27 January 2005

Education Secretary vs. Buster

    The price of the democratic way of life is a growing appreciation of people's differences, not merely as tolerable, but as the essence of a rich and rewarding human experience.
      -Jerome Nathanson
For her first act as the new Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings chose to condem PBS and the WGBH produced childrens show "Postcards from Buster."

As I have two children, I am familiar with the show, a spin-off from Marc Brown's "Arthur." Buster is Arthur's best friend who sometimes travels with his father, an airline pilot. "Postcards from Buster" has Buster traveling around the world learning about people and places. One episode I remember had him in the Seattle fish market where they throw the fish around. It's a good show.

The new season features an episode entitled "Sugartime!" Here is the synopsis:
    Determined to avoid last year's Mother's Day fiasco, Buster sets out to find Bitzi the perfect gifts. Buster finds them with help from Emma and Lily: cheese from a dairy and maple candy from a sugar shack. Before leaving town, Buster says goodbye to winter and hello to spring with the girls' families at their annual Christmas tree bonfire.
So, why is Spellings up in arms? The family Buster visits has two moms. At one point, you see one mom saying "Hi," to the other, who is making out the grocery list. Later we see them having a meal together with some friends.

Here is the story about Spellings' letter to PBS. The letter is pretty chilling, and wraps up with this:
    You can be assured that in the future the department will be more clear as to its expectations for any future programming that it funds.
Now it is worth noting "Postcards From Buster" has featured all kinds of families. It has shown children living with their grandparents and children who are Muslim, Mormon, and evangelical Christian. Nonetheless, PBS will not be distributing this episode to its stations, and WGBH has postponed airing of the episode.

I have written the following to my PBS station, WHYY:
    To whom it may concern,

    I am a member of WHYY and have been for many years now. My family enjoys and is enriched by the programs you air. These programs have helped my two children learn about math, science, reading, and history. They have also learned about the diverse cultures in our nation and our world. This is why I am writing this letter.

    As a member of WHYY, I am asking you to air the "Sugartime" episode of "Postcards from Buster." I understand there is controversy surrounding this episode. However, PBS programming has always helped inform children, dealing openly such issues as single parenthood, divorce, the death of a loved one, and AIDS. I firmly believe we would do a disservice to our children to pretend this lifestyle does not exists.

    I hope you can give this issue the serious consideration it deserves.

    Yours truly,
    Andrew [...]
I hope you'll consider sending something similar to your PBS station.

26 January 2005

The 'Ole Ninety-sixer

    Roman Craig:But there's nothing left but fat and grizzle.
    Grill Chef:Mmmm hmmm.
      -The Great Outdoors

The Great Outdoors is by no means a good movie. But I remember that scene from movie's stint on cable overkill.

I was immediately reminded of it when I read about Denny's Beer Barrel Pub in PA and their Ye Olde 96er, a 96 oz. burger. In addition to its 6 lbs. of meat, it comes with 2 tomatoes, a half-head of lettuce, 12 slices of American cheese, a cup of peppers, 2 onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard.

I learned of the 96er from this page at Snopes. Recently I saw the link back in Snopes' "What's New" section with an update. A 100 lb. 19-year-old woman from Princeton became to first person to eat an entire 96er in just under three hours, which meant the meal was free. She also got a certificate and prizes.

The triple-bypass was not included.

25 January 2005

My new favorite album

    This is one of the best rock albums and the biggest surprise of the year—a punk-rock opera and one of the only mainstream offerings to really address the emotional, moral and political confusion of our times.
      -Lorraine Ali

Okay, I know I'm late on this one. Jeri was blogging about it last September. Judging by this, Rob was probably there too. So I'm the Andrew-come-lately.

Fine. I'm still gonna say it: Green Day's American Idiot is all that and a can of whup-ass!

It was a stocking stuffer from Sharon. I knew it was supposed to be excellent, but hadn't gotten a chance to give it a listen. Last week I was driving an hour to Paramus every day. On Inaguration Day (aka Black Thursday), I wanted something to listen to that wasn't news coverage. I saw American Idiot and thought, what could be more perfect? I have not stopped listenning to it since.

Communications breakdown

    Vogon poetry is, of course, the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem "Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in my Armpit One Midsummer Morning", four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off.
      -The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
      by Douglas Adams
Well, yesterday my leg was starting to look like a viable alternative to the meeting I was in. It was the 2005 kick-off event for my group at the office.

Now when the sales team has their annual kick-off (and, BTW, the mid-year update), they go to a big bash in Atlantic City. The engineers get an all-day meeting in the office. The sales team gets a free hotel stays and open bars. We got the sub platter. To be fair, dinner was at a local Italian place that was good, but spouses weren't invited like (you guessed it) the sales team.

Last year they did have Laser Tag, which is cool and fun. But even that was gone. What we got this year was a seminar about how we can be better communicators. I knew it was going to be bad when presenter began by telling us how her material was designed to help address issues she perceived based on our MBTI scores.

I don't know where everyone stands on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. A standardized test that groups people into one of sixteen personality categories is an interesting exercise that makes you think about how you perceive things. It is not a scientific method for determining how someone will act nor what they are capable of. My favorite MBTI site is this one from the Skeptic's Dictionary.

And the information presented was so lame! I mean, I don't need to small group exercises to learn that I shouldn't tell the customer that the system isn't working because they screwed it up. What's that you say? "Ask the customer open ended questions so they'll be encouraged to give more information?" Wow! You've changed my life!

Everyone in that room had at least eight years of experience working with customers, most had more than ten. Our marketing materials are rife with quotes from the happy customers these people have worked with. They're the best people here (all the others have been laid off). Did they really need this seminar?

Just give me the ice pick for my forehead!

21 January 2005


    The difference between democracy and tyranny is not that in a democracy bad things don’t happen, but that in a democracy when they do happen people are held and brought to account.
      -Tony Blair
      House of Commons, 19 January 2005

    First rule of leadership: everything is your fault.
      A Bug's Life

Bush believes that his reelection means that no one should be held accountable for the lack of WMD, the torture, the balooning costs, and the dead. You can tell him you disagree. I don't think for a moment that Bush cares what you or I have to say on the matter, but I still think it is important to tell him.

20 January 2005

Thoughts for Inaguration Day

    Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man! This is what the LORD , the God of Israel, says: 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master's house to you, and your master's wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'"
      2 Samuel 12:7-10

I'm with Jeri on this one. There will be a reckoning for the policies and actions of this administration, and it will be all the worse thanks to another four years. Given the seeds we've sown, I shudder to think of what we can expect to reap.

18 January 2005

In my day....

    Grampa: You know, when I was your age, I had to walk twenty miles just to get to school. And back then, we didn't have pacifiers. We had to suck on pieces of wood. And in my day, we didn't have TV sets. We used to sit on our grandpa's lap all evening and listen politely to his entertaining stories.
    Bart: Was your grandpa a liar too?
    Grampa: No, but his lap was awful slippery!
      -The Simpsons
Okay, so I am in training all week. It's for a product that I find incredibly boring and have absolutely no interest in, but I digress.

I observed something today that made me think. When you put several computer professionals together in the same room, there will invariably be a conversation about what computers used to be like. Today was no exception. One of the slides in the course material had, as an example, printer software. This led to a discussion of printers: then and now.

"...depending on what printer you have. Laser, inkjet, dot-matrix... Remember them? How about daisy-wheels? Who here remembers the IBM daisy-wheel printers? They were loud. Not as loud as band printers. Do you remember them? You had to spend thousands of dollars on an acoustic case so you could hear yourself."

And so on. We have these same discussions at work every so often. It's a way of demonstrating the level of seasoned veteran you are. Of course, some guy will always talk about his first programming class where he had to use punch cards. The conversation is pretty much over after that. Either that or programming with paper tape. Punch cards and paper tape trump everything. Every now and then someone goes for setting registers with toggle switches, but they're mostly showing off and end up looking old and pathetic.

This is not to say I do not ante up in these conversations. There is, however, a fine line you try to walk in them. You don't want be so old that you're out of touch, nor so young that everyone has already been there and done that. I think I'm in a bit of a sweet spot. I don't remember punch cards, but I programmed on the first Mac. Assembly code was a footnote for me, but I was in the first object oriented programming class at U.B. Acoustic coupler modems were long gone, but I posted on message boards well before the term "blog" existed. There was already an internet, but I remember a time when there were more .edu addresses than .com addresses.

I also remember when everyone surfed with Mosaic, anyone could add a link to their start page, and you could follow all those links in an hour or two. So, for those of you who share this same character flaw, I'll offer up this link: The Obsolete Computers Museum. I remember many of the items on display.

But not the ones with toggle switches.

17 January 2005

Listen again

    Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
      -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It still gives me chills. Here is one place you can hear it.

14 January 2005

So, how's the war going?

    SNAFU - Situation Normal: All Fucked Up
    TARFU - Things Are Really Fucked Up
    FUBAR - Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition
    SUSFU - Situation Unchanged, Still Fucked Up
Here's a quick recap of the current Iraq news: Oh yeah, more soldiers and even more Iraqis are dead.

Update: Rob wanted to know the source of the Tommy Franks quote. It's in the article I link to there. I did a quick google and the original source is Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack.

11 January 2005

With friends like these

    Be careful Frank, they eat their wounded up there
      -Lt. Al 'Gee' Giardello
      Homicide: Life on the Streets
I have been put in the awkward position of supporting Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). In general I have despised him for his vehement anti-choice position. However, I am completely against his ouster from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Apparently being a hardline anti-choice congressman is not enough for the current GOP leadership. Only blind obedience will be accepted, and anything less will be punished. So much for all that talk at the convention about the GOP being open to different opinions.

And for what? Having the audacity to insist that we increase spending for veterans. During wartime no less. That's how the GOP supports our troops I guess.

Update: Here is an editorial, also from The Times, about the so-called Big Tent.

Spying Comet Machholz

    At 4:12 I picked up a faint fuzzy object, rather small. I looked closely to see if it was a double star or a small grouping of stars that simply appeared fuzzy. It was not. I then grabbed my star map to see if there were any known galaxies or nebulae in the area. It took me a couple of minutes to determine exactly where I was on the star map. There was nothing shown on the map.
All that rain and cloud cover subsided last night and I was able to check out Comet Machholz. Unfortunately it had reached its brightest somewhere under all those clouds, but it was still visible in binoculars and the 22mm eyepiece. Right now it's near the Pleiades, so it's easy to find. It was further west than this article describes, as I was a few days later. However, thanks to Heavens Above I was able to get a precise location.

My daughter got to see it too. I told her it was a giant snowball, to which she responded, "Oh Daddy, you're kidding." I explained that on this particular occaision I was not pulling her leg and proceeded to describe what a comet is and how it orbits the sun, complete with visual aids. She wanted me to draw the comet in the picture, which I did. Shortly thereafter she was back to watching her new fish, but I think she got something out of it. I know I did....

09 January 2005

BMG infected my PC!

vi·rus ('vI-r&s) n.:
4 : a computer program usually hidden within another seemingly innocuous program that produces copies of itself and inserts them into other programs and that usually performs a malicious action (as destroying data)
-Merriam Webster Dictionary
Let me begin by saying that BMG can take their digital rights management (DRM) and place it in a location that only a colonoscopy will reveal. Let me explain.

Sharon and I own iPods. Mine already has 6 GB of music on it. A few are songs I've purchased from iTunes. The rest I've ripped from my CD collection. I make a point of owning all the music I listen to. A few times I've ripped someone else's CD to see if I like it. If I do, I buy it. I see this as a more effective way of borrowing their CD. Now I know the RIAA may disagree me on this, but I believe I am making fair use of this music. I paid for one digital recording of that music and that's all I every make use of.

Enter Sharon's new Velvet Revolver CD (ironically titled Contraband, on the RCA label and distributed by BMG). Like any other CD, I inserted this into the CD-ROM drive of my PC. I was immediately presented with a dialog asking me to accept a license agreement. I chose not to, because usually that means it wants to install some annoying software to view the "enhanced" portion of the CD. Typically it amounts to photos of the band and maybe a video or two. I did find that they placed Windows Media versions of the songs on the disk. However, these contained licensing that prevented me from putting them on my iPod.

They did give me a nice link to a page that basically told me I was SOL. They blamed Apple and suggested I complain to them. As much as I like to bash Apple, I have a hard time siding with a record label that prevents me from listening on the most ubiquitous digital music player out there. But it gets worse.

I tried to rip the music in a format my iPod could use, but it was garbled. A few googles later, and I found out why. When I put the CD in my computer, it automatically installed a new device driver, software that controls how Windows talks to the hardware in my PC. In this case, this new driver prevents me from ripping the music or even listening to the CD itself in my player of choice. It was installed without my knowledge or consent, and the driver is hidden by default. I have yet to find anything on the CD warning me that it would do this. Certainly there was no prominent labeling indicating that this would happen.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. Consider the following:
  • A virus is software secretly placed on your PC. This driver was installed without my knowledge or consent
  • A virus is hidden in another seemingly innocuous source. CD-ROMs drives have always been used to play audio CDs. That's why the all have earphone jacks and a volume control. No one would expect music CD would secretly install something on your PC.
  • A virus propagates itself. This driver is installed on each and every PC you insert this disk into.
  • A virus corrupts data on a PC. This driver garbles the music that I've purchased.
Based on this, I feel that this driver is a virus and my PC was infected with it.

This has pissed me off to no end. Who the hell do they think they are? Does their desire to protect their intellectual property give them the right to clandestinely install their software on my PC? I don't think so!

Do you want to know what's worse? This technology doesn't even work! The technology is called MediaMax and is sold by Suncomm (http://www.sunncomm.com, but beware, even their web site is intrusive). A Princeton grad student analyzed their technology. Once you know about their secret driver, it is relatively easy to uninstall. Then, simply holding down the SHIFT key when inserting the CD-ROM will prevent it from running at all! For anyone who really did want to steal this music, the copy protection system is an annoyance at best, despite bold claims to the contrary from Suncomm. Suncomm tried to sue this guy over the his paper, but backed down. They probably realized that their software was so lame that they didn't have a case.

A quick Google search reveals that I am not the only one pissed at BMG about this. Yet everything I've read is from someone who quickly worked around the software and ripped the music. So RCA managed to piss off their customers without actually accomplishing anything. Way to go guys!

Update: BMG is the real culprit behind this, and I updated the post accordingly.

It looks like they're treating the success of Contraband as some sort of validation of this technology. Nevermind that they've had twelve other releases whose sales were nothing special, never mind that Velvet Revolver is a "super group" formed from Guns 'n' Roses and Stone Tempel Pilots whose first release is an almost guaranteed hit, never mind that they don't even tell you what's hidden on the CD you're purchasing. No this is proof that the public is accepting of this technology.

Yeah, right. From everything I've seen, most people didn't know it was there and were pissed that they had been screwed in this way.

07 January 2005

Steve Hartman on the Tsunami

If you can’t trust an ocean to stay put, what can you count on? Not much, except each other, it seems.
-Steve Hartman

I don't often watch 60 Minutes II on CBS. I think Sharon came accross Steve Hartman's commentary while channel surfing. I heard the first few lines and came in to watch. It's one of the better perspectives I've come accross, and I think it's worth checking out. Watch the video if you can. There is this one point where you hear his voice crack a little, and you feel your throat tighten with his.

06 January 2005

That's the Spirit!

The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader, revolves about the sun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles, and the light and heat it receives from the sun is barely half of that received by this world. It must be, if the nebular hypothesis has any truth, older than our world; and long before this earth ceased to be molten, life upon its surface must have begun its course. The fact that it is scarcely one seventh of the volume of the earth must have accelerated its cooling to the temperature at which life could begin. It has air and water and all that is necessary for the support of animated existence.
-H. G. Wells
The War of the Worlds

Exceeding all expectations, NASA's Mars rover Spirit has crossed the one year mark. Close behind is Opportunity, which is running almost as well as it did when it landed. Not bad when you consider the planned life expectency was 90 days! Success like this is what leads people to take space exploration for granted. Almost daily there are new images and data from these rovers. It is so frequent we tend to lose our sense of wonder at it.

Researchers have now concluded that Mars once supported a watery environment. There is more and more discussion about what forms of life may have existed and may still yet exist on the Red Planet. There is even discussion about life being exchanged between the planets. Microbes could be flung from one planet to the other as a result of asteroid or comet impacts.

When Apollo 12 astronauts Charles Conrad Jr. and Alan Bean went to the moon, the found the unmanned Surveyor 3 probe. They retrieved several items from the craft to study the effects of solar radiation on the metal. Scientists examining these parts found they still contained microbes from when the it was assembled on earth. The microbes, when placed in a petri dish, grew.

So it's not so much of a stretch to conceive of microbes being shared between the planets. It is possible that life developed earth then found it's way to Mars. Likewise, it's conceivable that life on earth finds it's origin on Mars, or elsewhere.

Maybe Battlestar Galactica was right. Maybe life here did begin out there.

03 January 2005

Ringing it in

¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tres! ¡Cuatro! ¡Cinco! ¡Pistola grande!

Thanks to everyone who came to the New Years bash. We had a great time. I hope you did too.

A loss for words

I’d much rather be doing this than fighting a war.
-helicopter pilot Lt. Cmdr. William Whitsitt
rendering aid near Jakarta

I'm at a loss for words to express how I feel about the tsunami, but this quote seemed to capture much of it. This is what we should be doing as a nation. This is where we should be. From our ships off the coast of Indonesia to our spy sattelites in orbit, we have such an amazing potential to help those in need.

Yet we're stingy about it. From his Texas ranch getaway, our president offers up less money in aid than he plans to spend on his inaguration. Later he relents and offers a more respectable figure, albeit a fraction of what we've spent on his ridiculous war. In doing so, he claimed it was important to assess the situation first. I guess he thinks it's important to be prudent when there are millions of people in immediate and dire need, but not when going to war.

Thankfully our citizens have shown they have more humanity than our so-called leaders.