in Laredo, Texas. And they have Internet access, undoubtedly. And if there's as much demand for books as CNN is fond of telling us whenever they recycle this story, surely someone in a town of 250,000 has enough smarts to start up -- gasp -- and independent bookstore, and not rely on the whims of chains. Or someone can start a used bookstore. Albertson, Montana, has one of the largest used book stores in the nation, and that town doesn't have much on Sugar City when it comes to population.

It can be done, folks. Laredo is ripe for an independent store. Act now and cement your audience before a chain comes back. Barnes and Noble says they closed the B. Dalton there -- which was profitable -- because they want to switch from those stores to their own megastores, one of which the chain plans to build in Laredo within the next two years. That sounds like ample time to get an independent off the ground and collect a loyal audience.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dump Hunger



Out at work, we're participating in Western States Cat's Dump Hunger campaign, in which they hope to collect enough food for the Idaho Food Bank to fill two giant Caterpillar dump trucks. This Saturday, from noon to 3 pm, you can take your kids to the Albertsons store on 17th and Holmes Aveune in Idaho Falls to get their picture taken with one of these massive trucks, as long as they bring a couple cans of food to contribute to the effort. Albertsons and Western States Cat will contribute up to $42,000 to the campaign in matching funds, based on the total pounds of food collected. You can get more information about the campaign here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mars Beckons



Whenever I see something like this, I can hear Ray Bradbury shouting for joy. The sight of those dust devils swirling around on the surface of Mars? Gave me chills. Of COURSE I say, Mars is a changing, dynamic planet. It has an atmosphere. It has geology. It has gravity. With those three, but not those three alone, there is dynamism.

I want to go to Mars before I die. Is that too much to ask of our space program? Alas, back to the forecastle of the Pequod.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Stop Blaming Bush, It's Not Helping A Bit



In case no one has noticed, George W. Bush isn’t president any more.

I admit to this: In 2000, I voted for the man. In 2004, I voted for uh, that guy. The pinto explodes guy. Ralph Nader. Guess which vote I’m the least proud of?

So in 2008, I voted for one Barack Hussein Obama. Great guy. Gives a good speech. Promises a lot of things, as all politicians do, and fails to deliver on a lot of things, as all politicians do.

But some days, I feel like Bush is still in the White House.

It’s little stuff like this. So your Democrat Senate candidate is behind in the polls. It’s not her fault. It’s not the Democrats’ fault. It’s all Bush’s fault.

Ad nauseum, ad nauseum. Gingivitis? It’s Bush’s fault. I’m gassy from breakfast. Well, Bush made me eat those quesadillas at four in the morning, so he’s to blame.

Stop it. Now.

Yes, we pretty much did head into the toilet in the aughts. But, you know what? Gather ‘round. That kind of thing has happened before. Presidents have handed rotten economies, wars, the decision on whether to use atomic weapons and such, over to their predecessors, either through death, assassination, term limits or a desire not to have to do that damn job any more.

But Noemie Emery, writing for the Weekly Standard, puts it a lot better than I can:

So eager is the Obama team to cast blame upon Bush that it blames him for sins he never committed, as even reporters friendly to Obama have been forced to make clear. “Taking a decidedly different tack from his predecessor .  .  . Obama on Thursday took the blame for shortcomings that led to a failed Christmas Day bombing plot,” Politico reported. “Aides to Obama signaled that he was consciously seeking to be the anti-Bush .  .  . quick, transparent, willing to take the blame—all things Obama has said President George W. Bush was not.” Alas, a few paragraphs later, the reporters themselves blew the whistle, reminding us of all the times Bush had taken the blame for errors—on his response to Katrina, and the reports that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction—in words like those used by Obama himself. “To the extent the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility,” he said 18 days after Katrina. “I want to know what went right and what went wrong.”
I like this point most particularly:

Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy ran to succeed a president of the opposite party whom they did not oppose in the election but whose administrations they felt obliged to critique. Once in office, however, they dropped the subject, and concentrated on governing, without further complaints about the messes they were handed: the Communists in Eastern Europe, the Communists with the H-Bomb, the conflict in Korea, the war in Vietnam and Laos, the potentially lethal flash point and mess in Berlin. Both Ike and Jack were judged in the end to be pretty good presidents, and their era—the early Cold War—as very important. They fought the enemy, not one another, at least not in public, and not once they had taken the oath of office. The crises they faced stand up to Obama’s. And back then, the buck stopped with them.
In other words, it’s fair to criticize Bush. It’s expected. I do it myself. But at the same time, those who criticized past presidencies got on with the work and didn’t insist on blaming every tiny little setback on the previous administration. They looked forward. They solved problems. Did Kennedy harrumph and ramble that the Cuban Missile Crisis was Eisenhower’s fault? Or Roosevelt’s, since that pesky Roosevelt didn’t lift a finger when Eastern Europe was enslaved by Communism, thus emboldening the Soviets to expand into the Western Hemisphere? No. he got on with the work and successfully faced the Soviets down. You’ve heard of the Thirteen Days?

That’s how presidents handle crises. They deal with them. They don’t blame them on the other guy. And that’s how parties ought to operate too. Maybe privately blame is spread all over the place. Given human nature, that's more likely than not. But it becomes presidential when what appears is shoe leather, determination, blood, tears, toil, and sweat, rather than those pointing fingers.

Now don’t say I’m a Republican shill, because I’m not. This isn’t a case of a pot calling any kettle black. The Republicans have done their fair share of Blame the Other Guy as well. That’s stupidity. It’s not politics. And it’s not solving our problems, either.

If Democrats want to solve problems, they need to solve this one now. Stop blaming Bush and see what can be done to fix what’s wrong. I won’t argue that Bush didn’t cause problems. But simply pointing those fingers and saying, well, we can’t get this done because of Bush or the Republicans or whatever is taking the wimp’s way out. Are y’all wimps or something? Jon Stewart seems to think so. Let’s all meet with him at Camera Three.

An aside: Are the Democrats, aided and abetted by the MSM, about to set up another blame game? CNN sure hopes so:
Boston, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Voters across Massachusetts braved winter cold and snow Tuesday to decide who will inherit the U.S. Senate seat controlled by the Kennedy family since 1953.

At stake was President Obama's domestic agenda, including the overhaul of health care.

If GOP state Sen. Scott Brown upsets Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley, Republicans would strip Democrats of their 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Republicans would have enough votes to block future Senate votes on a broad range of White House priorities.
Sorry, America. We were soooo close to fixing everything that's wrong with health care. But since the GOP won the Kennedy Seat (R) in Massachusetts, well, we're just going to sit around and do nothing. Business as usual. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Yet another aside: Slate hopes so too. So with a supermajority of 60, the Dems can do health reform. With a simple majority of 59, all hopes are lost? Are the Dems that ineffectual? Is the GOP still that powerful?

Going Analog

It always happens like this.

Some new technology – like fire – comes along, and everyone gets excited about it. Some adopt it early and are talked about behind their backs. “You know, Oog him have fire. See smoke come out of cave all day and all night. Him never leave cave any more. Him never eat raw meat any more. Him too fascinated with fire.”

Then it happens: the technology goes mainstream. Everyone has fire; everyone smells of smoke, has watery eyes, and is fighting over the brush and timber within a half-mile of the colony. There are still a few holdouts, but, for the most part, the new technology is standard.

But then there’s the backlash. Somebody loses his or her eyebrows. Someone else steps on a bed of hot coals. And some of the early adopters are so sick of how all the noobz have ruined fire and made it common and ordinary that they, too, abandon the technology and go back to the way things were.

Same with the Internet.

Enter the Suicide Machine. As Time reports, the service, launched Dec. 19, works with your logins and passwords to obliterate your presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. It allows you, if you so choose, to “go analog,” back to the time when nobody knew who you were, you weren’t bragging about your unaccomplished life and otherwise making a Web 2.0 fool of yourself.

Obviously, it’s not for everyone. I’m pretty pleased with what comes up on me during a Google search – and frankly, what Google brings up isn’t stuff that the Suicide Machine could kill. Searches bring up old newspaper articles that, as far as I can tell, will remain king of searches with my name until I’m old and gray, or do something more spectacular than write about the Lewis and Clark State College teacher education agreement with Ricks College, or art programs at Madison Middle School.

There is something about the Internet that makes just about everyone an exhibitionist. But that’s the point of publishing. Or, as Mark Twain put it, the point of having private information. Twain wrote: “It is no use to keep private information which you can't show off.”

There have always been exhibitionists and there will always be exhibitionists. The Internet just makes exhibitionism easier and less expensive. Where twenty or thirty years ago one had to get a movie camera or stand on a street corner and do weird performance art to get attention, these days attention is only a YouTube or a Twitter away. That’s both good and bad. Pay attention to what you exhibit, and you’ve got no real reason to want to go analog again. Throw up just anything and, yeah, you’ve got something to worry about. Clay Shirky writes about this in “Here Comes Everybody,” pointing out that it’s not the medium’s fault that a lot of what gets “published” on the Internet is dreck. What’s significant is that the number of outlets have increased, and the chance that the one brilliant thing you do in your lifetime might now have a chance to be recognized.

And for folks like me, it’s an outlet. A place to babble. A place to exercise what few talents I have as a writer and such.

Treat the Internet well, and it’ll treat you well. Just look at Underdog, whose only disguise is a pair of glasses and a mile manner. Remove those, and Shoeshine Boy becomes Underdog.



I’m not sure I’d want to go analog unless I could deflect bullets with my chest. Secret is Underdog, in his mild-mannered persona, doesn't do anything that would blow his secret identity. Same with the Internet. have fun. Write some good stuff. Take some good pictures. Just don't put up anything you might regret seeing later.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Uncharted Visits Antelope Island



Yes, after a brief winter hiatus as we tweaked a few things, celebrated Christmas and generally got hit on the head so we forgot where we were going, Uncharted is again in the updating game. This week, read Explorer Fishstyx's adventures on Antelope Island, that mysterious blot of mountains that rise majestically out of the salty brine of Utah's Great Salt Lake. This is a place I've always wanted to visit and a place my wife, a native Utahn, has never been to. The closest she's been was when she was a child playing in the waters of Willard Bay. She also dipped a hard sugar cookie in the waters of the bay to soften it up a bit. That story is so fascinating in its grossness that I reeat it as often as narrative will permit. Yuck. So if we ever go to Antelope Island -- and Fishstyx has inspired me to do so, probably this summer -- we're taking the family. We'll explore the island, rustle up some antelope and bison. And a batch of really hard sugar cookies.

MLK



I'm sure the majority of Americans have not heard Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech in full, so here it is. We've come a long way as a nation since this day, but it's apparent we still have a lot of work to do, including the reminders Uncle Jay offers at the end of this week's "Uncle Jay Explains:"


Citizen Journalism Shutting Down

South Fremont News and Views, which I wrote about on this blog about eight months ago when they got their start, is shutting down. Those who organized the site and tried to keep it going ran into the same small-town journalism realities that the dead tree newspapers they competed against face: Few resources trying to cover diverse news interests with dwindling (and in South Fremont News and Views' case, nonexistent) advertising revenue.

Web-based news efforts, in their current shape, thrive on eyeballs, and while online intensely local journalism may work in its present form in suburban and urban areas, the success in a rural area such as Fremont County -- which has a population of about 12,000, fiercely dvidied along regional lines, making any news effort tagged with a "South Fremont" monicker serve an even less diverse audience -- dicey at best. In situations such as this, one has to be an ad manager first, a news gatherer second. Those running SFNV wanted to put news first, and literally paid the price. It's a pity to see this effort fold, as I believe it served its portion of the county well.

Fremont County has always been an odd duck in the news department, and, according to our local CBS affiliate, will remain so, as a self-described "unemployed journalist" is starting a new printed paper in Ashton to be called the Ashton Current. He may not know the name he chose is a riff on a previous Fremont County newspaper, the Fremont Current, which was organized by the regional daily which I used to work for in Idaho Falls after that paper purchased two smaller weeklies, the Fall River Review in Ashton and the South Fremont Stand in St. Anthony. (An internet search shows a reporter by that same name, Zach Zavoral, worked as a sports reporter for that same daily, the Post Register. If it's not him then ther are two Zach Zavorals in the world.) There was literally a time within the past 15 years that this county of 12,000 was served by no fewer than five newspapers, four of them locally-grown. That all have gone bust -- one was shuttered and rolled into its sister paper in nearby Rexburg -- isn't surprising, given the scarcity of local ad revenue and the inability of a county with such a small population to support four home-grown papers.

I've had a few people ask me why I didn't do something similar when I left the paper in 2005, and I told them flat out: Too much work for not enough reward, or no reward at all. As much as people regard journalism as a public service, reality and common sense makes it a commodity. That advertising has paid for news gathering and reporting is a fact that has worked well, up until the Internet made news free, figuratively and literally. I'm not convinced a paper focusing on a city of 1,100, with a sphere of influence that, thinking generously, could add up to 3,000, will fare well, given the state of the economy and particularly the state of Fremont County thinking. Get one out-of-town business advertising there and you'll see a backlash against your paper that no amount of in-town advertising can save. And I'm no advertising or promotions man, so any attempt on my part to singlehandedly wield the sword of Internet local journalism would be predestined to failure, not because it's not a labor of love, but because it wouldn't pay the bills.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Up Wins Two



It's no surprise to me that Up won a Golden Globe today for Best Animated Feature -- even with the film up against such powerhouses as Fantastic Mr. Fox and the cult favorite Coraline.

Even less surprising is that with Michael Giacchino at the helm, Up won in the category of Best Musical Score.

If you ask me -- and you certainly are, if you're reading this blog -- the win can best be summed up in the clip featured here, with animation and music summing up a life of happiness and bitterness in about 4 1/2 minutes. This bit from the film still makes me tear up. Dratted emotional manipulation that works because it pulls on exactly the right strings.

As far as I can tell, the only gash in the evening came with Best Animated Feature presenter Paul McCartney, who had to say a funny: "Animation isn't just for children, it's for adults who do drugs." What an idiot. Mr. McCartney, with all due respect to Your Beatleness, perhaps it would behoove you, for a moment, to get off that damned liberal high horse of yours and realize that the film genre you're talking about is a genre in its own right and that animation appeals to everyone because of the great storytelling, not necessarily because the characters are pixellated or drawn. So stuff your funny little drug reference down your throat.

Anyway, I'm pleased Up won a few. The folks at Pixar are excellent storytellers and voracious risk-takers. Who else would think a feature film with the stars being an annoying Wilderness Explorer and an old fart would work so well? Probably because like Russell, we, too, remember the boring parts the most.

A Nasty Habit



They say that the first step in getting over an addiction is recognizing that you have a problem. At least that's what it says in the Alcoholics Anonymous book I picked up a few weeks ago. It came in an enormous box of books given to us from an acquaintance who had the books, wanted to get rid of them, but felt guilty about just giving them away to someone who wouldn't appreciate them.

That's where I came in. I appreciate books.

A bit too much. I have to measure the number of books on my to-read pile not by the number of books, nor by the number of pages, but by the yard. I appear to have about 2 1/2 yards of books waiting. And that's just in the official to-read pile. I have other books on the shelves that I have not read yet, just stuck up on the shelves. The only reason the to-read pile hasn't joined them is that there is no more room on the shelves. We don't have a lot of shelves -- only 60 linear feet. I could easily do with a hundred.

Because I buy books all the time. Friday, when the kids were at school and Michelle was with her folks shopping, I went to the DI and bought a stack. Then yesterday, on the way home from our walk, I mentioned that I'd left a book there that I thought I had but didn't, so could we stop for just a minute. Bought another stack. Read one last night and maybe will start on one today, if I can get my kids to stop reading my blog posts as I write them.

Aside: They're like moths to a flame. As soon as either Michelle or I even look like we're going into the study to a computer, they're all there following us like goslings.

Another aside: I'm trying to upload a photo of our bookshelves to this blog, but for some reason I'm having trouble. Durned computers and such.

Update on another aside: Well, the photo uploaded. Who knows why?

Yet another aside: I hope, in the first aside, that you forgive me for mixing my metaphors.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pinewood Derby Time!

We've been heavily into Pinewood Derby all afternoon, but have fruits that show our success. Behold:




For those curious about construction, it's a basic BSA Pinewood Derby kit with a cockpit forged of Lego bricks. Well, the two we hot-glued to the car technically aren't Lego brand, so it was easier to sacrifice them to the glue. The whole thing weighs just under 4.4 ounces, which is a bit light for a derby car, but I think it'll do. I'll graphite up the axles before the races and Liam ought to do pretty well.

Since we decided to include Legos in the construction, Liam is now very excited to build a diorama-style pit stop for the car, complete with other Lego men, spare tires, and the like. Maybe tonight. I'm just relieved at this point that the car is ready to go well before the derby, which is coming up at the end of the month.

I helped Liam with the cutting and sanding, but he did everything else, notably the paint job. We had a little difficulty getting the wheels set right, but all seems well now. I'd sure like to find a practice track to take it down a few times before the race, however. Liam's the kind of kid who'll want to win, so I'd like to think we've built a car that'll help him do so. He doesn't have to come in first place, but it would be good if he weren't eliminated immediately.

This is Liam's first derby -- we did to the Raingutter Regatta about a year ago, and he had fun doing that. I vividly recall my participation in the raingutter regatta as a Cub Scout. I came in second place, and won a medal I was so proud of I tried unsuccessfully to transfer it to my Boy Scout uniform when I moved on. Then, of course, being a kid, I promptly lost the thing.

My Pinewood Derby memories aren't that pleasing. I remember racing with a car Albert helped me build, and watching it roll pokily down the track, well behind the others. Being a wimpy kid, I burst into tears and ran off. Even taping a handful of quarters to the front of the car didn't do much justice to it. I have a later memory of being at a scout leader's house melting lead to pour into a hollow created in a car to make it heavier, but for some reason I have no further memories of that Derby.

I wasn't much of a Cub Scout, as you can tell. Liam seems more enthusiastic about it, and part of that, I believe, is because we've helped him keep the records of what he's done so he can actually progress and get his rank advancements. I don't recall that kind of support from leaders when I was a kid, though I do remember doing a lot of the requirements that I've been helping Liam with over the years. I think Mom and Dad just figured we'd do the requirements in Scouts, and I never volunteered to do them at home, so that's what happened there.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lazy Friday

Two accomplishments today:

First of all I fixed my desk today. It's one of those that is broken as soon as you put it together. One of the keyboard drawers got a bit broken and kept falling out, most of the time on the head of one of my kids, who like to crawl under the desk and get at the books underneath. I kind of liked the idea of having a booby-trapped desk, but the drawer kept getting looser and looser and falling out more often. So I got some corner braces and fixed the stupid thing.

I mentioned another accomplishment: waffles for dinner. Not big in most books, but they tasted good.

I did have about two hours today alone, without any kids or anyone else asking for attention. That's how I was able to get the time to go to the hardware store to get the parts to fix my desk. I also went to the DI for books. Not that I need any more books, but it was nice to look at books without having somebody bring me a toy and ask if they could have it. I found three more by Niel Hancock, so that made me happy. I may also sneak in a nap, while the kids play and Michelle scrapbooks.

Tomorrow will bring more research time for a job I applied for, followed up with time with Liam, getting his Pinewood Derby car finished. We've got it cut and sanded, Liam just needs to paint it, then we need to get the wheels attached properly.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPod Touch, like a pretentious pseudosnob.

Our Son Will Be Some Kind of Artist



I take this recent drawing done by our nine-year-old -- who is fascinated with comic strips -- to mean that he's working on his technique. Maybe he'll be a cartoonist when he grows up. That, or as his Mom guesses, maybe he'll be a strip-tease artist, since in addition to drawing he also occasionally takes his clothes off (or tries to) at inappropriate times. They were at Wal-Mart a few days ago, and when Michelle happened to turn around, there he was unbuttoning his shirt. Had a t-shirt on underneath, but still.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Hermit of Iapetus, Part X



Past portions can be found here.

I read once that a Dutch sailor, marooned on the island of Saint Helena for some crime, fell into such despair at being left alone that he dug up the body of a fallen comrade and set to sea in the coffin. But being a Dutchman, of course – and a sailor besides – he was used to crowded, close quarters. Being alone takes practice. And discipline. And the inability to see squirrels on the ridge where squirrels ought not to be.


Once, on a restless night, I roamed our house from room to room. The boys were in bed. Their mother was in the laundry room, sewing. I often startled her – on accident because I walk so quietly – when I entered the room and spoke to her, her back to the door. She teased me that night. “Are you feeling needy,” she asked? I laughed as well. “Not really,” I responded. “Just restless.” The restlessness that night led me from the basement upstairs where I cooked a midnight snack, then went to bed after reading a bit.

A month later, I was on Iapetus.

I’m often startled at the speed of my flight. We were happy. We had two beautiful sons, going to school. I had a job I enjoyed. I look back and ask myself, why did I run? We had our differences, same as any married couple. But we didn’t fight. We disagreed over the standard things: money, child-raising, shoes piled by the doorway, socks thrown in a pile under the bed. And cereal. We bought two boxes of cereal while on vacation in France, and I had the temerity to eat an entire box without sharing. That was the worst fight we ever had. Miniscule things, that we look back and laugh at.

Well, mostly laugh at. The cereal thing, I think, still irritates her.

I was restless. Still am. I walk ten, fifteen, twenty miles a day, checking equipment, planting wires for the seismographs – I finally did get that package from the scientist in Pasadena – and not noticing the squirrels. I have nervous legs when I sit for a meal, twitching a leg, a foot. My father had nervous legs. He was a Dutchman, though he never set out to sea in a coffin. He was, briefly, an ordinary soldier in the Dutch army. He told stories of the country boys wrapping the city boys up in a carpet so they could demonstrate how they could lift them trussed, but instead sat on their faces. He also leaped into a river with his gun held high over his head to show the rest in the company how it was done, and had to be dragged from the river by a fisherman before he drowned. He left Holland for America, traveled west. Wanted to be a farmer but instead became a bricklayer who quit for a year once to drive a truck, loads of coal or grain, but then back to the bricklaying but always adding on to the house, turning a chicken coop into a guest house – no bathroom, no electricity, a bed made of plywood and the walls plastered with mortar.

He was restless, too.

And Liam is still coming. Now just seven days away.

Online Activism, or, It's Feel Sorry for Scott Adams Time



Scott Adams today at the Dilbert.com blog writes that one of the reasons for making online reviews of books, restaurants, et cetera, illegal is that controversial books tend to attract one-star reviews by those who disagree philosophically with the books’ content. I quote:

My argument for making online reviews illegal is that illegitimate reviews have a huge potential economic impact. For example, when I published my book that was a collection of blog posts (Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain), I got hammered with one-star reviews from people who loved the writing from which it came. Their gripe was that, in their opinion, blog material should remain free and online. I had somehow violated a rule I didn’t realize was a rule, and so I was punished with negative reviews. The one-star reviews dragged down the average star rating on Amazon and presumably influenced other buyers.

Any controversial writer – and I sometimes fall into that category (Google "God’s Debris"), gets one-star reviews from people who want to suppress certain points of view. Online reviews are the digital equivalent of book burning. True Believers from the left and the right pile in to drive reviews low enough to sink book sales. It is activism masquerading as reviews.
His arguments – and I should note this is a thought experiment on Adams’ part, as he emphasizes he doesn’t really believe online reviews should go away – are weak at best.

Let’s talk first about the statement “Online reviews are the digital equivalent of book burning.” Uh-uh. While both negative online reviews and book burnings may have political or philosophical motivations, neither act truly succeeds in the goal -- stated or unstated – of suppressing the book in question. It’s my belief that such acts are isolated in time and, thus, at the time they occur – or are read, in the case of online reviews – they may have an impact, but that impact lessens as time proceeds. Books that were burned were still available to those who wanted to read them – just not the copies in particular that were burned. And if we as consumers truly let poor online reviews in a mixed batch of reviews for the same product, no one would purchase anything.

For instance, shortly after Christmas I purchased a USB-to-parallel cable in order to hook at parallel laser printer up to a computer without a parallel port. The cable – the least expensive offered at the online store where I was shopping – received a smattering of reviews, some good, but most of them ranked the product as poor. If I merely looked at the average rating the product received, I might not have purchased it. But because online reviews, in the aggregate, offer a wide spectrum of experience with the product, I read them all and concluded, through inference and direct evidence offered in the reviews, that the product, more likely than not, would work for me. I bought it. I installed it. It did not work. It is probably at this point that many of the one-star reviews were written because, as I read them again, they were expressing the same frustration I was experiencing. However, in re-reading the positive reviews, I discovered further clues that, on a subsequent attempt to install the product, led to it functioning flawlessly. Thus, a potential one-star review from me turned into a five-star review.

My point is this: Often, as I read the one-star reviews of any product – be it a computer cable or a book – I find clues that will help me have a five-star experience with the product.

And, yes, I have written one- and two-star reviews. Such is a natural part of being a consumer: If we encounter something we do not like, we share that feeling with others. If not, sites like The Consumerist would not exist. Recently, at goodreads.com, I wrote a short two-star review for “Ackroyd,” a book by Jules Feiffer. I really, really wanted to like it because I really, really enjoyed the film “Popeye,” for which Feiffer wrote the screenplay. The book, however, was a disappointment, and I let the good folks at goodreads know why. Will it influence others at goodreads? I kinda think that’s what the site is for. But there will be fans of the book who will disregard my poor review, and in the aggregate – since I explained clearly why the book did not appeal to me – those who have not read it will either find my review useful or parochial. That is their choice. One is not obligated to remain silent if one does not like something one has consumed.

Further, Adams goes on to say “True Believers from the left and the right pile in to drive reviews low enough to sink book sales. It is activism masquerading as reviews.” I have to say: so what? This goes beyond what Adams calls a “knee-jerk” and “naïve” appeal to the First Amendment. Adams is effectively telling those who don’t like what he writes that they ought not to write negative reviews because if they do they will hurt his economic viability. What Adams fails to realize that while he may consider this “activism” as a knee-jerk reaction from readers who want to suppress his work, it is only a natural reaction to what his readers perceive as activism masquerading as writing a book. If he is as “controversial” as an author as he believes his reviews say he is, then he ought to understand that those who read his work have the right – outside of the First Amendment – to respond to his activism with activism of their own.

Adams also writes that reviews of one of his books – which was a collection of blog postings – were generally poor because readers objected to having to pay for his postings in book form, when they were available for free online.

Well, Dave Barry can tell him all about that. How many times have I read in book jacket blurbs that his latest offering is not a collection of newspaper columns, but fresh material? Often enough to infer that Barry, too, has felt that sting. Here, Adams is simply butting heads with the naïve Internet reality that once something is free, it will remain free forever. He ought to write a book masquerading as activism on that subject.

Adams, in a way, is experiencing the “organizing without organizations” effect that Clay Shirky writes about in “Here Comes Everybody.” The Internet – through Adams’ blog, his book sales on Amazon.com, and in other outlets – is providing both his fans and his detractors ample opportunity to react to what he produces. That some of it is negative, and that some of it “presumably” effects his economic bottom line, is inevitable and unavoidable. It is also, as he concedes, unstoppable.

Note: The comic accompanying this post also appeared on Dilbert.com today. Chillingly ironic, no?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What's Next? The Eye-Roll Mark?

So Sarcasm Inc., apparently a company of some sort in Michigan, has invented a sarcasm punctuation mark. Take a gander, or a goose if you so choose:


For the amazingly low, low price of $1.99, this company will send you a bit of software that will allow you to reproduce this punctuation mark through that lovely CRTL+greater than key combination. It's not clear whether the little restricted trademark symbol will also be replicated.

This led me to wondering: When was the last punctuation mark-related breakthrough? What was the last bit of punctuation to be invented? Emoticons, probably, but I'm not going to count them because they're merely strings of existing punctuation marks. So, do we go with the colon? The semicolon? Which came first, the whole colon or the half? The "@" symbol? Can't be. That's been used for more than a century at least. Let's see what the Internet has to say.

Wikipedia tells us of the "question comma" and the "exclamation comma," patented in 1992. They provide no pictorials. I think it was a prank. Then there is the "double comma" designed by Russian Artemy Lebedev. He apparently thought the double comma would indicate more of a pause than does the current, fashionalbe, and stylish semi-colon. Leave it up to the Russians to try to develop a new punctuation mark to take over the job of an old one.

So maybe Sarcasm Inc. is on to something here. Or maybe not. After all, while the folks at MIT developed the Smoot as a new unit of measure, it hasn't caught on anywhere else outside of Cambridge. So maybe the sarcasm mark -- which looks like an unmentionable object circling in a flushed toilet -- will catch on, but for $1.99, you won't find one here. I, for one, believe punctuation should be free. Or at least phonetic, as Victor Borge demonstrates:



Odd thing is, however, they may have a point. I've learned from experience both in ordinary online forums and in more formal online forums, including class forums, that sometimes a sarcastic remark can't be read that way by others -- and that can cause trouble, from hurt feelings to a good old-fashioned flame war. Some have taken to posting things like "/sarcasm/" when they're being sarcastic, so Sarcasm Inc. is simply looking for a shorthand way to do that. If it catches on, their new punctuation mark could be a hit. but I'm not sure selling it for $1.99 will get it into the mainstream. It's interesting to see, however, how the spoken word is used far more often than the written word in such instances -- and it shows how unable some are to pick up on sarcasm if it's written, in the absence of aural and visual cues. Frank Smith, I think, would love this.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Modest Proposal



Mr. Jobs,

Sitting on my desk right now is a brand-new 32 GB iPod Touch, happily charging away. I’ve used it for the last few weeks to watch movies while I while away the 1 ½ hour commute I have home from work each night. I use it for e-mail, for blogging, for Twitter and Facebook and, I have to confess, I’m addicted to a Sponge Bob Square Pants game I found for free in the app store.

I have to confess, however, I’m having a recurring difficulty with your product that is presenting me with a problem:

I’m embarrassed to show the app store to my wife.

She, too, has a 32 GB iPod Touch that, by all indications, she seems to enjoy well. She’s downloaded a few apps, but has not spent much time perusing the app store’s offerings. In my eye, that’s a good thing – but bad for Apple – because of some of the apps she might encounter.

I’m speaking here of adult-oriented content in the app store. That there are such applications as iBoobs and the like, I suppose there’s little I can do about, given that we live in an age where such displays are acceptable. I know through research on the Web that pornography and adult-oriented apps have been and likely will continue to be a serious issue for Apple and any other company that offers similar devices and services.

I’d rather not have such apps show up when I’m searching randomly through the app store. I know the iPod Touch has parental controls that can restrict the use of explicit apps, but as explicitness is in the eye of the beholder, the control is weak at best. Additionally, I don’t have to download an app to be exposed to something I’d rather not see, nor have my wife see when she strolls through the store.

I have strong, personal reasons for wanting to avoid any kind of pornographic images entering my life. My younger brother destroyed his marriage through a pornography addiction. Subsequent emotional turmoil nearly caused him to take his life. He’s gone through hell, Mr. Jobs, because of poor choices he made, but also because our permissive society shrugs at the availability of pornography in all its forms, whether it be hard pornography that the app store, rightly, will not supply, or soft porn, which is multiplying in the app store at a slow but steady rate.

I won’t propose a ban on such apps. I would advise, however, that Apple explore strengthening parental controls in the iPod Touch/iPhone software to perform the following:
  • Prevent explicit apps from appearing in the app store. Here, explicitness would be based first on content, second on the icon image the app displays, lastly on the app title
  • The software would allow the user to turn this feature on or off, thus offering the option to those who do not wish to be exposed to explicit or adult content in any way the option of opting out.
Popping the “you must be 17 years or older” question and requiring a code to download such apps now are steps in the right direction, but I’d still rather not see even the introductory image to the adult-oriented apps currently available. I’d rather my boys not see them. I’d rather my daughter and my wife not see them. It is easier to avoid stepping on a mine if one does not enter the minefield to begin with. The app store, in its current configuration, even with parental controls, invites us into the minefield to pick the good fruit off the apple tree – no pun intended.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ohh. Science-y!



This is the kind of book that appeals to the guys who sit at the back of the theater and make fun of everything that’s going on onscreen. And to guys like me who want a little information – but not too much – about the science behind the science fiction.

The book of which I write is The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World, by Bob DeSalle and David Lindley. It came out in 1997, shortly after Steven Speilberg’s film, The Lost World, came out. The film is, of course, based on the book by Michael Crichton.

I admit to a love/hate relationship with Crichton. In too many instances, narrative drives too much of the science, which is unfortunate, because Crichton is in a position to teach as well as entertain. More often than not, however, Crichton presents enough of a scientific theory or principle to get the narrative point across and leaves it at that. (My favorite book of his is Airframe, which mixes two other interests, aviation and journalism.)

As far as explaining the science behind whether it would be possible to recreate dinosaurs from DNA extracted from dino blood-drinking mosquitoes trapped in ancient amber, DeSalle and Lindley do an adequate job, only taking the science two or three steps beyond what Crichton does. This method, however, while entertaining, doesn’t do much more for teaching science than Crichton’s approach.

Of course I know it’s a book meant for mass audiences. Individuals looking for the meat behind the bones the pair present in this book are better off going elsewhere. I learned some about nuclear physics, for example, through reading The Radioactive Boy Scout, but learned a lot more from Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb – a book meant for a more learned, more serious audience. (What those who don’t read that book would be shocked to find out, however, is how much Rhodes tackles the subject matter as a novel, creating a narrative that’s dripping with science but with enough action and character to keep the “story” moving along nicely.)

But back to this book. Their basic premise is that though this DNA-to-dino dream is just a dream now, it might be possible in the future, although success is dependent on so many factors spread out literally over millions of years that one would have to be extremely lucky and extremely wealthy in order to succeed. Buying up the world’s amber supplies, they point out, though costly, would not be as costly – nor politically difficult – as buying an island large enough to support not only the research and development, but also the dinosaur population. Forget a craggy volcanic island off Costa Rica, they say, for an experiment of this magnitude to succeed, one would need an island as big as Barbados or Martinique, and good luck getting folks off those islands. Montserrat, maybe, but then you’ve got that whole destructively active volcano thing to worry about as well, so you might be better off looking elsewhere.

What I enjoyed the most in this book is how the authors remind us that scientists have to take a critical eye to their work, ensuring that they’re not overlooking possibilities or problems – as much as humanly possible – effectively not putting on blinders, working to get the end result they wish while taking shortcuts and may in some way compromise their work. This is good advice for all of us, especially as they point out, subtly, time and again how the science in these books is kept secret and not peer reviewed – because it’s in the peer review that often those glaring mistakes or omissions are brought to light.

I don’t pretend to be a scientist, of course, just an interested reader who likes the idea of learning and nurturing the idea to think critically. I know as a journalist I needed better critical-thinking skills, and felt the program of study I took on didn’t really include that in the mix. Science has more of a built-in critical thinking system which, while not perfect, takes the concept a bit further than can be done with a few harried checks by an editor working under a deadline.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I Spit at You, New-Bright!

Ah haaah! Chalk up one victory for a guy who's not really computer savvy but is getting better through trial (lots of that) and error (even more than lots of that).

The victory in question is this: I got our legacy printer, an old HP LaserJet 4L, to work on a computer with no parallel ports. And I'm talking the old 25-pin parallels, not those nifty Centronics jobbies. Read more about my earlier agonies here.

I could blame my trouble on the fact that I bought a Chinese-made parallel to USB cable, with its accompanying insanely-translated manual of operation. But I could also blame my trouble on the fact that, the first time around, I didn't even bother following the entire instruction sequence, badly translated as it is. Wrestled with the beast last night, to no avail. Wrestled today. Then I fell back on that old Windows standard: If at first you don't succeed, uninstall all of the drivers and start over again, this time following the instructions. I did so. And the first test page I printed out was a glorious, normal test page, not the 30-page encoded monstrosity I got an hour and a half ago.

So I feel pretty good about my mad computer skillz with a Z. That means that two of the three problems encountered with the new computer I got for Christmas are solved. They are, in no particular order:

1) Getting the parallel-supported printer to talk to either my Windows 7 machine or Michelle's XP machine (I took the wimp's way out and used the XP).
2) Getting my computer to speak to the world, i.e., through powered speakers.
3) Getting SimCity 4 Rush Hour to play properly on my new computer.

The first two are solved, and Electronic Arts, in its arcane and serpentine way of doing things, is "working on a solution," though I'm not optimistic they'll pan through. So if any of you out there in SimCity 4 Land can tell me why I don't have the avenue Y intersection or the building blocks for overpasses, railroads, et cetera, I'd appreciate a ding-a-ling here. Thank you.

I'm just chuffed about the printer. That had been weighing heavily on my mind.