Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Christmas Memory

Over the years, we have enjoyed giving selfless service, especially around Christmastime. We have been so blessed - or lucky, or simply well taken care of - that we have always wanted to give back by giving something to others in need.

Last December, after several years of joblessness and desperate financial straits, we had our Christmas carefully planned around our meager budget. On the Sunday before Christmas, our church had organized an after-church activity where we assembled baskets of food (not just goodies, but real groceries suitable for a Christmas feast) and delivered them to the needy families in our congregation. It was cold, and since it was close to winter solstice it got dark quickly, but we had fun, and it was good to re-acquaint ourselves with the basket recipients.

Not long after we returned home, our doorbell rang. I opened the door, to find a member of our congregation standing there with a basket of food for us. That stark moment of cognitive dissonance was like ... well, that's how it must feel to see yourself on TV for the first time. We had never considered ourselves "needy," but somebody did, and somebody cared enough about us to perform this act of service for us.

But we got something extra in our basket. After I thanked the brother and took the basket inside, I saw an envelope nestled among the apples and oranges. I assumed it was a greeting card, but when I opened the envelope, several hundred-dollar bills fell out.

You know, I know that Christmas 2009 was full of fun times, and love, and family togetherness, but I don't remember any of that stuff - at least not with the photographic clarity with which I remember that basket of food and those hundred-dollar bills. And now that we're back on a firm financial foundation, I never want to forget that basket. I want it to colour our Christmas celebrations for the rest of our lives.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Take Two with Phineas and Ferb

I just saw the preview for tomorrow's Phineas and Ferb episode: a talk show mixing live celebrities with Dan and Swampy's fantastic mix of wit and imagination.

I have avoided talking too much about Phineas and Ferb on this blog because I don't want to sound like a sappy fanboy. That's why you didn't read a word from me about their "Summer Belongs to You," a fascinating and complicated mix of every story line the boys hadn't explored yet, steeped in references to pop culture, current events, and previous episodes, and seasoned with the kind of wit and humor that have made P&F famous among adults as well as children.

See? Sappy fanboy.

Oh well. I shall now state calmly and with great dignity that I'm looking forward to tomorrow night's episode.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

ProFlightSimulator: Challenge Them!

I just had an idea.

Many of those bogus PFS reviews on the Web are on sites that allow readers to post comments about the reviews. Many of them even allow readers to "rate" the reviews -- or to write their own reviews about the product.

I don't have the time to find them all and make a comment, rebuttal, or rating for every review. But maybe you, my readers, could each take out one or two of the reviews. Your comment doesn't have to be long. All you have to say is "ProFlightSimulator is a repackaged version of FlightGear, which is free for downloading and infinitely better than PFS. And this review was prewritten by the sellers of PFS. The reviewer just copied and pasted the prewritten text with minor modifications, and has not actually played the game. If you search for the reviewer's name on Google you will see that he is carpet-bombing the Web with this stuff."

You can even include the FlightGear URL if you want: http://www.flightgear.org . Let's point potential customers to the right place, and see if we can let all the air out of this scam's tires.

We won't totally get rid of it. Getting rid of scammers is like playing Whack-A-Mole. "Dan Freeman" and PFS will disappear, and after a few months they will reappear under different names. But at least we will have kept a few people from getting duped by this incarnation of the scam.

Monday, November 22, 2010

ProFlightSimulator: Get Scammed in Multiple Languages!

Right here on Blogspot, ProFlightSimulator has established an international presence. I just found a PFS webpage written entirely in Portugese. It's rich with screenshots and tutorial videos. I don't know whether the materials presented here are rip-offs of FlightGear, although I have my strong suspicions.

My two favorite images on the page are under the heading "Textura fotorealistica Lufthansa 747 PMDG FS9/FSX" (that's "Photorealistic texture ..." for you anglophones), showing off a downloadable skin for the 747 model. If you look closely at the picture, you'll see that it's a very realistic depiction of a 747 in Lufthansa livery. In fact, the backgrounds are so realistic that -- WAIT A MINUTE, THOSE ARE REAL PHOTOGRAPHS!

These people are liars. They're using real photographs to misrepresent their "product." FlightGear is good, but even FlightGear doesn't have a ground-level view of an airport terminal building that looks as realistic as the one in these photos. And the grime on the aircraft body? And the reflection highlight on the top of the APU's nacelle? No way. It's a photo of a real airplane.

Of course, PFS and their shills never did have a reputation for "truth in advertising."

See it for yourself: http://proflightsimulator.blogspot.com/ Remember, though, it's just a scam. Don't be tempted to buy it. Instead, go to http://www.flightgear.org/ for the real thing. For free.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Microsoft: you might as well learn to love 'em

Microsoft is a big company - so big that there are parts of the business that don't even know each other. It's not unusual to find that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. You can't argue with success though, and there are some things that Microsoft does better than anybody else.

But those things are irrelevant to this discussion. Today, we're talking about Hotmail, a Microsoft product, and how Hotmail protects you from Microsoft.

I recently bought some MS software, and opted to buy the backup DVD. MS sent me a shipment notification via email. The message was sent from Xffice2010.US@trymicrxsxftxffice.cxm - a generic, but harmless, business address. (Address modified to foil harvesting bots. Change the xs back to os to see the real address.) The Hotmail server, bless its silicon and fiber-optic heart, red-flagged the message with this helpful warning:

"This message looks very suspicious to our SmartScreen filters, so we've blocked attachments, pictures, and links for your safety.
Show content"


How do you like that? An MS product tags mail emanating from MS itself as "suspicious." I'm not complaining. I don't think MS should change a thing. It's just something funny, worth a mild giggle or a half-smile as you start your morning. Have a great day, everyone.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

ProFlightSimulator: Where the reviews come from

ProFlightSimulator has an "affiliates" page for those who are interested in selling PFS. Here's an interesting excerpt from that page:

5. Review Articles:

Product reviews are one of the most powerful ways to "warm up" your visitors before getting them into buying mood. Most reviews you see online are BLATANTLY one-side, showing only the good points.

If you want to MAXIMIZE your sales, you need to give a real, balanced review - showing BOTH PROs and CONs. This way your review will come across as genuine and honest.

Put yourself in the shoes of a buyer. When you read a review, you want the honest truth - so do the same for your visitors and subscribers. Use this pre-written review or modify it to suit your needs:

Click Here to view this sample pre-written review


(I don't know how long those links will be valid. Probably not very long, now that I've posted them here.)

So Michael and Eriz have been busy copy-and-pasting these reviews all over the Web. They've never really played the game, and they don't care about the game. They're in it to make money. What they're doing may or may not be illegal, but it's still a scam.

ProFlightSimulator: an old scam is new again

Well, the flight simulator fans at http://www.flightsim.com/ weren't fooled by ProFlightSimulator. They report under their "News" headline that it's just a reincarnation of an earlier scam, called "Flight Pro Sim."

The forums at FlightGear (http://www.flightgear.org/forums/) while not exactly abuzz about PFS, are certainly aware of it, and are consoling PFS customers who wasted good money buying an old and obsolete version of FG.

Finally, the Flight Pro Sim website is still alive, and it looks remarkably similar to the PFS website. The two main differences are:
(1) The ersatz proprietor of Flight Pro Sim is "Charlie Taylor," while the sock puppet of ProFlightSimulator is "Dan Freeman."
(2) Flight Pro Sim is selling for $47, while PFS is selling for $49.98 - no wait, it's down to $49.
(3) They may or may not be two different (obsolete) versions of FlightGear.

Many of the online reviews are written by "Michael Ortiz." I think that Charlie, Dan and Michael are all the same guy. One review was written by "Eriz Cremonti", which is almost an anagram of "Michael Ortiz."

ProFlightSimulator: Bogus testimonials!




If you act now, you can see this picture on the ProFlightSimulator webpage! In two different places! As two different people!

The PFS main webpage includes a number of testimonials. One could assume that these testimonials are from beta testers, since a project this big would need lots and lots of beta testers. So this guy shows up twice: once as "Ed Dale - Compton, CA" and once as "Wayne Mayer - Durham, UK." Let's hear what they have to say!

First, Ed:





Then, Wayne:





I was once part of a startup that did some underhanded stuff like using bogus testimonials to promote their product. Bogus testimonials are easy to spot. Using photos of long-lost twin brothers like this makes it even easier.

p.s. I hope the PFS creators aren't too upset at me for posting this. Look at all the free advertising they're getting!
p.p.s. Remember, if you like PFS, you'll love FlightGear. Same planes, same scenery, same gameplay, for $49.98 less than PFS. You can even get the same 4 DVDs, if you want.

ProFlightSimulator: something just doesn't smell right

I saw an ad on the side of my FB page today for a new flight simulator game called ProFlightSimulator. I clicked on the link and read about it, a new product just released (today!) by what looks like a one-man company in Australia.

At first, I thought "more power to him." I still like to believe that indie game developers can make it big in a world dominated by EA, Vivendi, and their ilk.

However, there's just something about PFS that makes me more than a little suspicious.

When you click on the link in FB, it takes you to (how's this for free advertising? You're welcome, Dan.) http://www.proflightsimulator.com/index2.html, an incredibly long-winded advertisement for PFS: page after endless page of screenshots and hype about it. Lots of hype. It's like watching one of those Veg-o-matic infomercials on TV. It has all the sales tricks, like "Used by the pros!" and "But wait! There's more!" and "Now how much would you pay?" and "... all for the low, low price of ..." and "But you have to ACT NOW, or you'll forfeit this opportunity!"

Then, when you get to the bottom, you find out that you're getting $530 worth of material, including a full-sized book, for $49.99. Do you know what they say about something that sounds too good to be true?

Yeah. So then you start wondering about system performance and hardware/software requirements. The FAQ on the PFS webpages lists some very modest system requirements, but for performance like what is advertised, that doesn't seem like enough. The FAQ doesn't say anything about performance. I've developed computer games, and I've played a lot of different flight sims, first-person shooters, role-playing adventures and other game genres that really push the hardware, and I know what it takes to make something like this look good - and play well.

The Jane's flight simulators, for one example, are visually exquisite, and masterpieces of execution, as long as you install them on the recommended minimum hardware and not the acceptable minimum hardware. On the acceptable minimum hardware, they are slow and choppy and tearfully frustrating. This is something you really, really want to know before you buy - even with a 60-day warranty.

I never buy anything anymore without looking at the online reviews first. I pull up my favorite search engine and search for "proflightsimulator review." Surprise, surprise: I find a lot of them out there, and they're all dated November 15, and they're all written (if they have a byline) by the same person. This is a variant of the "blogging for dollars" practice I wrote about in June 2009.

None of the reviews are real, objective reviews. They're just shills. They all have the same, Billy Mays-ish breathless tone of someone reading directly from the marketing literature. They pretend to be objective by listing a couple of negative points of the software, but even these negatives are spun: when the review says "There is quite a lot of data to be downloaded. The main game itself is already 300 megabytes," and suggests that you order the 4 DVDs, the average user thinks, "Wow! I get over 300 MB of stuff! And enough extra stuff to fit on 4 DVDs! What a deal!"

There is an alternative to PFS and all other commercial flight sims: it's a very capable, absolutely free and public-domain, downloadable package called FlightGear. FlightGear is a lot of fun, and a simulator that I've played with, on and off, for years. If you start reading up on FG, either on its own webpage or on Wikipedia, you'll begin to notice a lot of similarities between FG and PFS.

Uh-oh.

A lot of similarities. The list of available aircraft for PFS is a subset of those available on the FG website. Both lists include such off-the-wall flying objects as Santa's sleigh and a Willys Jeep. I don't think that's a coincidence.

And then you see this picture in the Wikipedia article on FG:


This same picture appeared in the advertising for PFS.

Uh-oh times two.

Then you go back and click the "Screenshots" link on the PFS webpage, and a lot of those screenshots appear to have been ripped directly from the FlightGear pages over the years. Anybody who's played FG for more than a day will recognize the yellow helicopter with the medical symbol on the side.

Uh-oh times three.

No wonder PFS is so generous with their licensing. Their webpage says that you can buy one copy and install it on as many computers as you like. And that you get "100% free updates/upgrades for life." That's because you can install FlightGear on as many computers as you like, and FlightGear gives you 100% free updates/upgrades for life. These guys are just selling FlightGear.

Like I said at the beginning, I'm all for indie developers going up against the big boys and winning - Marble Blast, for one notable example. (You can buy Marble Blast here, or you can download it for your iPod/iPhone/iPad from the App Store.) But I'm not too keen on entrepreneurs taking free and open source software, wrapping it up in a package and selling it as their own work.

Nice try. You almost got me.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I voted

Attention, candidates, campaigners and pollsters:

You can stop bothering me now.

Thanks to the wonders of the modern mail-in ballot, I have already cast my vote. I have registered my decision on all the candidates, the ballot issues, and the judges up for retention. You can tell your hired guns to stop calling me between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 or 10 p.m. You can stop leaving junk mail in my mailbox and flyers at my front door.

And next time, please treat the campaign more like a job interview and less like a playground mud-slinging contest. I'm not going to vote for you if all I hear from you is how bad your opponent is. I know your experts tell you that negative campaigning works, but it didn't work for me.

Please don't insult me by asking me how I voted. In previous blog entries, I've given you some clues as to how I was inclined to vote. But one of the things I like best about the USAnian political system is that ballots are secret ballots.

More about apps (iPod, iPhone, iPad)

Here's why I say that 95% of apps are only marginally useful / relevant / practical. You may think that this entry is frivolous / trivial / unrealistic. I can live with that assessment. (You're still reading this, aren't you?)

I had heard about the Bubble Wrap app. I searched for "bubble wrap" at the App Store and downloaded a couple of promising entries. I was disappointed to find out that they were games, with time limits and scores. Not only that, but if you didn't move fast enough, some little gremlin snuck around behind you and unpopped all your popped bubbles.

In the real world, everybody pops bubble wrap. I haven't yet met anybody who can resist it. But in the real world, popping bubble wrap is not a competition. On one end of the spectrum it's simple, mindless fun, and at the other end it's therapeutic - sometimes group therapy, even.

I wanted an app that was as simple, mindless and therapeutic as real bubble wrap, not something that hijacks that relaxing experience and contaminates it with goals, deadlines, and stress. Heck, if i wanted goals, deadlines and stress, I'd put down my iPod and go back to work.

(I think that the author wrote this entry with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Maybe.)

Looking for iPod touch 4G accessories

I need your help finding some stuff for an iPod touch 4G.

I've done research all over the Web, and it's overrun by marketing hype, biased reviews (you know, shills), and advertising. I've looked in the local stores, and the selection is limited and overpriced. I figured I'd ask for help from my loyal readers.

I got a fourth-generation iPod touch as a gift, and I've already got scratches on the metal case. Eventually I'm going to scratch the glass front, or simply drop the thing, and that would be bad. I need to buy some protection for it.

What have you had experience with, and what would you recommend? Specifically, I'm looking for recommendations on:
  • screen protector
  • hard-shell or soft-shell case
  • armband-style carrying pouch
While I'm thinking about it, I must say a word or two about apps. The first word is disappointing. The second word is wasteland, as in "Wow, what a wasteland." The current state of Apple's App Store is like the early days of the Mac, and the early days of the World Wide Web: there's a lot of content out there, and 95% of it is garbage. I'd estimate that 95% of what's at the App Store is poorly written, poorly debugged, and only marginally useful / relevant / practical. There's not a lot to differentiate a good app from a bad one: the reviews vary so widely as to call the credibility of all of them into question; and you can't even use purchase price as a reliable differentiator.

(I'll be adding to the wasteland, creating some apps for my employer.)

As for the music, well, I'm joining the revolution late, but not too late. I've finally become sold on digital / downloaded music. Among the massive contemporary offerings, I found some obscure gems. I found Aerie, an early John Denver album, formerly only available on CD as a horrendously overpriced import (if at all), now available at high quality and costing almost the same as it did back in nineteen-seventy-mumble. I also found Greatest Highs, a giant compilation album from the Kottonmouth Kings, a hip-hop group who specialize in raunchy (and mostly inappropriate) lyrics extolling weed and other stuff that I probably shouldn't be thinking about.

Yeah. So please, give me your recommendations for screen covers, cases, and exercise pouches. As always, your comments go through a moderation/approval screen, but unless they're an obvious sales job, they'll be approved instantly.

(I can't wait to see what AdSense offers up with this posting!)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Okay, Bennett and Buck, You Convinced Me.

Dear Ken Buck and Michael F. Bennett:

I have no doubt that you, or someone on your campaign staffs, will read these words. This blog entry will show up in your daily Web searches.

Both of you are running for the U.S. Senate, representing the great state of Colorado. The thrust of Michael Bennett's entire campaign has been "Don't Vote for Buck." Bennett's television ads and paper materials have gone on and on about how terrible it will be if I vote for Ken Buck, based on what he has said and what he has done. But Ken Buck's hands aren't clean, either. The thrust of Buck's entire campaign has been "Don't Vote for Bennett." Buck's television ads and paper materials have gone on and on about how terrible it will be if I vote for Michael Bennett, based on what he has said and what he has done.

I just wanted you both to know that your campaigns have been very persuasive. I have made my decision. I won't vote for Mr. Bennett, and I won't vote for Mr. Buck.

When I apply for a job, I always present myself in the best possible light. I do not waste space on my resume, nor time in the interviews, talking about how bad the other job candidates are compared to me. No hiring manager would be swayed by my cutting down the other candidates in order to make myself look good. The hiring manager wants to know what I can do, not what the other candidates cannot do.

Why couldn't either one of you have taken the time to tell me what you stood for, what you have done that qualifies you to serve in the U.S. Senate, and what you will do, not just for me, and not just for Colorado, but for the good of the country? I know the information's out there, but I have to dig to find it. Don't make me work that hard to find something good about you, when all I have to do is sit and listen passively to find out all the bad stuff about you.

I have no doubt that one of you will win the election. But my vote will still be counted. I will vote for one of the other candidates, and I will appear in the election results as someone who did not choose you to represent me.

p.s. To Betsy Markey and Cory Gardner: you're on the list too, you know. Tell me some of the reasons why I should elect you. If you can't, if all you can do is tell me why I shouldn't elect your major opponent, then I'll be voting for Doug Aden or Ken Waszkiewicz. And you'd better do it quick, because I'm not waiting until November 2 to vote.

p.p.s. It's a good thing Waszkiewicz isn't running as a write-in candidate. That surname is harder to spell than my own!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Blasphemy as "Art"

Nobody should be surprised.

But don't say, "That's just how Loveland is." The art was created by a resident of San Francisco, California, loaned to the museum by a resident of Lyons, Colorado, and destroyed by a resident of Montana.

Loveland has been branding itself for several years now as an art hub. Artists come from all over the nation - no, world - to exhibit at its annual sculpture shows, and the city hosts several sculpture gardens, art galleries, an opera company, and other displays of fine art.

The Loveland Museum/Gallery opened a new exhibit this week, called "The Legend of Bud Shark and his Indelible Ink." Part of the exhibit was a series of small panels created by Enrique Chagoya, an artist and professor at Stanford University, entitled "The Misadventures of the Royal Cannibals." One of these small panels was a collage of images from comic books and other sources, assembled to show an image of Jesus Christ engaged in a sexual act.

(Some people actually insisted that that's not what the picture was about. Images of the artwork are available online, so you can look at it and judge for yourself. You know, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.)

Many people, including the artist, do not understand the furor the picture has caused. "It's such a small picture," they say, "not much bigger than a postcard, in a much larger exhibit." The comparatively miniscule size of the image does not excuse its obscene and offensive nature. Besides, it's disingenuous to call it "such a small picture" and a relatively insignificant part of the exhibit when it is, or was, valued at $3400.

(Ironically, these same defenders ignore the fact that the "much larger exhibit" includes pictures collected from Mexican pornography, among other sources, according to the Loveland Daily Reporter-Herald.)

Again, many people, including the artist, do not understand why the picture caused such a furor in Loveland, when it has been exhibited in so many other towns and cities without any similar reaction. They say this as if Loveland were an aberration that needs to be corrected. I can think of a couple of other reasons for the way the citizens of Loveland reacted. First, maybe Loveland is the first city where anyone looked closely at the artwork. Second, maybe Loveland is the first city the artwork has been displayed where the people have standards, and where people cared enough to speak out in public about it and say what should have been said all along.

The artist also defends his work by saying that it was his response to the recent sex scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and elsewhere. That's poor justification, if justification at all, for creating this piece and exhibiting it anywhere.

All of these attempts to excuse or justify the obscenity do not change the fact that it's still obscenity. It's not the kind of thing you'd want your grandmother to catch you looking at. You can find this same kind of "art" at the 7-Eleven, but it's in magazines kept behind the counter, and even the magazines' front covers are hidden. You can find this same kind of "art" on cable TV, but it's on the pay channels. It's free on the Internet, but let's not even go there.

To be brutally honest, it's more than obscenity. It's blasphemy - go look up the definition. It offends the sensibilities of the community at large, and if it were brought to a public vote, I'm sure that the vast majority of the city of Loveland would vote to ban it from public display - especially in a public gallery, supported by tax dollars.

Yesterday's act of vandalism makes that moot, however. A woman from Kalispell, Montana, took a crowbar to the display case, ripped out the offending panel and tore it to pieces. A witness heard her cry, "How can you desecrate my Lord?" while she did it. She was arrested without resisting and hauled off to jail.

What she did violated the law, and she will be tried and punished according to the law. But it also took a lot of courage and personal conviction. It was the right thing to do, and nobody else would do it.

In a sense, the artist, the art's owner, the museum and the Loveland city council should consider themselves lucky. In 2005, Danish cartoonists drew some cartoons poking fun at the prophet Mohammed. The cartoons were published in a Danish newspaper and reprinted in periodicals in 50 other countries. While many non-Muslims deplored the cartoons as blasphemous to people of the Muslim faith, Muslims did more than just deplore the cartoons: they rioted in cities all over the world, they attacked and set fire to Danish embassies in Muslim nations, they threatened American troops in Muslim countries (as if they had anything to do with it), they issued fatwas and death threats against the artists, and they boycotted Danish exports. Oh, and they actually tried to kill the cartoonists and bomb newspaper offices in several European cities.

And by "they" I don't mean "a small handful of them." Hundreds of Muslims participated in these activities.

Compare that reaction to this one. Here in small town USA, in a very Christian town in what is still a Christian nation, when an act of unimstakable blasphemy is commited against Christians, one lone disciple of the Prince of Peace defended His honor when nobody else did, by destroying the offending piece of artwork and then submitting herself meekly to the authorities.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cleaning up your (non-Mac) PC

I'm rebuilding my sweet wife's computer's hard disk today. We tried all the other solutions to speed up her PC, and none of them restored it to its original speed. Two of the tools that I had put on her computer before the rebuild were CCleaner and Registry Booster, tools that do a really good (but obviously not good enough) job of cleaning all the junk that accumulates, like electronic grit, in the machinery of a Windows computer.

After the rebuild I went to the Internet to download a new copy of Registry Booster for her, and I found an interesting discussion that went something like this. Each entry is from a different player:

"Why does PC World even recommend Registry Booster? When you go to the Registry Booster website, they offer a free scan of your PC, and then they tell you that you have 354 problems with your registry but they won't correct them for you unless you buy the full version of RB. That's not fair!"

"Yeah, that's called scareware."
(No smiley.)

"What a rip-off."

"All registry cleaners are rip-offs."

"I don't know why nobody uses the free, web-based registry cleaner from Microsoft. It's at http://onecare.live.com/site/en-us/center/cleanup.htm ."

"Nobody uses it because nobody knows about it, you moron. But thanks for telling us about it. Now I'm gonna start using it."

"Hey everybody, i just found out that you have to run it from IE 7 or IE 8. And it temporarily installs an Active X control on your computer, but it deletes it later."


I just tried it. It displays an EULA that you have to accept, then it downloads a couple of things to your computer, runs a bunch of tests, does the cleanup, and then the last step is "Uploading information to Microsoft." Yikes. I should have read the EULA better before I ran it. Oh, well. The Internet's collective opinion is that it works as well as Registry Booster but it doesn't cost any money. It does require you to become more dependent on Microsoft, though. If that's a price you're willing to pay, then go ahead and try it on your own computer.

Registry Booster is available from http://www.uniblue.com/.

CCleaner is available from http://www.filehippo.com/download_ccleaner.

Once again, the Microsoft tool is available from http://onecare.live.com/site/en-us/center/cleanup.htm, and it only runs under Internet Explorer 7 or 8.

These tools work for Windows XP, Vista and 7.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

One Small Indicator that the Economy is Improving

Like the first birds of spring, that arrive even before the snow has started melting, I saw an early sign yesterday that the economy is improving.

I got called by a headhunter.

When employers are engaging headhunters to find talent among the ranks of the already employed, that's a harbinger of better times ahead.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Really, Truly, Empty Nest, Part 1: Crying Over an Old Blanket

After school on Tuesday, we drove to Utah to move my lastborn son into his dormitory at Brigham Young University. Once he was moved in, he was off to play with his roommates without even so much as an "okay, bye." We had to hunt him down in his dorm room to get our good-bye hugs.

Please don't misinterpret me. I’m not complaining at all. It looks like we did it right again. We may actually go five for five on raising our kids right.

We picked up our youngest daughter at the SLC airport on Wednesday night (from AZ, visiting a friend) and took her back to the airport on Thursday morning (to NC, visiting mission friends). Then we got onto I-80 and drove back to Colorado by ourselves, and we've been kind of in a daze since we got home. There are no kids here to worry about! For the first time in 30 years!

Emotions are kind of confusing right now. We're mostly numb. My sweet wife got teary on the way to the airport Thursday morning, about something only tangentially related to the empty nest. She thought it was silly. I don't know what my daughter thought. I thought, "I'm sure lucky to be married to this woman."

I got teary on Saturday morning. Wanna know what caused it? I know it's because of the empty nest, but that's not what caused it. It's even sillier than whatever caused Mama to cry. (No, this isn't a contest. I'm just being honest.)

Before we got married, my fiancée made a quilt for me. It had mountains all over it. It was gorgeous. I loved it. I used it until we got married.

My firstborn son appropriated that quilt at some point in his childhood, and it stayed on his bed until he left for the Air Force Academy. Then my lastborn son appropriated it, and it stayed on his bed until he left for BYU. I ended up sharing that quilt with my sons for 30 years.

There was magic in that quilt. Remember how it had mountains all over it? Well, by sharing the quilt with my sons, I also shared my love of the mountains with them. And as surely as the colors in the quilt faded over the years, my sons absorbed that love of the mountains and made it their own.

Yesterday, Saturday morning, I was staring at that quilt sitting in the laundry basket where my lastborn had deposited it, and I realized that, faded and flattened though it might be, it was mine again. I thought about the fact that I had loaned one of my most precious possessions to my sons for 30 years, and never resented a minute of it. I would rather have shared it the way I did, than kept it and preserved it and never passed on that part of me to them.

And although it sounds silly now, that's the thought that made my tears start to flow.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dr. Jack Horkheimer, the Star Hustler, passes away

I just found out that Dr. Jack Horkheimer, the animated and personable host of "Star Hustler" (later renamed "Star Gazer"), passed away on August 20.

Horkheimer's PBS show was only 5 minutes long, and it was always worth watching. He delighted in teaching his audience about something that was happening in the sky that they could go see RIGHT NOW.

His program started as a local Miami feature, then went national and finally international. Horkheimer was on my list of "people I'd like to meet." It's too bad he left before I could meet him.

He moved to Florida on a doctor's advice. He had a lung condition that did better in the warm, humid climate of Miami. Apparently the doctor gave good advice. He finally succumbed to the degenerative lung disease, but he lasted until age 72, so that was pretty darn good.

I'll miss Dr. Horkheimer, his enthusiasm and knowledge, and the words with which he closed every show: "Keep looking up!"

Randy Cassingham posted a great eulogy for the man at his This is True website. Go take a look.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"Loud Pipes Save Lives"?

I heard it again this morning. One of the radio morning show DJs said, "I'm a firm believer in 'loud pipes save lives.'"

Most people know that he was talking about motorcycles. The theory is that the loud noise of an unmuffled motorcycle exhaust alerts automobile drivers to the biker's presence, which makes the biker safer.

I think that "loud pipes save lives" is insincere and hypocritical. Helmets save lives too, and yet way too many owners of loud bikes refuse to wear a motorcycle helmet. It's all about personal freedom, they say, as they oppose laws requiring them to wear a helmet.

Okay, forget the law, then. Just wear it out of common sense, okay?

(I still shake my head when I think of the Harley rider I encountered on I-25. He was roaring along on his bike, with his helmet firmly strapped to the seat behind him.)

I will believe the sincerity of the "loud pipes save lives" argument when I see its proponents wearing helmets while they ride. Until then, in my opinion, they're merely being obnoxious and hypocritical.

(On the other hand, I will smile and give a thumbs-up to any bareheaded rider honest enough to say "Nah, I just like loud pipes.")

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A funny malapropism from a Clive Cussler novel

I enjoy reading Clive Cussler's fiction. My youngest son has been a Cussler fan for quite a while, and I have picked up his books and read them when I've found them lying around the house. After savoring the cinematic man-feast that is the movie Sahara, I decided to read the book.

Cussler has had a very successful life, and I respect him for all that he's accomplished. In addition, he tells a good story. However, you have to be willing to forgive his rough writing to enjoy the story.

No, not "rough" as in "raunchy." Cussler can't be bothered putting that stuff into his yarns. His books may be rated PG or PG-13, but only for violence. "Rough" as in "trying to ride a bicycle down a gravel road."

Sometimes his unorthodox word choices leave the reader scratching his head in confusion. Oh, that's another thing: he keeps using "bemused" when he should say "amused." "Bemused" means "confused."

These are just little things. It's pointless for me to find fault with someone as rich, as famous, and as bestseller-y as Cussler. Besides, I'd love to go camping or sailing or something with him someday, and I don't want to get on his bad side.

Having said all that, I cannot resist quoting one of the unintentionally funniest lines I found in Sahara. In fact, this line was the whole purpose of this blog entry. Everything that I've written up to this point (and the next paragraph) are just to set it up. Are you ready?

Okay, the setup: in Sahara, the good guys discover a solar-powered waste disposal facility in the remote desert reaches of Mali, and they decide to shut it down after using it to burn through the remaining hazmat inventory. Here's the hero's sidekick talking about it:

"After cutting off all incoming waste shipments by train, we've kept the solar reactor burning day and night."

The reader pauses.

The reader furrows his brow in confusion.

The reader blurts out: "WHAT?"

Monday, August 2, 2010

Microsoft can still be competitive - if they want to

Microsoft is the company everybody loves to hate. With a near monopoly on home and business computer operating systems, MS has been the bully in the computer marketplace for a long time. Not many people feel sorry for MS when it stumbles or otherwise runs into difficulty.

I worked for a division of MS for a while. It was a great work environment, and the group of people I worked with were talented, were motivated, and enjoyed some degree of autonomy. They had a solid product line and, as far as I can tell, it sold well. (Do you have an MS optical mouse on your desk?) I would have loved to become a permanent MS employee.

I understand that not all divisions of MS are as fun to work in as that division was. That's the nature of a megacorporation like MS. I can live with that.

Recently, MS has made some major missteps in the mobile computing arena, leaving MS with single-digit market share in mobile phones, tablet devices, and mobile phone and table operating systems. To quote from TechRepublic's Jason Hiner:

So Microsoft has talked about five different mobile platforms in 2010: Windows Mobile 6.5, Windows Embedded Compact 7, Windows Phone 7, Kin, and Windows 7, with very little explanation about how these platforms relate to each other and which ones Microsoft wants to use in which settings. Is it any surprise then that Microsoft is flailing so badly in the mobile space and has no coherent tablet strategy?

And I think it’s fair to say that Microsoft’s tablet troubles are indicative of the larger problems that are haunting today’s Microsoft — similar teams competing for resources, minimal collaboration between similar projects, and not enough vision from the top to get everyone pushing in the same direction.

Charter wars like this are not uncommon in large corporations. Back in the day, Hewlett Packard had at least three different dialects of the BASIC programming languages, and at least four different small computer/workstation architectures. Now, as Hiner points out, MS has five different mobile "platforms."

Charter wars, if managed properly, can be a healthy thing for a large corporation. Small businesses can't afford charter wars, but big ones can. Charter wars give competing ideas the chance to duke it out in the lab, and again in the marketplace, and a skillful management team can use the charter wars to weed out the weakest ideas — just like those reality TV shows — and find the best idea for the company to pursue.

One of the challenges for upper management is knowing how long to let the charter war run. That takes a deft hand.

Charter wars are by their nature messy, acrimonious and bloody. It's unnecessary, but unavoidable. Some of the losers will go to work for the winning team. Some will quit out of frustration or hurt feelings. Some will simply move on to something else inside the company, and talk for years about how their vastly superior project got unfairly shafted. Eh. Welcome to the corporate world.

Microsoft can afford the "similar teams competing for resources" and the "minimal collaboration between similar projects." That's the essence of a good charter war. What MS needs, though, in order to get through the charter war and come out with a real competitive product, is "vision from the top to [manage the charter war properly and eventually] get everyone pushing in the same direction." That's what they're lacking.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why we respond to sneezes

When someone sneezes, common courtesy in every culture on earth is to wish a divine blessing upon them ("Bless you!") or, alternatively, good health ("Gesundheit!"). My friends over at Snopes do a fine job of explaining the whys and wherefores of this custom.

Unlike the vapid "Hi! How are you doing?" greeting , which is offered without sincerity or conscious thought by over 99% of those who say it, and whose response is usually ignored, the sneeze wish acknowledges the sneezer's existence as a person. It says, "I offer you this bit of caring, no matter how small, for your equally small discomfort."

I'll Forget You

A friend asked me to print the lyrics to this unforgettable gem from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Here ya go, kid. Thanks to Linda Eder for making it memorable.

I'll forget you
The more you stay inside of me, the weaker I grow
I'll forget you
Tomorrow I will turn and let you go
I'll grow colder
I'll lose myself in anything but you now
For there is nothing I can do now...but forget

I'll forget you
I won't remember arms that pulled me in, soft and slow
I'll forget you
There has to be a way to let you go!
No more shadows
No dreams of leaning in the dark above you
I will forget how much I love you ... any day

But ev'ry evening shivers
With the chance that you are near
And ev'ry morning whispers, "He is here"
Each morning is a fight
Not to rush into your light
Not to move closer
But to make you disappear!

I'll forget you
I've got to find the strength to pull away from your glow
I'll forget you
God help me see the way to let you go
I do not want you
And still you steal each breath I'm breathing from me
With just a touch, you overcome me
And I let you
I will forget you...
When I die...

I will forget you
I will forget you

Sunday, July 18, 2010

On Judgment

A very wise man once said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." He knew the all-too-human tendency for us to judge each other, to pigeonhole people, to fit them into a box full of labels and preconceived notions, and to rank them above us or below us on the "worthiness to live" scale.

It's like the old joke about what two men think of each other when they first meet. In that split second before they smile and extend their hands to greet each other, in that very instant, they're thinking to themselves, "Yeah, I can take him."

(I don't even want to joke about what women think of each other when they first meet.)

The wise man followed his admonition with this observation: "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

To illustrate this principle, allow me to paraphrase George Carlin. Carlin says that there are two kinds of drivers on the road: morons and jerks. A moron is anybody who drives slower than you. A jerk is anybody who drives faster than you.

The interesting thing about the morons and the jerks, according to the paraphrased Carlin, is this: in the eyes of all the morons, you're a jerk. And in the eyes of all the jerks, you're a moron.

Therefore, we ought to take the wise man's counsel to heart and not judge anybody, right? There are a couple of problems with that. First, humans are rational beings, and we are constantly weighing and evaluating everything around us. Second, we have to make judgments simply to survive in this world. For example, we teach our children to choose their friends wisely. We choose our own friends wisely (or not so wisely). We decide whether it's better to get drunk with friends or to stay dry and sober. We elect our political leaders. We decide which charities will receive our contributions.

Finally, and most critically, we are sometimes required by law or by fellowship to sit in judgment of our fellow humans. This is something that can never be taken lightly, because when we sit in judgment of others, we also sit in judgment of ourselves. When we hear a recitation of the faults and indiscretions of another, it causes us, rather than recoiling in disgust or revulsion, to examine ourselves for our own tendencies towards those same faults and indiscretions. In the end, no matter whether we condemn or pardon those we are required to judge, we sit condemned by our own consciences for our weaknesses.

And when judgment is rendered and sentence is passed, we murmur the ageless proverb, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

Those who are anxious or willing (or hasty) to call down the judgment of God or Lady Justice on the heads of their fellow beings, to holler "Off with their heads!" must be ready and willing to accept their own portion of that judgment in payment for their own indiscretions. If they are not, then they stand doubly condemned by their errors and their hypocrisy.

Those of us who believe in a God who judges us according to our works and/or the desires of our hearts, who hope that He will treat us mercifully in our weaknesses and our errors, had better be willing to extend that same hand of mercy to our fellow travelers in their moments of error or weakness. I don't believe in karma per se as a religious or spiritual principle, but as a fundamental law of nature, I'd say that there's something there. What Christians call the Law of the Harvest ("whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap") comes close to it. The judgments that we render have a funny way of being reflected back on us, sometimes immediately and sometimes years down the road.

I'm not saying that laws are irrelevant and that there's no such thing as crime. Nor am I suggesting that we should roll over and let thieves pick us clean. Some principles of right and wrong are absolute. For example, cold-blooded murder for its own sake has been a universal crime for millenia. Wrongs must be righted. Villains and monsters must be uncovered and removed from society. We must shield our children from abuse and depravity until they are strong enough to handle it on their own. The influence of justice, like the influence of gravity, can be temporarily avoided but will always prevail in the end.

But as human beings, put here on this rock we call Earth to test ourselves and prepare (we hope) for something better, we will come a lot closer to that "something better" when we endeavor to lift each other up more than we pull each other down. I think we all get a little closer to perfection when, rather than fall upon our fellows with the swift sword of justice, we defer that justice (when permissible) to Him whose right it is to judge, and instead extend to them the arms of mercy and fellowship.

Most of those who surround us are trying just as hard as we are to be successful, not just on the physical or material plane, but on the spiritual plane as well (however you want to define "spiritual", and whatever word you want to substitute for it). We gain a lot by showing the same love and mercy to our fellow travelers that we hope will be shown to us when we need it most.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Summer in Colorado

I imagine that Colorado appears on many people's lists of favorite vacation spots. Either they've been to Colorado on vacation, or they want to go there someday. It's probably high on the list, somewhere near Hawaii, one of the Disney resorts, and the ocean beaches.

And most people come to Colorado for the Rocky Mountains. This chain of mountains, the backbone of a continent, stretches from New Mexico on the south all the way through Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory in Canada, to Alaska. I didn't mention Wyoming and Montana, did I?

I will write about the beauties of the Rockies in those states and provinces another time. But when you mention "the Rocky Mountains," the vast majority of people think of Colorado. (This may not be true north of the World's Longest Previously Undefended Border.)

Ah, Colorado. In less than an hour, I can be on a mountain trail, walking beside a stream swollen with snowmelt, the air filled (I mean redolent) with the smell of pine, spruce, wild herbs and wildflowers. If I'm paying attention, I can also take in the fresh smell of water splashing over rocks and cliffs, and the bracing alpine crispness of air above timberline.

The mountain views are ... well, the term "breathtaking" has become a cliché, but there's no better way to describe them. It doesn't matter if you're viewing the mountains from the plains sixty miles away, from a highway or trail deep in the middle of them, or from the summit of a fourteener: the view really does take your breath away. Tourists and natives alike, on Colorado's mountain highways, stop to admire the view and try to get their breath back.

I live on the plains, a ten-minute walk from the foothills, and every morning I look to the west, see the high places of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, and think, "Boy, am I lucky to live here." Every evening when I drive home, the setting sun plays with the mountains, casting highlights and shadows on different ridges, and I realize that I've never seen the same sunset twice.

If you're lucky enough to be up in the mountains on a moonless night, you will see a star show like you've never seen before. The air is so thin, and so clean, that no celestial feature is obscured. The absence of light pollution creates a black velvet backdrop for the trail of spilled diamonds that makes up the Milky Way. The stars' colors are easy to discern: the red of Arcturus and the blue of Sirius, for example. You can see the double star in the handle of the Big Dipper without squinting. And if you let your eyes adjust, you will see the world at your feet illuminated by nothing but starlight.

At the right time of the month, you can be sleeping in a tent or sleeping bag and be awakened by the light of the rising moon, its brightness rivaling the mercury-vapor street lamps you left far below.

Sunrise and sunset might be my favorite times of day. The clear blue daytime sky (or the starlit blackness of night) gives way to a multicolored wash, across which the moon and the planets chase each other in an ever-changing race.

Every afternoon, the cold air tumbling over the mountains collides with the warm air rising from the plains. Great billowing cumulus clouds rise higher and higher into the sky, until the jet stream shears off their tops and stretches them into the anvil shapes of cumulonimbus. The clouds, heavy with moisture until they cannot hold any more, let it all go. The winds and the moisture build up massive electrical charges in the clouds and, with or without the rain, Mother Nature puts on a light show to rival any Fourth of July.

Although Colorado residents normally take to the hills between Labor Day and Memorial Day, leaving the summer months for the tourists, summer is the best time to enjoy the Rockies. My favorite time of year is early to mid-August: the mountain passes are open, the streams are still flowing, the wildflowers are still in bloom, and the wild berries are ripe.

To hoist a backpack and disappear into the mountains for a week or more, or to park the car and walk half a mile to a scenic overlook, so carefully hidden that you'd swear you were miles from civilization, that's what makes summer in Colorado so perfect. Sometimes I can't believe my luck, to live in a place that is a destination for millions of people, and call it home.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Telephones: Not Ready to Give Up my Land Line Yet

I like cellular phones. They have changed civilization as much as fire, the wheel, and indoor plumbing. I covet the iPhone and one day I hope to own one.

We're in a transition period, between a world that is 100% land lines (that's the new term for wired-into-the-wall-somewhere telephones) and a world that is 100% cellular phones. Most people or families have both. Some of my friends have gotten rid of their land lines and gone completely to cellular phones. They have several reasons for switching, some of which are listed below:
  • convenience and portability
  • freedom from the monopoly of "the phone company"
  • one-stop shopping for voice, text, internet, whatever
  • connectivity
(I've written about connectivity before. It's not necessarily a good thing.)

I'm not ready to give up my land line yet. My reasons for keeping it are listed below:
  • cost
  • reliability
  • latency
  • sound quality

Cellular phone service has come down in price, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. The cellular phone companies are great at nickel-and-diming their customers for additional services and for miscellaneous fees, a technique carried over from their land-line billing practices. If times get hard and I have to trim my budget, I can save a lot more money by discontinuing my cellular service than by unplugging my land line.

Unfortunately, discontinuing one's cellular service is not that simple. Most cellular providers lock you into a service plan for a certain period of time. Some providers, such as Cricket, do not, but most do. This means that you won't start saving money until your contract ends.

Land lines have it all over cell phones as far as reliability is concerned. Cell phone service is always a gamble, and not just when you're driving in a car. Dropped calls happen at the most annoying times, even when you're merely sitting in your living room. In the event of a widespread power outage or other natural disaster, cell phones are useless as communication devices.

As for land line handsets, if you still have one of the old-fashioned Western Electric electromechanical phones (the kind that only plugs into the phone jack and not into an electrical outlet, and that has a real bell inside), you can send and receive phone calls through some of the worst disasters, including power failures.

Latency, in Cell Phone Land, refers to the delay between the time you say something and the time the person on the other end hears what you said. We have all experienced the awkward cellphone conversations where one person tries to respond too quickly, or both start talking at once and don't realize they're talking on top of each other for a second or two. Latency is a phenomenon dictated by the laws of nature. Like gravity, it's something you can't avoid.

With land lines, latency is near zero. Computers and modems can detect the latency on a land line, but humans can't. It makes for smoother conversations, less frustration and less stress.

And finally, the voice quality on most cellphone calls is terrible. I don't really understand why we spend more money to make our voices sound so bad - sometimes downright unintelligible. I often catch myself wondering if I sound as bad to the person on the other end of the line as they sound to me.

Cellphones are the future of mankind; it's undeniable. But don't be too quick to abandon the past. Some moves to embrace the future are not necessarily good moves (like "upgrading" from Windows XP to Windows Vista).

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Next Christmas Album You Need to Buy

It may seem strange to talk about a Christmas album right now. In fact, trying to buy Christmas music right now is like trying to buy home heating oil #2. The refineries have stopped making heating oil, switching over to gasoline for the summer, and they won't go back to heating oil until September. In the same way, this is the wrong season for retailers to be putting Christmas music on the shelves and advertising it. All of their Christmas CDs are in the warehouse, where they will remain until Thanksgiving.

Or Halloween.

Or Labor Day.

Unless you're an online retailer. Then it's Christmas all year long.

But I digress. (I'm allowed to do that. E' il mio gioco; le regole, le faccio io.) Let's talk about Christmas music.

Last December, I heard a music review on National Public Radio, of a new Christmas album by Sting, called If On a Winter's Night... . (Yes, the ellipsis is part of the title.) The reviewer played clips of some of the songs, and talked about a few of the tracks, enough to make me want to buy the CD. So I did.

I think I played it once last winter, and not even all the way through. But it's been sitting on my shelf for six months now, and I recently decided to try it again. It's much more listenable the second (and third) time around.

If you're in the mood for Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song or John Denver and the Muppets' The Twelve Days of Christmas, this album just won't do it for you. It's a very introspective album. Each song invites the listener to go with Sting, deep into the emotions and the thoughts that are the underpinnings of The True Meaning of Christmas.

There's no catchy Winter Wonderland in this album, and no Beach Boys harmonies. Even Natalie Cole's beautiful rendition of Mary, Did You Know doesn't dig as deep as the lyrics on this album, and Natalie's Mary does dig deep. Each song on this album takes one emotion, and examines it in the light of the season, to a depth (sometimes a surprisingly dark depth) that may make the casual listener uncomfortable.

But don't listen to the album casually. Allow yourself the luxury of really getting into it. And take time to read the accompanying booklet.

The music, both the composition and performance, are superb. Because it isn't tied to the rhythms of the traditional carols like Silent Night, or the contemporary jingles like Winter Wonderland, the music is as deeply introspective as the lyrics, and the music matches the lyrics in magical ways. Besides that, Sting takes advantage of the opportunity to showcase his musical talent, to do some virtuoso things that you won't hear on commercial radio.

It may be too deep, too dark, for you. Borrow it or sample it before you decide to buy. Don't plan on playing it at a Christmas party. It's not that kind of music. It will kill the party in a hurry. But on a winter's night, when you're home alone or with the one person in the world who understands you, put it on and allow Sting to pull you in to a different kind of Christmas experience.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

That Didn't Take Long: McChrystal is Out, Petraeus is In

This morning, President Obama announced that General David Petraeus would be taking General McChrystal's place as the head military guy in Afghanistan by General David Petraeus. General Petraeus did a great job turning the Iraq war around, and had been serving as the head of the U.S. Central Command, which includes Asia and the Middle East. Petraeus will actually be stepping down one level to fill the Afghanistan slot.

David Petraeus is a highly regarded officer and an extremely intelligent person. He has figured out how to work with, or maybe around, all the civilian meddlers and egomaniacs in Washington. This may work out satisfactorily after all.

But I'll bet you good money that no reporter from Rolling Stone will be invited to accompany Petraeus anywhere -- or any other military leader -- ever again.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Keep General McChrystal; fire some of the civilians instead

A Rolling Stone reporter got a chance to interview General Stanley McChrystal, currently (but maybe not for much longer) head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The reporter, Michael Hastings, was supposed to fly home after two days, but then the volcano in Iceland blew its top, and the reporter ended up following McChrystal and his staff across Europe and all the way to Kandahar and back to Washington. The two-day trip turned into, what was it, 28 days? Longer?

(NPR aired a telephone interview with Hastings today. That's where I got those facts from. Hastings sounded a little stressed out -- he lashed out unnecessarily at Michelle Norris, the NPR interviewer. He's back in Kandahar, and I think that maybe he needs to come home.)

The result of spending 28 days with the general and his staff, with his "notebook in one hand and tape recorder in the other," as he said it, was that he saw the general and his staff let their hair down a few times, and it became clear in those unguarded moments that the military leaders in Afghanistan do not have a lot of respect for the civilian leaders in Washington.

Now, we could debate whether that's right or wrong, and whether the military leaders are supposed to, as Oliver North said, "salute smartly and charge up the hill" or whether they're allowed to have (and voice) their own opinions. I don't want to debate the rightness or wrongness of the general's behavior.

Political reality being what it is, he's toast. But firing him would be the stupidest thing those civilians in Washington could do right now. McChrystal has pointed out, without actually saying it, that Afghanistan has out-Vietnamed Vietnam. It's a war run by the civilians in Washington, an appalling number of whom have never held a gun or stood in a uniform. That was one of the big mistakes of Vietnam.

Let the warriors run the war, for Pete's sake. Nobody in the White House right now knows how to fight a war. The president surrounds himself with experts, he says, but they're the wrong kind of experts. There is no Colin Powell, no Norman Schwartzkopf, to provide the perspective of Someone Who's Been There.

McChrystal was absolutely right when, in January, he stood up to Vice President Joseph Biden when Biden wanted to put more UAVs and fewer troops into Afghanistan. And the contempt for the civilian leadership, which unfortunately leaked out during the reporter's stay, and which was also unfortunately published for all the world to see, is a contempt that those civilian leaders have earned.

Would it have been better if McChrystal had enforced the discipline among his staff so that they kept all of that contempt bottled up while the reporter was around? The contempt was real, and to hide it for 28 days would have been dishonest.

If McChrystal is fired for this episode, it will be because he was honest. And once the political leadership of this country starts firing people because of their honesty, we're in trouble.

You may not believe me. You don't have to. But I was right about the banks, I was right about the car companies, and I was right about the post-Nov-2008 Democrats. I'm right about this, too. You'll see.

Postscript: Hastings said (to quote NPR) that he "remembered being shocked by the general's candor and outspokenness during interviews, but he did not anticipate his article would cause the hullabaloo it has." That's baloney. He entitled his article "The Runaway General," indicating that he knew exactly what kind of reaction the article would get. After spending weeks witnessing the honesty of a great man, Hastings resorted to a lie to try and weasel out of taking responsibility for his own words.

Save us from inept politicians and spineless reporters.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Whatever Happened to Editors at Publishing Houses?

Doesn't anybody edit books before they're published anymore?

I've been spending a few weeks polishing up my technical skills, and so I've been reading a series of books on a particular subject. One of the books is A Baker's Dozen: Real Analog Solutions for Digital Designers. The book is a beautiful compilation of knowledge, wisdom and tips on the subject of analog circuit design. It's written by one of today's leading experts on the subject: Bonnie Baker, currently vice president or director of something important at Microchip. Baker is great, and I have a soft spot in my engineering heart for Microchip, and so I'm enjoying reading the book and digesting its contents.

There's just one problem with the book. It is very poorly edited.

I'm only into the third chapter, but it seems like I've had to add a handwritten correction to every other page of the book. Only one correction so far is a technical error (she got the two's complement notation for -2 wrong). All the rest are errors involving:

  • spelling errors
  • typographical errors
  • homonyms and homologues
  • word usage and sentence structure problems
  • grammar mistakes
  • awkward phrasing or misuse of common idioms
  • noun-verb disagreement ("is/are", for example)

This is not the only technical book I've encountered with an editing problem. It seems like most, if not all, of today's technical books have serious editing problems. Sometimes they're total disasters, like those written by Myke Predko (don't take my word for it; go read the reviews on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com), but more often they're books like this one, where the technical content is (mostly) accurate, but the writing appears ... um ... "sloppy" isn't fair to the writer ... more like poorly edited.

It simply looks as though the editor wasn't doing his/her job. If I had to guess at what happened, I'd say that the publisher assigned a non-technical editor to Baker's book, and the editor was so bamboozled by the technical content that she completely forgot about her own ability to manage the basic mechanics of writing.

It's also possible that Baker told her publisher she wanted to edit the book herself. In a world of word processors and automated spell checkers, I feel that this is becoming increasingly common, especially among engineers who think that with the right manual or tutorial and a week to study it, they can become an expert on any subject. (This is the "any engineer can become a ..." syndrome. You read it here first, folks.)

But folkloric wisdom points out the problems with being your own expert: The taunt "Physician, heal thyself" shows up in the Bible, and a more modern proverb asserts that "Any lawyer who chooses to represent himself has a fool for a client." Authors shouldn't be their own editors.

Or maybe Baker's publisher, tight on cash (or just plain tight), had laid off too many editors and assigned this book and five others to a junior editor or intern with a one-week deadline. The junior editor had to let something slide, and this was it.

Or maybe Baker's editor was a raging incompetent, whose own literary skills are not very far above those required for modern high-school newspapers and yearbooks.

Good editors, like good schoolteachers, are worth their weight in gold. They're an overworked and underpaid bunch, and they may feel like we expect too much of them, but a good editor can make the difference between a "good read" and a waste of paper. My editors have always done a fantastic job, making a huge difference in the finished product.

You can't just jack into a port on the matrix and download the skills necessary to become an editor. It doesn't work like that. Every author should have a competent professional editor. Lacking a competent professional editor, every technical author should have an author whose writing they admire, and who is not a member of their technical profession, to go through their manuscript and fix their writing.

(If you want a more mainstream example of the difference a good editor can make, then look at the quality of language in Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October and compare it with the quality of language in the Tom Clancy's Op Center books. Clancy didn't write the Op Center books; he just lent them his name. He should have lent them his editors. The Op Center series is overburdened with horrendous language errors, which repeatedly bring the story to a screeching halt and ultimately cause the reader to throw down the book in frustration.)

I would further suggest that every technical author should ask a colleague whom they view as a competitor, or with whom they share a mild animosity, to review their manuscript for technical errors. Who is better qualified to find errors in your work, than someone who doesn't like you in the first place? Asking esteemed colleagues and best friends to check your work is great, but your greatest asset as an author will be someone who will root like a truffle hound for your mistakes.

It helps to have a good example. In this exercise in personal improvement, I'm saving the best book for last. Horowitz and Hill's The Art of Electronics is not only a technical treasure and a bible among electrical engineers, but it's also beautifully written, an example of how well English prose can be turned to instruct in even the most technical subjects. It's always worth reading and rereading, not just for the technical education, but for the exquisite turns of phrase.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What was once a "program" is now an "app"

Observe, with me, the interesting progression of terminology in the software industry.

(For those who are not computerly inclined, here's a quick definition of basic terms. Way back in the dawn of digital time, computers were composed of hardware and software. Hardware is all the tangible, physical parts of a computer: the metal case, the printed circuit board and all the little components on it, even the wires that connect everything together. Even soft plastic parts are still tangible, so we still call them "hard" ware.

Software is all the intangible stuff that makes computers run -- the programs. They're not tangible or physical, so they can't really be called "hard" ware. But since they're as essential to the computer's functioning as the hardware, they had to be called something -- hence, "soft" ware.)

Today we consider all the synonyms for "software":
  • program
  • software program
  • firmware
  • code
  • suite
  • application
  • app
Back when computers were brand new, they used to run programs. A program was a series of instructions that the computer followed to complete a task. The earliest computers had to be programmed, or fed instructions, by flipping a series of switches on the front panel. (After flipping the switches hundreds of times just to enter one program, and still getting it wrong, engineers decided they needed to invent a different way to program a computer -- in a hurry. That's how we ended up with mass storage devices.)

Even in the early days of home computers, people called them programs. One program fit on one floppy disk, and to use the computer, users ran the program.

As computing tasks got more complicated, programmers started including other things on the disk: data files, libraries, configuration files, and additional programs to be run automatically by the main program. Since users weren't just running a single program anymore, programs began to be marketed as software -- an interesting, and not at all inappropriate, reuse of the generic term.

I still crack up when I see a marketing department or a magazine writer refer to these things as software programs. It's a hilarious redundancy.

Some software is critical enough to the computer's operation that it's stored in a memory chip inside the computer. Because this software is stored in hardware, it's neither hard nor soft, so the pros call it firmware.

We've come a long way from the days of flipping switches. Today you can use one programming tool on one machine to write programs in many different programming languages, for many different systems. This has led programmers to start referring to the stuff they produce as code. There's source code, object code, assembly code, byte code, high-level code, low-level code, compiled code, interpreted code, Mac code, Linux code, Windows code, ... and it's all just programs and programming.

Somewhere along the way, software vendors began to combine separate programs into agglomerations that were (supposed to be) more powerful than the individual programs. These were referred to as suites. For a while, everyone was selling an office suite. Adobe has a lock on the best graphics suite in the world. Other companies sell animation suites, CAD suites, audio/video production suites, gaming suites, and in a beautiful recursion, software development suites.

Also somewhere along the way, someone said, "We're not selling programs, we're selling applications." After that, what was formerly known as something else became known as an application -- still just a collection of programs and related software items.

With the introduction of very smart handheld devices such as the iPhone, someone said, "Since these devices are small, the term for the software they run should also be small." So an application became an app, as in "There's an app for that."

Ah, but the term app got away from its creators. First it spread to non-iPhone handhelds, and then to non-handheld hardware, and finally to browsers. Now any software that runs on any kind of computing device is an "app".

But when you distill it down to its essential parts, it's still just a program.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Paint.NET: Another Alternative to Photoshop

Everybody likes Adobe Photoshop, and for many good reasons. It's simply the best tool there is for image creation and manipulation. It's used by professionals and amateurs alike.

Well-financed amateurs, that is. Photoshop is expensive, and Adobe doesn't give discounts.

I've been on the lookout for alternatives to Photoshop for years. I got turned onto PaintShop Pro back when it was just PaintShop, and it was a freebie that came with one of my printers. PaintShop Pro changed owners several times, and it's currently part of the Corel product family.

The open source community developed a free editor called "The GIMP," originally for X Windows, but later ported to MS Windows. It has a kooky interface, but once you get used to it, it's as good as Photoshop and PaintShop Pro.

PaintShop Pro and The GIMP have served their user communities well for many years, providing their users with nearly all of the functionality of Photoshop, without the high price.

In 2004, two students at WSU created a new alternative to Photoshop, as part of a senior programming project. They released it into the wild, and it spread rapidly. Everybody who used it liked it, and it was compared favorably to Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, and even The GIMP. It's called Paint.NET. It is fast, powerful, and an absolute joy to use. It only runs on Microsoft Windows systems, but it does a great job of utilizing the .NET framework and the power of C#.

Paint.NET is currently at version 3.5.5 and can be downloaded for free from http://www.getpaint.net/index.html . The GIMP can be downloaded for free from http://www.gimp.org/ .

(PaintShop Pro can be purchased directly from Corel for $99.99. Photoshop can be purchased directly from Adobe for $699.00.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Three New Superpowers! Good or Bad? Please Comment.

My first entry at Zyzmog Galactic Headquarters talked about the conflict between my fascination for, and my rejection of, new technology. I'm often heard to exclaim, "I love living in this century!" There is a lot of exciting stuff going on, and I enjoy being both a spectator and a participant in the onrush of technology.

At this point in the 21st Century, technology has granted us three superpowers that didn't exist a short time ago. Many high school students can remember the days when they didn't have these superpowers. Let me list them for you.

The three superpowers in the early 21st Century are:
1. Infinite mobility.
2. Infinite access to information.
3. Infinite connectivity.

Infinite mobility means the ability to go anywhere in the world -- and even into orbit. If you have enough time (and money), you can travel anywhere you want. In the pages of Outside, National Geographic Explorer, Men's Journal and other magazines, you can read about fantastic voyages made, not by diplomats, politicians, soldiers or spies, but by ordinary people like you and me. You can watch TV stories about those voyages on the Travel, Discovery, and National Geographic channels.

Infinite mobility probably reached its peak in August 2001. It's still possible to travel anywhere; it's just more difficult now. Okay, North Korea is still next to impossible to visit. And some places are dangerous to travel to, but this superpower gives you the ability to travel there and get into trouble if you're stupid enough.

Infinite access to information means that nearly the entire assembled body of human knowledge is now at our fingertips. The popularization of the Internet, followed by the invention of the World Wide Web, and finally the introduction of search engines like Google and knowledge bases like Wikipedia, have done for modern man what Gutenberg's printing press did for mankind in 1440. For one thing, they have fundamentally changed the way I conduct both business and research. Even in closed societies like China and Iran, anybody with enough desire can get access to this universal fount of information. The One Laptop Per Child initiative is an effort to make this power not just infinite, but universal.

At first, we were worried that this infinite access to information would lead to infinite dissemination of falsehoods and lies. Granted, there's a lot of that out there, and there always will be, and now it's even more accessible than when its dissemination was confined to mimeographs and backwater printing houses. But the social experiment that is Wikipedia shows us that a public knowledge base can be self-correcting and self-policing, over time.

Some oppressive governments, pseudo-religious groups, and other entities that live on power and paranoia may try to squelch this infinite access to information, but they have not succeeded yet, and they will not succeed. The genie is out of the bottle.

Infinite connectivity: I'm certain there are still people on this planet without an email address. You're not one of them! Even more ubiquitous than an email address is a cellular phone. In some families, even children as young as 8 or 10 have a cellphone with all the, um, bells and whistles (sorry). In countries that cannot afford the infrastructure and costs associated with what we now call "land lines," it seems as if everyone has a cellular phone.

Last year, the new computer buzzword was cloud computing, and its herald was the netbook, a minimalist computer that keeps all of its programs and data in the "cloud" instead of on a local hard disk. The trend towards cloud computing continues this year.

Then there's the phenomenon known as social networking. One day social networking, though out of style, will define this decade the way shag carpet defined the 1970s and sideways ponytails defined the 1990s. Today, though, social networking provides an important service by allowing people to maintain and to renew social and family connections. Facebook was not the first social network, but it is currently the biggest fish in the pond. The pocket-sized social network known as Twitter was hot for a while in 2008-2010, but it seems to be fading fast, a flash in the fad pan. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

This infinite connectivity does have a dark side, though: people will always know where you are. Your cellular service provider can track your location, either through your phone's built-in GPS, or through triangulation of your phone's position relative to two or three nearby cellular towers. The GPS capability in the newest phones can be remotely activated without the user's knowledge. Radio navigation, or triangulation, has been used by sailors and aviators for 100 years.

Another facet of this dark side: in this digital age, the right software and the right Internet connections can allow anyone to track your every move in cyberspace. By assembling all of your comments on Facebook and on blogs, all of your private (or so you thought) emails, and all of your search patterns, they can write a story of your life so detailed, so graphic, and so honest that it will scare you. All of this increased connectivity means that if you're not careful, your words and your deeds, good or evil, can (and will) be shouted from the rooftops. In some ways, this infinite connectivity leads swiftly downhill to complete and total loss of privacy.

--

So I want to know: what do you think? Does your having these three superpowers make your life better, or worse? Alternatively, does humanity's possession of these three superpowers make the world better, or worse? Please tell me what you think, and why.

All comments on this blog are still subject to moderation. This is just to keep the kooks out. Most comments will be approved instantly, and the rest (as long as they don't sound like they're from kooks) will be approved within 24 hours. Please avoid foul language and personal attacks, and stick to the subject at hand.

Political extremism and lengthy partisan diatribes are frowned upon and may also be rejected by the moderator. (Whew! Have I become one of those "power and paranoia" entities? I hope not. I just want to encourage a civil and rational dialogue.)

E' il mio gioco; le regole, le faccio io.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Shopping for Shoes, by Men


I went shopping with my sweet wife last Saturday. She needed a new purse, and so we went to the purse department at Kohl's, where she spent a long time looking at all the different purses. I love my wife, and I enjoy shopping with her, but like most men, after a while the endless comparison shopping gets tiring. I got tired of the purses in a hurry.

I needed a new pair of dress shoes. I have a pair of Giorgio Brutini loafers that I really like, and I wanted to find another pair just like them. They're good-looking and they're extremely comfortable. So I headed over to the shoe department, where a large banner advertised a 50-percent-off sale on every shoe in stock.

I zeroed in on the men's dress shoes. I walked down the aisle until I noticed a pair of very familiar shoes: black loafers with a woven leather accent and two tassels. I picked up one shoe and said, "Hello, Giorgio."

The shoe replied, "Actually, my name's Croft."

Then the other shoe chimed in, "And my name's Barrow."

Then they said in unison, "We just look like Giorgio."

Then they added, "And we're on sale."

I said, "That'll work."

I found a box with my size and tried them on. They fit fine. I put my old shoes in the box and walked Croft and Barrow over to show my sweet wife, who was still looking at purses.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Saturn: How General Motors Screwed Up a Good Thing

This posting started out as a request for somebody to write a book with this title. I didn't intend to write a posting about it. I can imagine that Saturn: How General Motors Screwed Up a Good Thing, written by an industry insider, would make the nonfiction bestseller list.

Actually, a more appropriate title might append the word Again to the title, as GM has screwed up several times in the last few decades.

Moreover, GM has screwed up so many times that their mishandling of Saturn Corporation might end up being a single chapter (or three chapters) in a book with a simpler title: How General Motors Screwed Things Up.

General Motors Corporation have accomplished a lot in their corporate history. They are responsible for bringing many automotive innovations to the mass market, for use by the common man. And indeed, they have led the way with innovative features in their more elite market segments, such as the Corvette and the haute-luxury end of their Cadillac line.

But GM have had more than their share of screw-ups, too, one of which was their mismanagement of Saturn.

Saturn Corporation was an innovative way to run a car company, and the Saturn was an innovative product line. After the initial model release in 1985, Saturns attained popularity quickly, because they were perceived as something newer and better than the same old stuff Detroit had been churning out. But GM required Saturn Corporation to sell their models at a loss in order to build market share, so the subsidiary didn't show a profit (did it ever?). They could have jacked the price up to par or to a slim profit, and people would have paid the extra -- the cars were that good. But they didn't.

When it started in 1985, Saturn offered a different kind of car and a different kind of car-buying experience. The public loved the car, the no-haggle, no-pressure showrooms, and the customer-comes-first-and-we-treat-you-like-royalty service departments. As a result, the public bought lots of Saturns - and two bad things happened.

("Bad" depends on your point of view. These things were only bad from the point of view of other GM divisions, which, being much bigger, older, and more heavily invested than Saturn, had the ready ears of the executive suite and the boardroom. You'll see where this is going shortly.)

First, Saturn sales cut deeply into sales of existing GM product lines. That's no surprise, considering the unequivocal junk that Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac were turning out in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Second, Saturn employees adopted a "snooty" attitude (GM's word, not mine) towards other GM employees. That's because Saturn employees, being nonunion, had to work hard for their success, and they had a lot of success to show for their hard work.

GM could have (and unequivocally should have) learned a lesson from both of these phenomena. They could have figured out why the public preferred the Saturn SL2 over the Chevy Beretta, for example, and either redesigned the Beretta to match the SL2's quality and features, or killed the Beretta, cut their losses, and consolidated their product line. Likewise, they could have taken a page from Saturn's playbook on no-haggle pricing and real customer service, and transformed GM's showrooms and service departments from a demeaning and distasteful experience into something enjoyable. Instead, they punished Saturn for their success. Rather than raise the rest of the corporation to Saturn's level, they lowered Saturn to the level of the rest of the corporation.

GM closed the dedicated Saturn factory at Spring Hill, Tennessee, and required all Saturn vehicles to be built on the same production lines as other GM cars, by the same people that built the other GM cars. Guess what happened to product quality? Yep: Down the toilet.

Then, rather than allow Saturn designers to design their own cars from scratch, GM imported designs from their European brand, Opel, and rebadged them as Saturns, thereby eliminating the uniqueness of the brand and the designed-in quality that had characterized the earlier models. Believe me, the public noticed the drop in quality, and while sales momentum held for a while based on the brand name, eventually sales dropped because the cars had become average.

(But the GM product line didn't completely regain its lost market share. Any idea who picked up the slack? It was Toyota, a resurgent Honda Motor Corporation, and a newcomer from Korea called Hyundai.)

The upshot of things was that while GM undercapitalized Saturn, they continued pouring money into crap like the Pontiac Aztek (and the entire Pontiac and Oldsmobile product lines) and excesses like the Cadillac Escalade and the Hummer product line.

Then, when the division was stumbling along, half-starved, without a loyal fan base, without direction and without the qualities that made it unique, GM announced that they were getting rid of it because it was no longer profitable. The executives and the board of directors at General Motors were directly responsible for meddling and mismanaging Saturn to death.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Happy Equinox

The vernal or spring equinox is a happy time of year. I think it's worthy of its own celebration -- no wait, it does have one. But that celebration depends on an arcane calendrical reckoning, related to phases of the moon and other such nonsense, whereas the equinox itself depends solely on the earth's position relative to the sun.

I love being outside at 6 a.m. on the day of the equinox (or 7 a.m. according to Daylight Savings Time) and seeing the sun peek over the horizon, down at the end of the east-west street near our home. It's like my own private celebration of the event that really heralds the beginning of spring. If I ever have a house again, I'm gonna build a Stonehenge in my back yard, with markers for the solstices and the equinoces.

So what if it snows after the equinox? Who cares? The daylight hours are rapidly increasing, the flowers and trees are budding, the birds are back in all their joyful cacophony, and the hills (well, the parts that aren't white) are turning green. It's a time of joyful anticipation, hope, and wild hormones.

Happy vernal equinox, everybody.