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.