Wednesday, December 31, 2003

That's not just coffee you smell.

Like Folger's Coffee, American Express is doing a campaign to raise money to reopen the Statue of Liberty. Well, sort of. American Express is going to give $3 million to the campaign to raise money for security upgrades to the Statue, without which the most visible symbol of America's freedom will remain closed. (Which is apparently how the Administration wants it - spending $87 billion to line Halliburton's corporate pockets and to rebuild Iraq clearly has a higher priority than the Statue of Liberty.)

Certainly it's a good thing that American Express is funding the security upgrades, and they've helped with the Statue before, helping to raise money in the 80's for the restoration of the Statue. But what they're doing this time strikes me as a bit unseemly: the $3 million they've pledged will be in the form of a direct contribution of $500,000 and a contribution of 1 cent for every American Express charge made or check used during December 2003 and January 2004, up to a maximum of $2.5 million. How is that unseemly? Well, because so many consumers automatically bill monthly payments to their credit cards, American Express is going to hit the 250 million transaction mark even if American Express cardholders make no special purchases on behalf of the Statue of Liberty. Further, American Express is spending a lot of advertising money telling about its donations - full-page ads in the NY Times, TV commercials with Martin Scorsese, other national print ads - which one estimate puts at already $1 million; an awful lot of back-patting.

Oh, and as Folger's did with regard to the consumer's purchase of coffee, in small print American Express makes it clear that its "Donations are not tax-deductible by Cardmembers."

(You can also contribute directly to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, and if you contribute $100 or more, you'll receive a DVD of the new Scorsese-produced and -narrated documentary on the Statue of Liberty, to air on the History Channel on Jan. 15. And that contribution would be deductible.)

New Year's Eve festivities.

Well, not my festivities. Those will probably include some combination of watching DVDs, taking antihistamines, and guzzling prosecco. But for folks unwilling or too far south to go to Time's Square to watch the Ball drop and have their wallets stolen, they could always go to Brasstown, NC, to celebrate the arrival of the New Year with the traditional Possum Drop. Precisely at midnight, they'll lower the poor, defenseless possum (in a plexiglass cage) from the top of the local gas station. This, following an evening of merriment, fireworks, a "Miss Possum" cross-dressing beauty contest, and banjo-playing. They'll then let the marsupial loose in the neighboring woods.

Animal cruelty? Well, a Duke University professor who teaches animal law - animal law? I'd have guessed that very few possums could afford the $125 per hour legal fees - said the possum drop was probably not illegal. North Carolina law prohibits unjustifiable physical abuse to animals, but doesn't say anything about psychological pain. Just good clean fun for the good ol' boys.

And for next year's Possum Drop, they want to have an albino possum.

A rose by any other name.

Very funny article about a psychology professor in Nebraska who analyzed the names of 4 million babies born in the U.S. in 2000, who "discovered" a trend: parents name their babies after products. Babies named after cars (Chevy, Camry, Chevelle, Celica, or Dodge), or vacation spots (girls named Disney), or luxury goods (girls named Cartier, Nautica, or Catera). Or vodka (girls named Skyy) and drugs (Darvon). Some names appear to work for both boys and girls (Armani and Evian). And some are just strange (Buckshot and Timberland). And with twins, you can pair up the creative names - like the parents of Camry and Lexus.

Why the explosion of unusual names? Blame it on cable TV; a "names researcher" at the University of Pittsburgh does. The incredible diversity of choices people have, as opposed to a generation ago: 200 cable channels instead of 3 network ones, or a movie-plex with 12 screens instead of a single-screen theater. So it follows naturally that parents want to have more choices in naming their children. Riiiight. Not better choices, or original ones. Just the opportunity to name their children after cars, shoe companies, and vodka.

And, of course, it's not all that new a trend, as the article points out: the popular names Tiffany and Chanel came from the store and perfume, and television left its mark in popularizing Ashley as a girl's name. But where's the fun in an article making fun of people's names unless you can claim that it's news?

Monday, December 29, 2003

Cheaper than a tuxedo, probably.

Well, maybe getting married on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise isn't the silliest thing to do, after all. A couple in Akron got married on Christmas Eve, dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. And all of the guests had to wear Santa hats. Why would they recite their vows dressed in Santa costumes? Because "the idea just seemed like a good way to express their faith as Christians."

Friday, December 26, 2003

NFL players' defensive packages.

Article in the NY Times today says that NFL players are turning to guns for a sense of security. Unnamed players estimate that between 50% and 90% of all NFL players are now packing, from handguns to assault rifles. And although fans are searched prior to entering football stadiums, players are not - so players bring their guns with them into the locker rooms. The NFL - surprise! - says there's no problem.

If he ever scores a touchdown again, maybe Joe Horn can stage a shootout as a celebration.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

What did you get for Christmas?

I got a cold. The day consisted of crawling out of bed to make coffee - official Christmas coffee, with Egg Nog flavor and all - and then spending much of the rest of the day in a comfortable chair in front of the TV, with blanket and a sleeping cat to keep me warm. Luckily, there wasn't much worth watching on the tube, as I slept off and on all day. And thank heavens for the pause button on the DVD remote.

Hope yours was better. And if not, then I hope that at least your Christmas celebrations were better - and warmer - than this.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

People with difficult jobs.

Lord knows there are some thankless jobs in this world. Can you imagine being part of Wacko Jacko's security detail? Well, now you don't have to.

Monday, December 22, 2003

The downside to producing a DVD.

DVDs of the first season of Seinfeld are likely to be less interesting than they could have been, thanks to the inability of the DVD producers to make a deal with three of the four leading actors on the show. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, and Jason Alexander (Elaine, Kramer, and George) decided jointly not to give on-camera interviews for the DVD or to otherwise participate in it, presumably also ruling out commentary tracks by the actors. They appear to be unhappy with the financial deals they've had with the show over the years, and the small filming fees they were offered weren't enough of the action for them. While they're sitll getting annual residuals from the show at about $100,000 each, the show is generating millions in revenue through its syndication, and they're only receiving the residuals.

Kind of a shame, though, as the ones who would really be hurt by the stars' not taking part in the DVDs will be the fans of the show. But the producers of the DVD recognize that the DVDs will generate less interest if these three don't take part in it; and I'd imagine that there's enough wiggle room left that they'll eventually make a deal that makes these three happier.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Admirable local government efficiency.

The East Point, Ga., police department certainly knows how to be efficient. They not only remind people of their civic duty to report crimes they witness, but make it possible for people to make a Citizen's Self-Arrest in the event the citizen is the one who commits the crime. Very efficient, as it allows the citizen to use the Web to report the crime, self-administer Miranda warnings, and confine himself to his home while awaiting the arrival of the police.

X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys.

A moment to mark the passing of Harold von Braunhut, who invented and sold X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys.

Perhaps the appropriate tribute would be to sing Sea Monkey Christmas carols.

No word as to whether, like the Sea Monkeys, if he were dried out and then had water added back in, he'd come back to life.

Getting married?

Well, no, not any time soon, that I know of. But I imagine that this isn't what my mother has in mind, either. (Although she'd probably be willing to settle for it.)

That spinning sound you hear?

That would have to be Ray Harryhausen.

He's not? Well, this will put him there.

Return of the King, pt. 5.

There are a lot of folks pushing for Peter Jackson to produce and direct The Hobbit. While that would be quite enjoyable, and we'd get to see more of a lot of the characters we've come to know through his other movies, it just wouldn't be all that much of a challenge, now would it? Although I'd sure like to see Smaug come to life.

But if Jackson decides to stay in the film world of Middle Earth, I'd much prefer to have him work his movie-making magic on The Silmarillion. That would be a challenge.

I'd actually prefer to see Jackson set his sights on the Thomas Covenant trilogy. He's put together a team that could do a good job on the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and it's a story that deserves as much attention as the Ring cycle got.

Bonus NASM anecdote.

By getting out to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center yesterday, I kept my streak alive: I went to the NASM the first week it was open, and now I've been to its new, offsite museum during its first week of operation.

Hey: you take pride in what you can.

Saturday, December 20, 2003


No, not the state you enter when you've had too much authentic Czech pilsner to drink. This is the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the National Air & Space Museum's new museum/annex for the display and preservation of historic air and space artifacts. Just opened this week, and it's located near Dulles Airport, outside of Washington. It has the non-space shuttle Enterprise, a Concorde, and an SR-71 Blackbird. It's got the Enola Gay, Mercury and Gemini capsules, biplanes and kit-built airplanes. It's got areas dedicated to commericial aviation, sport aviation, various eras of military aviation, and space craft. There are displays of uniforms, flight (and space) suits, weaponry, and aerial cameras. (And it's named for its major donor.)

I recognized a few of the planes as having previously been on display at the main Air & Space Museum downtown, but most of them were new to me.

There's an IMAX theater (one of the movies being shown is "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure," which I'm sure is fun to watch, but I'm at a loss to see how it's appropriate for an air and space museum) and a Food Court (which appeared to have only pre-made Subway's sandwiches, not that I paid too much attention because I had another lunch spot in mind). The only real drawback I could see was that while the museum, like all Smithsonian museums, has free entry, they also had a $12 parking fee. Yes, you could drive up to the front and drop someone off without paying the fee, but what will the driver do for the 3 hours that the passengers are in the museum?

The only inexplicable exhibit was the model of the mother ship used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While it was kind of cool to get to see it sufficiently close that you could see the little in-jokes that the model builders had put onto it (I spotted a mailbox, a little R2D2, little airplanes, and a graveyard), the exhibit case was just there, in the middle of the "Reaching into Space" area with no justifying explanation. At least when they've had Star Wars- and Star Trek-related exhibits, they've rationalized it with "space fantasy" and "influences on astronauts and engineers".

They're not done filling the "Space" exhibit area yet, and there are a number of exhibit cases that are still empty, so they clearly aren't done with the initial stocking of the museum, and I'll have to go back again in six months.

Oh. Lunch afterwards? The Old Dominion brewpub, not more than 15 minutes down the road. And if they have Tupper's Hop Pocket Ale on their hand pump (as the "Real Ale"), get it.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Newspaper correction of the day.

Or, possibly, of the century. The Virginian-Pilot corrects its story on the Wright Brothers' flight, one day short of a hundred years later.

Better late than never.

Marketing of high tech items: when does the growth cycle end?

Interesting post over on Moore's Lore, relating to technology complexity: when a new, complex technology goes from being difficult to use or to understand to being something that anyone can use and no longer interesting to talk about, its days of hot growth are over (and either it has become a mass market necessity or it never will). Examples: Windows (you may not understand it, but you can use it to do whatever it is you need) and DVD players (anyone can run one).

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Return of the King, pt. 4.

Briefly - with a longer report to follow - I've now been to see it. Whoof, is it long! And I think I agree with many of the reviews: it's very good, I'd have included a couple of scenes from the book that were left out, and there were a couple of places where I'd have trimmed scenes somewhat (mainly in the battle sequences and the end-of-the-movie farewell scenes). I wish he'd considered putting the Saruman scenes in, and then added an intermission.

Academy award nomination? Sure, especially if that's honoring the package of three movies. Winning the Oscar? Maybe. Will I go see it again? Maybe - I could be talked into it, but I won't be going to see it again the same day, as I did with that other "Return of the ..." final movie of a trilogy.

But all in all, pretty good. And after 45 minutes away from the theater, the feeling is starting to return to my butt. Not necessarily a good thing, I suppose.

Return of the King, pt. 3.

I'm not much of a fan of, the site that collects all of a film's reviews, divides them into yeas and nays, and gives an instant yes/no rating of its own. One of the things I don't like about it is that it counts all critics equally - Roger Ebert and Desson Thomson each count the same as critics for local tabloids and obscure websites, and the same as someone who calls himself (or his website) "the Film Hobbit" (and just guess whether or not he likes The Return of The King) - and then denigrates their presumably nuanced opinions into "thumbs up" or "-down," and aggregates all those votes into a single conclusion. (Yes, I know: it's just like what happens to the rest of us on the first Tuesday following the first Monday each November - and look at how well that's done for us.)

Still, has its entertainment value. Looking at some of the reviews - all of the reviews that are counted have links to the full text - can be great fun. A couple of the 3 (of 138, at this writing) reviews that didn't like ROTK quickly disclose that the reviewers either never read Tolkien or don't like movies that last more than two hours. Even some of the favorable reviewers talk more about the strain that a 3 1/2 hour movie places on their bladders than on the movie, or on the choices made as to the fate of certain characters ("Maybe this was her fate in the book, I don't know"), than about the things you'd normall expect to find discussed in a movie review - you know, acting, directing, writing, that sort of thing.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

When I win the lottery ....

From time to time, I muse as to what I'd do if I won the lottery. I've got one friend who says he'd buy a vineyard. This article is for him, then. It talks about some of the difficulties of starting up a winery as a retirement venture/hobby: working all day in the vineyard, capital demands, marketing problems.

Would I buy a vineyard? Maybe. If the lottery win were big enough that I could also hire a vineyard manager, and enough other people that I limit myself to doing the fun stuff.

Return of the King, pt. 2.

Report in the NY Times about people standing in line for the marathon screening of the Rings Cycle - a back-to-back-to-back showing of all three movies. The first person in line arrived at 5:30 a.m. today, or almost exactly 24 hours before the screening will end. (Hmmph. Star Wars fans camped out for days for the premiere of movies in that series. Well, okay, that was for a mid-May premiere.)

I suppose it's shooting fish in a barrel, but these folks come across as fairly goofy. One says: "The coolest part about this is that we get to see all three movies together. This is the way Tolkien intended it." And her friend says: "I've never read the books at all. I want to read them but they look so long. I'd rather see a long movie." You know, the way Tolkien intended. And one more: "I've read the trilogy five times, but never the last 50 pages so I still have something to look forward to." Since, of course, Tolkien didn't intend for you to read all of the book. But it's just as well, I suppose, because Jackson's version doesn't cover the last 100 pages or so of the book, either.

Update: Or, at least, the movie doesn't cover the last 100 pages or so as well as I'd have liked.

Return of the King, pt. 1.

No, I haven't seen an advance showing, and no, I'm not planning to go out at midnight tonight to see it. But here's a problem they had with the computer graphics that I wouldn't have thought of: to make the CGI battle scenes look realistic by allowing the individual soldiers and horses act independently, they gave the little computer soldiers a degree of artificial intelligence, to control their actions (running, fighting, avoiding obstacles, with an overall goal of advancing upon and engaging the overwhelming might of the enemy line). And the little soldiers responded appropriately: they took one look at the hordes of evil, and fled the battlefield. "For the first two years, the biggest problem we had was soldiers fleeing the field of battle," the special effects designer said. "We could not make their computers stupid enough to not run away."

Monday, December 15, 2003

PowerPoint - Cause of the Shuttle Columbia disaster.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board at NASA issued a report in August, identifying causes of the accident. The primary one, of course, was the insulating foam on the external fuel tank. But, according to the report, a secondary cause of the accident was PowerPoint; specifically, NASA's use of presenting complex information via PowerPoint, instead of traditional technical reports. The engineers' findings on their assessment of wing damage was presented in a confusing, crammed-full PowerPoint slide that was difficult to read and did not satisfactorily convey the information that there was a life-threatening situation.

The article goes on to talk about the claim that Edward Tufte - a theorist of information presentation - made, that PowerPoint forces people to mutilate and overly simplify data. A chart in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, would have an average of 120 elements while a typical chart in PowerPoint has only 12 elements.

My complaint with how PowerPoint is often used is that it ends up containing all the information the speaker is trying to present, instead of providing a framework to tie the speaker's points together. When PowerPoint is used as the repository of all the information in the presentation, it no longer functions effectively as a presentation tool. (When you're busy reading the presentation slides, you're not paying attention to the presenter, and you lose any information or nuances not contained in the slide.) The culture at one of my recent employers was such that only PowerPoint was used to transfer or retain information, and there was no central library or database to keep PowerPoint "decks". And since it was also a culture that encouraged rapid transfer, promotion, and re-organization, that information quickly became lost, and new people in a position had to recreate the lessons learned by previous employees. The few presentations I did there, I tried to use my PowerPoint slides as the focus for my presentation, and not as the encyclopedia with all of my information, but eventually my supervisor's wishes carried the day (and turned my slides into unmanageable messes).

And next week, locusts.

Ice storm this weekend. Not a big one, as ice storms go. Sleet and freezing rain, enough to make morning driving excessively exciting, but not so much that early afternoon temperatures didn't melt it all. Yet it was enough to bring down a half-dozen more limbs in my backyard, ones that we'll assume were weakened by Hurricane Isabel.

It's been an interesting last half of the year: floods, hurricane, earthquake, ice storms. Somehow, I expect we'll see a rain of frogs before the end of the year.

Someday, cats will rule all of us.

Or something. But given cats' clear ability to extract revenge, I want to make it clear to Mia that she has nothing to fear.

Update on Archimedes.

Back in October, I mentioned a Nova program on a Medieval copy of a manuscript from Archimedes. A recent article describes one of the findings from that manuscript. Part of the manuscript is called the Stomachion, which a Stanford historian of mathematics says is a treatise on combinatorics, a field that did not come into its own until the rise of computer science. The goal of combinatorics is to determine how many ways a given problem can be solved. And finding the number of ways that the problem posed in the Stomachion can be solved is so difficult that it took a team of four combinatorics experts six weeks to solve it.

Part of the problem was that most of the introduction to the Stomachion was illegible, so it appeared to be a children's entertainment, taking fourteen shapes and trying to put them together to make shapes, like elephants. Although this seemed to be beneath Archimedes' talent, there was no clearer explanation. It now appears, though, that Archimedes was interested in seeing how many different ways there were to put the shapes together to form a square, the essence of combinatorics. And the historian believes that Archimedes must have had a solution to the question, although that solution doesn't appear in the manuscript.

And how many different ways are there to put these irregular shapes together to form a square? 17, 152. This site has a graphic showing all of them, not counting reflections and rotations, which brings it down to 536. (Bring a magnifying glass.)

Your day in court.

Surprising article in the NY Times: a new study indicates that fewer and fewer lawsuits ever make it to trial. In 1962, 11.5% of all civil cases in federal court went to trial; forty years later, only 1.8% went to trial. Sure, there are five times as many lawsuits today as in 1962 - but the absolute number of civil trials in federal court has dropped, too: from a high in 1985 of 12,529, only 4,569 civil trials were held.

Similarly, the number of criminal trials had dropped, too: less than 5% of federal criminal prosecutions ended up at trial, while in 1962, 15% went to trail. Again, there are more prosecutions than forty years ago - twice as many, but the number of trials dropped to 3,574 lst year, from over 5,000 in 1962.

And judges' workloads have changed during that forty-year span: in 1962, federal trial judges averaged 39 trials a year, both criminal and civil. Last year, they averaged 13 trials - but had increased responsibilities regarding discovery, ruling on pretrial motions, and supervising settlements and plea bargains.

State court data are less complete, but the patterns appear to be consistent with what's seen in the federal courts.

What's the reason for the shift? For criminal cases, the sentencing laws are such that someone who goes to trial faces longer sentences than someone who takes a plea bargain, so fewer defendants insist on a trial. On the civil side, it's not so clear: Part of it surely is due to the increasing cost of litigation: when the cost of a trial exceeds the cost of settlement, defendants often choose to settle. One law school professor noted, "The striking problem is that we have generated a procedure that is way too expensive if actually employed." And part of the reduction may be due to increased use of arbitration or other non-judicial means of resolving dispute, so that a lot of certain types of cases have gone to other forums and thus never make it to the court system. And part of it may be "non-trial adjudications" - decisions based only on papers submitted by the parties - which now account for the final disposal of half of all civil cases, up from 32% in 1970.

This last point can be troubling, another professor noted. "We speak glowingly of letting people have their day in court. Now they have their day on papers."

The chief judge of the Federal District Court in Boston says that this "is nothing less than the passing of the common law adversarial system that is uniquely American." Others suggest that the shift to more negotiated settlements means that both sides end up with something in a way that a win-or-lose-all trial doesn't allow, and that pretrial determination of cases, based only on paper submissions, prevents frivolous cases from going to trial.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Never too early, I suppose.

FIFA already has its official website up for the 2006 World Cup being held in Germany. The opening match will be in Munich, in a brand-new stadium (scheduled completion in the summer of 2005) and the final match will be in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, from the 1936 Olympics. One cool thing about the Munich stadium is that its construction is being funded by the two major professional Munich soccer teams - a concept that the NFL and MLB should take note of.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

The idiot box.

Time to report on things I've been watching on TV of late, and there have been a couple of interesting things.

Battlestar Galactica was on this week, and all things considered, it was pretty good. Not a remake of the original, this was a "re-imaging" - the producers' way of letting us know that it wasn't going to be cheesy, cheap, and camp, the way the original Battlestar Galactica was. Good special effects (unlike the original) and production values, good actors in the lead roles, interesting characters (all the humans are flawed in some manner, and even the Cylons are more than just "evil because they're robots") and character interactions, and a darker and far better backstory than the original. And the Galactica's executive officer sure appears to be John McCain, taking some time off from his Senate duties. Best of all: they got rid of the stupid names for time and distance measurements (yahrns and sectons <shudder>). I'll recommend this 4-hour, two-part miniseries - it repeats, back-to-back, on Sunday night - and I look forward to the series, if the Sci-Fi channel decides to pick it up. (They ought to, but their track record hasn't been all that great with how they've treated decent science fiction: preferring Shannon Doherty's wierd "reality" show to Farscape, for instance.) I'd say this miniseries is better than most of the current Star Trek offering, Enterprise.

And - ooo! - the website comes complete with a Shockwave first-person-shooter game. Not that I've spent a lot of time playing it, or anything.

Bravo's entry in the poker-on-TV fad is a six-show series, Celebrity Poker Showdown. The first two episodes have aired, and I think they've been fun to watch. I don't play poker and my feeling is that most of the poker-on-TV shows are about as interesting to watch as a black-and-white documentary on paint drying. In Flemish. Still, I've enjoyed the episodes so far, though - mainly because it's been a chance to see a glimpse of actors outside of their roles. The second show had five actors from The West Wing, and I will watch almost anything that has Allison Janney in it. The next show or two look less inviting, though, with Hank Azaria, Michael Ian Black and three nobodies in the next one. The series is executive produced by Joshua Malina, and I'm hoping he makes an appearance at some point. Worth watching? I suppose, for whoever the players of the week are, but not for the thrill of the game.

Finally, last night I saw an episode of Modern Marvels on the History Channel, called "Inviting Disaster part 3" and dealing with the shuttle disasters. Originally aired in November, it did a good job of highlighting that the real cause of both tragedies was the organizational structure and culture at NASA which downplayed and ignored safety risks and legitmate concerns in favor of meeting schedules and good public relations. Worth watching.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003


Cool. An earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale hit about 20 miles west of me this afternoon. It announced itself with a drawn-out whummp - not too dissimilar to the accident I was in coming back from Florida, except the sound lasted about 5 seconds instead of a tenth of a second, followed by a low-frequency rumbling like there was a diesel truck idling in my driveway or something very peculiar was going on with my furnace, and that lasted about 25 or 30 seconds. Long enough to get the cat upset, and to cause the squirrels outside to run around in an even more manic frenzy than normal.

It's back to normal, though. The local TV stations are covering it from their studios with people phoning in, waiting for their crews to get out to the epicenter, and some of the phone reports are funny: Someone allowed as how they had a broken window, and that this was "far worse than Hurricane Isabel!" Right - tell me that after you've been without power for ten days, not after you have a cracked window and no other damage. And Dial-a-Quote got quoted in the Washington Post.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Miracle? No, I thought it was just a professional courtesy.

Got another ambulance-chasing letter from a NC lawyer today. This one from a Braxton Bell of Rocky Mount, a mere 45 miles from the scene of the accident. Instead of an out-of-focus postcard to show off his staff, he included a reasonably poor quality photocopy of their full-page ad in the local yellow pages.

Kind of a funny canned letter: "I recently learned of the accident you were in. I am sure this is a difficult time for you." Well, okay, but not because of the accident. And he ends it: "Thank you for your cooperation." Well, probably not what he had in mind.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Mr. Shakespeare? Meet Zork.

A text adventure game version of Hamlet.

Mr. Picassohead.

Another site for creating art, although mostly it allows you to make only faces.

Not enough sand.

Remember that little fender-bender I had Tuesday morning? It took place in Roanoke Rapids, NC, near the Virginia border.

The good news is that the insurance company for the driver who caused the accident has been doing a wonderful job of getting in touch with me, sending someone out to the house to look at my car, and sending me a check, all without my doing anything other than answering the phone. I imagine that the fact that liability is fairly clear has something to do with that. (One lesson I've learned from accidents my cars have been involved in is that, presuming no one is injured, it's great to be the third car in a three-car accident: it's virtually impossible for you to be at fault.) And the check was in my hands by Friday afternoon.

The bad news - well, not so much bad as depressing - is that by Saturday, I had received a letter from a law firm in Greenville, NC (85 miles away from the scene of the accident), urging that I retain their services with regard to the accident. I imagine they're in good shape, if they chase ambulances from a hundred miles away. And they included an out-of-focus postcard of what I presume is the firm and staff, presumably to give the begging a personal touch. Thanks, Kessler Law Firm, I don't think I'll be engaging your services.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Do-it-yourself Bayeux Tapestry.

An odd and interesting little site that allows you to make your own historic tales using figures from the Bayeux Tapestry. Kind of cute. In essence, you can draw your own comic strips even if you have as little artistic talent as, say, I have.

Friday, December 05, 2003

The rule of unintended consequences.

Michael Jackson's current child-molestation problems appear to have been triggered by a TV special that Jackson wanted and promoted. He hoped that "Living With Michael Jackson" would be a jumpstart to his failing music career; instead, it started a series of events - and what those exact events were is disputed by the two sides - that ended up with his arrest.

Jacko wanted more attention; it would appear that he got it.

A slap on the wrist.

That's all the lunatic who drove her car on the Interstate in Ohio while breast-feeding got. 90 days house arrest, and a $300 (or possibly $500, the newspaper accounts differ) fine. And a prohibition against driving without a license (aren't there laws for that? Oh, right: that's one of the things she was convicted of), two years probation, and a mental health evaluation. Well, she certainly needs that last one.

The prosecutor wanted the penalty to include jail time, but said he's glad it's over: "I hope the circus is done ... I think the judge was very tolerant of her, more than I would've been. Obviously a three-day trial and a half-day sentence [hearing] is more than enough for a misdemeanor."

Naturally, she's going to appeal, so the judge has stayed the sentence until the appeals are completed. Difficult to see any reasonable grounds for appeal, but then, there weren't any reasonable defenses offered at trial, so I suppose it evens out. And she's already filed some sort of appeal back in September, on the grounds that she had ineffective assistance of counsel. While I'd certainly agree that her trial representation was suspect at best, that's because she refused the counsel that had been appointed by the court and freely chose to represent herself. Perhaps she's trying to break new ground by applying the concept of res ipsa loquitur to ineffective assistance claims.

It's fun to see how different reports pick up different tidbits. While the wire reports got just the facts, this local reporter noted that she is a Michigan graduate who also attended the Naval Academy (not the stability I'd like to see in our military officers), and that she's at least two other confrontations with state police before, once when she and her "partner" were pulled over for not having valid license plates. (Given the strictures of their "religion," I can only wonder who was driving.) And another local reporter noted that in one of those incidents, on Sept. 12, 2001, in Maryland, police found two loaded handguns in the locked console compartment of their vehicle, and that charges are pending for transporting and handling of firearms in a motor vehicle. Given what happened the day before and not that far away, I imagine those police officers were not happy wth their discovery.

At one point during the sentencing hearing, the judge asked, "If you want to be left alone, why would you do things to bring attention to the police officers involved to pull you over? It's almost like ... you are playing a little game, like a constitutional chess game, with officers who might pull you over on the side of the road - and that you get some sense of adventure out of it all." Well, sure: the adventure, and the repeated fifteen minutes of fame they get.

And it's also been interesting to see how quite a few of the articles are now referring to the baby's father as the defendant's "partner" or "companion," where they had referred to him as her "husband" in the news accounts over the summer. Well, sure: the couple refer to themselves as married, although they had done so without the formality of a wedding license. Perhaps the reporters are also wondering whether the dissolution of the husband's previous marriage was also done without the formality of a divorce through the courts, if it was done at all.

You know, you couldn't write something this strange in a novel and expect to get it past your publisher. But it will be fun to see where this goes next - because you know this can't be the end of the tale.

What goes around.

You may recall my encounter with Direct TV's telemarketer, after the October 1 effective date of the federal Do-Not-Call list.

Yesterday, I got a call from the FTC, wanting to know more information about the complaint I filed regarding that incident. I happily chatted with them, and pointed them to my blog description of that encounter. I even volunteered to be a named complainant, if they needed one.

I'm delighted to see them going after the telemarketing scum.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Forbes has some funny ideas.

Not just politics; that deserves a site of its own. This is Forbes' idea of presents for wine lovers, and a right bizarre list of gifts for wine lovers it is. Some of the suggestions are reasonable, like Riedel glasses or Michael Broadbent's latest book, and some are expensive but appropriate, like a $250 double magnum of Veuve Clicquot or a $600 case of burgundy. But sterling silver labels for your bourbon and gin bottles or a silver martini shaker that costs over $7,000? Well, I suppose you could always pawn them and buy good wine with the proceeds.

Buy a Christmas tree, go to jail.

Well, maybe not so much any more. The new statewide Fire Prevention Code, effective October 1, had made it illegal to have cut trees in apartment buildings and other public areas without sprinkler systems, punishable by a Class 1 misdemeanor (up to 12 months in jail and $2500 fine). Yesterday, the state fire marshal relaxed those rules, leaving it up to local fire marshals to impose the restrictions.

Lots of people had complained that the rules would ruin Christmas if they weren't allowed to run the risk of causing a fatal fire in their apartments. A Fairfax County assitant fire marshal noted, "in multi-family dwellings, the act of one person can endanger hundreds of lives."

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Homeownership can be a humbling thing.

And humiliating. Or, in the alternative, it can be a great opportunity to learn something new every day.

Today, for instance, I learned that my thermostat, hooked in to the electrical system as it is, is not actually operated by electricity from the electrical system. It runs off of two AA batteries. And when they go dead, no more heat is generated, despite the fact that there's oil in the tank and the electricity is still connected.

It was somewhat after dark this evening, temperature outside plunging through the upper 30s on their way to below freezing, and the cat decided that my lap would be a good place to hang out. And my hands were becoming numb. Hmm, that's odd, I thought. It was nice and toasty in here earlier today. So I put the cat down (wrapped in a blanket, so she wouldn't get cold) and went off to see what the matter was. The furnace hadn't disappeared (I could do the same thing to correct that as I could with the furnace present, of course - nothing at all), and the lights were on. Maybe I should check the thermostat to see whether the cat had turned it off, as I knew that I surely had not. Traipsed upstairs to the thermostat - and the LED digits showing time and temperature were missing. Okay, I had no clue what to do at this point - has the thermostat died? Has something in the furnace acted up and the thermostat could detect it and shut it down? Is there a short in one of the wires leading to the thermostat? Should I call the heating/electrical company now and order a new furnace? Do I need to have them come out and take a look at the system, and if so, can it wait until tomorrow morning so I can avoid an "after-hours" charge? Then I noticed a recessed button that I could push. So I did - what could it hurt? And the cover came off. There's another button I could pull on, and another cover came down, revealing two batteries, one of which was covered with that dried gunk you get when a battery leaks.

Took me another ten minutes to find my tool box and get a screwdriver so I could pry out the batteries and replace them, and another twenty minutes to re-program the thermostat (warm during the day, cooler at night), and voila! the heater came back on. So did the LED temperature indicator - it had dropped to 60 on the upstairs floor where the thermostat is.

And the best part is that I avoided having to buy a new furnace.

Where is Bill Watterson?

You know: the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. It appears that he's faded into anonymity in Chagrin Falls*, Ohio. And he prefers it that way, as this article (that doesn't actually interview Watterson) indicates.

Okay, I admire someone who could avoid the pitfalls of merchandising his creation, as Watterson did, and who chose to end the strip while it was still fresh and funny. And, for that matter, alive, something that too many existing cartoons have not chosen to do. But I do miss Calvin's wonderful sense of humor and his snowman creations, and I'm sad to think that the only Calvin we see these days is that height of NASCAR art, the counterfeit Calvin peeing on the competition. Perhaps the changing marketplace which now looks to be giving cartoonists some power again - for instance, the recent return of Opus to the comics pages - can persuade Watterson to bring Calvin and Hobbes back. Well, we can always hope.

* Yes, it's a real place.

Holiday e-snowglobe.

A holiday snowglobe for your computer. You can even shake it. Okay, the best part is shaking it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Signs and portents.

I don't believe that dreams predict the future. But that doesn't mean you should ignore them.

The night before I headed back to Virginia from Florida, I had a dream: In it, I stopped at a rest stop, and the cat jumped out of the car and started to run away, across the parking lot to freedom. I followed her, intending to catch her, and instead was struck in the hip by a car. It breaks my hip, or worse, but I don't know how much worse, because I wake up.

Well. It's not as though either the cat ever tries to get out of the car (even she can figure out that "car=warm, outside=cold, I should stay in the car") or I blindly run across rest area parking lots without looking. But just to be on the safe side, every time I opened the car door on the trip back - rest area or not - I made sure that the cat had no chance to jump out, and I checked each way a couple of extra times before crossing rest stop parking lots.

Sure enough, my trip went safely whenever I stopped. Just not so safely while the car was moving.

I was on a US highway, getting set to get back onto I-95 to continue the trip north. Early in the morning, facing east, directly into the sun, which was hanging right where the traffic lights were supposed to be. Squinting, I was able to see that the light was red, so I slowed down, approaching the intersection. The guy in the pickup behind me slowed down, too. But the girl in the car behind him evidently decided that if she couldn't see the traffic lights or traffic ahead of her, then it wasn't there, and just kept on coming. WHUMMP! I heard something behind me, and looked into the rear view mirror in time to view the look of horror on the face of the driver of the pickup as it was shoved into my car. And a softer WHUMMP!, not hard enough to set off my air bags.

The cat and I are fine. The car is reasonably fine: small dent in the trunk, paint damage and scrapes and stuff on the rear bumper where it deformed from the accident and then went back more or less into place. The driver of the first car was unhurt, and her car had some front-end damage but seemed to still be drivable. The pickup truck had both front and rear damage, and was towed away - and its passengers were taken off by ambulance, I think for evaluation and observation, as their first comments were that they were unhurt but they later complained of neck stiffness.

Predicted by the dream? No, I don't think so.

TMQ returns.

Naturally, things like this happen when I'm away from my computer for an extended period.

Gregg Easterbrook's weekly column, Tuesday Morning Quarterback, has found a new home. It's on the NFL's site,, and if you can't find a link to the column on the main page, you should be able to find it under "Features." And yes, it actually showed up there for the first time last Tuesday, not today.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

The sound of one hand surfing.

An update to yesterday's posting.

I have become - by default, most likely - the computer "expert" in the family, which means that I'm the one who gets the questions of how to make some software program work right - and it's usually some program I've never seen before (such as my father's genealogy program). And usually I can get away with a response that is some flavor of "I don't know - what does the manual say?"

Over the past three days, I've been involved with moving that genealogy data from my parents' old computer to their new one. It's gone pretty well, except for the biggest database - the one dealing with the Stoner family, which is (not surprisingly) the one my father most wants to transfer. Most of the data transfer consisted of copying files onto floppies and then re-copying them to the new computer. But that big database was too large to get onto one floppy, and there's no other data transfer medium in common: the old computer has a ZIP drive and the new one has a read/write CD burner. And because the old computer is a couple of generations of operating systems old - Windows 95 vs. Windows XP Home - I couldn't get the Backup utility to work properly to take a backup off the old machine and restore it to the new one.

I eventually ended up with a successful, albeit jury-rigged solution: I emailed the file from the old machine to my home account, and accessed that email account from the new machine and downloaded it there. You know how I mentioned yesterday that dial-up is slow? I had further blocked out the memory of old modems and the old computer's 28.8 dial-up speed.

The good news is that the cat is getting more comfortable here, and is hiding under the bed only about a third of the time. Just when she's completely comfortable, we'll leave.

Governor Kinkstah!

The New York Times reports today on an early-announced independent candidate for the 2006 gubernatorial election in Texas: Kinky Friedman. When asked whether his campaign is serious, Friedman says, "Serious is not a word I would use, because I'm never serious." Friedman is a man of many talents: author of a series of mysteries, with the main character being, well, Kinky Friedman; songwriter/performer/musician - with his 70s band The Texas Jewboys, he's responsible for "Homo Erectus," "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore," a pro-choice country music song ("Rapid City, South Dakota"), and perhaps the only country music song about the Holocaust, "Ride 'Em, Jewboy."

Friedman's platform includes the outlawing of the practice of declawing cats and turning Austin into a mid-America moviemaking capital.

And he has the perfect campaign slogan: Why the hell not? Indeed.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Surfing the web with one hand tied behind my back.

One downside to going on vacation is that my parents' internet connection is dial-up, and I'm used to a cable modem. Man, is dial-up slow: I'd blocked out the memory of interminable waits for content while sound-filled ads are loading.

Only a couple more days of limping along the web, another 15-hour car ride with a less-than-happy cat, and I can immerse myself with instant information again.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Wishing on the moon.

If you go to eBay within the next week or so, you can bid on what is purported to be a piece of a moon rock. Unless, maybe it isn't. According to the seller, it is a retirement presentation desk set which included a few tiny pieces of moon rock suspended in epoxy. On the other hand, NASA has examined it and isn't willing to vouch for the veracity of the claim. Minimum bid is $50,000, while someone has said it could be worth as much as $1 million.

I don't especially believe it - for something worth up to a million, why would you auction it on eBay instead of through a big, reputable auction house? Unless they've been approched - and passed on the opportunity, because they're not willing to stand behind the claim that it's pieces of moon rock.

Interesting idea, pointless implementation.

Driver gets stopped by the police (for careless driving, improper registration, and expired tags) in Missouri, and is asked for his license. Instead of the license, he happily gives them a computer printout which explains that he has copyrighted his name and that anyone who wrote down his name without his permission would get sued, and that he has determined the damages to be a minimum of $500,000 per instance that his name appeared in official documents. Police officers call for backup and for their shift supervisor, who told the driver that he'd have to contact the city attorney's office.

He must have thought it was a great get-rich scheme: copyright his name, break some sort of traffic offense so the police would write down his name, and then sue and get rich.

Any possible problems? Well, the article points out that while you are free to copyright your name, "fair use" doctrines allow others to write down the name so long as they aren't making money as a result. I'd suggest that he has implicitly given permission for the state to use his name when he got a driver's license with that name. I'd also suggest that he's an idiot, but perhaps that's pretty apparent.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Mia the traveller.

The poor cat isn't having the best of holidays: her choice was to be left alone in the house for a week, with nothing but dried cat food to eat, or to ride in the car with me to my parents' place in Florida, where there are already two cats. She chose the second option.

She had a delightful 15-hour car ride, and once she meowed herself into exhaustion, she settled down for the trip. About a third of it was spent sleeping in my lap as I drove, and the rest of it, she slept near my feet. (Keeping her in a cat carrier is out of the question as she views the cat carrier as the feline equivalent of Death Row, and it is her sworn duty either to escape by gnawing her way free or to drive her jailer insane by constantly meowing.)

Once we got here, she went into aggrieved-visitor mode, which involves alternately slinking around from hiding place to hiding place, hissing at the resident cats (one of whom wants to play with her and one who just wants to ignore her), and growling at me. From previous visits, it'll take her about 36 hours to get through this stage, to the one where she pretty much ignores the cats who live here except for the occasional hiss and swipe.

I think she's already looking forward to getting back home, where she can put into effect plans to exact her revenge.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Driver's license photos.

Went to get a new driver's license last week. Time for a new one, this being a multiple-of-five year for me and all. Probably took about an hour, total. Longer than when I got a new license a year ago because I had a new address, shorter than my memory of getting a renewal ten years ago. Faster than that time because the DMV offices are much better organized to avoid bottlenecks, and because the photo technology is much faster. Slower than a year ago because the revenue shortfall from the abolition of the property tax on cars has caused the DMV to shut down some offices and reduce the number of personnel at others. Oh, well. At least this year's photo won't scare small children. (One year, I had the DMV person take one look at the picture and say, "Let's take this again, okay?" Must have been frightful.) I did have to pause while I figured out what color to describe my hair - brown or, you know, gray. I went with brown. Maybe I'll dye it at some point. Well, maybe not.

I have two favorite experiences from getting new driver's licenses. One was when I came home at Christmas of my sophomore year of college, and I hadn't had my hair cut in about 14 months. I combed it out just before the photo, and it reached my shoulders. Ten seconds after the picture was taken, the curls and waves took over again, and the hair shrank back to its normal position, closer to my head. And when I took a look at my license picture, I went directly to the barber. So my license photo didn't look at all like me for the length of that license.

But my favorite driver's license story was from about four and a half years ago. I was at my bank, transferring money out of savings into a CD. The bank officer opening the new account for me asked for a photo ID, like a driver's license. I gave it to her. She looked at it and asked if I happened to have a current driver's license. "Excuse me?" Since this one had expired eight months earlier. Oops. She accepted the expired license after all, and my next stop was the DMV.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Nothing like steaming coffee to wake you up.

Especially when you pour it down your leg. <sigh>

It was going to be a nice day today. Thanksgiving week in central Virginia; naturally, it was around 70 and I was wearing shorts. (Okay, fine. This time last year, it had already snowed once. Late November and 70 degrees is the way it ought to be, in my book.) So I poured myself a mug of freshly-brewed coffee, and put the mug on the counter while I was fixing breakfast. As I was pulling something out of the cabinet, a box of something fell down and pushed the full mug off the counter, sending the coffee in the general direction of the floor. Some of it, via my leg. The ensuing shrieks and curses caused the cat to hightail it for another room.

Luckily, not that much hit my leg: most of the coffee went with the mug, falling directly into the trash can. Still, enough to bring me to a state of full alert, and a nice reminder that perhaps I should pay more attention to where I'm putting my coffee mug.

Editorial comment on The Passion Of Christ.

You know, Mel Gibson's "controversial" movie, coming out next year, on Ash Wednesday. And it's not my editorial comment - it's from the Editor In The Sky. (And my favorite part? This is the second time this particular editorial input was given to the assistant director during this movie.)

Virginia's "no-choice" elections.

Virginia delegate Brian Moran has a letter in today's Washington Post talking about Virginia's redistricting problems which resulted in 80 of the 140 legislative races in this month's election having incumbents running unopposed. And he knows whereof he speaks, as he was one of the 80 unopposed candidates. He notes: "Voters do not benefit when they cannot hold elected officials accountable. Voters do not benefit when the push of a lever or the stroke of a pen changes nothing."

Well, good. Perhaps the bipartisan commission he's proposed will help create meaningful districts with legitimate, competitive elections. But since the bills he's introduced to set up such a commission have died in committee, I have my cynical doubts that we'll ever see it.

Law school humor.

No, seriously. Here's a collection of what is claimed to be 25 of the funniest law review articles of the past 50 years, including such classics as The Gettysburg Address as Written by Law Students taking an Exam and Suing the Devil: A Guide for Practitioners. And, of course, the one that real people may have actually heard of, The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule. We can only hope that over the past fifty years, and across all the law reviews published, that there actually are twenty-five funny articles.

Or, I suppose, we could look at the blog of a current law student, and not just any such blog: one that has been determined to be the funniest law student blog around. Well, consider the context and the likely competition. Although I did like portions of the fake Law School Weekly Events Newsletter ("SPORTS. Softball: Too cold. Not here. Should have gone to UVA.").

Well, okay: when I was in law school, it was considered to be the height of wit to issue party invitations in the form of a subpoena, and one classmate eventually sent out birth announcements in the form of a habeas corpus petition. So it's not as though I'm suggesting that the level of humor has gone down any over the years.

Friday, November 21, 2003

So where were you when you heard?

Heard that JFK had been assassinated, of course - one of those events for which they say that everyone who was around then can still remember what they were doing when they heard about it. The fortieth anniversary is tomorrow, and the NY Times has an online section devoted to the anniversary. PDF files reproducing the front section of the paper on the day after, and other historical articles, such as the report on Kennedy's trip to Texas from the paper published on the morning of the day he was shot, and on the funeral. A couple of columns since then - from the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the shooting, and a recent column on Nellie Connally, the last surviving non-Secret-Service occupant of the car carrying the President.

To me, the most interesting columns in the section are the ones from today: Tom Wicker's long column on how little the assassination seems to have affected later events, and Hamilton's and Mallon's columns suggesting that the assassination of the President had a large impact on later events. (Hamilton's is interesting: He posits a Reagan-Bush two-term presidency starting in 1972, no return of Nixon, an RFK-Cuomo ticket winning in 1980, and Colin Powell becoming president in 1992 and Clinton in 2000. Yes, plenty of places where you can suggest that wouldn't happen, such as the invocation of the 25th Amendment between 1969 and 1973 - but the impetus behind the 25th Amendment was JFK's assassination and the office of the Vice President being vacant from November 1963 through January 1965, and without the assassination, the Amendment wouldn't have been adopted. But that's the fun of alternate histories.)

And me? I was in fifth grade, and the class had just come in from Phys Ed. We'd heard some school-wide announcement while we were outside, but it sounded like adults on Peanuts TV specials. When we came in, our teacher - Mrs. Murphy, as I recall - who had clearly been crying, told us what happened, and we watched the TV coverage for the rest of the day.

Wine gimmick of the week.

Here's a new way to separate you from that pesky $49.95 you've got jingling in your pocket: The Wine Clip. It's a magnet (Oooo! A rare earth magnet!) that you clip onto the neck of a wine bottle, and as you pour the wine out, the magnetic field sets up an electrical charge (wine being an electrical conductor, and all, passing through the field) which breaks large molecules into smaller ones. Thus, it breaks up large tannin molecules into small tannin molecules, which makes the wine smoother - or so they claim. They do say that it works equally well with a $10 bottle of merlot and a $300 bottle of cabernet sauvignon, which I can well believe.

It's great fun watching the video of a taste test with this magnet, one of four they supposedly did: "Which of these two glasses of wine we just poured from the same bottle - one with the Wine Clip on the neck of the bottle and one without - tastes better?" and then they turn over the corresponding card. Six of the seven "picked" the glass identified as having been poured through the Clip. The best part is trying to decide whether the individual testers were in on the secret from the beginning, or both glasses had "poured through the Wine Clip" cards so whichever they chose would be the right answer, or this was the only one of the tests they ran where a majority picked the glass poured through the Clip.

Probably the most interesting part of this silly product is that the Strategic Advisor to the Wine Clip is none other than John Sculley, late of Apple and Pepsi.

Why, yes, I do think the Emperor's new clothes are very nice, indeed.

Update (Dec. 11, 2003): Just to be clear, I have not - yet - tried The Wine Clip or done blind taste tests with it. If and when I do, I'll report on what I find - and if I have to eat my words, I'll have better-tasting wine to wash them down with.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

The blue pencil.

A couple of weeks ago, a classmate of mine from Fuqua asked me to take a look at her "personal statement" that she's preparing as part of her application to law school, and give her feedback on it. Okay, I'm happy to do it, and it makes a certain amount of sense to have me review it, as I've already been to law school and have since spent a whole lot of time editing things. Still, I can only assume she was appalled to see how thoroughly I had marked up her draft. (Hey! I left at least six sentences untouched, out of a two-page statement.)

We haven't yet had the conversation I feel compelled to have: the "So why do you want to go to law school?" discussion where I'll point out that it'll be three years, three long years, and at the end of it, she'll be a lawyer. Or how she'll get to enjoy the experience I had in business school, of being one of the oldest people in the class.

She's looking at a number of top-tier schools, and definitely has the background to get into most of them. And even though she's already has a list of about 10 schools she's considering, I felt compelled to add one more to her list.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Sixty-two hours of Alien - but is it enough?

The re-release on DVD of the four Alien movies is scheduled for December 2. An article in the NY Times talks about the set and about large DVD packages. This set will have nine discs, and is said to run, beginning-to-end, sixty-two hours. Releases like this one and the four-disk sets of the Lord of the Rings movies (the set for The Two Towers was released this week) are seen as reflecting Hollywood's acceptance of DVDs - because people are willing to spend more for extended versions of films and for supplementary material, the film industry is willing to put more into the DVD packages. Some of the effects shots in the last two Alien movies were never finished (I presume they mean in the scenes that didn't make it into the original movie), and were finished for this DVD release.

There's also some discussion of the longer and re-edited versions of movies that often show up on DVDs (called "director's cuts" although many directors will tell you that the version made for theatrical release was their real director's cut). Ridley Scott has re-edited his Alien, putting in some material and tightening up other scenes, ending up with a version one minute shorter than the original release. James Cameron added some 17 minutes back into his Aliens. Peter Jackson, of course, goes hog-wild and adds 47 minutes to The Two Towers, which was already three hours long in the theater.

When does it get to be too much? Not yet, I'd guess; especially after seeing how well these sets are selling. And I certainly intend to add them to my collection.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Yeah. Blame TV.

A nursing advocacy group is blaming TV - ER, to be precise - for a nationwide shortage of registered nurses. They claim that the show portrays nursing in an inaccurate, negative light, and they single out Maura Tierney's character - who dropped out of med school for financial reasons and became a nurse, and has now returned to med school - as being an especially poor role model.

Someone from the show has the right idea: "Wasn't there a nursing shortage before ER? I mean, this is a television show, not a documentary."

And what TV character does the group think is a good portrayal of nurses? "Hot Lips" Houlihan, of M*A*S*H.

Why worry about Big Brother, when you can worry about being spied on by your razor?

Very funny site, apparently in dead earnest. The site is asking you to boycott Gillette products because they are putting RFID chips into their packaging, and this is somehow allowing Gillette to spy on you: taking a pack of razor blades off the shelf causes a hidden camera to take your picture (which "they" then use to compare with photos taken at the register to see whether you've paid for the razor blades), or Gillette will somehow connect the particular pack of razor blades with your store's loyalty card and "know" that you have purchased the pack. Or, of course, your hair will fall out because you'll be exposed to massive amount of electromagnetic radiation. (Well, okay, probably less than you're exposed to due to the electric wiring in your house.)

Nowhere on this site - or on related sites - do the folks behind this proposed boycott address the benefits of the RFID chip (better inventory control, both at the checkout counter and in the warehouse) other than to wave their hands and vaguely deny them. And most telling, nowhere do they acknowledge that Gillette isn't developing the RFID chips and dropping them into their packaging just to be on the cutting edge - they're doing it because Wal-Mart is requiring all their suppliers to incorporate RFID chips (at least, their 100 top suppliers), and no manufacturer wants to be shut out of Wal-Mart.

These folks really need to get a life. Just think: if they'd redirect their energy in a useful direction, they might achieve something productive.

Friday, November 14, 2003

The Robot Hall of Fame.

No, seriously. Carnegie Mellon has started up a Hall of Fame for Robots. They've got two categories: real robots and fictional ones. The idea is that they'll honor the "highest accomplishments" of robots in science and science fiction, celebrating "landmark scientific achievements" and the creative impact which influence our thinking "about how we want real robots to interact with humans". They've inducted four robots into their Hall: the real ones are the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover and Unimate (the first industrial robot arm on an assembly line), while the fictional ones are R2-D2 and the HAL 9000 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey).

I don't have any problem with the real robots they've chosen, but I'm not so pleased with their choices for the fictional ones. R2-D2 is okay, although I might have picked C3PO instead as having a better interface for interacting with humans. But the HAL 9000 isn't even a robot - it's a computer. Sure, a computer that runs the spacecraft on the Jupiter mission, but just a computer. A better choice would have been any (or all) of Asimov's robots - my pick would have been Andrew, from The Bicentennial Man - or the robots from Capek's R.U.R.

Well, there's always next year.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Favorite wine shops.

It's a sign of something, I suppose, that I have "favorite" wine shops all over the place. Two or three here in Richmond, one or two in the Raleigh-Durham, NC area (discovered when I lived in Durham for a couple of years), one in Charlottesville (where I lived for many, many years, and I even worked part-time at that wine shop), and a couple in Arlington (where I haven't lived since the Carter Administration).

A number of factors need to align before a wine shop makes it onto my Favorites list: a friendly, helpful, approachable staff, who is neither condescending nor obsequious; reasonable prices; frequent tastings (how else to find out whether you might like a wine you've not tried before?); a broad selection of wines. And if I'm just browsing, they'll let me wander around to my heart's content. Bonus points if they also have a good selection of regional microbrewed beers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Sometimes you have to destroy a town in order to save it.

The small town of Cheshire, Ohio is disappearing as it is being purchased by an Ohio utility company. The town was purchased - and is being slowly dismantled - by the utility in a settlement following long years of complaints and litigation over the ash and pollutants that came from the utility's coal-burning electric plant. This is said to be the first time that a private company had purchased a town or neighborhood for environmental reasons, although the government has occasionally done so (e.g., Love Canal). People sold their property for about a 250 percent markup over fair market value, and most have bought houses within 50 miles of Cheshire. The company has also agreed to let people stay in their houses, if they want to, for the rest of their lives, even though the house was sold through the settlement. And even though it's becoming a ghost town, it's still getting state revenue sharing monies.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

TMQ returns!

As promised, Tuesday Morning Quarterback is back, at a temporary location.

Update: It's now at a long-term location, on the NFL's own site.

Larry Flynt is all heart.

He's announced that he has nude photographs of Jessica Lynch, supposedly of her posing with male soldiers, but he says he's not going to publish them in his Hustler magazine because she's a good kid "and a victim of the Bush administration."

I'm betting NBC wishes they'd known about this earlier, so they could have had scenes in their made-for-TV movie they showed last Sunday. Not that it would have been enough to make me want to watch it.

Not guilty.

Juries work in mysterious ways, even in Texas. The murder trial I mentioned in a post on Oct 28 is over: the defendant, who admitted killing the victim, chopping him into pieces, putting those parts into garbage bags, and dumping the bags into Galveston Bay, was found not guilty. The defense theory is that the gun happened to go off in a struggle, and then the defendant panicked and tried to hide the evidence.

Perhaps it's just as well that Muhammed and Malvo aren't being tried in Texas.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

"DVD" doesn't necessarily mean a good image.

Tremendous article in the NY Times today on the flaws that appear on DVDs - at least, that can appear when the studios putting out the DVDs don't especially care how the movie actually looks. Sometimes it's color accuracy and consistency: the 2001 DVD release of Lawrence of Arabia had desert battle scenes where the sky is a different color in every shot - magenta, green, red - and none of those colors was in the original print. (Complaints from DVD purchasers has made Columbia come out with a new, improved version this fall - and those purchasers received no discount for having purchased the 2001 version.) Sometimes it's faded colors, blurry images, or odd, shimmering distortions.

Following similar complaints from customers, Warner came out with a remastered, improved version of its 7-movie set called "The Stanley Kubrick Collection", and Paramount is reissuing the Godfather movies next year, with new digital masters.

In a sidebar, there's a list of the 10 best and 10 worst looking DVD versions of great films. The "best" list includes Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and the new release of Casablanca, all of which I have, while the "worst" list includes a few classics where the DVD was clearly taken from the VHS master, and sometimes from a dirty master at that.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Another Tuesday Morning Quarterback update.

Next Tuesday, Nov. 11, TMQ will appear on the Football Outsiders website, although its long-term location hasn't yet been decided upon.

Update: The long-term location is on the NFL's own site.

Who wants to cook aloo gobi?

I finally got around to seeing Bend It Like Beckham, on DVD. Sure, I could have seen it at the theater four miles away from me while it was there for six weeks, but somehow I just never got around to it. What a charming little movie. I happily recommend it.

I recommend it even more highly as a DVD, as this is a movie that takes full advantage of the versatility of a DVD: the director's commentary is both informative and fun (standards not often met by director's commentaries), and the bonus documentaries included an interesting "making of" film and a delightful fifteen-minute cooking show with the director (Gurinder Chada) teaching how to cook aloo gobi, with her mother and aunt giving unwanted suggestions.

I was especially impressed by the leading actress, Parminder K. Nagra, appearing here in her first movie, although everyone in the movie seems well-cast. Nagra has a very expressive face, and carries the movie. She also did a good job of playing younger - about 25 when the movie was filmed, she played a character who was around 18, and did such a good job of it that she came off as younger than co-star Keira Knightly, who was 15 at the time of filming, playing a character who was 18 or 19. Nagra is currently playing a more age-appropriate role on ER.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Here's a bad sign.

If you're a young man, about 18 years old, George Bush has plans for you!

If Bush's wars really were popular, there would be no need for the draft.

Update: Bush has had all traces of his announcement removed from the "" website, so here's the gist: He has started a push to fill Selective Service board positions throughout the country. Board members are those who assign draft classifications and review applications for draft deferments, and membership is unpaid.

Yes, it's true that there presently is no statutory authority to draft anyone into the military. But if he decides there's a need for the draft - and he can hardly keep reservists on active duty for much longer - he'll need to have the infrastructure in place to force people into the Army, and this is the logical first step.

Salon has an article on the original announcement and the draft. The article has one misleading point in it: the Vietnam era draft originally allowed for college students to be deferred until they graduated, but that was changed in 1971 to the present deferment policy - you can finish this semester, but at the end of the semester, it's into the Army you go.

It didn't happen while I was there.

Just imagine: a Rice basketball player delivering a backboard-shattering dunk. Well, okay, this was during a pre-season dunk contest, but still.

And yes, one good reason why it didn't happen while I was in school there is that the NCAA rules forbade dunks, either during the game or during warm-ups.

Strictly speaking, I did see one dunk when I was there. It was in February 1974, the day that UCLA lost at Notre Dame to break its consecutive win streak after 88 games. The Rice basketball game was to be the regional second-game in the televised college double-header, although it would pale in comparison to the UCLA-ND game, but by the time I got to Autry Court, there had been a power failure. While they were working to restore the electricity, Rice and its opponent were taken off the main court and were allowed to warm up on side courts. After a half-hour or so, Rice's seven-footer ("Whoosher") threw down a massive two-handed dunk, to the delight of the crowd - and since it didn't take place on the court used for the game, it was okay by NCAA rules. Not that it mattered, as ten minutes later they decided they couldn't get the power fixed in time, so they had to postpone the game - and Rice missed its only opportunity to be on TV that year.

Is it too early for the 2004 Olympics?

Well, I'd have thought so, but all I'm going to do is watch them. So too, apparently, will the U.S. Olympic baseball team, which failed to qualify for the Olympics, by losing to Mexico in a qualifying tournament. As a result, the U.S. team - which had been among the favorites - won't be on hand to defend their gold medal from the 2000 Games.

Pretty odd way to be knocked out: After early rounds of the tournament, which seemed to do nothing but set seeding for the knockout portion of the tournament, wherein the U.S. team won all of its games and outscored its opponents 21-0 while the Mexican team lost all of its games, Mexico advanced in the first-knockout round when its opponents - the Bahamas - failed to show up. And it strikes me as awfully strange to have single-elimination rounds in a tournament that determines qualification to the Olympics. Still, those were the rules, and the U.S. team knew them in advance, so they can't use that as an excuse (and, to their credit, they aren't).

The U.S. team had a good manager (Frank Robinson), and pretty fair players (mostly minor leaguers), and even had prospects of getting Roger Clemens to pitch for them next year. You know, Clemens could have pitched for them in this series.

Still, maybe they'd have been better off just to use the 2003 NCAA champions, whoever that was.

Where'd the moon go?

Total lunar eclipse is coming tomorrow night, Nov. 8, somewhere around 8 p.m. EST. Hope the weather cooperates.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Life in a cube is fun, after all.

A recent study indicates that, contrary to managerial beliefs, personal web surfing at work can be beneficial to employee productivity and morale. Must be why so many of my former colleagues are so happy.

Plugged nickels.

New designs for the nickel are on their way. The front - Thomas Jefferson - stays the same, but next year Monticello is temporarily coming off of the back of the nickel, being replaced by a design commemorating the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Later next year, that design is being replaced with a view of a keelboat used on the Lewis & Clark expedition. Monticello will return to the nickel in 2006, although its design might be updated.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

A tempest in a wineglass.

Michael Franz has an interesting wine column in the Washington Post today, encouraging people to stop their boycott of French wines. He suggests, reasonably, that the only real effect that the boycott has on the French is on the French farmer who grows the grapes, and that farmer is a poor choice to be hurt by this broad response to actions by the French government. And he notes that an awful lot of Americans are hurt by the mis-aimed boycott: importers, distributors, and merchants. So he recommends a number of French wines for Thanksgiving (among them, burgundy, riesling, and pinot blanc). (He'll also recommend some American wines for Thanksgiving in his next column, in two weeks.)

Not surprisingly, his online wine chat today had a lot of discussion on the topic, from surprise that there are still people boycotting French wines to complaining that he spent too much of his "wine" column as an "op-ed" piece. (I don't think it was inappropriate of him to run this column, as it helps the reader have a better understanding of the boycott's potential impact on the wine industry, and Franz has the background to seriously discuss the history and ramifications of the boycott, as he's a political science professor in real life.)

I wonder whether this column is too late, in the sense that most of those who actually boycotted French wines have ended their boycott, or not especially relevant, as the boycott may not have had much lasting impact. It had an impact at the time, to be sure: I recall distributors talking about not selling a single case of French wine to retailers anywhere in the state over a period of a month. But sales appear to have picked back up, and in the 2002-03 sales year (August 1 to July 31, I think), the volume of Bordeaux wine sales to the U.S. rose 20 percent while the value of Bordeaux sales rose by 77 percent and Americans overtook Germans to become the largest purchasers of Bordeaux wines. While a lot of this was due to the increased demand for the 2000 vintage, it would seem to indicate that the boycott isn't having a whole lot of effect.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Carytown Food & Wine Festival.

Interesting little wine festival in Carytown, a neighborhood/shopping district in Richmond, the weekend before last. Closed down the street and put up tents along a five- or six-block length. For a first-time event, they did a pretty good job.

Among the highlights:
Wine and beer tasting seminars on a variety of topics. The wine seminars generally dealt with specific regions (Germany, Italy, Spanish reds) while the beer seminars generally dealt with specific breweries (Legend, Smuttynose, Starr Hill). And for each, your entry fee got you a glass tasting glass.
A wine tasting tent with ten tasting stations and probably fifty wines, and a glass tasting glass. Half of the stations were manned by importer/distributors, representing France, Italy, Australia, and a couple of stations from all over, and the other five were each devoted to wines from a single winery. I appreciated the variety of wines available, and thought the best wines were at the Storybrook Mountain Vineyards station (all zinfandels) and the Mondavi station.

And areas for improvement:
Better floorplan for moving people through the wine tasting tent. I recognize they had severe limitations on the size of tent they could use, but there were bottlenecks that made it take over two hours to go through all the tasting stations, and most of that time was waiting to get through the crowd.
Better involvement from Carytown stores. While many stores were open, taking advantage of the crowds that showed up, a surprising number were closed. And the beer and wine events appear to have been planned and supported by only River City Cellars, as Carytown Wine & Beer declined to assist. (And you know they were hurting for assistance: they even asked me to conduct a beer seminar. Unfortunately, the only seminars they needed someone for were Belgian beers and homebrewing, either of which I could talk about for ten minutes, but not for thirty. So I had to decline.)
Better takeaway information. The wine tasting tent had a great selection of wines to try - but no information about those wines that you could take home with you, or take with you to the store when you wanted to buy any of those wines. There should have been either a single list of all the wines being tasted (or, to be realistic, that they expected the distributors to have available for tasting, as of noon on the day before the festival), or each station should have had a list of the wines being tasted at it - and this shorter list could have more description of the wines. Ideally, both types of lists should have been available - and neither one was. I can sympathise with the festival organizers and am certain they had more important things to worry about (such as whether the distributors were going to show up - near as I could tell, at least one did not). But the distributors and wineries involved had no similar reason to fail to have such information available - and only Stonybrook Mountain Vineyards had flyers listing all the wines you were trying. All the other folks could do was to point at the nearby wine shop and say that you could get it in there.

All told, this festival was a lot of fun, and you can forgive first-time errors. Putting on a festival like this has a steep learning curve, and I'm sure next year's will be even better.

Vote early, vote often.

Okay, I've done my civic duty. I've voted. All in all, a fairly pointless charade. My ballot included 7 separate races, with 9 positions available: State Senate, House of Delegates, commonwealth's attorney, sheriff, board of supervisors, school board, and soil & water conservation district (for which three seats were being voted on). And a grand total of 10 candidates. Only the school board position was contested. And while I know I should care about the school board, I don't especially, as I don't have children in school.

As I didn't really feel like writing my name in on six different races, I wrote myself in only once, for State Senate. My guess is that I won't win.

At least I didn't have to vote for the school board position blindly - the republicans were present, handing out "sample ballots" listing their candidates, so I knew who to vote against.

The only good news is that they've made a little progress in helping you not cast an invalid ballot. In my precinct, they use butterfly ballots, complete with punching out the chad. They've changed their procedure a little bit in light of the 2000 election: when you cast your ballot, the machine checks to see whether you have cast any overvotes (e.g., twice for a single position) and will reject your ballot right then, so you'll have a chance to try again and replace the ballot with one that doesn't have overvotes on it.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Wineries as tourist destinations.

Article in Friday's NY Times about state and regional tourism campaigns to bring people to local wineries. The idea is to lure tourists to wine regions in their areas - Missouri, Virginia, Texas, Michigan - to get them to visit wineries and buy wine (and presumably to spend other tourist dollars as well, at hotels, restaurants, and other tourist locations). And if those tourists think they're in the Napa Valley of Pennsylvania, say, they'll enjoy themselves and support the local wine industry, both admirable goals.

I can't say I'm entirely opposed to the idea, as I always seek out wineries when I'm on trips, and have been to wineries in at least 20 states. And I'm in favor of promotions that bring people out to visit small wineries, and that expose people to the possibility that good wine is made near them, thereby encouraging good wineries to grow and make more good wine.

But I'm concerned when wineries shift their focus from making high quality wine that will be good enough that people will buy the wine for itself and will want to buy more when their initial purchase is consumed, to marketing themselves as entertainment or as a novelty in hopes that enough new people will come through each year and each buy one bottle that they can make their profit on new sales. Wineries should go for quality first, with the repeat business and growth that will follow from that, rather than pushing novelty sales on one-time visitors.

I'm especially concerned by Virginia's Gov. Warner's statements in the article: "You can visit wineries in the morning and Monticello in the afternoon" and "It is clearly not to the California model yet, but we are trying to build wine tours around destination wineries." Instead of promoting wineries located near tourist destinations, it would be better to have wineries making such good wines that the wines themselves are the destinations. (And "Monticello in the morning, wineries in the afternoon," is what I'd suggest. Tasting young cabernet franc at ten in the morning is not an especially comforting thought.)

Yes, I understand that small wineries need all the assistance they can get to have people try their wines - but the goal should be to bring people to the winery to try the wine and not just to get people to the winery as an end in and of itself. And events that are wine-related - barrel tastings and release parties, or vertical tastings, or wine and cheese pairings - ultimately will pull in the right customers, where grape-stomping and open bar destination parties will only bring in the one-time visitors, even if it's by the busload.

Virginia elections. Yawn.

Well, here's why I haven't heard much about this week's state elections: "[R]edistricting has created such safe seats for Democratic and Republican incumbents that there is little competition. Sixty-one of the 100 House of Delegates seats are uncontested, as are 19 of the 40 Senate seats." And it would appear that my precinct has uncontested races for both. Guess I'll be writing my own name in twice. It looks like the only other thing on the ballot will be a school board race, but at least there are two people running for the position.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

The squirrels are out in force.

And I don't mean just because it's Election Day next Tuesday. There are a whole lot of squirrels running around these days. I suppose they're enjoying the abundance of acorns and the last of the nice weather before it turns cold. I saw four playing in my front yard this morning, and saw at least a couple more out in back at the same time. And I guess it makes up for the fact that I haven't spotted Roslyn, the neighborhood bunny rabbit, since before the hurricane.

And speaking of the two-legged squirrels and their Election Day, all I can say is that there doesn't seem to be much of any sort of race where I am. I think I've seen only one sign within a couple miles of my home, and that's for a school board position - and I know we're also electing House of Delegates and state Senate positions, too. And I haven't received any mail or phone calls soliciting my vote, either. Not that I especially miss them, but I'm afraid this is going to be another "why bother" election like last year's (with two races and four referenda on the ballot, the closest result was 65-35, and most were 80-20 or even more lopsided). The bright side will be that there should be no standing in line, waiting to vote.

Friday, October 31, 2003

TMQ update.

It appears that the Tuesday Morning Quarterback will soon return, although to a location yet to be announced. And if you can't wait until it's back for real, there's a wonderful imitation of it that will help you make it through the dark days.

Update: Tuesday Morning Quarterback has returned, at a permanent location on the NFL's own site.

Small print.

I enjoy reading the small print in things, to find out who's behind advertising campaigns or the real odds of winning the sweepstakes jackpot or somesuch other information that they're required to tell you but they really don't want you to know. (It's probably the same impulse that forces me to sit through the credits at the end of a movie where you can find out that the production actually had someone with the job title of "roach wrangler.")

Folger's Coffee has a promotion supporting The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, where they're hoping to raise as much as $1 million through donations and the purchase of Folger's Coffee, and the Foundation will use the money raised making improvements which will allow the Staute of Liberty to reopen, having closed on 9-11. A pretty decent promotion, I'd say. To have a purchase count towards the fund, you have to send the inner seal of the coffee to some address, and they'll give $1 for the first 500,000 inner seals sent in.

I received an email from Folger's telling me about the promotion - not spam, as I'd signed up for Procter & Gamble emails - and I was delighted to see this gem towards the bottom of the email (although it's not on the web pages associated with the production): The purchase of coffee is not tax-deductible.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Greek mythology.

Pan, as you've never seen him before. It almost makes one long for the days of The Dancing Baby.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

An idea for your next party.

It used to be that all you needed to have a party was a keg. But I guess that's just too pre-Millennium. So here's a hip new idea: Tattoo soirees. Yes, have a tattoo artist come to your house and perform his artwork on your guests - and you get a kickback for each tattoo he does. The guy in this article is in such demand that his Sundays are booked through next January, and his next open Friday or Saturday is next May.