Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The End of an Age

The aforementioned age being “38”

I recently entered my final year as a “thirty-something.” And, no, I never watched that show. In fact, they had some sort of reunion on the morning news recently and I didn’t recognize a single one of the actors.

Regardless, I said goodbye to 38 in quiet contemplation. Contemplation of how much I love my family and how much I love Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. My wife, being uniquely attuned to my tastes, rewarded me with a “cake” made of stacked peanut butter cups. With a candle on top!

Also, I got a Reese’s T-Shirt to go with my Inigo Montoya T-shirt. And imagine that – despite having lived my whole 39 years in Syracuse, home of the Syracuse University Orangemen (or just “The Orange” as local newscasters tend to call them), this was the first orange garment I’ve ever owned. Apparently, orange suits me. Who knew?

But my 30s were an interesting time for me. I did all of my executive-level work in my 30s, and I may or may not ever go back to that life. It certainly had its perks, but the level of stress, the long hours, and the number of people who seemed to make it their business to frustrate my efforts to accomplish anything useful were tedious at best.

And at the end of my 30s, here I am circling back to where I was in my mid-20s – pursuing the life of a writer as I’d initially planned to do when I graduated with a Bachelor’s in English. It’s not an especially obvious choice – to go from an experienced and reasonably successful businessman, where I know the ropes, the rules, and the players (even if I often didn’t like all of the rules or players), into the publishing world where I know none of those things. As former-IT-guy-turned-writer Mil Millington told me recently about getting published, “Luck is the main thing.” That or already being famous for something. I’m not famous, but reflecting on my life I’ve certainly been obscenely lucky in a wide range of different ways large and small (or “blessed,” if you lean in that direction), so maybe I do have a shot.

I should probably write something first, though. I’ve hit a bit of a snag on that front. Onondaga Community College found themselves desperately in need of an experienced computer teacher this semester, as their enrollment soared by 20%. I heard the call to lend my Alma Mater (one of them, anyway) a hand, and was hired essentially the day before class started. But the time I’ve spent preparing for and teaching this class each week has seriously drained my available writing time. Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t possibly have gotten some writing done somehow, some way, in some fashion limited or otherwise. If I were better at shifting gears and managing my creative efforts I’m sure I could have come up with something, but I find that writing requires a lot more focus and concentration than other day-to-day work and the stress of getting my course materials structured to my satisfaction has provided both a real and a convenient excuse to accomplish nothing else. Which also serves to stress me out, as I really do want to get cranking on my first novel.

In my defense, I am emphatically NOT watching The View when I ought to be working. In fact, every so often TiVo will automatically kick over from its “Now Playing” screen (where I sometimes leave it when I’m done watching the morning news) to whatever’s on live TV at the moment, which sometimes happens to be The View. In many of those instances, I find myself deep in the middle of some worthy task and thus I don’t immediately reach for the remote to turn it off. But after just a few minutes of screeching and caterwauling from the panel of screechers and caterwaulers, I sure wish I had. Then I do.

And thus do I charge ahead (or lumber along, let’s be honest) into the final year of my thirties. Will I write a book? Or several books? Will I continue to teach for OCC? Will I continue to pursue a Master’s? Will NBC order additional episodes for Chuck? All of these questions and more will be answered before I turn the big four-oh.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When in California, Do as the Romans Do

That is, flee from justice and go live in France (or as it was known to the Romans, Gaul)

As in, you’ve got a lot of Gaul raping a young girl, confessing to it, escaping punishment, and then being all indignant when your crime catches up with you more than thirty years later. Yes, I know it’s spelled “gall” in this context. I like my way better.

Granted, it’s not surprising that Roman Polanski doesn’t want to go to jail – nobody really does, right? So his indignation, feigned, righteous or otherwise is at least understandable even if he’s generally contemptible. What’s harder to understand is the reaction from people around the world who are extremely upset that he’s finally being (possibly) asked to pay for his crimes by (maybe) serving his sentence. From

“French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he hoped authorities would respect Polanski's rights "and that the affair (will) come to a favorable resolution," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.”
Which rights are those – his rights to rape and sodomize a 13-year-old girl or his right to flee the country rather than serve his sentence for that crime (to which he pled guilty)? No, monsieur, I do not respect those rights and I hope US and Swiss authorities don’t, either.

The French culture and communications minister, Frederic Mitterrand, said he "learned with astonishment" of Polanski's arrest. He expressed solidarity with Polanski's family and said "he wants to remind everyone that Roman Polanski benefits from great general esteem" and has "exceptional artistic creation and human qualities."

Mais, oui, monsieur, he very much has the, how do you say, je ne c’est quoi? He also repeatedly put his penis into a girl who, according to her testimony, did not consent to it, and wasn’t old enough to legally do so, regardless. That quality, I’m afraid, is not at all exceptional or artistic. Or particularly human.

“"He's a brilliant guy, and he made a little mistake 32 years ago. What a shame for Switzerland," said photographer Otto Weisser, a friend of Polanski.”
A little mistake, Otto? Really? No, it wasn’t a mistake, it was a little girl. And he raped her. The only shame for Switzerland is that they let the man come and go so many times before, and even own a home there, without arresting him. Presumably because they weren’t formally asked by US authorities to do so, so it’s not egregiously shameful (unless they were, and they didn’t, in which case it is).
The Polish Filmmakers Association posted a letter on its Web site Monday from the European Film Academy secretariat that protested "the arbitrary treatment of one of the world's most outstanding film directors."
Arbitrary? What’s arbitrary about arresting a man convicted of rape?

I could go on posting and being offended at the support this monumental cockroach has received, but I think I’ve made my point. If nothing else, it’s proof that the US isn’t unique in its hero-worship. Yes, OJ Simpson clearly killed his ex-wife and her friend Ron Goldman. But even before he was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing, the level of support he received was in inverse proportion to the preponderance of evidence against him. He was a celebrity, a popular figure of sports stadium and screen, and to so very many people that meant he could do no wrong. Or, even if he did do wrong, he shouldn’t really get in trouble for it. Evidently Europe has the same weakness for famous people and their “little mistakes” like rape or murder. Pardonez moi! Did I rape you repeatedly? Zut alors!

I know it’s popular in US culture to bash the French. I’m not entirely sure why, frankly. A hundred and fifty years before we saved their butts from the rampaging Hun and Nazi hordes, they supported our fledgling nation’s bid for independence. Anybody care to guess where the treaty was signed that formally ended the American Revolution and established the US as a free and independent country? Yeah, it was Paris. Oh, and they also sold us roughly a quarter our country for a song. So I try not to be a France-hater – they’ve done more for us than probably any other single country, Great Britain included (unless you go back to colonial days, when obviously GB played a pretty pivotal role. But they also burned down the White House in 1814. France never did that. They just gave us Lady Liberty). So, as funny as it is when Willie on the Simpsons calls them cheese-eating surrender monkeys, I do my best to hold France in reasonably high esteem. But it’s hard when the French upper crust rushes to the defense of a scumbag like Polanski.

And worst of all, fie on Roman Polanski for making me agree with Lindsay Lohan about pretty much anything at all. She posted the following comment on the blog of Perez Hilton:

“Roman Polanski drugged & raped a 13 year old, so how can people be asking for his release? That's insane, pedoman belongs in prison”
Yeah, I don’t know how I ended up on the Perez Hilton blog, either. Blame Google.

Anyway, that’s all a long-winded way of saying, “Shame on Roman Polanski for running away like a 13-year-old girl about to be raped by an older man. Shame on France for embracing him and allowing him to escape justice. And shame on every apologist who’s somehow trying to make this scofflaw look like the good guy.”

Also, if you’d rather read a much better treatise on why Polanski’s undeserving of our sympathy, check out’s article by Kate Harding. Or, if you'd prefer, you could read Swiss-hating Polanski-apologist Joan Z. Shore's attempt to rouse the rabble into a boycott of all things Swiss over their heinous treatment of this poor, mistreated and ultimately misunderstood man. I'd like to believe that her article is satire, but I'm afraid it's more likely she's just a dumbass.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Internet Confuses Me

I’m currently a Professor of Computer Information Systems for the State University of New York (adjunct). This week, I’ll be teaching “The Internet.” Well, a chapter about it, anyway. I’ve worked in IT as everything from the lowest IT grunt in the building on up to the executive level, and I sent my first email back in the early 1980s. You’d probably look at me and my accomplishments and experiences and say “This guy’s got the Internet pretty well figured out.”

And, for the most part, you’d be right. But there are definitely exceptions. I’ve written previously about my experience setting up a Facebook account for the first time. It all went pretty smoothly, except that somehow Facebook suggested, based on the VERY LITTLE information I had provided to it, that I might want to be friends with a guy it shouldn’t have known I knew. Facebook somehow figured out that this other fellow and I posted to the same message boards, both under assumed names (not because we’re hiding, just because it’s common practice to use a “handle” when you join many message boards). I didn’t even know his last name, and had to email him to see if he was actually the guy Facebook was suggesting. And he was, which is, frankly, odd as hell and a little bit creepy. I’ve concluded since that the most likely link between the two of us was probably the login cookie for that site, and I suppose it’s plausible that Facebook does some sort of cookie comparison whenever somebody creates a new account, referencing a database of who visits what sites, but even that doesn’t sound right to me (both because it would take a massive data warehouse and also because there are other people from that site who I know are also on Facebook and they were not suggested as friends, even though I know them better in real life than the fellow Facebook did recommend). Gah – as you can probably tell, this mystery confounds and annoys me.

The next thing about the Internet that confuses me has to do with some of the folks who have found this blog and left comments. I’ve accepted that none of my dozen or two regular readers (I know who most of you are) aren’t going to post comments about my blogs. But occasionally I make a blog post that interests somebody who I’ve never met and who I’m reasonably sure probably ISN’T a regular reader of my blog. They’re people who seem to be interested in a particular subject matter, and, somehow, the same day I post a blog entry that touches on that subject, they detect it and rush on over to read it. I don’t mind that at all, but it bugged me that I couldn’t imagine how they do it. So, naturally, I did some digging and discovered that one option on a Google search is to see results from the “past 24 hours.” That’s probably my best bet, but then I didn’t realize that was an option until I wondered how random strangers were stumbling onto my site.

Incidentally, Google turned 11 yesterday. Happy Birthday Google!

And that makes me wonder just how much more I don’t know. Granted, I’m nowhere near the net-geek that I was a decade ago. There was a time when I was really up on the newest technology, and thought nothing of using traceroutes and other tools to understand the intricacies of whatever I was doing online. I mastered Usenet, FTP, IRC, and of course HTTP, plus routing tables and IP addressing and domains and the whole realm of technology that makes up the Internet. But the busier I got in IT management, and work in general, the less time I spent puttering around behind the scenes of the ‘net. Time moved on as it always does, and technology raced alongside, and I got left a little bit behind.

There’s a lot about social networking that I’m still not completely clued into yet. There’s the world of torrents that I’m only peripherally aware of and have chosen to avoid because so much of what’s available there is illegal and repugnant to me (from a copyright infringement perspective, anyway). I’m still a pretty good desktop guy, and I know my way around corporate networks and their technologies, but I’ve definitely got some work to do to get back my “hacker” edge as it were. Or some of it, anyway.

Meanwhile, welcome to those who have stumbled onto my humble blog. Welcome in particular to Largo, who wandered in and made himself right at home. Definitely check out his lengthy and well-considered comments on Microsoft’s new tablet prototype “Courier,” The Princess Bride, and the challenges of faster-than-light travel in fiction.

Now pardon me while I go see if I can hack the Kremlin.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Axeman Cometh

Or, My Family, the musical

I did not come from a particularly musical family. I grew up with a piano in my bedroom because it was the only place we had to store it, but I never saw anybody play it in the fourteen years it was there. To the best of my knowledge, my father has never played an instrument or sung a song outside of church. My mother can play the piano a bit and can sing, but it was never something that was a big part of our lives. I took two guitar lessons when I was around fourteen, but I couldn’t get past the initial pain of the strings digging into my fingertips and I promptly quit. I never seriously tried to play another instrument.

Likewise, my wife played the violin in school for a few years, but she never identified herself as a “violinist” or “musician” – it was just something she did in school, not an aspect of her character. Neither of her parents ever played an instrument.

So while my wife and I “like” music, there’s nothing that ever seemed to predispose us to making music. Imagine my surprise that two of my three kids are well on their way. My daughter isn’t playing concert halls or anything, but she took very naturally to the instrument – both learning music quickly and actually writing her own compositions at the tender age of seven. In school, she’s learning the trumpet and, while not as gifted with that instrument, she plays it with reasonable skill for a mere year of instruction.

Meanwhile, my older son had always expressed interest in learning the guitar. My wife and I had already decided that he could begin to take lessons when he was old enough. But I was also looking for something that he and I could do together and I made arrangements to join him. For the last four months, he and I have been taking lessons every other week and practicing a half hour 5-6 days a week. And my first experience playing an instrument? Frustrating as hell!!

Yes, I enjoy it. Yes, I can see improvement over time. And yes, I know it takes years to master, but every time I can’t make my fingers hit the right strings (or can’t make my fat fingers hit just ONE string) it drives me straight up the wall. Still, after just four months, my son and I can play two Eagles songs that are, at the very least, recognizable (particularly if I’m singing – everybody can recognize the words), plus a passable rendition of What Would You Do with a Drunken Sailor and a Renn Faire pubsong called Wild Rover that, in my opinion, actually sounds pretty good. But best of all, it’s time that I can spend bonding with my oldest son, which is worth any amount of frustration.

So we’ve got the piano, trumpet and guitar covered, and now my wife has taken up the Mountain Dulcimer after hearing a demonstration concert at the State Fair. It’s a lovely-sounding instrument and it’ll be really great when she’s gotten the hang of playing it.

And there’s more to come. My older son says he plans to play the flute next year when he gets to select a band instrument in school, though what he really wants to do is learn the Irish Tin Whistle like Giacomo. So, who knows, maybe he’ll learn both. And that still leaves my younger son with an instrument or two to learn at some point.

Though I do need to be careful not to give the wrong impression. I’ve heard that there are kids in the world who will practice their instruments each day without needing to be strong-armed, ordered, scolded, or physically restrained. I have heard that there are children who will sit down with their instruments and just play them for the joy of playing them. I don’t know any of those sorts of children. I do hope that at some point the kids will get so used to their instruments as a part of their lives that they’ll practice and play without having to be told, but my daughter’s on her third or fourth year on the piano and as of yet there’s no sign of anything resembling self-discipline. Any day that I don’t order her to practice, there’s no practice. Likewise my son, despite his initial enthusiasm about the guitar, gets easily discouraged and bored with it. I’ve no doubt that what they really want is to pick up a random musical instrument and play like a professional, and I can certainly relate. With luck they’re learning all sorts of useful lessons like “you get out of it what you put into it” and “practice makes perfect” and “this above all else, to thine own self be true, for it follows then… “ err, well you get the idea. But it’s one of those things I won’t be able to judge yet for many years. By which time they’ll either have learned some valuable lessons AND learned how to play an instrument or two, or they’ll just have learned the instruments. I guess I can live with that either way.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Microsoft Courier

It’s not just a lousy font anymore

Gizmodo has broken the story on Microsoft’s top-secret skunkworks project for a revolutionary new tablet. Now, like the old auto-industry concept cars that were always chock-full of super-cool ideas but never actually came to market, this device may just be a clearinghouse for testing ideas rather than an early stage of a real product. Nobody outside Microsoft’s inner sanctums knows just yet. But the 2-minute demo video is, unequivocally, cool as hell. Go watch the video now. I’ll wait.

It’s a “notebook” that’s really about the size of a spiral-bound notebook. But that’s not what makes it cool. It has dual 7” color LCD screens. But that’s not what makes it cool. What’s cool is how it’s being used. It resembles Microsoft Office OneNote in a lot of ways, which is a good thing. OneNote’s an excellent tool if you get the hang of using it, and it really shines when used on a tablet laptop. But the Courier takes the user interface to the next level by incorporating “flicks,” which are little finger-movements that mimic the way you’d actually flip through paper pages, post-it notes and other familiar, physical objects. And THAT’s a big deal. Why?

The challenge in developing a truly useful personal electronic notepad isn’t in the processing, it’s in the interface. We’ve had the technology for a long time to allow you to type in notes, to file away pictures and other documents, and to manage your calendar. But it’s always involved a keyboard and a mouse, which aren’t tools that lend themselves well to portability. OR, other controls have been substituted, but they were always small and clumsy, like on a smartphone. The iPhone made great strides in mixing portability with usability, but then again typing on its virtual keyboard is no joy, to the point where companies are creating slip-on hardware for folks who can’t get the hang of the iPhone virtual keyboard.

No, the challenge isn’t in making the apps work, it’s in making them work like what we’re used to. We’re used to jotting down notes, on paper, with a pen. We’re used to scraps of paper and Post-it notes and little sticky tabs and highlighters. And here’s the dichotomy – we ultimately hate those things, even though we’re used to them, because they’re so limiting. If you write notes in a notebook with a pen, they’re not very flexible. You can’t search your notes except with the old mark-I eyeball. You can’t share them with a classmate except by handing them the notebook (along with all of your other notes – hope you don’t need them). But you CAN doodle in the margins and you CAN go back and write a really small note above another line of text or draw an arrow from one part of the page to another and you CAN put a Post-it note on the page. If you stick a Post-it note on your tablet laptop, it makes it really hard to see your mouse pointer.

So there’s the challenge – making a replacement for pen-and-paper that’s better than pen and paper in every way, without significant drawbacks. Electronic “paper” like OneNote was nice because it let you insert additional lines to add more info if you were taking notes out of order (such as when your professor gets off-topic for a bit, then comes back around to his original point. As a professor I do this quite often. Must drive my students crazy.). But it relied on either using a stylus to “recognize” your handwriting, or a keyboard to type your notes, and it could be both hard to get used to and temperamental to operate. “Flicks” are the first step in making the interface “feel” like how we’d actually use a notepad or a day-planner. And that’s a Big Deal™.

I have no doubt that at some point, paper will be virtually replaced (pun intended). The combination of better interfaces, ubiquitous personal computing devices, and flexible OLED (that's the picture at the right) will make it so easy to use “electronic” paper that it won’t make any sense not to – you’d never resort to plain paper on the off chance that the note you’re “just jotting down” will end up turning into a calendar entry or an email or a To-Do or a contact entry. The question that remains is one of when this will all happen. These advances sometimes race ahead and suddenly you have technologies you didn’t even know were in the works. More often, though, it seems to take a LOT longer than anyone expected. Take, for example, handwriting recognition and related technologies.

According to an online history of Tablet PCs at WebProNews, “In the early 1980s, handwriting recognition was seen as an important future technology.” But nearly thirty years later, it still feels like a nascent technology when you try to actually use it. Granted, OneNote is better than the tools built into Windows XP Tablet Edition, which were a big step up from the tools built into the earlier PocketPC devices, but in all cases getting your handwriting reliably turned into text is a pain in the ass. Especially if you’ve got shitty handwriting, and increasingly it seems that most people do.

One workaround that OneNote uses is that it just doesn’t try to convert your writing to text unless you tell it to. This has the upside that it will continue to look no worse (or better) than when you first wrote it, but it also means that the capacity to search, spellcheck, copy/paste and otherwise manipulate the text is severely limited.

But advances continue to march ahead, and several are relevant to making devices like this an everyday reality as fully-realized, “peak” products that aren’t just limping along but are fully-functional in a way that makes them no longer mere gadgets, but something less. That’s right, something less. We don’t think about paper as a technology or pens as “gadgets.” They’re just pens. Even Post-it notes are long past the point where anybody thinks, “Wow, cool! A Post-it note!” They’re less than gadgets. They’re mundane. They’re bric-a-brac, items swirling around us as not much more than functional debris that we use almost without conscious thought except when we need it and don’t have it handy. THAT’s what these devices need to become. THAT will be the quantum leap forward that changes technological oddities into indispensible parts of our lives. I hope very much that I’m still young enough to appreciate and enjoy it when it finally happens.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

High Fever, Low Comedy

Yes, I feel bad for the guy. Nobody likes getting sick. But this is just too damn funny not to share.

CNN Chief Medical Correspondent goes on assignment to Afghanistan, and contracts H1N1 flu while he's there.

Yeah, I realize that the karma hit I'm taking for laughing at this guy all but ensures that I'll contract this disease myself. But it's my sworn duty as a blogger to bring this to you, whatever the cost.

I’m Not Left-Handed Either

The Princess Bride - Most Quotable Movie Ever?

If there were ever a movie that’s non-stop quotable pretty much beginning to end, it would probably be Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But if there were a second movie, it would have to be The Princess Bride. Actually, it might be an interesting exercise to do a side-by-side comparison of how many really quotable minutes there are in each movie. I suspect that Holy Grail probably pulls the lead due to a number of entirely quotable scenes, whereas Princess Bride has a lot of quotable one-liners. Either way, it’s fantastic stuff.

My wife got me a shirt for my birthday that is quite possibly the most awesome mix of T-shirt kitsch and movie quotes in history. We’ve all attended meetings and parties where everybody was asked to wear a nametag that boldly proclaimed


below which you were to fill in your preferred name. This shirt has such a tag screen-printed on the chest, but it’s already filled in as follows:


Inigo Montoya

You killed my father
Prepare to die.

I’m wearing it now. And it got me thinking about this wonderful, quotable movie. It begins, of course, with a young boy, home sick from school, playing videogames in his bedroom. The boy (played by Fred Savage) is visited by his grandfather (Peter Falk), who offers to read him the story that had been passed down in their family for generations whenever one of them was sick. “That's right. When I was your age, television was called books,” says the grandfather. The tone is set, and the quotes roll forth like waves on the ocean.

Other great lines:

Vizzini: As I told you, it would be absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable. [and later] Inconceivable! [and again later] He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Personally, I use that one all the time. And still more:

Inigo Montoya: You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you.
Man in Black: You seem a decent fellow. I hate to die.

Inigo Montoya: I will go up to the six-fingered man and say, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Fezzik: Why do you wear a mask? Were you burned by acid or something like that?
Man in Black: Oh no, it's just that they're terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.

Vizzini:! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha... [klunk – he keels over dead]

I once told a college friend that he reminded me of Vizzini. He wasn’t my friend after that. Isn’t that sad? Still more!

Westley: My brains, his steel, and your strength against sixty men, and you think a little head jiggle is supposed to make me happy?

Westley: No one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley.

The Grandson: See didn't I tell you she'd never marry that rotten Humperdinck.
Grandpa: Yes you're very smart. Shut up.

Miracle Max: Go away or I'll call the Brute Squad.
Fezzik: I'm on the Brute Squad.
Miracle Max: [sees Fezzik] You *are* the Brute Squad!

Miracle Max: Sonny, true love is the greatest thing, in the world-except for a nice MLT - mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe [smacks his lips] they're so perky. I love that.

Miracle Max: Have fun stormin' da castle.
Valerie: Think it'll work?
Miracle Max: It would take a miracle.

Westley: Give us the gate key.
Yellin: I have no gate key.
Inigo Montoya: Fezzik, tear his arms off.
Yellin: Oh, you mean *this* gate key.

And the film’s crowning glory:

Count Rugen: You must be that little Spanish brat I taught a lesson to all those years ago. You've been chasing me your whole life only to fail now? I think that's about the worst thing I've ever heard. [pause] How marvelous.
Inigo Montoya: Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
[Inigo advances on Rugen, but stumbles into the table with sudden pain. Rugen attacks, but Inigo parries and rises to his feet again]
Inigo Montoya: Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
[Rugen attacks again, Inigo parries more fiercely, gaining strength]
Inigo Montoya: Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father! Prepare to die!
Count Rugen: Stop saying that!
[Rugen attacks, twice. Inigo avoids and wounds Rugen in both shoulders, the same spots where he wounded Inigo. Inigo attacks, bellowing:]
[Inigo corners Count Rugen, knocks his sword aside, and slashes his cheek, giving him a scar just like Inigo's]
Inigo Montoya: Offer me money.
Count Rugen: Yes!
Inigo Montoya: Power, too, promise me that.
[He slashes his other cheek]
Count Rugen: All that I have and more. Please...
Inigo Montoya: Offer me anything I ask for.
Count Rugen: Anything you want...
[Rugen knocks Inigo's sword aside and lunges. But Inigo traps his arm and aims his sword at Rugen's stomach]
Inigo Montoya: I want my father back, you son of a bitch!
[He runs Count Rugen through and shoves him back against the table. Rugen falls to the floor, dead]

And those are just some of the best lines. If you’ve seen it, you know you want to see it again. If you haven’t seen it, get a move on! You won't be disappointed.

What do you think is the most quotable movie ever? Post a comment!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Son the Budding Minstrel

This is Giacomo the Jester. I think my son wants to be him.

A lot can happen in a year. Back in 2008, my family went to the Sterling Renaissance Festival as we do most years and had a nice enough time. But it was really hard to listen to any of the music because the kids just weren’t having it. They’d whine and complain any time we weren’t in constant motion or watching something really action-packed. But my wife and I go as much for the music as for anything else and getting to hear some of our favorite performers is important to us. One of those performers is Giacomo.

He’s been a regular at Sterling for years and years – longer than my wife and I have been going there and we started in 1991. I remember one of those first few years he stopped and “showed” me how to woo my love by serenading her on my behalf. I wish I remembered what song it was that he'd sung.

Giacomo had three different acts back then. He did his own “Giacomo the Jester” show, which involved juggling, sleight of hand, and humor. We saw him perform it this year and he literally hasn’t changed a single word in all that time, making the act familiar in a comfortable way like a favorite chair.

Next, Giacomo and his partner Franco would perform the “Double Indemnity Knife-throwing Act.” Somehow I seem to have only seen this show a handful of times, whereas I’ve seen Giacomo’s solo show often enough to have it nearly memorized. It was a good show, though, exciting and humorous and it looked dangerous enough to draw folks in.

Lastly, Giacomo and Franco were musicians. Giacomo sang and played the guitar and the tin whistle, while Franco was quite a good fiddler and violinist. Joining them would be Looney Lucy on the bodhrán and Gabrielle on the concertina, and together they were Double Indemnity, the band. And they were excellent. Their three albums featured nearly two hours of outstanding Celtic and folk/renaissance music, all performed with an array of (masterfully-played) instruments, spot-on vocals and a few potent harmonies. They spoiled me, quite honestly, as I’ve since had a lot of trouble finding similar music that I felt measured up in quality, consistency and pure entertainment pleasure. Sadly, those old albums are so far out of print as to be wholly unavailable. A search I conducted when I decided that I’d like to buy CDs in place of my old cassette tapes turned up only one of the albums on ebay, and for a whopping $150 used.

Part of the reason they’re so rare, I suspect, is that Double Indemnity went the way of the Beatles (except I’m pretty sure everybody’s still alive) and Eagles – breaking up in a blaze of glory that, at one point, featured a puzzling plea on their website for legal counsel as “Franco’s suing Giacomo!!” The result was two bands– Franco and Gabrielle (and others) formed Crannogh (which may be quite good, but somehow I’ve never heard their stuff beyond a clip I found online and didn’t like), while Giacomo and Lucy gathered some mates and became Empty Hats (which for all I know is a nod to the outcome of the aforementioned lawsuit). Empty Hats sounds a fair bit like Double Indemnity and the two albums I have are excellent.

So, to bring this back in the general vicinity of my original point, that’s one fine example of the music we like to hear at the Renaissance Fair, with a little bit of history (from our perspective in the cheap seats, anyway) thrown in. And there we were, with the kids, trying to listen to Giacomo sing a set of ballads, when my older son turns to us and says “Oh my GOD this is horrible!” Yep, sitting right there in the audience while a professional musician sings love songs five feet away. I’d like to hope nobody heard him, but that’s pretty unlikely. The joys of parenthood.

But for the 2009 season, I’d made up my mind that we were going to listen to some music at the Faire and the kids were going to be good. So about a month before we were to go, I dug out my old cassettes and started playing Double Indemnity whenever the kids were around. Sure enough, by the time we went they were hooked and even had their favorite tunes. My son, the one who had previously found the music “horrible,” preferred a ballad called “Beggars to God.” He was also very fond of the more lively “Star of the County Down.” Granted, these weren’t the songs that Giacomo and Lucy actually sang at this year’s festival, but it didn’t matter – the kids were well and truly warmed up and very excited to go hear their songs.

Ancillary to all of this, but ultimately related (I’ll tie it all together by the end, I promise), was the fact that in May my son and I started taking guitar lessons. We were able to watch Giacomo and others play at the Faire and we came away discussing nuances of performance from our limited perspective as total guitar novices (up to and including the fact that evidently Giacomo uses fake fingernails as guitar pics – one of them popped off during a set and caught the boy’s attention).

As a result, the 2009 visit to Sterling was a whopping success. We were there from open to close and the kids had a wonderful time (though they were pretty worn out by the final pubsing and not in an especially good humor). During the same performance of ballads as we’d seen Giacomo do the previous year, my son watched and listed with rapt attention, soaking in the music and savoring every note.

Some months later, he and I were doing our daily guitar practice and we got on to discussing what instrument he might play in school. Guitar’s not part of the curriculum, so he’ll need to choose between drums, brass instruments like the trumpet or trombone, some strings, and a few woodwinds. I don’t recall precisely how it came up, but I said something to the effect of “If you want to be the next Giacomo the Jester, you have to be able to play the guitar and the flute.” He’s a pretty agreeable lad, so it wasn’t too surprising to see him laugh and nod and continue with his practice. But, evidently, a seed had been planted. Lately, the boy has begun making balloon animals in earnest. Who ever heard of a 3rd-grader making professional-quality balloon animals? Well, you have now. He’s getting so good that his sister has offered to hire him to work her birthday party (though she seems a little vague on the notion that “hiring” implies compensation in some form. Sadly, my son may be well on his way to a lifetime as a starving entertainer). And he still says he wants to play the flute, because “Giacomo plays the guitar and the flute.”

He doesn’t know how to juggle yet, but it may well be that my son’s set his sights on being a wandering troubadour. I can hear the squeaking of balloons from upstairs even now. But then again, in a week he may well decide he wants to be a Transformer. I’ll try to be supportive either way. Still, it’s good to know that somewhere, perhaps somewhere very near, there may be successor to the inimitable Giacomo the Jester! Or Optimus Prime.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Western Society Gets Nerfed

In multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, the word Nerf is a verb meaning “to make weaker or less dangerous.” The idea being that all things made by NERF, a division of Hasbro, are soft and reasonably harmless. Even the name NERF stands for Non-Expanding Recreational Foam. So when I say that Western Society has been Nerfed, I’m drawing a comparison between the level of consumer protection and the idea of wrapping something in soft foam.

To wit: my Scrubbing Bubbles automatic shower cleaner. It’s fairly innocuous – it’s a battery-operated unit that hangs from your shower head and, at the push of a button, sprays shower cleaner all over the inside of your tub or stall. The unit and its instructions contain some helpful warnings for users, such as admonitions not to get the batteries wet or to immerse the portion of the unit that contains the motor. It doesn’t warn you to be sure that the well under where the bottle sits is completely empty before inserting a fresh bottle, but the first time I got a face-full of cleaner while installing a new bottle I learned my lesson.

But one message that’s printed right on the front of each bottle of cleaner struck me as symbolic of the Nerfing of western society. It clearly states that the product is “Not a body wash.” That’s right, the bottle of shower cleaner warns users that it should not be used in lieu of soap. And I wonder – why is such a warning necessary? Possibly because somebody at the manufacturer tried to think of all possible problems and develop suitable warnings as part of an aggressive risk-management campaign. Possibly, but I suspect that a simpler answer is more likely – somebody was discovered to have been (mis)using the product in this fashion and the warning was added. Because we’re used to having somebody hold us by the hand at every possible step throughout our day. We’re used to having all of our sharp and pointies wrapped in foam so we don’t get pinched. We’re used to having warnings on everything, including “Coffee may be HOT” just in case it had somehow eluded the average consumer that hot coffee is, indeed, hot. We’ve even begun to drive small hand-crafted toy manufacturers out of business by subjecting their products to destructive testing. That’s to insure that they’re not lead-infused garbage like the stuff we get from China.

I think the “politically-correct” movement is an offshoot of this, as well. Let’s be sure that everything we say is so innocuous and harmless that nobody could possibly be offended by it.

On Friday, the new Bruce Willis movie Surrogates is released, and while the premise is a bit far-fetched, I’m convinced that people would really go for it if it were possible. In Surrogates, everybody stays at home in special chairs that connect them to their mechanical counterparts. They send their surrogate alter-egos out into the world to experience life for them, relaying every sensation back to them as they sit safe and sound in their chairs. The result – all the fun, none of the risk. Part of the premise is that no serious harm done to a surrogate is transmitted to its human owner. If a surrogate is dismembered or killed, the human just has it repaired or gets a new one – no harm done. The ultimate Nerf, if you will. I’m anxious to see the movie, but I’m not quite as anxious to see to what further extent our society will be padded and cushioned and de-toothed in an effort to protect everyone from anything that they might find harmful. And I wonder, too, what the result will be? Will the pendulum swing back to a less risk-averse, daring society, or will we continue to insulate ourselves and inoculate ourselves against every physical and mental trauma that we’re likely to experience, all in the interest of either fostering a sense of true and unswerving safety, or avoiding any potential for litigation? I don’t know, but don’t taze me, bro.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Yarr, Avast Ye Scurvy Seadogs!

Ahoy! It Be Talk Like a Pirate Day!

So take ye up a mug o' rum and tell a few o' me favorite pirate jokes!

What’s a pirate’s favorite letter?

How much do pirates pay for their earrings?
A buck an ear!

What did the pirate get on the test?
A high sea!

What brand of clothes do pirates wear?

Whats a pirate's favorite part of a birthday party?

What do you get when you cross a pirate with a zuchnni?
A Squashbuckler!!!

What do you call a pirate with two eyes and two legs?

Why do pirates always bury their treasure 18 inches below the ground?
Because booty is only shin deep!

Why didn't the pirate take a shower before walking the plank?
He knew he would wash up on the shore later anyway!

When is a pirate like a bird?
When he's a-robbin'!

What did the pirate say at the golf course?
I may tee.

Why was the pirate scared of the circle?
Yarr! Me sides be nearly split from laughing. Best to follow on with a somber sea shanty.

Hoist The Colors
(From "Pirates of The Caribbean 3 : At World's End")

Yo, ho, haul together,
hoist the colors high.
Heave ho,
thieves and beggars,
never shall we die.

The king and his men
stole the queen from her bed
and bound her in her Bones.
The seas be ours
and by the powers
where we will we'll roam.

Yo, ho, haul together,
hoist the colors high.
Heave ho, thieves and beggars,
never shall we die.

Some men have died
and some are alive
and others sail on the sea
– with the keys to the cage...
and the Devil to pay
we lay to Fiddler's Green!

The bell has been raised
from it's watery grave...
Do you hear it's sepulchral tone?
We are a call to all,
pay head the squall
and turn your sail toward home!

Yo, ho, haul together,
hoist the colors high.
Heave ho, thieves and beggars,
never shall we die.

That be all, me buckos! Thar be all the booty ye need to sail forth in the spirit of the pirates, colors flying high and screaming defiance at the bilge-sucking scurvy land-lubbers who know not of Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Future's So Bright, I've Gotta Wear LED-Augmented Contacts

Has Sci-Fi gone far enough in predicting how crazy the future might be?

Every once in a while, I stumble across something so amazing that it takes me completely by surprise. It becomes a, “Wow, I didn’t even realize such a thing was hypothetically possible” moment. I had one of those moments yesterday while reading the American Movie Classics Sci-Fi blog. The topic this week is titled “Enhanced Contact Lenses Will Grant You Terminator Vision.” The idea is that a contact lens would be enhanced with a CPU, circuitry, and LEDs in order to create an overlay of data about whatever you happen to be looking at. And it’s not a set of goggles – it’s right ON the eye. Somebody who wasn’t looking really, really closely might not even be able to tell.

And that got me thinking – to what extent does mainstream sci-fi fail to fully grasp the likely extent of technological change in the next several decades? It seems like there tend to be extremes – either mankind is whipping through the stars at better-than-lightspeed or else they’re not much different from today except the microwaves work even better.

Part of the problem, of course, is how much time can you really spend explaining how the fancy new technology works if you only have a 2-hour movie. In I, Robot, they had fancy self-driving cars, because those are pretty self-explanatory, and robots. That was pretty much it. In Minority Report, they had a big computer with a really fancy (albeit room-sized) keyboard, they had advertising that loudly targeted each individual walking by, and they had fancy self-driving cars. In Blade Runner, they had replicants, of course, and flying cars (that would presumably drive themselves). Throw in a few fancy guns, and you’ve got your mainstream sci-fi movie.

I suspect the future’s going to look much different. Cell-phones and PDAs are going to continue to grow in power while shrinking in size. I suspect that the 10th-generation iPhone is going to go someplace more convenient than a holster. It’s going to plug into a personal network where auditory and visual information and data are streamed right to the user’s eyes and ears while simultaneously connecting him or her to an extensive system of communications, entertainment, news and information. Much like today, but more immediate and direct. But explaining that a person has instant access to a next-generation internet with little or no visible hardware takes time. If it’s not relevant to the plot or establishing the setting, it’s not going to be in the movie.

It’s hard to predict totally new and non-derivative technologies, but it’s a sure bet that the future will include variants of existing technologies that have been miniaturized, made more powerful, or both. The only question is how clever will people be about finding new uses for that small, potent technology. Apparently we already have a start on merging the heads-up-display with the user’s actual head. Why not mix it with your personal sound system? There’s already an app for smartphones that will identify any song you play into their microphone. If you’ve got LED displays on your eyeballs and speakers in your ears, you might as well have them set to project the name and artist of whatever song you might hear right onto your optic nerve.

But how’s this for useful – I have a terrible memory for names and faces. No, that’s not the useful part. Quite the opposite, in fact, it’s a pain in the neck. So if I’ve got CPU-enhanced peepers and a crappy memory, it might behoove me to have software the combines facial-recognition and voice-recognition with a contact database. Suddenly I not only know who I’m looking at or speaking with, but where they work, where I know them from, any notes I might have wanted to add about them (Likes to yell at subordinates. Gets drunk a lot. Owes me 5 bucks.), and even the names of their spouse, kids, boss, whatever.

Given what I learned today about the current state of the art in wearable technology, I consider the above to be highly realistic and, in fact, inevitable. It’s just a question of when. Meanwhile, let’s hope mainstream sci-fi steps up its game a bit, shall we? The future’s not just sitting there waiting, after all. It’s getting closer every day.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Movie Theatre I Grew Up In

Less than a mile from the house where I lived as a young boy was the Westvale Plaza. This old strip-mall started at one end with a Fay’s Drugs, beside which was a Champion outlet store and (I think) a store named Century that I recall being some sort of department store. These three stores were situated at the west end of the mall, perpendicular to West Genesee Street and the rest of the plaza.

Next was a P&C supermarket, then Geddes Savings Bank, a dry cleaners, then Ben Franklins Five-and-Dime. Actually, Ben Franklins may have been a bit farther down. Next you had the Stop & Swap used bookstore, the Fish Cove take-out seafood restaurant, a hardware store along the lines of a Home Depot (but much earlier), a card store, and a clothing store. Undoubtedly there were four or perhaps five additional stores that I fail to remember because they didn’t hold any interest for me.

Lastly there was a small block of stores with an anchor establishment. At the rear of the block was a store where you could buy, upgrade and race small electric slotcars. They had one very large track set up for the bigger cars and a smaller one for the little HO scale cars.

At the front of the block was a restaurant - a western-themed cafeteria-style joint that I remember having pretty decent hamburgers. I believe there was a lawyer’s office or somesuch above the restaurant, and I think the plaza’s management offices were there as well. But the anchor for this block of stores was Kallet’s Genesee Theater. It was the first place outside my home that I ever really cherished.

Built in 1951, The Genesee Theater was a grand old movie house. Not so large as the Landmark, the Genesee originally sat 1077 people in style – plush velvet curtain lit with floodlights, elaborate crashing waves as the frames of the decorative mirrors, statuary on the walls and a large illuminated purple clock at the back of the auditorium. It was a top-grossing theater in Syracuse until it was sold to CinemaNational, a division of Carrol’s Corporation, in 1974. That was the beginning of the end, and it’s sad that I probably never enjoyed a movie there in the Genesee’s heyday.

But with nothing to compare to, I enjoyed my visits nonetheless. Starting around 1979, I found myself old enough (if barely) to wander down from my house to the Westvale Plaza. I’d often stop for candy at Fay’s, French fries at the Fish Cove, and some used comic books at the Stop and Swap. But often, very often, my journey didn’t end until I was at the Genesee Theater. In the summer, especially, it was very much my second home.

I saw Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back with my parents, but I don’t think we saw either of them at the Genesee. However, Star Wars was re-released several times at theaters around the country in the late 70s and early 80s, and that resulted in the perfect summer entertainment for a skinny little boy who loved movies and science fiction. I saw Star Wars at the Genesee over ten times during its two-week re-release. By the end, the staff knew me and had stopped charging me for admission and even for candy. I would occasionally sidle out to the concessions stand and one of the guys and I would recite lines from the movie as it played live in the auditorium.

Over the next couple of years, I saw scads of movies in that theater – many of them multiple, multiple times. I know I saw Tron around a dozen times, and was even given some promotional items by the theater’s staff. I remember seeing the preview for Moonraker (which I misread as MoonBaker, thinking that was a really silly name for a movie) and then the movie itself later on. I spent hours and hours in that auditorium – I had my favorite seat right in the center – and I’d always arrive a bit early. I loved to sit and listen to the music (or Muzak) and look at the decorative gold statues over the side exit doors, or up at the high painted ceiling overhead. I had the run of the neighborhood and there were lots of other places I could have gone to spend my time, but I was rarely happier than when I was sitting in that old theater.

I remember sometime in 1981 or so that after the movie was over the theater’s manager (whose name I never knew) asked if I’d like to come upstairs. He took me up the stairs that ran above the concession stand and I was able to look out the big windows overlooking the marquee. He even have let me turn the marquee lights on. Then he opened a door and showed me the two gigantic metal projectors pointing out through their little square windows like archers manning the arrow slits in an ancient castle. These weren’t the modern projectors with gigantic platters to catch and re-spool the film during each showing, they were goliaths – metal behemoths that squatted under the film like Atlas carrying the heavens on his back. I was deeply grateful to this man for pulling back the curtain, so to speak, and giving me a glimpse at the heart of the place that had given me such joy. I didn’t think to wonder why he was being so nice, as I don’t think we’d ever said more than “hi” to each other prior to that special tour. But clearly he recognized in some way how precious the Genesee Theater had become to me and how I cherished it.

A week later, it made sense. The Genesee Theater closed for the first time, but not the last. I was heartbroken – my theatre, MY theatre, was gone. It would periodically open and close again over the next 15 years, in increasingly dilapidated condition, showing second-run films for bargain prices. Then in 1997, the mall’s management decided that the theatre was done. They tore it down and put up a Pep Boys, which promptly went out of business. It’s not Pep Boys’ fault that this landmark was demolished, but I can’t shop at one anyway – it serves as a reminder of what’s been lost.

After the Genesee closed, I moved up to the Camillus Mall Cinemas 1&2 and later Cinemas 3-6 where I’d eventually get my first job. Working in a modern multiplex wasn’t the same as visiting the Genesee, but the old moviehouse had gotten into my blood and my soul and never really left. I don’t get to go to the movies much anymore, but it’s still one of my favorite things to do. My fondest wish is to one day own a home with a custom home cinema that I can decorate to resemble the Genesee. Hell, if I had real wealth I’d probably build a reproduction of the Genesee and open it up for business. But that’s not likely to happen – the old girl is gone and all that’s left is the memory of floodlights spraying golden radiance upon a crimson curtain, of opulent décor, of the smell of popcorn and the tick tick tick of the projector. Of a giant clock glowing purple on the back wall. Of music and action and sound and energy all reflecting off a great white screen and straight into the heart of a little boy who grew up in a movie theater.

In my research for this blog, I found the local CNY blog NYCO with an entry about the Genesee Theatre including quotes from former manager George Read. I also came across a wonderful article on the Genesee by TJ Edwards at Cinemaviews. Edwards’ article has many of George Read’s photos of the old girl – I highly recommend giving it a look.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Henry IV Part 2, Act 4, Scene 5

“Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days..”

A lot of people have drawn comparisons between King Henry IV’s advice to Prince Hal and the actions of the Bush administration in declaring war on Iraq. The idea being that the real motive of the war was to distract America (and the world) from the true issues of the day. I was never one of those people, though I have always had an attitude about the second Iraq war of, “Wait, we’re attacking who?!?”

But that isn’t to say that the concept is entirely without merit. I just think it’s too specific to simply lay the second Iraq war at its feet. In fact, I believe that US politicians and the media heed this advice in a way that has been endemic to the process as a whole. And we gullible Americans, our giddy minds hungry for clearly-defined issues with simplistic solutions, eat it right up.

I’ve been pretty plain lately that I feel like our government, perhaps our entire society, are spinning out of control. All sense of trust between the government and the people seems lost, and deservedly so. We have “pundits” who almost universally and without fail espouse the most mind-numbingly moronic ideologies you’d ever want to hear, be they liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. Though as a conservative I find the voices of my “fellow” conservatives like Beck and Limbaugh particularly cringe-worthy. Being linked to them in any way makes me feel dirty.

I got to thinking about this issue today after reading some of the writings of Dr. Thornes regarding the movement away from incandescent light-bulbs and his analysis of the pros and cons. Now I’m not saying that I accept Dr. Thornes’s position in its entirety. I haven’t done enough reading or research to know whether his facts and points have true merit or not. But on the surface they at least raise some questions, and there’s no doubt that my personal experience with light bulbs leaves me unimpressed by Compact Flourescents.

What strikes me about the debate, however, is the very real prospect that there may be no real cost-savings or energy savings to be had from this move. I think Dr. Thornes’s points here are well-taken and logical. If there’s a mandate that everybody make this switch, and everybody begins to save x% on energy costs, there’s going to be a glut somewhere. The energy company is going to be selling less energy and making less profit. Certain things, then, are going to happen – either they’ll pay less in taxes and people will make up the difference (negating some or all of their cost savings on energy) OR they’ll fire people (negating some or all of the cost savings through unemployment and reduced spending) OR they’ll raise their fees for electricity (negating some or all of the cost savings). Plus, it isn’t as if most of the country is facing an energy shortage such that switching to more energy-efficient bulbs will mean there’s more energy for other stuff. Based on what (very) little I know of energy production, I’m not even sure that the utilities are well-positioned to idle their electrical generators if consumption decreases significantly, so there might not even be a reduction in emissions. Or maybe there would – like I say, I’m no expert.

But it got me thinking that most of the issues we hear about are actually very complex, yet all we ever hear are the sound-bites and the easy solutions and the “if you’re a red-blooded American, you’ll support this measure” attitude. In fact, so many hot-button issues seem to be presented in such a way that to oppose them makes you sound really rotten. It’s like the old joke where you ask a guy “So, have you stopped beating your wife yet?” If he answers yes, it sounds like he once DID beat his wife. If he answers no, it sounds like he’s STILL beating his wife. There’s no safe answer to that question. This issue, and too many others, strike me much the same way. “Well, of course you WANT to save on energy consumption and energy costs, don’t you? Well if you do, then you need to support this initiative.” Well, maybe I don’t want to “save” on energy consumption and costs and I’m still a decent person. Maybe I don’t believe that, in this case, “saving” is necessarily a benefit to anybody, because it’s not that simple. Or maybe I think it would be great if we all lived off 100% solar power and bio-luminescent fungus, but that “this measure,” whichever one we happen to be referring to, doesn’t do anything to move us in that direction, but simply lines the pockets of some new arm of a corporate dynasty or lobbiest or special interest. But if I’m an elected official, all anybody’s going to see at election time is “Mike De Lucia voted four times AGAINST improved energy efficiency to secure our children’s precious futures. Don’t vote for Mike – he hates America.” And bam, suddenly I’m out of office. I’m starting to believe that it’s not realistically possible for a good and decent person to enact real reform in Washington (or in any of our state governments for that matter) because it’s OK for your opponents or the lobbies or whomever to draw and quarter you if you try to stand up for what’s right.

So instead of fixing things that are really broken, we get light bulbs and pork barrel projects and all manner of distractions while the political machine continues to chug along. And I don’t pretend to even begin to understand what’s really broken. I’m just as naïve as the rest of America as to how Washington politics really works and I can only assume that it’s about ten times worse than I actually think it is (and that’s probably a low estimate). So what am I left with? Well, I could make a full-time job of reading all the different media outlets and blogs and pundits (feh) and try to guess who’s on the level, who actually knows what they’re talking about, and who’s going to grind whatever axe is handy, but even then I’m not sure I’d get any closer to really understanding. And so what if I did? What would that really buy me? Sure, I’d know. The couple of dozen people reading my blog would know. I suppose if I had the whole thing figured out there’d probably be a lot more people reading, but I don’t and I’m not likely to really understand the ins and outs and who’s greasing who's palm and how x pays for y but is hidden behind z and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

So there you have it. A pure, frustrated, impotent political rant from one more giddy mind entranced by the doublespeak of our political machine. I’m no closer to knowing what any of us should do about it, but I can’t help but believe it’s getting worse with each passing year.

I'm going to try to make my next few blog posts about something happier.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lights Out! (follow up)

Yesterday's post (Lights Out!) about Europe's recent ban on the 100-watt incandescent lightbulb elicited a response from an actual European. Woo - Virtual Vellum's gone international!

Anyway, commenter Panta Rei linked to a blog by Dr. Peter Thornes at Dr. Thornes has clearly given some serious thought to the whole lightbulb issue and has some strong opinions about how, why and whether bans, taxes or any changes at all ought to be implemented. I haven't read all the posts yet (there are quite a few), but the gist of it appears to be that the EU is enacting some broad-swath legislation that makes life for Europeans harder without necessarily making it better in terms of the often-touted (by Obama, anyway) cost savings or overall effectiveness.

I wouldn't characterize myself as a lightbulb or energy-efficiency zealot on either side of the issue, but Dr. Thornes makes some very interesting points if you've ever been inclined to think that the whole Compact Flourescent vs. Incandescent debate is just a bunch of hot air designed to stir up public support to fix something that's not actually broken and divert attention away from more serious issues. Not that our government (or the EU, presumably) would ever do such a thing.

It's also nice to see that my skepticism about CF bulbs, based on my experience with them rather than any sort of scientific analysis, wasn't necessarily too far of.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lights Out!

Europe Evicts the 100w Incandescent Bulb

In April, President Obama made remarks about clean energy that included a reference to Compact Fluorescent light bulbs.

If each one of us replaced just one ordinary incandescent light bulb with one of those compact fluorescent light bulbs -- you know, the swirly ones -- that could save enough energy to light 3 million homes. Just one light bulb each -- 3 million homes worth of energy savings.

You can’t disagree with him (at least I can’t, I have no data either way), but that’s not exactly a bold, detailed plan. Europe, meanwhile outlawed the 100w incandescent light bulb effective this past Tuesday. That’s some hardcore environmentalism right there. They’re gone – you can’t buy them anymore.

Now I’m not entirely sold on replacing incandescent with CF bulbs. I’ve replaced quite a few already, but they’re far from perfect. They don’t fit all existing sockets due to the large plastic neck just above the metal screw threads. Also, you can’t stick a lampshade on one if it’s the kind that grips a round incandescent bulb with two wire loops. But more importantly, the things don’t work right away and they’re not all that environmentally friendly.

CF bulbs generally take up to 30 seconds to come to full brightness once you flip the switch. That’s a long time if you’re using the light to go up a dark flight of stairs or look out onto the front porch to see who’s at the door. “Hang on, the light’s not really bright enough to see who you are. I’ll open the door in, um, 22 more seconds. Sorry!” That feels a bit like a step backwards to me. How about some whale oil and a hurricane lamp?

Equally disconcerting, the CF bulbs are full of mercury. They may last much longer, but disposing of one is a hassle. Traditional light bulbs get tossed in the trash. If you break a CF, it instantly becomes a hazardous spill zone.

All of which wouldn’t be quite as bad except that the things are expensive – quite a bit more than the comparable incandescents. So you’re paying more for something that (in some ways) doesn’t work as well and is more dangerous than what you used to use. The energy-savings looks like less of a no-brainer in that context.

Don’t get me wrong, incandescents are on their way out, though perhaps not as quickly in the rest of the world as in the EU. I actually suspect that in the next 8-10 years, quite a few improvements are likely to be made that will change energy consumption modestly. I looked into putting solar panels on my home a few years back. We’ve got a clear southern exposure that would be perfect for them. However the cost of the panels alone, with installation, was around $22,000. And that didn’t include a system of batteries that let you store the electricity to use when the sun went down or during a mainline power outage. I use most of my electricity in the evening, so the cost/benefit didn’t look good to begin with. In addition, battery technology sucks and I’d have had to replace the (fairly expensive) batteries every few years, with other maintenance and upkeep thrown in.

But batteries are an obstacle in automotive energy efficiency as well. The auto-makers are really hot on alternative-fuels at the moment, and most of the technologies seem to involve electricity in some fashion. I think it’s likely that solar cell, battery and lighting technologies will all look quite a bit different a few years down the line when the demand for them has increased enough for them to no longer be considered “alternative” technologies. Well, let me rephrase that – they’ll likely be “less alternative” technologies, as I don’t really expect America to embrace them to the degree that they’d actually upset the status quo. The "cleantech" joint venture between the US and China may even stimulate growth in that industry, though so far the $15M investment is pretty lackluster.

But if we just can’t wait for that time to come, if Americans get really desperate for environmentally-friendly change, and stimulation, there’s always the eco-vibrator to shake things up a bit. Yes, that’s right, that’s a hand-cranked vibrator. You’re welcome!

Oh yeah, one note: the UK Guardian's Technology Section rocks. I'm not necessarily a giant anglophile or anything, it's just a terrific resource for tech info.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Seemingly Typical Morning

Tuesday morning was pretty standard. I had an 8:30 conference call with my team of contractors in the US and India who were helping my company to upgrade some 15 million lines of COBOL code to a newer version of the language that would work with the forthcoming 64-bit mainframe upgrade. As was often the case, it took a while to get everybody connected, so while the meeting was about twenty minutes long, I spent a full hour sitting in a conference room that was too small for its table. My co-manager, Lori, was there too. We chatted about whatever office drones chat about when they’re sitting around waiting. We connected with Senthil in Connecticut and Ravi in India and completed our daily status review of the project. It was cordial and friendly – I liked these guys a lot and enjoyed working with them. It was a thankless project nobody wanted at our company – it added no new functionality or capabilities, it just upgraded the programs to work with the new mainframe. It was being done purely out of necessity, with no glory or enthusiasm. And it was boring. That was my typical Tuesday morning. At about 9:35 AM, I stepped out into hell.

There was a crowd of perhaps twenty people gathered around a television on the 10th floor of MONY Tower I. There was a lot of fidgeting and tension, but it was quiet except for the news broadcast. It wasn’t just the silence of people paying attention, it was the mute atmosphere of a wake, when nobody speaks because they don’t know what to say and would rather just be alone with their thoughts but still in a room full of people. It was a cocktail party without drinks or conversation – everyone together and alone at once. I sidled up to the fringes of the crowd to learn what held their rapt attention. I could tell it wasn’t good.

Somebody had wheeled out a large TV on a sturdy metal stand and tuned it to the news. Two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City around an hour before – just after I’d gone into the conference room and shut the door. And something else had happened in Washington, D.C. A helicopter had crashed outside the State Department or somesuch. All air traffic was grounded, but not everything had landed yet.

A few minutes later, the news was updated – it hadn’t been the State Department that was attacked, it was a plane that had crashed into the Pentagon moments before. It was 9:45 AM and I’d been watching events unfold for ten minutes. Three planes full of people had been turned into enormous bombs, screaming missiles that had been carefully guided into three of the country’s largest office buildings. And the Pentagon – the Pentagon! The symbol of America’s military machine. The headquarters of the armed forces that kept us safe and ensured that our enemies didn’t send our aircraft hurtling into skyscrapers in a jumbled, twisted crunch of metal and incendiary jet fuel and burning dying people.

And this just in: there was one more jetliner still flying around out there somewhere that nobody could reach. Best guess is that it was over Pennsylvania, but in all likelihood it was now a missile aimed at the White House.

It was another twenty minutes before the next major event and people would, from time to time, break out of their stunned malaise and speak softly to a person standing nearby. The murmur would rise from a barely-audible hum to a low rumble that didn’t seem to emanate from anyone in particular but filled the area thickly the way fog wraps itself around you and feels close and solid and heavy. Every so often, someone’s logical progression of thoughts would pull them out of the scenes on the television – cameras pointed up at smoke billowing out of two New York skyscrapers – and back to their own lives. And you’d see it happen, because they’d look around in wide-eyed wonder and cock their head just so, as if listening for the approach of a jetliner with mad-eyed religious nutjobs at the controls screaming to Allah as they dove headlong into

OUR skyscraper. OUR twin towers. Holy hell, we were standing in a building that was the World Trade Center in miniature.

The realization came to different people at different times, but you could see it happen by the way they gazed around as if they’d never really thought about the office they worked in. True, they were nineteen stories high rather than a hundred and ten. True, they were in Syracuse rather than New York (and what was the likelihood that Arab terrorists had ever heard of Syracuse?). True, these weren’t even the tallest buildings in the city, nor did they house anything especially symbolic or important. But they were where we were standing at the moment and WE were important to US, dammit.

We were all in a daze and you don’t think cogently when your mind is overloaded by the impact of events and the enormity of the unknown. So there was fear, if only briefly before the reality that we weren’t a target sank in. But then, for me at least, a larger, less personal fear sank in. What would be next? More attacks? Was the White House going to be destroyed while I watched on television? Were we at war on our home soil for the first time since the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor? And if so, with whom? Faceless cowards who hid in mid-east ratholes, darting out on occasion to nip at our heels before ducking back in? Surely not an army to stand and face the wrath of a fully-awakened U.S. war machine out for blood and vengeance.

The clock ticked on, but time seemed slow to us standing there in a crowd around this TV watching people stream out of the World Trade Center buildings. By 10 AM it seemed as if the worst was probably over in New York – it would just be an effort then to put out the fire and tend to the wounded people and count the bodies from the plane and from the floors where the inferno had roared up and incinerated everything and everyone. It was awful, to be sure. There were people smashing windows and jumping from the 100th floor because they preferred a few seconds of wind and falling with a quick death at the end to being roasted alive by the hungry flames. But the damage had been done at that point and the authorities should get things under control in reasonably short order.

Then the South tower crumbled to the ground. It was spectacular and horrifying and seemed to suck all of the air and life out of the room. The sibilant whispering murmurs receded again to silence, except for shocked gasps. There were no exclamations of “My God!” or “Oh no!” or the like, as you might have expected. The sight of such unimaginable destruction actually happening live while we watched denied any such articulation. Breathing, being autonomic, continued and gave the silent watchers the barest conduit to express their dismay through sharp intakes of breath, but for most the experience elicited not a sound. A tightening around the eyes was common. A relaxing of the muscles of the face and jaw certainly. But the shockwave of that building collapsing under its own burning weight created an electricity-dampening field that instantly enveloped every watcher around the world (excepting, perhaps, those who had orchestrated the day’s events and were viewing them not with horror but with joy and pride) and snuffed out the impulses that normally jumped from one synapse to the next within their brains. SNIK! All thought, all speech, every conscious action was rendered impossible at that moment by the impossible suddenly becoming real in a way that couldn’t be disbelieved or refuted, but had to be absorbed and reconciled and accepted because it was real and it was happening right then and it was on TV.

I wandered off a few minutes later. I think I walked over toward my desk, refreshing CNN.Com in my browser window but not being able to really make sense of the words on the screen. I remember, and it seems silly now, but I remember being emotionally dead at the time, and realizing that I wasn’t all there, and being unsure what I ought to do about it. I had the notion that I ought to try to shake it off and get back to work, losing myself in the routine of my projects and reports and emails. Within ten minutes or so, I was heading down to the ground floor to get a soda from the little convenience store down there. There was a TV on behind the counter and I was standing in line waiting to pay when the second tower crashed down, so small in black and white and shades of gray.

I went back to my desk and drank my soda. Both towers and part of the Pentagon had fallen. The fourth, lost plane had crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania rather than the White House. We all went home within an hour or so to sit and watch the world’s reaction to that seemingly typical Tuesday morning.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ciao Iraq!

The Debut of the Iraqi Virtual Museum

Back in July, Wired magazine reported on a trip by an array of US technology executives to Iraq as part of an effort to determine how US internet companies could contribute to the rebirth and growth of that busted country. During a visit to the Iraq National Museum, they noted that the museum had no functioning website. So one might assume that the tech giants had been responsible for the birth of the Virtual Museum of Iraq. But no – it was instead the government of Italy that stepped up and funded the development of what turns out to be a pretty cool view into the artifacts on display in the very cradle of human civilization.

The Virtual Museum features galleries from eight eras in Iraq’s history, from prehistoric and Sumerian times through the modern Ottoman empire and the rise of Islam. Inside each gallery are displays of various artifacts and informational banners, many of which allow you to further drill down through timelines, maps, and various levels of detail. For example, in the “prehistoric” gallery, one can select a map on the wall, then choose whether to view a timeline of Iraq or to view the full, interactive map. On the interactive map, you can click the ancient settlement of Tell es-Sawwan to see a multi-level map of how the city looked at various times throughout ancient history, with text explaining the configuration of the buildings and the major features, such as walls and ditches, that were added over time. The map is available at each of the eras, and features new and different cities to explore as you move through the galleries.

The site also features various videos both narrated and accompanied by instrumental music. The video-game-quality CGI is nothing spectacular, but more than adequate, for instance, to give the viewer a sense of the grandeur of ancient Babylon’s temple of Marduk.

It’s good to see Iraq’s national treasures made available in a safe and accessible fashion. I wonder, of course, whether the country’s infrastructure allows many of Iraq’s own people to take the virtual tour, but, as I said above, it’s a start. I think it’s also great that Italy stepped up, took on this project, and did a really fine job with it. Yes, the US needs to help put Iraq back on its feet after we lead the charge to knock it down. But we didn’t fight that fight alone, nor did the rest of the world think highly of the former government, its leader, or its conduct. It’s probably not realistic that the US, facing a wide array of domestic and international challenges of its own, could set Iraq fully back to rights on its own. But if other countries step in and capably take on projects that help put the country back on track, success, growth, prosperity and stability may not be too far off. Bene, Italia. Molto Bene!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Funky Dates

Hey Look! It's 09/09/09 at 09:09! Blogger doesn't support posting by the second, but you get the idea.


The McDonalds Value Menu Kicks Ass

I should begin by saying right up front that I am emphatically NOT being compensated in any way for this blog-based endorsement of McDonalds. Which really sucks. Ronald, bubby, give me a call, I’m sure we can work something out. I’ll shill whatever you want to my 18 loyal readers if you make it worth my while.

Right, so, McDonalds has this dollar menu. I always sort of knew it was there, and I’ve occasionally ordered off of it, but I didn’t look at it very closely. It turns out, there’s a double-cheeseburger on it (one slice of cheese, which I didn’t want anyway), a small French fries on it, and a small soda on it, among other things. I don’t eat at McDonalds much – my family and I felt that we were spending way too much money eating fast food, and the nutrition was terrible, so we cut it out almost entirely several months ago. And, in general, we haven’t missed it at all. I know I haven’t.

But today I was in a serious hurry. I needed to get from one end of town to the other to teach a class, I was starving, and I had zero time to fiddle around with food. I didn’t want to spend much, but I wanted to eat in a big hurry. I decided McDonalds was the answer and I’d try to eat off the dollar-menu if possible. Sure enough, I walked out with a soda and a bag of food for the low, low price of $3.24. I can’t think of the last time I ate a full meal from any restaurant that cheaply. It wasn’t a lot of food, but I didn’t need a lot. It probably wasn’t the healthiest thing I’ve ever eaten, either, but one meal won’t kill me. Apparently it totaled 670 calories and 34 grams of fat, which is roughly 1/3 of my total daily recommended calorie intake but over half what I ought to get in fat. But it did get me on my way really fast for barely any money and filled my tummy. Mission accomplished! If I were less lazy, there are probably even healthier alternatives between McDonalds own menu items and other restaurants, but then laziness is central to my character.

I think it just surprises me that you can buy an actual meal for three and a quarter and get change back (albeit in the form of one measly little copper penny). And, if I'm honest with myself, I don’t really need the fries and might choose to forgo them in the future, which drops the fat and calorie count by a fair bit. They’re just so darn tasty, and I’m all about tasty. And cheap. And lazy. Yep, that about sums me up. But at least my laziness doesn’t interfere with my commitment to share finds like these with you, my fine readers, with or without an endorsement deal.

Preferably with.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Nothing New Today

With school starting and various other stuff going on, today is about 50 different kinds of crazy. Look for a new blog entry on Wednesday and thanks for stopping by.

Actually, "thanks for stopping by" puts me in mind of this toy my kids used to have. It was awesome - probably the single most-used toy they ever owned. It was a Winnie-the-Pooh toy with four different colored pegs, each in a different shape. The pegs could be put through various doors and slides in the toy, or could be inserted into corresponding depressions at the front of it. When you got the right colored/shaped peg into the correct depression, one of the characters would congratulate you. The game would also verbally challenge the player to get the pegs into the right spaces, along the lines of "Can you find the red square?"

As I said, it was a great toy and very popular with my kids, including my daughter. However she didn't fully appreciate all aspects of it. My daughter never cared for deep voices in her toys, and in this device the "red square" corresponded to Eeyore. When you got the peg in the right place, it would say in Eeyore's deep, slow, indolent drawl "Thanks for stopping by." Which she hated and did her best to avoid at all costs. She NEVER pressed the red square on purpose.

So when my daughter was posed the question, "Can you find the red square?" she would tell the toy, "NO!" It would ask her again and again, and each time her reply was the same. I don't recall that either of them ever really won that argument.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Reflections on Summer

Labor Day is here at last, and with it comes the “unofficial end of summer.” The calendar says fall begins at the Autumnal Equinox on September 22nd at 5:18 PM. I’m not clear how that works, actually – if the equinox is the day when day and night are of equal durations, shouldn’t the equinox occur at a midpoint somewhere – the midpoint of the day or the midpoint of daylight or at sunset or something like that? A time like 5:18 PM just seems random to me, but I suppose that’s why I’m not a meteorologist.

But, Labor Day seems like a good point at which to reflect on the summer. Weather-wise, the summer of 2009 was something of a bust. June and July were remarkably wet and cool, even for Central New York. A lot of people are writing it off as a total loss. Still, I think I’ll remember this as one of the best summers ever. It was certainly one of the busiest, even though I wasn’t driving off to work every day.

Summer, for me, began with the end of the last school year. Prior to that, I’d been home all day with my youngest son, which was a really wonderful time for us. My prior work schedule had meant I spent less time with him than I had with my other kids and I felt like my rapport with the little guy had suffered. Getting to spend March through June with him all day went a long way toward healing that wound and bringing us closer together, for which I’ll always be glad.

Once the kids were out of school, we started right in with swimming lessons. Remarkably, the kids made more progress in this one summer than they’d made in the last two years combined. My daughter kept up with her piano and trumpet practice, usually without significant grumbling or argument. My older son and I learned to play the guitar together. We tried to get outside - I puttered around in my garden and took the kids to the zoo and Beaver Lake Nature Center.

The highlights, though, were the events. For my wife and me, this was the trip to New York City in particular. For the family as a whole, our two summer vacations were outstanding. The first was a 2-day trip to Rochester, NY, where we spent time at the Museum of Play (which evidently is aimed at kids that are younger than mine) and Seabreeze (which my daughter still cites as the “happiest day” of her life). Later, my wife took a week off for a vacation that included miniature golf, the zoo, a picnic at Shove Park, and lunch at Olive Garden (not all on the same day, of course).

And, finally, the Great New York State Fair had arrived, and we were furiously baking and framing and mounting in preparation for the Art & Home Center competitions my wife and kids had entered. The final tally included ribbons for just about everything we entered, including a 2nd prize for my older son’s artwork and a 2nd prize for my wife’s Pink Lemonade Cupcakes. Pretty good for a first attempt!

And now it’s Labor Day and all three kids are readying to head off to school – the first time they’ve all gone together. My youngest has an enormous backpack that he likes to put on and strut proudly around the house. Except for the color it looks like he’s a Marine with a full combat load. The kids will march off to school and I’ll get to work writing and we’ll all be able to look back on an especially fun and exciting summer. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with the kids after so many years of corporate grind, but this summer put a big dent in my Daddy Deficit. There’s nothing like being fully immersed in the reality of what it’s all about. What an outstanding summer, whatever anybody else may think.