The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, January 31, 2004

GIGANTIC MUTANT PAPAYAS: TASTE TEST
invasion of the body snatchers
I just sliced open that over-developed papaya that awed me last week. During the ripening process, the skin had gone from the deep green seen above to mostly mottled yellow. The fruit pulp inside was the usual light red you'd expect from a papaya; it didn't look any different from a regular papaya. And of course, a ton of easily-removable seeds.

I have to say I was disappointed. It didn't taste particularly flavorful; in fact, it seemed to have a bit less tang than a regular papaya. I also tried to zip it with some lime juice, but it didn't really help. It's possible I let it ripen a day or two too long. But I also seem to recall something about larger varieties of a fruit, in general, having a less robust taste than their smaller counterparts. That may be the case with the red lady papaya.

It was still worth picking it up, if only for the novelty. But I think I'll pass on it next time it's on display. I'll go back to the regular kind.
DARK AND DREARY
What a rotten day. It's been overcast since early morning, raining since noon, and in the mid-50s all day. I hate it. It's depressing. Weather like this puts me in a foul enough mood that I don't feel motivated enough to do much of anything. It's supposed to keep up like this all night too, so I'll likely be in no mood to go out tonight either.

What I really hate is that a day like this puts me in a lethargic enough mood that I don't even want to write, either online or off. I don't have anything I need to put down, but plenty I'd like to. But I doubt I will. I'll be lucky to write another post on this blog the rest of the day.

I guess there's always the boob tube. I played about an hour's worth of Robotron: 2084 on the Xbox, then watched Animal House (which I had been meaning to pop into the DVD player anyway this weekend). I'll have to find even more ways to amuse myself now.
"JUST REPEAT TO YOURSELF, IT'S JUST A SHOW..."
mads love
It's finally happened: "Mystery Science Theater 3000", which was cancelled five years ago but has lingered on in reruns, is going off the air, seemingly for good.

How much do I enjoy this show, even though I've seen every episode that the Sci-Fi Channel had dozens of times? Here's a hint: It's the only reason I don't sleep in on Saturday mornings, instead getting up at 9AM to catch it. Yes, it's that good, and I'm that pathetic. I suppose the bright side is that I can now sleep in on Saturdays on a regular basis. Seems like scant compensation, though.

I was unaware, until yesterday, that today was the end. There had been rumors ever since the original episodes ended in 1999 that Sci-Fi would pull the plug at some point; I think it's amazing that it's maintained it's life-after-death existence for this long. It had definitely become untenable, because the rights to many of the original movies they used had expired, and re-purchasing those rights just didn't make sense (thus the ever-decreasing number of reruns they could air). It was just a matter of time.

I'm not the only one saddened by this departure: MSNBC's Gael Fashingbauer Cooper shares reaction from several fans. I'm also holding out hope that Comedy Central somehow will pick up the series and air the reruns (I don't need new episodes, the old ones that Comedy Central still has the rights to will be enough); but I'm not expecting it.

The last episode being aired is The Screaming Skull. It's not one of the better ones, although the Gumby short at the episode's beginning was great. Personally, I would have preferred a 70s-80s piece of debris, like It Lives By Night (aka The Bat People) or Werewolf. Fortunately, I have both those gem episodes on tape.

Digging through this blog's archives, I'm a little surprised that I haven't written more about MST3K--I've found only five references. I guess this makes six. I'll close out with a post that has little to do with the show directly, but is fully within the spirit of Joel, Mike and the 'Bots: My steak-cooking abilities and Michael J. Nelson's "Socratic Dialogue... With A Steak".

Friday, January 30, 2004

PIXAR, DISNEY, SPLITSVILLE
see ya, mouse!
The end of an era, and maybe a lot more, is here as Pixar Animation Studios and Disney have severed their business relationship. That means that in a couple of years, after the remainder of the companies' working agreement is fulfilled, Pixar's computer-animated films will be released through some other studio, or (more likely) several studios.

It's kind of surprising, considering that Disney has recently made notable moves toward eliminating its hand-drawn animation units, with the intent of going completely over to computer-generated animation. The recent flops of traditional animation films, and the matching big-time success of computer-animated ones, indicated that this was the way for Disney to go. Now, it's seemingly suffered a setback by breaking with Pixar.

Then again, in the longer term, Disney would be better off growing its own in-house computer-generated production units. No longer having Pixar only spurs that.

Meanwhile, I wonder if Steve Jobs, the chief at Pixar, will use this development to increase linkage with his other company, Apple. I know there's been little crossing-over so far, but now that Pixar is more of a free agent, you never know.
BIBLE READING GROUP GONE BAD
A colleague was telling me earlier today about a bible reading group in which he and his wife used to participate years ago. (It wasn't his idea, he assured me; his wife thought it would be a fun way to occupy their Sunday nights.)

It was quite the group. Since their meeting-up days, two of the members had gone to jail; one of them was convicted for sexually abusing his daughters. Another member turned out to be something of a minor celebrity here in downtown St. Petersburg: She's a deranged, possibly homeless, middle-aged woman who strolls up and down the streets all day wearing a long, white wedding gown that's seen better days. As has she; the 411 on her is that she endured a lot of sexual abuse, among other things, while growing up.

My colleague recently attended a reunion of this group; the three above-mentioned members didn't show up, obviously. Among those who did was a guy who is now (but presumably, not for long) the Florida point man for the Dennis Kucinich for President campaign. This guy proceeded to annoy everyone there by trying to drum up support for Kucinich, including trying to recruit canvassers. He even called everyone up a week later, my colleague included, to get them to join a Kucinich rally (which apparently never got off the ground).

I'll add the disclaimer here that my colleague and his wife are perfectly normal, wonderful people. I think it's a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time for them.

Child molesters, mental cases and political campaign wonks--all connected to each another through Bible study. So what's the object lesson here? There are two, actually: Never listen to your wife, and stay the hell away from Bible reading groups.
JOE BOB BRIGGS SIGHTING IN SARASOTA
Good ol' Joe Bob Briggs (aka John Bloom). I thoroughly enjoyed his "God Stuff" segments on "The Daily Show" (pre-Jon Stewart). I was less enamoured of his mainline schlock-moviefest shows; they were ok, but I guess I've been spoiled by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 method of viewing such fare.

I haven't kept up with Joe Bob's doings lately; I suppose I could always check with The Joe Bob Report. But I see that he's written a new book (his sixth), "Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History!", and brought it with him to the Sarasota Film Festival to plug. The book is something of a departure for Joe Bob, in that it doesn't focus exclusively on the B-movie stuff. Among the films he profiles, along with their impact on the broader culture, are legit classics like The Wild Bunch and ...And God Created Woman.

But it wouldn't be Joe Bob without a smattering of slop! While at the Festival, he talked about his book and presented screenings of another two of those "shocking movies": Creature from the Black Lagoon and the notorious Blood Feast.

"In Peoria, Ill., on July 19, 1963, the slasher film was born," Joe Bob said in his preshow remarks. Blood Feast was the splattered brainchild of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman, two guys who made money on nudist camp flicks - "ugly, naked people playing a lot of volleyball," as Joe Bob recalled - filmed in the Sunshine State. They wanted to come up with an idea Hollywood wouldn't touch and found it in one word: gore.

Blood Feast is a sorry excuse for cinema. "It's one of those films that gets better the more you know about it," Joe Bob said. "In some ways, it's a little more fun to talk about than to sit through."

So he did, spinning a tale of cheap beach locations in 1963 before Miami was Miami. When innocence was in and lurid was profitable. When a Playboy Club waitress could be talked into a scene with a jellied sheep's tongue in her mouth to be ripped out in the film's most infamous moment. When Friedman bought a boa constrictor for $30 and stuck it in scenes just to get his money's worth. When the star had to read her lines off the furniture.

Lewis and Friedman dragged Blood Feast around the drive-in circuit for years, writing phony letters to editors in the next town on the map, posing as a minister complaining about the film's severity. Protests only sold more tickets. It worked, always, like a charm in Tampa. Things were different in Sarasota.

Friedman couldn't make anyone mad enough there to turn a profit. Then, an idea: He rented a motel room in Sarasota for a local address, then filed an injunction to keep Blood Feast out of "his" town. He got the publicity he wanted, and something he didn't expect.

The judge granted the injunction. Blood Feast could never be shown in Sarasota. Friedman hired an attorney to convince the judge that the plaintiff had seen the movie and had been wrong. This was, indeed, an educational film that should be seen. The injunction was overturned and Blood Feast made another killing.

I was just having a discussion with a friend about horror flicks. She's a fan of the genre, I'm not. But she's quick to point out that she only likes quality, nuanced horror flicks, versus splatter-gore dreck. I'm gonna guess that Blood Feast would not be to her liking.

The Sarasota Festival is the only sizable filmfest that's close to Tampa Bay (some consider Sarasota to be part of the Tampa Bay area, but at 45 minutes away by highway from Tampa/St. Pete, I don't). Tampa Bay itself doesn't really have any, although that may be changing. Orlando has a couple of festivals, but nothing notable, and it's even further away (about an hour and a half). The upshot being, as big a film fan as I am, I've never been motivated enough to haul myself down to Sarasota to take part in the action.

The one notable appearance in Sarasota this year (aside from Joe Bob's) was by Jennifer Love Hewitt, who was promoting her latest, If Only. I think her coming to a second-tier film festival says more about Hewitt's falling fortunes than anything else.
SWEDISH CHEF FIRED
borky-borky-bork!
Shocking news comes to us from across the Atlantic as a Swedish chef was fired because his cooking proved to be too popular.

No no, it wasn't the Swedish Chef, pictured above. Not unless his real name is Richard Nordberg. And who knows, maybe it is... But as far as I know, Mr. Bushy-Brows Muppet is still employed by, and property of, The Jim Henson Company, along with the rest of the Muppets.

As for the flesh-and-blood chef, Mr. Nordberg, I think he should take full advantage of this and convince some financial backers to help him open up his own restaurant. How can it not succeed? Obviously, he's got a following. The company that fired him should be cool about it and at least give him a glowing recommendation, if not provide some backing of its own.

If that course doesn't pan out, he could always do a job search on the Internet. He could use two flavors of Google: Standard Swedish, or Chef "Bork Bork Bork!" Swedish (the latter, no doubt, would be more professional for him).

Thursday, January 29, 2004

THE SOUTH: AMERICA'S ENCHANTED FOREST
I went to see Big Fish last week. I enjoyed it a lot; it was a sweet movie. I'm glad I can still count on Tim Burton to deliver.

While watching, I thought about how integral the setting of the film--the South--was to making it all work. I'm aware that the movie is an adaptation of the novel of the same name, and so plot elements like location were pre-set. Still, as in so many similar stories, the South (or more properly, the idea of the South) plays a special role, unique in American literature.

I've been trying to better crystalize my thoughts along these lines for the past week. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck; lack of time and inclination to dig very deep, beyond the works of Faulkner, Welty and other Southern greats. I've got some very brief sketchings the lines of what I wanted to get across, and as loathe as I usually am to post incomplete work on this blog, I think I have to cut the chord and do that now. If nothing else, it'll leave a reference point for me to go back to another time. Maybe it'll even inspire someone else to expand further:

I find that the South serves American literature and fiction as a native enchanted land--our version of Europe's Black Forest, filled with oddball characters, gentle creatures and hateful monsters. Built into this conception of the South is that it is part of America, but apart from it; an "over there" that's just far enough away to be otherworldly, but close enough to be famililar.

Of course, this characterization assumes a mindset that, while "national", is decidedly Northern, and specifically Northeastern/New Englander--the traditional intellectual/academic/literary counterpoint to the South in American life. This is no surprise, as the Civil War went a long way toward securing a cultural victory to match the political and economic victory that the North won. It's not a position that's actively maintained, but it's part of the implicit order of things that has been in place for more than a century.
CONSUMERS TO ADVERTISERS: LEAVE ME ALONE!
Should advertisers be fretting over the effectiveness of their message penetration in the age of ad-skipping digital video recorders and popup blockers? According to Forrester Research, they should indeed, with analyst Chris Charron characterizing the climate as an "advertising backlash". Pertinent highlights:

- Sixty million US households have signed up for the Do Not Call Registry.
- Fifty-four percent of online households have spam blockers;
- 20% have ad blockers.
- Personal video recorder households skip 59% of ads.
- Multitasking, especially among younger consumers, is sapping consumer attention away from advertising.

My own observations, item-by-item:

Do Not Call Registry - No shocker; I'm surprised the number isn't higher. The telemarketing industry's scorched-earth approach over the years--by alternately ignoring consumer requests to not contact, to insisting that they had a right to call households at will--not only made governmental intervention in this area inevitable, it also ensured a successful implementation. Telemarketers are now doomed to engage in petty court challenges until their business model totally dries up (at least, in the familiar telephone-call form).

Spam Blockers - I'd be interested to learn what sort of spam blockers they're talking about: Are these blocking methods the endusers manage themselves? Or are they built-in preventive measures that originate with their ISPs (and if so, was that feature a major inticement for choosing that Internet service)? In any case, it's obvious that spam has killed off the potential of email to be an effective advertising medium, outside of the porn- and pill-peddling professions.

Ad Blockers - That 20 percent seems about right, and will only increase as popup blocking becomes integrated into more browsers (notably Internet Explorer, probably by the end of this year). Like spam, popups are rapidly on their way out. I wonder if this includes other, more obscure programs that block ads that are actually part of Web pages.

Personal (or Digital) Video Recorders - This high percentage reflects just how big a selling point the ability to easily skip commercials is for acquiring a DVR. However, I'm not convinced this will continue to be the case as these boxes spread. To date, DVR users tend to be hard-core television and technology junkies; they enjoy spending time with this technology and actively using it. But the average, more casual television viewer is much more passive when watching TV; s/he is not going to actively hold the remote and take the effort (however slight) to forward through commercials every few minutes. As is now the case, the average household views television as something that provides background media that requires little to no interaction from viewers (most of the time). The bigger mainstream appeal of the DVR will be the ability to record programs and time-shift their viewing periods; skipping commercials will be a secondary concern.

Multitasking - There've always been multiple channels vying for the media consumer's attention; I'm not sure what the solution is other than spreading your advertising dollars to as many of those channels as necessary to reach your audience. Of course, multitasking doesn't necessarily mean that every task involves an advertising medium. But in cases where someone is watching television while Web surfing (as I'm doing right now with my notebook computer, and do on a regular basis), the best advertisers can do is to make sure their bases are covered, in broadcast, print, online and anywhere else.

Overall, I think the declaration of a "backlash" is an attempt at igniting some decisive action from the advertising industry. A lot of these factors have been around for a long time, albiet in different forms (for example, the remote control by itself is a long-established form of ad-skipping technology), and have been shown to have minimal impact.

One other thing jumped out at me: The built-in resistance within the industry to making lemonade out of these seeming lemons:

Cable operators, media companies, and marketers aren't ready to embrace dis-aggregation of audiences. Media buyers and sellers still value reach over relevancy.

This is the perpetuation of the idea that media consumption is a volume business: The bigger the audience, the better, regardless of the makeup of that audience. It makes a certain amount of sense, as mass market events like the Super Bowl rightfully pull in huge ad rates due to their broad reach. But this approach clouds the effectiveness of more precise demo targeting than previously possible. This is why the industry still clings to Nielsen's ratings, even while disputing the most recent shifts in them.
ROOMBA: THE ARRIVAL
let's roomble
A week after ordering it, my Roomba robovac arrived today. Thankfully, I showed some foresight the past couple of days and put a note on the door for the UPS man to deliver the thing to the leasing office, instead of taking it back and trying to deliver it again tomorrow (why UPS bothers sending their guys out in the middle of the day to make residential deliveries, when most people are at work, is somethign I'll never figure out).

The big thrill for today was unpacking the unit, installing the battery, plugging it all into a wall socket... and leaving it there. The battery needs 12(!) hours of charging time before you can set the Roomba loose. I already knew this, so I wasn't expecting to be able to play with it right away. I won't be able to use it until tomorrow morning at the earliest; I'm not sure I will, because I want to spend some time testing it in various modes before leaving it by itself to clean for the day.

First impressions: It's rather big. I wasn't expecting that; the impression I'd gotten from the pictures and documentation was that it was kind of small, like 6 inches in diameter or thereabouts. Turns out it's 12 inches, and kind of bulky. It weighs around 10 pounds. I know I could have found all this out from the specs, but who ever pays attention to that?

Anyway, I'm glad it's here, safe and sound, and I'm looking forward to seeing it in action! No more vacuuming for me!
THE TAO OF THE QUARTERLY EARNINGS REPORT
Most people consider the company financial reports filed with the Securites and Exchange Commission to be dreary, bland collections of legalese mumbo-jumbo and indecipherable balance sheets. I suppose they're right, although personally I find even the most run-of-the-mill public company year-end filing to be an interesting, even fascinating, read. (Then again, it could be that I've read so many of them for so many years that my brain's short-circuited itself into believing that; it's a close call.)

Into this ocean of legally-mandated uniformity comes Patrick Byrne, President of Overstock.com, a plucky online discount retail company/Amazon wannabe. Tired of issuing the same-old same-old in his company's annual earnings statement--especially when it lost $3 million in a quarter--Byrne wove Taoist philosophy, among other oddball stuff, into his official discussion letter attached to the company's report.

Hopefully, Byrne's approach will usher in a new, cheerier style of financial reporting throughout corporate America. If he doesn't get sued over it, that is.

The actual text of Byrne's flowin' prose is too good not to share, at least in part:

2003 Q4

"The rhythm of the Dao is like the drawing of a bow."

Lao-zi Dear Owners:

My colleagues executed well this quarter. Were 2003's four quarters a boxing match, I'd say we were dropped to our knees in the first, cleared our head in the second, got on our toes again in the third, and won the fourth on a decision. In this letter I will describe how my colleagues accomplished this, and detail some mistakes your chairman made that prevented victory by a knockout.

First, I will explain why I am appending this letter to our earnings release. Simply put, I want owners to understand their business: they entrust capital to me and I owe them no less.

I am warned that a letter such as this has risks. A lawyer told me that my use of this more colloquial style may be misconstrued, saying: "everything you write will be Exhibit A in a lawsuit against you," (but lawyers say that about most things). Bill Mann of The Motley Fool says that we live in a time when, if things go passably well, CEOs say, "Everything is super-de-duper," and when they go poorly they say, "Everything is just super-duper." In such a climate, if I write, "X went pretty well, but I could do better on Y and Z," the former is read as an admission of mediocrity, and the latter, calamity. Lastly, cynics claim that my candor is but an attempt to pump my stock by drawing investors looking for someone who does not pump his stock: I am flattered to have attributed to me such Machiavellian subtlety! (And I suggest they look up Popper's Falsification Principle.)

For six quarters I have struggled to reconcile my desire to report in this fashion to Overstock's owners with the more traditional approach used by most companies. Trying to mold a murky reality into a few lines of happy quotes has always been difficult. I have thus decided (when able and time permitting) to write lengthier and more informative letters to owners, filtering out points that concern individuals, details, or strategies that might bore readers or advantage competitors. Note, then, shareholder, that when I write, "X is going pretty well," just because I did not say, "X is super-de-duper" it does not mean, "X is a disaster." Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The journalists, lawyers, and cynics will find their own way...

Operations - We had a few sleepless nights here. At this point I suppose I should mention that, as Team Overstock's player/coach, it is my occasional and regrettable duty to reposition, bench, trade, and sometimes cut teammates, alas. "Benching" takes the form of sending people home on paid leave to recoup and to allow us to rearrange. For example, two summers ago I benched someone by sending him and his family to Hawaii while I took his job myself: when he returned I gave him a different job (in fact, things like this happen often enough that "getting sent to Hawaii" is synonymous around here with "getting a last chance"). This Christmas season an executive moved to the bench: I did not put out a press release about it, partially out of respect for him, but also because his future role in the game was unclear. As I have noted recently, he is no longer with the company. While I acknowledge that losing one's COO during the Christmas rush is discomforting (as I know better than anyone), I hope that this clarifies my thinking satisfactorily...

A man crosses a desert by shooting an arrow from his bow and retrieving it as he walks. He must cross the desert with the fewest shots possible. At times he strains the bow with all his strength and lets his arrow fly, but sacrifices accuracy, at times shooting the arrow wildly off course. Other times he aims carefully and draws timidly, attempting little but guaranteeing himself small, solid progress. In time he finds the balance of draw and aim that covers the most ground in the fewest shots.

I have not yet found such balance. Yet in 2003 Q4 we drew the bow deeply, and our shot went far and fairly straight. On such a deep draw I could have blundered the shot (as I have before), and only the excellent work of my colleagues prevented mishap. I do not enjoy chancing so much on each shot. Yet I saw an opportunity to let one fly, and we still have much ground to cover.

Pure poetry in motion. I say, forget about spam as an artistic medium; Patrick Byrne shows us how corporate communications can truly enlighten the mind and enliven the soul. As well as forecast revenue potential.

What makes all this even more unlikely is that Overstock.com is based in Salt Lake City, the heart of Mormon country, not exactly the most open-minded environment.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

MR. CONTROL-ALT-DELETE
The next time your computer freezes or otherwise conks out on you, and you're cursing Bill Gates to the hottest pits of Hell, take a moment and give thanks to one David Bradley, the late-retired IBM engineer who came up with the familiar Control-Alt-Delete keyboard combo that resuscitates crippled PCs.

I always assumed that Ctrl-Alt-Del actually was a Windows maneuver, not a hardware-based solution. I guess this means it'll work on a machine that's running Linux or any other OS? Good to know. Of course, on a Mac, you've got to think different.

As is usually the case, Bradley found out that people tend to resent you to the degree that they depend on you:

At a 20-year celebration for the IBM PC, Mr. Bradley was on a panel with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and other tech icons. The discussion turned to the keys.

"I may have invented it, but Bill made it famous," Mr. Bradley said.

Mr. Gates didn't laugh.
GROWN-UP HAPPY MEALS
happy happy joy joy
There's nothing like a meal-in-a-box to convey the sense of an active lifestyle. McDonald's will be rolling out its "Go Active! Happy Meal" for adults later this year.

To appeal to the adult pallette, these boxes will contain health-conscious entree salads, bottled water and a pedometer. I suppose the pedometer is what counts as the toy--which is really the main reason I ever clamored for a Happy Meal as a lad.

It's always been my feeling that fast-food joints are better off doing what they do best: Churn out quasi-food that's an acceptable option as quick, convenient fuel. That's what I associate them with, and I'm never going to consider McDonald's or Wendy's or Burger King as an option for healthy or upper-scale food. Diversions into things like breakfast menus and fat-free fare are just an odd fit. But what do I know; I suppose McDonald's is having success with its new menu items, or it wouldn't be expanding them into Happy Meal form.
FEAR FACTOR: OFFICE FRUIT EDITION
Somehow, a spasmodic fit of silliness overtook us here in the Custom Publishing area of Florida Trend this morning, and some of us wound up doing some stunt eating in exchange for very little money.

Naturally, I started it. I noticed that a co-worker, Janell, had a kiwi fruit on her desk. Making small talk, I noted how good kiwis are, and asked her if she ate the skin of the fruit as well. She was pretty grossed out by the idea, and cited the fuzzy/hairy texture of the kiwi's skin as not being edible. I told her that, in fact, the skin is not only edible, but very nutritious, and that a lot of people eat the skin with no problem at all. She wasn't going for it, and I let it drop.

About a half-hour later, I made my way toward Janell's desk again, to check on something I was working on for her. She was talking with my assistant, who had come over for something or other. So I came up behind her and picked up the kiwi, showing it off to my assistant, mainly goofing around. Janell turned around, figured I was still on about eating the skin, and announced, "Okay, I'll give you a dollar if you take a bite out of that thing right now, skin and all."

Without thinking about it, I brought the kiwi up to my mouth and took a big bite out of it. Chewed it up and swallowed it. Mission accomplished! She "ewwwwed", laughed, and pulled out the dollar bill.

She made two mistakes: One, presenting me with a dare, and two, putting some hard currency behind it. Hey, a buck is a buck (although upon reflection, I probably should have held out for more).

The joke was on her, as in fact, I've been eating kiwis with the skin on them for a long while--at least a couple of years. I suppose part of it is laziness; it's just easier than going to the trouble of slicing and peeling them. I think someone informed me about the health benefits of eating the kiwi skin, and I probably tried it, decided it wasn't so bad, and made it a habit (at home, and strictly for my own consumption).

But the fun didn't end there! After that stunt, and actually getting the answer to my work-related question, I made my way back to my desk, with dollar and kiwi in hand. I bragged a bit to my officemate, Jamie, about what just happened. She thought it was a hoot. Then I remembered I had a banana that I had brought in with me, for an afternoon snack. I figured I'd give it to Janell, in compensation for taking her fruit snack. So off I went. On the way over, I made an offhand remark to Jamie about offering to eat the banana, skin and all, for another bit of cash compensation. She liked that idea too.

Janell appreciated the gesture, but didn't want the banana, as it was allegedly too ripe (I thought it was just about perfect; I knew a guy once who wouldn't eat a banana if it literally had only one small brown spot on its skin). So I turned to head back to my desk when Jamie showed up, and said, "Hey, I'll take a bite out of that banana with the skin on!"

I figured she was just kidding, so I played along and offered her five dollars if she would do it. I guess that was my mistake, because it seemed to motivate her to really do it. Janell chimed in and offered another dollar on top of that. Meanwhile, I dropped the banana on the floor (accidentally, I swear), and Jamie noted that that made it even more of a challenge. She thought about it for a second, then agreed. She mustered up her courage, then shut her eyes and took a good-sized chomp out of the unpeeled banana (sideways, from the middle of it). She chewed it, slowly at first and then faster (to get the taste out of her mouth that much quicker, I'm guessing), and swallowed. Impressed, Janell and I coughed up the money, and Jamie made her six bucks just like that. She noted that it wasn't as horrible as she thought it would be, but it was kind of bitter and gritty, and not something she'd want to try again.

It was at that point that someone said we were engaging in some kind of "Fear Factor" contest. It hadn't occurred to me until then, probably because I didn't consider my part of it to be so gross. But I could see how it all could be interpreted that way. Playing off this, someone else said I needed to come up with the next eating challenge, with the hint of ramping up the "Fear Factor"-like disgust quotient. I jokingly suggested that our office mascot, Phil the Betta Fish, had better watch his back...

So what conclusions can we draw from this episode? One is that, obviously, I'm a bad influence. Two, I'll whore myself for a pretty low price. Three, that network reality shows have a corrosive effect on our everyday life (hey, I don't even watch "Fear Factor" or its ilk; must be that evil media influence!).

Whatever. All I know is, I'll have healthy skin, and a whole dollar to spend!

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

RECOGNITION AND GROCERIES
I got a little surprise just now when I made a trip to the grocery store for dinner. I ran into a girl, named Dawn, who used to live a couple of buildings over; we lost touch, and she moved out about two or three years ago. I almost didn't recognize her; we were passing by, made eye contact, smiled a little at each other--she recognized me first--and a second later, it clicked in my head. Turns out she moved to south Tampa, which is a real hipster part of town. She looked great; she always was a little cutie.

The funny thing: After parting ways, I went about my shopping and through the checkout line. The whole rest of the time in the store, I kept doing doubletakes on just about everyone around me, imagining that a flash of recognition would occur to me. I guess I was subconsciously on alert for the same thing to happen with someone else as had happened with Dawn. Rationally speaking, that would have been an unlikely coincidence, but I couldn't help it.
SPAM AS ARTFORM
tour de force
In a development that reminds me of nothing so much as the use of excrement as artistic medium, three 25-year-old artists have developed an exhibit show centered around years of spam email. The show, "Reimagining the Ordovician Gothic: Fossils from the Golden Age of Spam", has managed to find a poetry in mountains of penis enlargement and Nigerian money-laundering pitches, and perhaps, a chronicle for future generations to ponder over when they study the late 20th- and early 21st Centuries:

Subject: (SPAM?) read this-i have a new cream for stretch marks

"a new you / communicating with server / fast shipping / bergen salvar/

unaligned nicht ausgerichtet, krum(Adverb)"...

A wall of testimonials to the effectiveness of spam ("MASS EMAIL WORKS") faces a wall of confused and frustrated recipients, including one from 1982 in which the writer doesn't seem to know what do with this new phenomenon, much less what to call it.

"There was an early age of this stuff, when people were really getting these e-mails for the first time," said Rosenthal. "There's this losing of digital innocence. Once everyone is cynical about this, once there are no more grandmothers who are going to believe all the things that they are getting in their inboxes, what happens then?"

Maybe that's when spam truly becomes history.

A little while back, I engaged in a friendly debate over the value of blogging, especially as the creation of historical record. As trippy as it seems to have some 15-year-old's Livejournal scrawlings live on as historical representation of our times, the thought of junk email--which now consists of some 60 percent of all email being sent--also filling that role is both comical and depressing. "What did you do when you were younger, Grandpa?" "Well, as you can see from the record, I spent lots of time reading about how to lose weight and watch young lesbians do it all."
FRESH PORK
Something I've been meaning to make note of here: A useful database of Federal spending items, sortable by state, category, etc. It covers the most recent spending bill in Congress. Fun stuff.
DRIVES ALIVE!
Disk drives are getting simultaneously bigger and smaller--bigger in terms of the amount of information they can hold, and smaller in physical size. Companies like Cornice are poised to release a slew of miniature drives that can hold 2 gigs of storage. As a result, we will shortly be seeing disc drives proliferate to all sorts of devices that we never considered would need digital storage capacity.

This reminds me a lot of the rapid takeoff of personal computers over the last few years, when 40 gig and up hard drives have become the norm. For much of the '90s, a 1 gig drive was considered huge; now that's peanuts. The ease of getting such huge upgrades in storage capacity and memory to market are a big reason why concepts like the NetPC will never take off (despite the compelling basic idea), and portend what could happen when all sorts of products are equipped with such impressive storage ability. Combined with Bluetooth and other ideas for mesh-networking different devices, this could reach a critical mass and change how we use things like cameras, televisions and even household appliances.
TWISTER BEDSPREAD
roll 'em!
Like Twister? Like sleeping? Now you can combine the two with the Twister Duvet Cover. Dice included, girl is not.

My God, it's like they cracked open my cranium and scooped out some choice nuggets...

Monday, January 26, 2004

HACKING IT AS A GM
growl hack league?
The sporting world is fond of dissing sportswriters, treating them as hacks who write about the games because they can't do anything else relating to them. Half the time, the writers are accused of ignorance, ineptness and general incompetence, and are openly challenged as to how they manage to stay employed in a profession they seemingly know so little about.

To that argument, I counter with the story of Marty Hurney, General Manager of the Super Bowl-bound Carolina Panthers and--the kicker here--a former sportswriter. I guess some of those hacks can, indeed, hack it.

Until those GM offers come rolling in--and should Carolina win it all, why shouldn't other teams emulate Hurney's background?--the rest of the writers can just content themselves with keeping the sports world up in lights.
IN CAMBODIA, THE EMAILMAN
Here's a novel use of wi-fi to extend the Internet into an unlikely corner of the globe: Rural Cambodia. Motorcyclists with wireless chipsets on their bikes run slow routes through remote villages, uploading and downloading daily email deliveries to local computers. As Larry Larsen notes, it's a clever workaround for realizing the "last mile" of Internet connectivity.

I find it extremely interesting, as it almost retro-fits email back to postal mail delivery. Essentially, you have an "emailman" coming around to make his daily rounds, picking up and sending out the day's email messages during a certain time window each day. It's far from the convenience of almost-instant communication we take for granted (imagine trying instant messaging this way!), but it's definitely better than nothing.

Wirless technology in general has opened up so many avenues in the developing world... I recall that mobile phone technology was a boon to much of Africa, allowing countries there to leapfrog over the development of landline-based telecommunications. The "digital pony express" in Cambodia looks like a first step toward a similar development for the Web.
BREAKIN' 3: THE HOLY SEE
jam on it, my son!
This one was just too good to pass up: Pope John Paul II receives a youth group of Polish breakdancers, who thrill him with their bust-a-move breaks. Check out the video, while it's still available.

For years, I've been wondering when they would get around to making the followup to Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo...
AN AFTERNOON OF SICKNESS
Getting sick sure can eat up a big chunk of your time.

As I mentioned a couple of times this past weekend, I've been afflicted with an inner-ear infection. It started bothering me last Thursday, and enough so all day Friday that I considered going to see a doctor. I made it through work that day, and decided to just ride it out through the weekend to see if it didn't clear up on its own (as has been the case the one or two times I've had it before).

Alas, no dice. It doesn't exactly hurt, but it bothered me enough that I didn't go out at all either Saturday or Sunday (somewhat chilly weather also kept me indoors). Also didn't get very sound sleep. I woke up this morning in pretty much the same sorry shape, and decided I'd knock off in the afternoon and get this thing looked at.

So I left the office around 1PM and made my way to a walk-in clinic that's relatively near my place (I tried a couple of doctors on my health plan this morning, but it was fruitless--couldn't get an appointment any sooner than two weeks from now). Went in, filled out the paperwork, then sat down with a copy of Wired magazine and settled in for a long wait.

And wait.

And wait.

I was in the waiting area for something like an hour and 15 minutes! Unreal. I was expecting a long wait, but it was still frustrating. I'm glad I brought some of my own reading material, because it made the time go by quite a bit faster. Not an awful lot to look at otherwise; a television was droning on with some loop from a CNN-branded health channel, and there were about a half-dozen senior citizens waiting around. A couple of cute-ish women came in about half an hour into my wait; I think it was a mother-daughter pair, with the daughter around my age. About an hour into my wait, a tall, gorgeous woman came in who had the nicest ass I've seen in a long while; she was accompanied by some little leprechaun who must have been her boyfriend/husband (go figure). She somehow managed to get in right away...

Anyway, I finally get the call and go in. The nurse takes my temperature and tells me I'm running a bit of a fever, at 100.5. I had no idea, although it would explain why I've been so out of it the past couple of days. All part of the infection, it turns out.

After that, I'm hustled into the examination room, where I'm made to wait some more. Probably waited about 20 minutes before the doctor came in. He poked around for about three minutes, then went off to do some paperwork, then came back with a prescription for a couple of antibiotics--one in pill form, one in eardropper liquid--and sent me on my way.

After that, I grabbed some fast food for a late lunch, then off to the pharmacy to fill the prescriptions. That took another hour, all told. Finally, I get home at 4:30PM.

It's all the downtime that I can't stand. Kind of makes me wish I had just gone to the clinic first thing in the morning, gotten all that taken care of, and then just crawled back into bed and slept it off. I'm glad I got a lot of work done this morning, but still...

As it is, I'm going to see how this medicine does overnight. If I'm still out of it tomorrow, I may just stay home and recuperate, instead of pushing it and letting it drag out for the whole week.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

FASCISM FOR BEGINNERS
Lisa Williams at Learning the Lessons of Nixon educated herself on the definition of fascism earlier tonight. She comes to the conclusion, with help from the Columbia Encyclopedia's entry, that fascism is less a developed ideology than a reactive force and, in her words, a "disease of government".

I left a comment in response, which, upon re-reading, I decided I liked enough to reproduce here:

The other main defining factor in fascism, as a governing ideology, is the primacy of the state within political, social, economic and even cultural spheres. You find this in other ideologies, especially in Marx's dictatorship of the proletariat, but in fascism it's an enshrined end unto itself. That, along with a foundation in irrationalism and rejection of 18th- and 19th-Century Enlightenment ideals, is the true defining characteristic of fascism. Other aspects, like the requirement of a Leader figure and opposition to an alien "other", grow out of this.

I've always found the outward manifestations of fascist governing to be the most fascinating thing--the symbolism and especially the physical monuments. The Autobahn, for instance, was built as a testimonial to the ability of a fascist state to create the biggest and best of anything.

It's not the easiest text to go through, but I found The Goebbels Diaries to be an excellent resource for gaining insight behind fascist thinking.

I've been amused in the past by the offhand use of the term "fascism" toward the most ridiculous things. Most memorable was in college, when some stoner friends would label the security guards that for not allowing them to smoke out in the public lounges...

Not bad. Not the tightest definition--I especially should have mentioned something about how the corporative state concept fits into this--but good enough. Nothing like some good old-fashioned political theory! I miss it so from my college days.

This being a Presidential election year, a lot of extremist rhetoric gets tossed out there in the heat of battle. "Fascism" will be one among many, and one among many to be wildly misused (as evidenced by Lisa's original reason for wondering about its definition). That's politics! As down and dirty as it gets, all political stripes will employ their short memories after Election Day and get back to working together (how's that for cockeyed optimism?).

I originally wanted to entitle this post "Fascism For Dummies", to play off the popular "For Dummies" series of instructional books. I reconsidered, as I didn't want to imply that Lisa was a dummy for her intellectual exercise. It still would have been a good headline, though.
IS TECH INHERENTLY USER-UNFRIENDLY?
Depending on where you trace its beginnings--the radio? the television? the personal computer?--consumer electronics have been around for around half a century. Yet even after all that time, devising devices that are fully-functional and user-friendly continues to be a challenge for the industry.

I wonder if it's not as simple as aging, where once you reach a certain point, you just can't pick up the mental acrobatics it requires to personaly interface with the latest and greatest tech products. We know that, for instance, past a certain age, it's increasingly difficult to pick up a foreign language; maybe it's the same with technological adeptness. As this article notes, we're not talking about morons here: People with advanced degrees in computer science and who run consulting practices for technological usage should be able to handle today's gadgets without much problem. Instead, they have to get their teenaged relatives to figure it out for them.

This issue comes up more and more often. The recent announcement of the NBOR software is a direct result of this widespread discomfort with digital/computerized devices (and, no doubt, NBOR wouldn't have gotten the attention it did if it weren't for that highly-relatable angle to their story). Even two years ago, Sun and Microsoft were making noise about a "recommitment" to user-friendliness.

I have a feeling that the tech industry, and the culture of engineers, programmers and the like that reside within it, have an ingrained opposition to making their products too easy to figure out. A big part of this subculture is defined by being outsiders, disengaged from the average person, partly as a reaction to initial rejection. So they pride themselves on coming up with things that others just wouldn't understand. This is precisely why I think the increasing moves of traditional computer companies into consumer electronics is destined to fail, if it ever really takes off, because the tech industry's culture just can't handle it. Dell and Gateway and the like will waste a lot of resources and effort toward making a television monitor that will require a user to dive through 15 different submenus just to turn the damned thing on.

As tech products become increasingly integral to everyday life, this attitude will have to change; I'm thinking that will only happen with a new sort of tech company, committed to established principles of consumer-oriented industrial design, takes the stage and puts the Microsofts and Dells out of business. I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet.
LET THE JUICING BEGIN
juiced up
So today, I got the opportunity to try out my new Juicit Citrus Juicer. I got it after cashing in my prize points from one of the survey programs in which I participate; it was a toss-up between that and a DVD movie of my choice, and despite being tempted by a couple of titles, I figured I'd go for something I wouldn't normally buy for myself.

I was a little disappointed when I realized that this was strictly a citrus juicer, instead of a general fruit/vegetable food juicer. It wasn't clear from the original product description on the order form; I didn't care too much, but was crossing my fingers that it would be a general juicer. I have a friend who swears by his juicer: He liquifies celery, pears, apples, bananas, etc. several times a week. In fact, he was going to give me a juicer recipe book to get me started; considering I'm limited to just citrus, I don't think I'll be needing that now.

Anyway, the setup was easy enough, and I had about a dozen tree-picked tangerines in my fridge ready to get juiced. It took about five minutes to slice them into halves, push them down onto the motorized reamer, and let extract the juice. The resulting 20 ounces of juice was relatively seed and pulp free. It was a lot less work than I thought it would be, and the cleanup--the part I was really dreading--was pretty easy.

So, I have yet another gadget in the cupboard. I suppose I'll make modest use of it, until the novelty fades. Still, as long as it's not a pain to clean, I'm hoping I don't get tired of it too quickly.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

BILL GATES THROWS DOWN WITH SPAM
If Microsoft head Bill Gates is serious about enacting email protocols that would eradicate spam by 2006, he'll certainly counter some of the ill-will he's built up over his monopolistic business practices.

He conceded, however, that his prognostications have not always been on the mark. Notable misjudgments include the rising popularity of open-source software, epitomized by Linux, and the success of the Google search engine.

As long as they're listing the instances where Gates/Microsoft was behind the curve, they should have mentioned their relatively slow acceptance of the Internet. As late as 1995, Microsoft wasn't convinced that the Web was going to be a big deal; it was only after Netscape's browser and AOL's service hit success in that year that Gates committed significant resources toward online.

As for the ideas on countering spam, I'm not sure about the basic approach: Restricting email communication only to those addresses already in a person's address book. Does that mean you can't just give someone you meet your email address without first adding them to your address book ahead of time? What if a mutual friend/colleague gives your address to someone else? What about information requests, or just public inquiries? Not to mention that viruses get spread by using address book information, so any such email "protection" system that makes messages sent by recognized senders appear "trustworthy" would cause the average person to drop their guard against malicious attachments (typical of Microsoft to think of these things in compartmentalized fashion: "We solved spam, but how could we know it would have increased virus spread tenfold?").
BUSH=BASEBALL, KERRY=HOCKEY
reps dems
Do you want a President that can lace 'em up and dish it out? Then your man is Democratic hopeful John Kerry, who played in a celebrity hockey game today with, among others, Boston Bruins alumni.

Finally, a candidate is framing his campaign in a sports context! And a real, non-mechanized sport, too; none of this NASCAR dads crap. That's all I needed, now I know where my vote's going! After all, I'm a big hockey fan, Kerry's a big hockey fan--makes sense, right? Even if he is a fan of the damned Bruins (could be worse, he could have been a Canadiens fan).

Not that it's a sure thing, but assuming Kerry does take the Democratic nomination, we'll have a choice between two candidates who have pretty high-falutin' sports backgrounds. We all know that George W. Bush is a former owner of baseball's Texas Rangers, of course, and that background has been noted during his recent call for steroid banning.

Could the 2004 Presidential election transform into a referendum between the all-American pasttime versus the icey game with a shady Canadian pedigree? Will Bush and Kerry consume debate time arguing over whether the designated hitter or touch-up icing is the dumber rule? Will the upcoming movie Miracle, about the 1980 U.S. hockey team's gold-medal march through the Olympics, be construed as pro-Kerry propaganda?

Eh, probably not. I suppose there are more important issues in the political arena. Take it from me, a poli-sci major. But it'd sure be fun.
GIGANTIC MUTANT PAPAYAS
juicy fruit
I went grocery shopping earlier today. I came across these huge papayas--they were about 3-5 pounds each and twice the size of the ones I've always seen before. A little sticker on them said they were "red lady" variety, from Peru. I like getting papaya every once in a while, so I picked up one of these monsters.

A Web search yielded very little useful information; my patience wasn't the longest either. I did find this little bit:

MARADOL and RED LADY papayas, the red meat variety, available year-round with peak supplies April through July, are much sweeter and larger than the yellow meat papayas. High in vitamin C, vitamin A (78% beta carotene), low calories, good source for potassium, iron and dietary fiber, the papaya is not only a delicious and distinctively flavored fruit, but beneficial as well. Like the mango, it lends itself to a variety of dishes from fresh, ripe slices dredged in lime for breakfast, delicious when combined with other tropical fruits in a fruit salad, with yogurt, in a vegetable dish, dessert or tropical drink.

Think I'll try this bad boy with lime for breakfast. I'll have to let it ripen for a few days first; it's spotty green right now.
MAKE THE HOMEYS SAY HO AND THE GIRLIES WANNA SCREAM
numba one in the hood, g
It's arrived! My much-anticipated order from Amazon for the two-disc DVD set of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force": Volume One. Just the thing to cheer me today, when an inner-ear infection is doing its best to lay me low for the weekend. I've just watched the first disc, including all the episodes and extras; laughed my ass off heartily. Looking forward to the second disc this evening; if I can't go out, I might as well enjoy the stylings of Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad (not to mention the Mooninites).

"Aqua Teen Hunger Force" is my favorite portion of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. The absurd combination of sentient fast-food items, rap music, and pop culture jokes just hits the mark every time! Plus, I think this show really benefits from the short-attention-span-inspired 15-minute running time per episode; any longer than that, and I think the frenetic energy in each story would get lost.

Does my appreciation of ATHF seem overly juvenile? It is the type of show that's so stupid-funny, you either really love it or really hate it. If it makes you feel better, I did balance out my purchase of the DVD with two books:

- "Tartuffe" by Moliere

- "Six Characters in Search of an Author" by Luigi Pirandello

True, a motivation for throwing in the books was to get the total dollar amount of the order up to the $25 free-shipping threshold (because I have an irrational thing about paying for shipping). But I was intrigued by both, and am looking forward to absorbing them.

Friday, January 23, 2004

ORISINAL: EYE CANDY
It's Friday, I'm tired, I think I'm a little sick with something. I'd like to blog more stuff tonight, but it's not looking likely.

So, I'll leave off for the day with this collection of cute eye candy called Orisinal. Play on.
INTERGALACTIC, PLANETARY INTERNET
Are you all jacked up over the President's mandate to reach the Moon and Mars, but not sure you can live without your Web hookup? It may not be an either-or proposition, if the Interplanetary Internet works as planned.
I'M PSYCHIC WHEN IT COMES TO WHITE-BOY RAP
informer
I had my iPod jamming on the way home from work this evening. Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" came up on the random play; I made the momentous decision to let it ride rather than fast-forward to another song.

As the song was winding down, I thought to myself, "Gee," (actually, I never consciously think the word "gee"; it just seems to be appropriate here, and so I invoke artisitic license to use it) "Gee, if Snow's "Informer" were to cue up next on the random play, that would be the perfect followup". I didn't manually dive through the iPod's menus to ensure that "Informer" would be the next song to come up, because I was driving and figured it wasn't worth the risk of a crash to listen to a one-hit white-boy rapping wonder from Canada. So I just let Vanilla Ice end and waited to be surprised by the next selection.

To my amazement, a few seconds after "Ice Ice Baby" ended, "Informer" started up! Totally random!

All bow before my awesome mental energies. A licky boom-boom down.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

OR MAYBE THE WHOLE WORLD IS GAY!
Take it from someone who knows about opinion polls: Amateurs should never undertake them. The American Family Association found that out the hard--and, for the rest of us, funny--way, as they had to cancel their plans to present results of their online poll on same-sex marriage after the responses skewed heavily toward acceptance of such unions, to the consternation of the Association:

"We're very concerned that the traditional state of marriage is under threat in our country by homosexual activists," said AFA representative Buddy Smith. "It just so happens that homosexual activist groups around the country got a hold of the poll -- it was forwarded to them -- and they decided to have a little fun, and turn their organizations around the country (onto) the poll to try to cause it to represent something other than what we wanted it to. And so far, they succeeded with that."

Note the quote: "...to cause it to represent something other than what we wanted it to". News flash, chief: You don't conduct a poll with preconceived notions about what the outcome will be; you run a poll to discover what a population thinks about an issue or set of issues. Obviously, they weren't interested in finding out anything--rather, they just wanted to throw some numbers together that would validate their agenda. It's the wrong way to approach a survey like this.

Now, Smith says, his organization has had to abandon its goal of taking the poll to Capitol Hill.

"We made the decision early on not to do that," Smith admitted, "because of how, as I say, the homosexual activists around the country have done their number on it."

So what happened?

Against the wishes of the AFA and its members, the poll leaked to the outside. And soon, people like Gabe Anderson began posting it to blogs, social-networking sites such as Friendster and sundry e-mail lists. When Anderson posted it to his blog on Dec. 18, 2003, the anti-gay-marriage position was leading, with 51.45 percent of respondents opposing gay marriage or civil unions.

It goes without saying that you don't open up a poll to the whole online world and expect it to remain a secret shared only by a select few. Especially with this subject matter, the opportunity for abuse is obvious, and is going to be exploited by people with strong opinions on both sides of the debate. You have to employ actual sampling techniques and have a controlled polling environment--usually meaning direct feedback from participants via personal, telephone and email interviews. A free-for-all via the Web isn't going to stand up to scrutiny.

The truly funny thing about this is that, at root, the AFA is correct about the results of its flawed survey being way off. For months, national and regional polls have shown that most people are opposed to legitimizing homosexual marriage, although not by a huge margin, and always with some qualification regarding the details. In fact, one of the most recent such surveys, from ABC News and the Washington Post, reinforce this: 55 percent of Americans believe such unions should be illegal, but don't feel that warrants something as drastic as a Constitutional amendment.

So there was no need for the AFA to even embark upon their own survey, and thus wasting their time and resources (although judging from the way this was carried out, I doubt they devoted much of either toward this) ; they would be better off just citing all the existing evidence to back up their case. In the event that they feel 55 percent assent somehow isn't convincing enough, they could always do a polling among just their own membership; that should get them something like 90 percent, minimum.

(Via MemeMachineGo!)
A DOSE OF PERSPECTIVE
In light of this lady's health problems, my whiney little rant about heartburn seems awfully inconsequential.

I am thirty years old, and this seems absurd to me. Degenerative bone diseases are for the elderly, or for women who have neglected their calcium intake all of their lives. I don't fit either category, not really, with the exception of a phase in my teens where I fought against the development of curves by living on one extremely small meal a day. I have stronger muscles than just about any woman I know, except for the serious athletes. Muscle strength is supposed to be good for bones, but not for me. For me, the muscles are like rubber cement, and they are forcing the bones into a bad position. I don't seem to be accepting this with the philosophical attitude I should. It's hard to accept that I can have permanent, unfixable problems this early in life. It makes me terrified of the future, of the progression of my aging process. If it's like this at thirty, what on earth will it be like at fifty? Seventy? Do I want to stick around to find out?...

This isn't old. It's just a first step.
TELEVISION WILL EAT ITSELF
And it will gorge itself on such pablum as reality programs, pop culture nostalgia fests and home improvement shows. That's the current pattern being set by the proliferation of "TV crack" programming, which celebrates television about (older) television.

There is some peril in all this stripmining of the past:

But Syracuse's Robert Thompson sees some ecological troubles ahead for the VH1s of the world. "We are clear-cutting the pop cultural past a lot faster than we are reforesting it," he warns. "Now we're getting to the point where some of the most distinctive and memorable culture is repackaged culture."

That means television will soon have nothing left to celebrate but shows like "I Love the '80s," and future generations will fondly recall not icons like Ralph Malph, but rather Michael Black making fun of the long-running TV series "Happy Days."

The consensus culture is fading: With mediocre shows like "Yes Dear" permeating the top 10 list nowadays, there may soon be little of value left to mock -- or in Trio's case, study.

This news dovetails nicely with my own personal disenchantment with these kinds of shows. A few months ago, I was mesmerized for practically a whole day by VH1's "I Love the 70s". I must have overdosed on it or something, because now, I can't stand watching more than a minute or two of the 80s followup version. I'm not sure why; normally, I'd scarf up all that kitsch. There is a certain amount of sameness in all the dumbass talking heads giving their inane takes on twenty-year-old fads and phenomenons; I guess these B- and C-list celebrities are a bit much to take all at once.

Then again, maybe there's something more uniquely appealing about 70s nostalgia, compared to 80s nostalgia, for me:

I think for me, and others who were born during the 70s, it's due to a sense of having missed out on all the fun. I mean, I was there during that groovy era, having been born in 1971. But really, I wasn't. Not really. I was a little kid, and it took pretty much the entire decade to achieve some sort of general awareness of life. Thus, when I starting coming of age in the 80s and 90s, I came to a slow realization that a whole bunch of great stuff flew way over my head back in the day. It really makes that time seem magical. (I suppose if I were born ten years earlier, I would have felt that way about the 60s; or not.)
GLOBAL WARMING COOLING
What will the greenhouse effect do to life on Earth? One scenario proposes the advent of a tropical England; a more recent study suggests a drastic cooling-down of Europe and North America due to the disruption of the Gulf Stream, part of a surprising side effect from increased temperatures in the Atlantic.

In light of this, it looks like President Bush's moonbase plans are getting launched just in time. Rather than stick around here and freeze my ass off, I'll be heading to a retirement home on Luna. What do you expect? I already live in Florida, I can't go here to retire... It'll either be the moon or Arizona, and if I have to go to a barren wasteland, I might as well get the added benefit of lower gravity.
MR. BILL, SWAMP PROTECTOR
oh noooooooooo!
Is there an odder match than Mr. Bill and swampland preservation efforts in Louisiana? Call me crazy, but I'm not detecting a natural fit here.

I can't believe good ol' Mr. Bill is that recognizable these days; after all, the Saturday Night Live shorts ran their course over 20 years ago. He was always a fairly minor, although funny, phenomenon.
DUCK!
Dodgeball (don't even think about referring to the game by that Midwestern claptrap name "Bombardment") has been experiencing a resurgence among adults (even as it's been discouraged among schoolkids) for the past couple of years. But now that the game has caught on among Hollywood types, it's truly earned some legitimacy. For shizzle.

No better way to confer that legitmacy than by making a movie out of it. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, starring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, will slammin' to a theater near you this summer. Let's hope it does better than the unfortunate BASEketball...
THE YEAR OF THE MONKEY
new year's party in the forbidden zone!
Happy Chinese New Year, y'all! Have another dumpling, for me.

Does it stand to reason that, this being the Year of the Monkey, we'll all be living 2004 on that terrible Planet of the Apes? And be forced to sit through countless encores of Dr. Zaius' Vegas-like stage show (adjust volume accordingly)?

(In case you couldn't tell, I really like Planet of the Apes-style humor.)

I tried to convince my lunch partner to go to a Chinese restaurant today, but that didn't fly. I do think I'll get some Chinese carryout for dinner tonight, though. My co-worker Jamie tells me that, years ago, she took a group to a Chinese restaurant one night, unaware that it was Chinese New Year. The festive atmosphere took them by surprise. The most memorable part: They all received gifts of one dollar bills, tucked into decorative envelopes! That's the kind of restaurant I want to patronize...

ADDENDUM: Well, what do you know: The original Planet of the Apes was released in 1968. 1968 was also the Year of the Monkey. Coincidence? How would I know, I was born in the Year of the Boar...
YOU DON'T SNOOZE, YOU LOSE (CREATIVITY)
We sleep, perchance to dream. Perchance to create, too, as reseachers at the University of Luebeck have solid evidence that a well-rested brain is far more creatively-potent than a sleep-deprived one.

Take note that I'm writing this at a quarter 'til 2AM. I'm waking up tomorrow (today, really) at a quarter 'til 7AM. That leaves sleepy time of only... ah, you figure it out, I'm too tired.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

INSURING HOCKEY
full coverage
Pro sports is a rough business. You sacrifice your body on just about every play, and hope that the dings and scratches don't suddenly conspire to put you out of commission. Yet you know they eventually will, and the real challenge becomes staying in the game for as many years as possible, and end up with satisfying career when it's all over.

In the meantime, for those instances when injury puts a player on the shelf, insurance money comes in to take care of both the employer (the team) and the employee (the player). Despite the critical role insurance coverage plays in sports like hockey, and the increasing complexity involved in securing it, it's a little-heard-of factor.

Even a lot of non-injury situations, that a lot of fans presume are paid by the team, actually are taken care of through insurance:

In what has become a high-risk poker game, teams have to decide if they'll insure rookie contracts and their lucrative bonuses. This practise, according to hockey insiders, was pioneered by former San Jose Sharks general manager Dean Lombardi, who insured two of the years on Brad Stuart's and Patrick Marleau's contracts.

Lombardi's move saved the Sharks millions of dollars when Stuart and Marleau both achieved $2.4-million-US bonuses.

At that time, policies were relatively affordable. But William F. Sutton doesn't offer insurance on rookie bonuses anymore and the companies that do charge an exorbitant fee.

The Columbus Blue Jackets paid $700,000 to insure Rick Nash's rookie contract this year.

Nash has scored 27 goals after 45 games, which makes him a virtual lock to collect $3 million in bonuses and the Blue Jackets' investment worthwhile.

People really need to keep things like this in mind when they ooh and ah over team payrolls. The fact is that no matter what the base reported contract numbers are, thanks to insurance packages, roster moves, demotions, etc., a team is never actually paying that entire amount.

Against this backdrop, insurance companies, teams and players have difficult decisions to make and agreements between the three entities are sometimes more complicated than contract negotiations between players and teams.

As Sutton mentioned, more companies were writing policies five years ago and rates were considerably more affordable.

That's changed -- the 9/11 tragedy had a huge effect on the insurance business -- and now some older players who have done well in the game are declining insurance altogether because of its cost.

For that reason alone, some agents feel there won't be a mass exodus of NHL players to Europe in the event of a work stoppage next season.

"Rates are so much higher," says player agent Pat Morris. "It's really a difficult decision for some players to buy insurance."

This is very illustrative of the impact the financial/insurance angle of the sport has on what happens on the ice. The general assumption has been that players would find alternative playing options in the event of a lockout; obviously, this assumption was reached without all the facts.

Beyond hockey, this article brought to my mind the situation with now-retired NBA player Alonzo Mourning, whose contract is being paid in full by the New Jersey Nets because his existing health condition made him uninsurable.
TRANNY WIRE FUN: GETTING RID OF EUROPE
Last week, I was sorely tempted to post a little funny something on this Canadian Football League transaction:

Winnipeg Blue Bombers (CFL) - Released safety Tom Europe; signed defensive end Tom Canada.

I passed on the opportunity, and kind of regretted doing so. I think I was striving to play off on both their names being Tom, as well as their geographical surnames, but couldn't quite pull it off.

Then today, I read the San Francisco Chronicle's Tom Fitzgerald's take on the move, and figured he nailed it much better than I ever could have:

On the same day last week, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League signed defensive lineman Tom Canada, the former Cal Bear, and cut safety Tom Europe. Team spokesman Shawn Coates told the Winnipeg Free Press: "We promised we'd trim our roster. So we cut a continent and signed a country."
HOLY MOSES/JESUS CHRIST!
fishy
I saw the above on the back of a car today. Obviously it's one of the many variations on the Jesus fish, but I've never seen this combination before: Christian symbol for the Messiah combined with the Jewish Star of David.

My best guess, assuming it's not some kind of irreverent joke: The driver was either a Jews for Jesus member, or else in a mixed Jewish-Christian relationship/family/household.
ROOM-ROOM-ROOMBA!
domo arrigato
Ah, the Internet; that technological marvel that's so good at separating you from your money. Such was the case with me, earlier today, when Amazon gave me an offer on a Roomba robotic floor vacuum that I just couldn't refuse. As a result, I'll be receiving the shiny new toy--er, household appliance, I mean--in about a week.

I've actually been eyeing one of these babies for a while. I hate housecleaning in general, vacuuming included, and anything that will do the work for me is most welcome. The Roomba seems ideal, especially for a relatively small area like my two-bedroom apartment. And the gee-whiz factor is hard to resist. The drawback was price: When Roombas were first introduced, they were going for around $300, which is just too damn much. Even the current average of $200 is a bit steep. But with the discount and free shipping from Amazon, it didn't take me long to convince myself. I'm crossing my fingers that I won't have any major problems with it.

I onlly wish I owned a cat or ferret or something like that. I bet the Roomba would absolutely freak out a small domestic pet! Maybe I can take it to a friend's house for that...
BONE PHONE?
be healed!
Ever wanted to transmit sound waves through your skull bones? Say hello to the new bone phone, from Japan:

The new phone is equipped with a "Sonic Speaker" which transmits sounds through vibrations that move from the skull to the cochlea in the inner ear, instead of relying on the usual method of sound hitting the outer eardrum.

With the new handset, the key to better hearing in a noisy situation is to plug your ears to prevent outside noise from drowning out bone-conducted sounds.

Question: If you're holding the phone up against your head with one hand, how are you supposed to plug up both ears? Do you need to wear earphones to use this fool thing? Or have a friend at hand to stick fingers into your ears?

I can't wait to see one of these hit the streets of St. Petersburg/Tampa. Imagine seeing someone walking along, with his/her phone pressed against forehead, chatting away... First instinct would be that they're deranged.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

ALMA MATER LICENSE PLATE
EC
Florida loves its specialty license plates. The Sunshine State currently has 88 varieties, although that changes as new ones are introduced and unpopular ones get dropped. On tap for this year: Adding a John Lennon "Imagine" plate and discontinuing the Girl Scouts and Arena Football's Tampa Bay Storm.

In addition to the normal roster, a bunch of Florida's smaller colleges jumped on the specialty plate bandwagon late in 2003. As a result, there's not a lot of them on the road.

The plate above commemorates my alma mater, Eckerd College. Kind of a lame design, with the sailboat; why not the Fightin' Tritons?

But that doesn't bother me as much as the grand total of plates that have been issued: Seven. Seven! That's oh-seven. That's so embarrassing. But not quite as embarrassing as having to discover the very existence of this plate in the newspaper, instead of through my alumni association. The same alumni association that manages to send me a dozen bleating pleas for contributions every year, yet apparently isn't on the ball enough to let me know about the one gimmick that I might actually kick some money toward. Can there possibly be a more inept organization?

My friend Tom used to be quite active in the alumni association, mainly in the years right after graduation. He eventually gave up on them, pretty much precisely for things like this. They spend all their time writing the same generic contribution letters that get no response instead of coming up with a solid marketing pitch that might actually generate some donations. In light of this episode, I finally understand.
MY FIRST TUMS
tum-tah-TUM-tum
Thanks to a persistent two-day bout of heartburn, today I finally broke down and bought a roll of Tums tablets, and downed a few for the first time in my 32 years of living. Thus do I cross the Rubicon into crustilicious geezerhood.

Yes, I realize you don't have to be particularly old to get heartburn and have need of appropriate remedy. But in my mind, I've always considered things like antacids to be something for older people--older than me, anyway. The image of a middle-aged schlub with a daily habit of pill-popping a half-dozen medications is a strong disincentive for me; I'd rather just grin and bear it. Fact is, I don't get things like heartburn very often, and until pretty recently, I wasn't even aware that that was what I had--I figured it was just some nonspecific nausea.

But this latest discomfort finally pushed me over the edge. So now, I'm an antacid-chewing putz. I might as well stop by the store on the way home and stock up on Pepto-Bismol and Metamucil, too. And some Levitra, while I'm at it.

Monday, January 19, 2004

MLK DAY 2004
dream
Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 75 years old today. Fortunately, his words live on.

Along with the celebrations and protests held to mark the holiday held in his memory came a compelling proposal to commemorate Dr. King's legacy: Putting his picture on the 20-dollar bill. This campaign has actually been around for a while now; it's a nice idea, but it's a sure bet that it'll never happen.
A NEW KIND OF CAR CRASH
A couple of months back, I considered some of the potentially humorous situations arising from computer software operating under a car's hood:

Great, just great. I can't wait to have my car's OS crash and demand that I restart the ignition while I'm cruising down the highway at 50 miles an hour. Maybe an MS-powered car will be incompatible with some roads, preventing me from driving to certain locations.

I may get to see just how funny that is too soon, as software is already making a big difference in our driving experience.
NBOR: IMPRESSIONS AND INTENTIONS
I finally got around to trying out the NBOR software demo player, a couple of weeks after first hearing about NBOR. I spent about 45 minutes on it, with a couple of breaks.

My conclusion: Pretty much garbage. Which, I admit, confirms my original impressions from their horrendous-looking site.

I'm bearing in mind that this demo player is not the full package, and so is missing what might be some crucial elements from the completed version. I also realize that less than an hour of fiddling around may not be enough time to get a true feel for this interface, especially since I'm coming in with some 20 years of conditioning on Mac/Windows GUI environments.

But even with those caveats, I'm having a hard time seeing how the NBOR Blackspace is any kind of improvement over what already exists. In fact, the mechanics of this thing seem hopelessly clunky, reminiscent of nothing so much as Microsoft's old Paint program. There's way too much emphasis on continually needing to click on various function buttons like "RDraw" and "Text" to switch your cursor's functions; it gets old really quick. I found myself having to use the Undo and Delete functions a lot.

I really don't care for a program that likes to complete your thoughts for you. A quick scrawl drawing I dashed off resulted in the creation of a star-shaped drawing. That was nice, except I had no intention of drawing a star. Experimenting further with this, I attempted to draw a rectangle, in the same freehand style; it came out as a triangle. A second try at a rectangle did produce the desired shape, but I really don't think I should have to try twice when (again) this program is purportedly so intuitive. Further attempts at drawing more advanced objects like trapezoids resulted in upside-down triangles and the like.

One of the complaints about Windows and Mac environments cited on NBOR's website is the need to access pull-down menus to carry out tasks. Ironically, it appears to me that you have just as many menus you have to dive through to do anything in the Blackspace.

I'll also note that the player crashed three or four times while I was using it. That's not a big deal, considering this is a beta sample, but it's worth mentioning as I wasn't doing anything that I would consider taxing on the system.

The biggest beef I have with this program is the lack of any real intuitiveness, which is puzzling considering how much the marketing copy touts this as being more intuitive than existing interfaces. It's simply not there. I'm sure it's intuitive for the program's creator, who's a musician by trade; this is obvious by the presence of shorthand mousestrokes that quickly create fader switches and object-manipulation circular knobs. But if he believes the average person "naturally" thinks in these same terms, he's sadly mistaken. If the best hope for this software is that middle-aged GUI-phobic musicians are going to flock to it, then it's going to be a rough ride for the company.

I consider myself to be pretty adept with computer and electronic interfaces in general; my earliest encounters with Windows, Mac, DOS and other environments had me doing the most basic funtions within 15 minutes. Even the first time I turned on an iPod was a breeze; I was able to figure out basically all the devices functions through its text-menu driven interface. That's a great example of intuitive design, as is an ATM machine, or a DVR, or a microwave oven, even. NBOR is not.

The reaction I've seen from other quarters is generally not very positive; I get the feeling most think this is a pretty little piece of hype that'll amount to absolutely nothing. Most interesting was one reaction to a review of NBOR on OSNews. The comments from a user identified as Sodium Chloride, while speculative, present a pretty compelling argument for NBOR being nothing but a shell company, designed to be a launching point for dubious lawsuits against other software developers. Considering the fragile nature of comment archives, I'll reproduce the post here; it's worth saving for possible future reference:

NBORâ„¢ has been in secret development for nearly ten years - four years in conceptualization, three years in specification design and three years being written to code.

(the app does look like it was designed 10 years ago on a VIC-20, so this may be true)

It was invented by Denny Jaeger, a pioneer in computer applications for the audio industry. Frustrated by what existing software couldn't do, he was driven to find a way to make computers work the way people think they should.

(this is a funny one. most people have no idea how a computer 'should' work, more that it 'shouldn't work' the way it does!)

Beginning in 1993, Jaeger began designing what would become NBOR's unprecedented structure and carried the project for the first five years - during which he acquired his first patents on the technology, aided by Harris Zimmerman, a leading intellectual rights attorney and now a member of NBOR's Board of Directors.

(it is clear from the outset, NBOR is an IP company by what NBOR focused on first... certainly before they'd gotten any code to actually run according to the timetable above)

In 1996, the Intertactile Corporation (which was later renamed NBOR Corporation) was founded by Jaeger. He was joined two years later by John Doyle, a former Executive Vice President at Hewlett-Packard and head of HP Labs and now NBOR's Chairman of the Board. In 2002, Donn Tognazzini, a financial services industry expert with over four decades in the brokerage and investment management industries, joined NBOR's board.

(again, sounds like the perfect guy to hire for an IP shop that will make a living filing lawsuits...)

Both Mr. Doyle and Mr. Tognazzini are investors in NBOR Corporation, and they were instrumental in raising additional capital from a small group of very forward-thinking private investors.

(the absence of any well-known investment firm tells us that NBOR never had anything compelling to a venture capitalist who almost always wants to make a real company, not an IP lawsuit shell)

Critical to the software's development, Jaeger personally wrote all of the thousands of pages of application specifications that became the foundation of the working code produced by NBOR's hand-picked, international team of dedicated programmers, which he personally directs.

(the application is, in my opinion, total crap. the UI simply doesn't work, sometimes on extremely basic operations. either the specs were crap or the coders were crap... or both. i wonder if the coders were picked for IP purposes... one coder per country that NBOR is filing patents in)

It would not be an exaggeration to say Jaeger and his team broke the prevailing rules of how code has been written for the last 25 years.

(yes, the code's runtime behavior is worse than most code I've seen in the past 25 years. the 'player' hardly even could run without crashing. this paragraph probably means 'we incorporated more lines of patent claims per line of code than ever before!')

Significant of NBOR's revolutionary capabilities, over 1500 claims in 60 patents have been either issued or are currently pending with the U.S. Patent Office, plus a large number of pending foreign patents.

(and the claims to all these patents in the US and other countries pretty much puts the final nail in the coffin. NBOR is an IP company, pure and simple. they are only shipping this lame demoware so that they can say other people copied some part of it and then NBOR can sue them. it is beating an obviously dead horse to say that the number of patent claims is ridiculous for a broken drawing app that doesn't even run without crashing.)

It looks like NBOR is a small company that is designed as a lawsuit machine. It will be interesting to see how this one turns out. Perhaps Darl McBride will end up here after he is done with SCO.