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.