Friday, March 31, 2006

The Divinely-Inspired Word Count

My adventures into blogging have given me a new perspective on the world of free-lance writing. Since it’s my  blog, I’m going to share that perspective with you and you may or may not read it. That’s what this is all about, right?

When I was in college, one of my teachers told us about a writing assignment he had accepted. He had written a unit of Sunday School literature for his church’s denomination. What an honor! To interpret the Bible for the faithful. To write literature that would be studied simultaneously by the masses on a Sunday morning. To literally be the voice of the denomination for a brief moment in time.

Oh, and the assignment specified that he had to do it in exactly 675 words. Well, he could squeeze in 690 if he was really feeling verbose.

You see, the article had to come out even at the bottom of the page. That wasn’t an option. Too much white space at the bottom of the page and the parishioners might feel cheated. If the article was too long, it would spill onto the next page and, well, we just can’t have that, can we? A smaller or larger font was out of the question because, after all, we have our standards.

The practice is sarcastically known as the “divinely-inspired line count”.

Editors! Can’t live with ’em. Can’t shoot ’em.

How many authors have lamented editors that have arbitrarily split or combined paragraphs to make things come out even at the end? Or who have mangled sentence structure to delete or insert words to eliminate widows and orphans?

How many authors have determined that they will never succumb to the banal wishes of editors, only to do so in order to be paid?

Ah, the life of a blogger. No editors. No line counts. Nobody telling me my article is too long or too short.

Oh, yeah, and no pay.

Oh, well, at least I can end the article any time I want to.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Hawaiians Learn Economics

State legislators in Hawaii got a lesson in capitalism recently. And it’s a lesson that should be shared with the rest of the world. The lesson: supply-and-demand works.

Here’s what happened:

Last year, the citizens of Hawaii were in a state of revolt. Gasoline prices were at an all time high. For a state that already pays the highest prices for just about everything, that was just too much to bear. How could they scoot around on those interstate highways in Hawaii if they couldn’t afford to fill their tanks? Something must be done. The perpetually Democratic Hawaiian legislators were more than eager to act.

So they did what any good blue-state lawmakers would do. They increased government intervention into private market forces. Yep, the way to keep gas prices low was simply to pass laws that put ceilings on the price of gasoline.

But the lawmakers forgot that free-market enterprise is rarely a respecter of idiot laws.

Guess what happened? The price of gasoline went down — yes, down — in the 48 states. The sudden increase of prices had been simply the marketplace reacting to what it perceived to be a supply-and-demand force. Capitalists all over the world knew it would eventually self-correct. And it did.

Except in Hawaii.

What did the gasoline dealers in Hawaii do? They left their prices, uhm, high. Yeah, high. They were scared to death that they wouldn’t be able to raise their prices at a later date. So they refused to lower them. Soon, the state that already was paying the highest prices for gasoline was paying prices that were 50% above the market level.

The legislators were confused. Waitaminnit. How can laws that are supposed to keep prices low actually increase prices?

Last week, after it was determined that their ridiculous policies had actually cost Hawaiian citizens $35 million dollars in excess gasoline costs, the red-faced, blue-state lawmakers hastily and overwhelmingly reversed their previous decision and repealed the law. The marketplace promptly and politely responded with lower gasoline prices.

Here’s a lesson in Economics 101 for all liberal law makers. The definition of a commodity is a product that is so ubiquitous and so homogenous throughout the marketplace that it can only be differentiated by, well, price.

Gasoline is a commodity.

You don’t mess with Mother Nature, Superman’s cape, or a free-market economy.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

California's Insane Law

California has long been known as the land of fruits and nuts. But nothing is fruitier or nuttier than the idiocy known as Proposition 65. It’s a product of California’s well-intended but out-of-control initiative proposal system, which takes the job of lawmaking out of the hands of lawmakers. It’s not quite like putting the inmates in charge of the asylum, but this is as close as it gets.

Proposition 65 demands that companies that subject the population to cancer-causing agents inform the public that, uhm, they’re being subjected to cancer-causing agent. Good enough. I recently completed a trip to California and saw it in action. It left no doubt in my mind why California continues to have some of the highest cost of living in the country.

I yanked myself from my Midwestern roots and traveled to San Francisco on business for a few days. I stayed at a prominent luxury hotel downtown. When I first entered the lobby, I was greeted with a sign that said that — pursuant to city ordinance — the lobby was a non-smoking area. Okay, cool. A lot of cities have restricted smoking in public areas. No problem.

When I checked in, the woman at the registration desk told me they had a non-smoking room available. Would that be okay? Okay? Heck, that’s what I asked for. That way I wouldn’t have to smell anybody else’s smoke. (By the way, to all you smokers. You stink. Do you get that? You stink. Don’t worry about heart disease or cancer or anything. Just remember: you stink.)

I went to the elevator and saw my first Proposition 65 notice:

Warning: This area contains chemicals including tobacco smoke known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

That’s right, folks. You heard it hear first. Walking in the lobby or sleeping in the rooms of this hotel won’t hurt you. But if you breathe the air in the elevator lobby, you could die! And it must be true, because the State of California says so.

The absurdity of this law cannot be any more obvious. This was not a cheap sign; it’s a classy hotel. A piece of my hotel bill helped pay for that sign. But even more ridiculous is all the logistics that go behind those signs.

The state is required to maintain an official web site to support the law. From the site, you can download an eight-page pdf document that helps you figure out how to conform to the law. The document first says that there is no “official” wording that the signs have to include. Then it goes on to tell you what the sign should include, how big the letters should be, where the sign should be, and on and on and on.

In spite of this, several national hotel chains have recently been fined as much as $50,000 each for not having appropriate signs. Who could have thought that hotels are so dangerous?

Pacific Gas & Electric recently included a notice in their customers’ bills that they occasionally use sandblasting to clean their equipment and naturally-occurring silicon is on the list. Yup, you heard it here first. Glass causes cancer.

Left Coast Liberals have always confused good intentions with results. They have never realized the incredible impact of such insane legislation. The state has to maintain regulations. Companies have to keep up with those regulations. They have to post signs. They have to notify customers.

Who wins? Lawyers, bureaucrats, printers, and sign makes. Who loses? Taxpayers and consumers. (Hey, that’s you and me.)

And guess what? Not one baby’s life has ever been saved by legislation like this.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Sum of All Human Knowledge

Anybody who has known me for more than 15 minutes knows that I’m a big fan of Wikipedia, the world’s largest free online encyclopedia. I’m one of their editors and a frequent contributor to their effort. They have a rather lofty goal: to organize and make available to the world for free the sum amount of all human knowledge. So far they’re doing a pretty good job of it. But I have a feeling that they still have some catching up to do.

The sum of all human knowledge is, well, it’s a lot. We’re getting smarter every day. And knowledge, by its very nature, is cumulative. That means I need to know everything that I have learned, plus everything that my parents learned, and so on back to the days of Adam and Eve. Or at least back until the time that mankind figured out that fried chicken tastes better than the feathery kind.

Let’s think about a few ways to measure the sum of all human knowledge.

Twenty years ago, I was the manager of the computer system for a manufacturing company. I remember the day when we finally bought enough disk space for our mainframe computer (Boy, there’s a term you don’t hear much any more – ask your teenager what a “mainframe” is.) so that now we actually had a full gigabyte of storage. That’s it. A gig. One.

But we couldn’t fit this gigabyte of silicon in one physical drive. No, we had to chain together three separate units, each the size of a washing machine, to reach that milestone. Three washing machines; one gig.

Under the desk where I’m sitting now there is 1,000 times that storage capacity in a space smaller than a shoebox. And it cost less than one-fourth as much as that 1985 gigabyte did – in pre-inflation adjusted dollars.

Such advancements in technology are almost impossible to imagine. Let’s put it another way.

A Mersenne prime number is a prime number that can be represented by one less than two raised to the power of a prime number. (Did you get that? I think the sum of all human knowledge is increased every time I explain that definition to somebody.) It’s one of those “Holy Grails” of computing. For years scientists have sought to spin electrons as fast as possible in search of larger and larger Mersenne Primes.

In 1952, the largest Mersenne Prime known to exist contained 157 digits. That's a pretty big number — larger than I want to count in my lifetime. But it got bigger and bigger every year.

By 1957, they had found one that was 969 digits long. By 1963, they finally found one that was 3376 digits.

Last year, scientists found a Mersenne prime that was 9,152,052 digit long. Almost ten million digits! If you wanted to “say” that number, you'd have to speak for eight hours a day for 28 days.

Here’s the way I like to look at it. If the sum of all human knowledge twenty years ago was the size of a baseball and could be held in your hand, the sum of all human knowledge today would be about the size of a four-story office building. And it would cost about as much as a cup of coffee to store that knowledge on a smart stick that you could fit on your key ring. (You get the idea.)

Not only are we learning more, we are learning more at a faster rate. I remember my high school algebra teach mentioning something about geometric progressions. Funny thing about those geometrics, they tend to become almost vertical after a while.

Aren’t we just about ready to go into orbit?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Inside-Out Writing

Once I saw an interview of some of the head writers for the old “I Love Lucy” show. They talked about how they always wrote the show “backwards”.

They would begin with a situation and figure out how to get Lucy and Ethel there. For example, they figured it would be funny to have the girls tromping barefoot through a vat of grapes. Or they thought it would be funny to have them wreaking havoc in a candy factory. Then they would write a plot that would put them in that mess.

That’s good advice. It’s pretty close to Stephen Covey’s “Habit Number 2”: “Begin with the end in mind.”

When I took a creative writing class, the teacher once gave us an assignment to describe a room two different ways. First, we were to go from general to specific: it was a big room, bright, with large windows, and a rug in the middle of the room with a table covered with a green table cloth and on top of the table was a pitcher of water.

Then we were to describe the same room going from specific to general: start with the pitcher of water and work out to a large, bright room. You get the idea.

The lesson was that it was possible to describe from either the general to the specific or the specific to the general. But it was important that you did one or the other and that you knew which direction you were going.

That’s also good advice.

I have discovered that the two hardest things to write are the beginning and the end. So I usually start out in the middle and work my way out. Again, it doesn’t matter what I do, as long as I am consciously doing it and I’m consistent. I call it my "inside-out" writing style. (Sometimes I write "outside-in", but the concept is still the same.)

I begin with the general idea of what I’m wanting to say (in this case, describe my writing style). Then I write the beginning (an anecdote about how “I Love Lucy” was written). Finally, I figure out a witty way to close, usually with some punch line.

It’s kinda like that old joke:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Most poems rhyme,
But this one doesn’t.

In other words, if you were looking for a witty punch line right here...

Well, I didn’t write one this time.

Friday, March 24, 2006

You Can't Cool Your Kitchen with a Refrigerator

Here’s a teaser that’s a favorite of engineering students.

On a hot summer day, can you cool your kitchen by leaving the refrigerator door open?

The answer is nope. If anything, that will actually make your kitchen warmer, not cooler.

But how can this be? I thought you’d never ask.

The fact is, there is really no such thing as “cold”. It’s merely the absence of “heat”. Refrigerators don’t actually make things cold, they just remove the heat from them. And all that heat energy has to go somewhere. So it’s usually just dissipated back into the room. Ever wonder why the coils on the back of your refrigerator are so warm? That’s because they’re busy getting rid of all that heat.

If you leave the door open, the refrigerator will have to work harder because it will have to remove the heat from the entire room, not just the inside of the refrigerator. And it will put the heat right back into the room, making it warmer.

That’s the principle on which heat pumps work. They’re just air conditioners in reverse, removing the heat from the outside and depositing it in the house. In the summer they reverse the cycle and take the heat out of the house and put it on the rose bushes next to my front porch. (Oh, that’s  why those bushes always look, uhm, tuckered out.)

Here’s something even better. A ceiling fan doesn’t make a room cooler. It just moves the air around. Moving air over our sweaty body feels cooler than stagnant air on our stinking body.

Actually, our engineering friends will tell us, it’s possible that a ceiling fan will make the room warmer, because the fan motor is generating heat, which it then distributes around the room. Oh, great, that made me feel better.

Engineers also like to talk about the fact that helium balloons don’t actually rise. Rather, the heavier air “pushes” them up. That’s a subtlety that escapes most of us romanticists. Next thing they’ll be telling us is that the Man in the Moon isn’t really winking at me.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Creationists Create Wry Arguments

When creationists and evolutionists argue with each other, metaphors, analogies, and similes fly faster than Dan Rather fleeing from accusations of forged documents.

The creationists are especially creative and witty. One of my favorites was when biologist Edwin Conklin said, "The probability of life originating from accident is comparable to the probability of the Unabridged Dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing shop." I really doubt that Professor Conklin actually calculated the probability of such a work of literature resulting from such an explosion. I think he was just trying to make a point of absurdity.

Actually, I thought that the correct absurd comparison had something to do with a room full of monkeys typing the complete works of Shakespeare. Now there's  a thought!

I've often thought about hooking up a random-number generator to a php program and making millions of dollars with a web site that claims to read tarot cards. Don't laugh; it's been done.

Back to the creationists. Cambridge University's Sir Fred Hoyle once said that the chance of a simple cell evolving from primordial soup was about the same as a tornado passing through a junkyard and producing a fully functional Boeing 747. Ya gotta admit, that'd be pretty hard to imagine. A two-seater Cessna, perhaps. But not a 747!

Here's another one. Hoyle also compared the chance of obtaining even a single functioning protein from the random combination of amino acids to a solar system full of blind men solving Rubik's Cube simultaneously. Yikes. I'm sure a solar system full of blind men could eventually type Shakespeare, so I suppose each of them could eventually solve Rubik. But, doing it all at the same time? Man, I'd like to see that.

Heck, I'd like to see myself  solve it just once. My son got "Instant Insanity" for Christmas last year and I'm scared to even remove it from the plastic box it came in. ("No, just leave it in there, son. It's a work of art. If you ever remove it, you'll never see it in that pristine state again.")

Evolutionists don't like this in-your-face kind of humor. They claim they are "straw men" arguments, which refers to the practice of setting up a weak argument, defeating it, and then claiming victory over your enemy. It would be like two men who are in a fight where one builds a man from straw, throws punches at it, and says he beat up the other guy.

Gee, that would be like throwing a deck of cards up in the air and having them land on the ground all neatly forming a mosaic of the Mona Lisa.

Eh. Maybe this analogy stuff should be left to the professionals.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Why Paris Hilton is Rich and Famous

Paris Hilton is a phenomenon that defies explanation. I’ve heard of a “death” spiral. But she seems to be — in spite of her best intentions — spiraling upwards. Go figure.

Originally, she was famous just because she was rich. Now she seems to be getting richer just because she’s famous. Knock-down good looks helps, of course. But apparent lack of talent doesn’t seem to be hurting her cause. Can she do anything wrong?

I think her best “asset” (and I must tread carefully here) is her name. It’s a marketer’s dream. Think of it.

Paris: The most beautiful and romantic city in the world. France doesn’t deserve such a gem, but I’ll save that for a later posting.

Hilton: A surname that literally exudes high-class and luxury with a rich, unspoiled history.

Can you imagine the conversation her parents had?

“Honey, I’m pregnant.”

“Oh, good, now we can finally use that girl’s name that worked so well in the focus groups.”

“We’re going to name our baby ‘Las Vegas’?”

“Yup. That way she can never embarrass us. Because, after all, what happens with Las Vegas, stays with Las Vegas.”

Mr. and Mrs. Hilton later changed their minds, Paris made her video, and the world has never been the same.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Oh, the Money that Dead Celebrities Make!

What do the King of rock 'n roll and the creator of the world's most lovable loser have in common with two ex-Beatles?

Elvis Presley, Charles Shultz, John Lennon, and George Harrison all made the most recent list of the world's highest paid dead celebrities, as compiled annually by Forbes magazine.

Also making the list this year were Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, Marlon Brando, Andy Warhol, and 43-year-dead Marilyn Monroe.

Forbes even went on a limb to calculate the potential earnings of William Shakespeare, if only he hadn't been so careless to allow his copyrights to slip. Bill the Bard would have earned $15 million dollars last year in royalties for the wherefores in his plays and poetry — a mere pittance to The King's $45 million for his hip-gyrating antics.

Of course none of these people actually did any work last year. They were too busy decomposing. The wealth was generated on behalf of the heirs to their estates — who work vigorously to guarantee that no dead man's work be un-honored, and no royalty be unpaid.

In my opinion, the guy who has lost the most is King James, of KJV fame. If today's copyright standards had been in place in the 17th Century, James would now be famous as the guy who held the copyright on the Lord's Prayer and on John 3:16. Imagine what his heirs could have done with the royalties from every mention of the famous salvation passage on national TV by a hippie with clown hair in the end zone of a playoff game. Instead, the monarch is noted as the one who made "hallowed" a three-syllable word.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Remembering the 70s Through Music

Ah, Bread. What wonderful memories. "Diary" was a nice song. But it's a song about a lost love. I'd rather look at a song of unfailing, unconditional love.

Here's the second verse of a classic:

by David Gates

If a man could be two places at one time,
I'd be with you.
Tomorrow and today, beside you all the way.
If the world should stop revolving spinning slowly down to die,
I'd spend the end with you.
And when the world was through,
Then one by one the stars would all go out,
Then you and I would simply fly away.

Read that to yourself real slowly. You just gotta cry.

The 70s were like a huge sigh of relief that the 60s were finally over. The 60s were dreadful. It seemed like everything was falling apart. But by the 70s, we were kinda turning a corner and it seemed like maybe things were going to be okay.

The war was winding down. We were losing it, but we didn't care. We had landed a man on the Moon — been there, done that. Americans were going into space somewhat regularly, and occasionally meeting up with Russians once they got there. Inflation was in double digits. And gas prices were (gasp) approaching a dollar a gallon. But, hey, we had a president that was telling us that he couldn't do anything about it, and we just kinda adjusted our salaries and kept going. It was a very naive time.

And the music reflected it. Songs of the 60s were dirty, were radical. But in the 70s, they turned sweet. In the 60s, they sang about love, but they really meant sex. In the 70s, they sang about love and they really meant commitment.

Suddenly, television was in color! I remember our first color TV. We got it somewhere around 1972. We lived in a little town and could only get three stations with lousy reception. I remember that I was amazed that even the "snow" on the TV was in color!

A few years ago, I bought a new car with a really nice CD player in it. One of the first things I did was buy a CD of The Carpenter's greatest hits. It was wonderful. Karen Carpenter could melt my heart just by smiling, let alone by singing love songs. When she sang "Just like me, they long to be close to you" she was singing to me!

That Labor Day, everybody was at my mother's house. I told my brother we were going to go for a ride through town in my new car. Actually, I just wanted to get him alone with Karen Carpenter. Yep, I popped the CD in, his face beamed, and we sang every word of every song together.

Music from the 70s was sweet and mushy, just like chocolate pudding. And that's the way I want to remember it.

Friday, March 17, 2006

When a Lawyer Writes a Web Site

When a company places a statement of policy on their corporate web site, they really should take a close look at it to make sure their message matches their intent. I recently discovered a boast that ended up sounding like a disclaimer which was in fact a promise to deliver inferior service.

As a web developer, I often randomly scour the Internet for inspiration. I pick up ideas here and there and incorporate them into — I mean steal them for — my own creative efforts. I search for both form and content, looking for the best and the worst of both.

It was during one such random wandering that I stumbled on the web site of — well, maybe I had better keep the name of the company confidential. After all, it was a law office. The last thing this struggling webmaster needs is a bunch of attorneys mad at him!

Here’s what the notice said:

Because of our philosophy of service, attorneys and staff at our law firm are accessible by regular appointments which are available between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Hmmm. Just what is “our philosophy of service”? Surely they intended to imply their philosophy of superior  service. Or at least good  service. Didn’t they?

So I looked all over the site. Nope, no claim was made anywhere on the site that offered service better than their competitors. Heck, they barely offered any  service at all.

Okay, so the lawyers aren’t going to make any claims that they can’t deliver on. I guess we should expect that. So let’s take it at face value. They’re going to offer, uhm, service. Just that. They have a philosophy, and that philosophy is to do what they’re supposed to do.

Let’s continue.

They’re available at “regular appointments”, eh? You’d better call ahead, because if you just walk in off the streets, these guys aren’t going to see you — even if they’re just hanging around the water cooler talking about the next ambulance they’re going to chase. Nope, you gotta have an appointment. Oh, not just any appointment will do. It has to be a “regular” appointment.

But wait, there’s more!

Just when can you expect to make that “regular” appointment? Why, on their schedule, of course. They work nine-to-five, five days a week. Period. They’re sorry if that’s inconveniently at the same time that you’re supposed to be earning an honest living. They can’t help it that the mortgage company down the street boasts of their evening and weekend extended hours. They’re sorry that my insurance agent will drive across town to meet me in my office to get my signature on a policy. No, if you need their legal advice, you’d better ask your questions during their 8-hour window.

As an aside, a few years ago, I had some legal work done (not by this  firm) and I was surprised when I got the bill that I was charged $35 by my lawyer to read an email that I had sent him. Gosh, if I’d known that, I would have included a chocolate chip cookie recipe in the email to give it at least some semblance of value. (Lawyers are the only ones that can send you a Christmas card and then charge you for the stamp.)

So, this law firm started with what should have been an opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competitors, turned it into legal mumbo-jumbo that defies reason, and ended up bragging about the fact that they offer their services under utterly crummy conditions.

Some people think I think about things too much.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Hockey is a Stupid Sport

Recently, a friend of mine encouraged me to become a hockey fan. "It's the fastest game in the world!" he exclaimed.


Maybe he was referring to the speed of the puck, that flat, poor-excuse-for-a-ball — the size of a ham sandwich — that they use in the sport. Heck, when I watch hockey on television, the snow on the screen is larger than the puck. The fact that it moves so fast is hardly something to be proud of. After all, I don't go to skeet-shooting competitions to watch the bullet glide through the air. Why should I watch a hockey game when the puck slides across the ice at about the same speed as a 747 at takeoff?

Maybe he was talking about the speed at which a forearm hits another guy's face. I guess that would be exciting if it was legal. I mean, isn't the idea to get the ball — I mean, puck — in that little net thing at the end? If you put an elbow in somebody's ribs, you should have to go sulk in timeout or something, shouldn't you?

And that's another thing. You know why hockey games are so low-scoring? Because the net is too small. The idea is to move the ball — I mean, puck — down the field — I mean, the ice — and deposit it in a little net with a 300-pound gorilla standing in front of it. Isn't that called goal-tending? Wait a minute, that's basketball. But isn't that illegal? More timeout time, I guess.

Anyway they shouldn't make them put it in a net; just crossing the end-zone line should be enough. It works for football. You can cross the plane of the goal line anywhere between the two out-of-bounds lines and it counts. Even in baseball, you can hit it anywhere between the foul poles. But no, in hockey, they give you a target the size of a car door.

But I digress.

Maybe he was talking about the speed of the action. Yeah, that's it. A game that ends with a score of 1-0 is exciting because it has a lot of action  in it. Uh-huh. Sounds like a soccer score, and that's not any better. At least with soccer, the ball is the size of a cabbage so you can see it. And those little kids look so cute in their shorts. Oh, do grown men play soccer, too? I didn't know that.

Sorry, hockey is not the fastest game in the world. Nor is it the most exciting. Nor is it one that makes any sense at all.

People can't even play  hockey, they can only watch  it. When you were growing up, did your neighborhood friends ever knock on your door in the middle of July and invite you to play in a pick-up hockey game on the school grounds? Heck, they didn't even do that in January.

Nope, hockey is a stupid, wimpy sport. Everything I need to know about sports I learned by watching Tom Landry coach the Cowboys from the sidelines. When his guys got into a fight on the field, did he throw trash cans on the field? No, he stood there with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.

Now, there's  a real man in a real sport.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Waitaminnit, Who Died?

We were getting ready to start a meeting at work and, as is our habit, we were making small talk around the table while we waited for others to join.

Somebody mentioned that actress Maureen Stapleton had died and the newspapers were filled with accolades for her. Yeah, I said, but I couldn’t believe that the papers were leaving out some of her best stuff.

The papers mentioned her role in Lonelyhearts, for which she earned her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. And she was nominated her work in Airport  and in Interiors. And she won an Oscar for Reds  in 1981.

But what about her work as the adorable dingbat Edith Bunker in All in the Family ? That was never mentioned. That was the highlight of her career. Come on, you can’t forget that one!

And what about her recurring role in Scarecrow and Mrs. King ? And her great work with Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail ?

And for Heaven’s sake, what about all the work she had done on Broadway? And...

Oh, it was Maureen Stapleton that died? Jean Stapleton is still very much alive. Ooops.

Do you remember that Saturday Night Live  skit with Gilda Radner as Emily Litella? She was always concerned about the government keeping a list of all the endangered feces on the planet. And they were always worried about too much sax and violins on television. And the Supreme Court was going to rule on the deaf penalty.

Well, it was kinda like that.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

What's the King Doing?

A friend of mine is a man of modest means. But he enjoys his vacations. His favorite witty remark while on these escapades is, "I wonder what the poor people are doing right now?"

Of course, that's intended to be ironic. In a feat of self-envy, he is one of the poor people that he's talking about. But for a week or two out of each year, he puts his hard-earned savings to work and lives like a king. He knows that the next Monday he'll be back at the grind. But he's going to enjoy the luxuries of resort living while he can.

King Arthur felt the exact same trappings in the Broadway musical Camelot, but in reverse! Anxious over his pending arranged marriage to Guenevere, he paces the forest and hypothetically ponders "I wonder what the king is doing tonight". In his soliloquy, he assumes the role of the peasant who enviously gazes at the palace. Then he answers his own question:

He's scared!
He's numb! He shakes!
He quails! He quakes!
That's what the King is doing tonight!

The king — with all his riches — is actually longing to be a commoner, who obviously has no problems at all. And my friend wishes to be rich, so he could wonder what it's like to have all the problems of the poor people.

It's a paradox that defies reason: The grass is always greener — no matter which side of the fence you are on.

Monday, March 13, 2006

QWERTY, VHS, and Backslashes

Many times, the thing that seems to make the most sense isn’t the thing that is finally accepted as universal.

Consider the qwerty keyboard for a moment. We’ve all heard the story. The common layout of most computer keyboards is a dinosaur, left over from manual typewriters. The purpose was to slow typists down so the key bars wouldn’t get jammed together on their path toward striking the paper. But even the concept of “striking the paper” is foreign to many computer users today. Why does this relic continue when more efficient key mappings exist? It’s a mystery.

Another example is the vhs system of video tapes. In the early 1980s, everybody knew that Sony’s Betamax system offered superior picture quality. Why did the vhs system prevail in the marketplace? It’s a mystery.

But the best — or worst — example is the lowly backslash. In a feat of planned obsolescence that only the computer software industry could get away with, Microsoft’s dos Version 1.0 supported only floppy disks with a flat file structure — no directory systems were allowed.

Can you smell an upgrade coming? Sure! When the pc xt showed up with its (gasp) 10 meg hard drive, we couldn’t put all those files on one directory. But Bill Gates and his wise men had already allocated the forward slash to indicate dos command line switches. (Now, if you don’t know what a dos command line switch is, never mind. It’s something us old people used to be concerned with before computers had mouses.)

Unix and that eeevil rival operating system cp/m used the dash for their command line switches. Bill had to be different, so he chose the slash. Dash, slash, who cares? Well, we all cared when we needed something to indicate directories. The slash was already taken. And the period was being used to distinguish the file extension.

What’s a systems programmer to do? Close your eyes, point to the keyboard and land on the backslash, that’s what. (Maybe they’ll never notice and we’ll get away with it.)

That’s why the World Wide Web — which mostly runs on Unix computers — uses forward slashes for urls, while Windows — which is just a prettied-up version of dos — uses backward slashes for their directory names.

Hmmm… That explains backslashes. Can anybody actually explain the purpose of the grave, tilde, broken vertical bar, and curly brackets?

Nope, they’re still mysteries.

Friday, March 10, 2006

A Thought About Withholding

This is the time of year I take a real close look at my finances because I'm suddenly aware of pay raises, taxes, performance bonuses — stuff like that.

I know, you're supposed to look at that stuff all the time. But most of us "regular" people are stuck with that evil known as "withholding". That makes things like taxes too darned transparent for our own good.

Generally, I'm not in favor of increasing federal regulations, but I'd like to propose one that may have some merit.

Employers are required to provide an itemized pay stub showing all the deductions every pay period. What if we made a federal requirement that those pay stubs also had to include the percentage of each deduction, when divided into the gross pay?

I think people have become rather immune to the fact that they pay "hundreds of dollars" every week to the government. But they have no idea how much of their pay is actually being taken away. I saw a survey one time that said most people think the number is somewhere around 25% — and they think that's too high.

I just dumped my most recent pay stub into Excel and did some math. My tax deductions equal 34.7% of my pay. I contribute 10% to my 401k, which leaves me with just a little over half of my paycheck remaining.

Printing those percentages on everybody's paystub may be a good "primer" toward getting what we really need — a flat tax.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

To Pluto and Beyond

I've always been interested in space stuff. I grew up with the Gemini and Apollo missions. I always wanted to be an astronaut, but I knew I probably wouldn't be able to be one. So I just decided to devote my life to learning everything I could about space.

I remember being kinda disappointed when we finally landed on the moon. We had studied the moon from afar for years — peering at it through telescopes and wondering what it was really like. But when we got there, the astronauts weren't astronauts any more — they were geologists. Sheesh, that's no fun. It's a whole lot more fun to study another planet vicariously through a telescope or by an orbiter or lander. But to actually scoop up rocks and look at them under a microscope — gee, you could do that on Earth!

I got really excited a few months ago when I first learned about the New Horizons spacecraft. It's going to be the first spacecraft to actually visit Pluto and study it up close. Pluto is the last planet (of the original nine) that we haven't explored at all. And now they are discovering a whole bunch of cold, icy, rocky masses beyond the orbit of Pluto — some of which are planets in their own right.

I watched the liftoff on streaming video on nasa-tv while I was sitting at my desk at work. The Internet is a wonderful thing! It was just like the Apollo days. I felt like I was 13 years old again. I kept it running in a corner of my screen while I was doing my other work.

High surface winds at the launch site scrubbed the mission just two and a half minutes before it was to take off. But they were able to launch it successfully the next day. It was the most exciting part of my day. Everything else is pretty boring when compared to exploring an alien word thirty billion miles away.

The craft is well on its way to Pluto now, calmly coasting toward a rendezvous with Jupiter next year for a gravity assist. Then it's almost another decade of coasting until it reaches its target.

But who's in a hurry? Pluto has been there for a few million years. And it's waited for half a century of space travel. It can wait a decade or so more before it shows its face closeup for the first time.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kirby and Dana

Within 24 hours of each other, two notable Americans were cut down in what should have been the prime of their lives. How could I not write about them today?

Kirby Puckett literally defined Minnesota Twins baseball for much of the 1980s and 1990s. He had forearms that were larger than most people's thighs. When he hit the ball, the hide would fly into orbit along with the core. His legacy included Golden Gloves, All-Star Games, batting titles, and World Championships.

His career was cut short when he was forced to retire at age 34, suffering from glaucoma. His entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame was a cakewalk, achieved on the first ballot during his first year of eligibility.

His personal troubles later in life included failing health, weight gain, and a few run-ins with the law. But during his professional career, he was a baseball player's baseball player, a gentleman on the field and a model citizen off. Who didn't like Kirby Puckett?

He suffered a massive stroke over the weekend and died the next day at his home in Phoenix. He'll be missed.

Dana Reeve was the perfect wife that every man could dream of. Already a talented singer and actress when Christopher Reeve found her and married her, they led the model family life, living far from trappings of Hollywood in suburban New York.

When Christopher was paralyzed from a riding accident, it was Dana who gamely faced the cameras and the media. In demonstrating her un-dying support for her husband, she exhibited grace, poise, and optimism that others could only dream to duplicate.

Dana and Chris (as she called him) always believed with all their heart that he would walk again. They jointly formed the "Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation", raising money and awareness for spinal cord injury research and raising the hopes of thousands of paralysis victims throughout the world. She carried on as president of the foundation after Chris' death.

I had the honor of writing Dana's biography for Wikipedia. The more I researched her life, the more I admired her. Politically, we were polar opposites — she was an avid liberal and actively campaigned for John Kerry. But I have to admit, she was my favorite liberal. I always dreamed of meeting her in person some day.

Last year, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, although she had never smoked a day in her life. Throughout her treatment, she maintained a rigorous schedule of public appearances in support of the Foundation. Publicly, she said that the cancer was responding to treatment.

She died last night, leaving behind a son, 13-year-old William. She'll be missed.

She was 44.

Kirby Puckett was 45.

I am 49.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Living in the Past

A couple of years ago, a co-worker told me that I was living in the past. When I asked her to explain she said "You're always talking about the way things used to be. You're always bringing up stuff that happened years ago."

Well, she was kinda right. She saw it as a flaw. But I see it as my need to gain perspective.

That's why I enjoy studying sappy lyrics and 70s songs and stuff like that. That's how I anchor myself. I find something that appeals to me and I latch on to it. Maybe I take it to an extreme sometimes, but I don't think so. I think what I'm really doing is finding what works for me and then sticking with it. There's nothing wrong with that. It beats wandering around aimlessly, looking for a purpose in life.

One of my favorite teachers in school was my seventh grade social studies teacher. One day, at the beginning of the school year, he wanted to impress on our junior high skulls of mush the importance of studying history. So he called me to the front of the class and told me to walk across the front of the classroom, but to do it walking backwards. After I did it, he asked me how I did it. It took a little prodding — I didn't understand what he was getting at — but the lesson was that the only way you can walk backwards is by watching the path where you've been. You don't have eyes in the back of your head so you can't actually see where you're going. But if you study where you've been, you'll always have a clue of what's coming up next. It's not perfect — but it's all you've got.

And that's how life is. You have no choice — you have to walk through life backwards. You can never see what's coming next. But if you never lose sight of where you've been — if you study your past and the consequences of going through it — you'll have at least a glimpse of what's yet to come.

And that's a lesson that I still remember 35 years later.

Monday, March 06, 2006

I Don't Watch Television

The Academy Awards were presented last night. Don't expect to find out from here who won. I have no idea.

I can say (with just a little bit of pride) that I have not seen any of the movies that were nominated for any major Academy Award this year. None. I saw lots of movies last year, but none of the nominated ones.

That really isn't remarkable. Oscar finally jumped the shark in its snobbishness this year and didn't nominate a single blockbuster movie from the previous year. Very few people have seen any of the nominated movies this year. So I guess I'm in good company.

But I have other distinctions that I apparently don't share with many Americans. I don't watch much television, either.

I am one of the few people on the planet who has never seen an episode of "Friends". Never. I've seen a couple of Jennifer Aniston movies, however. She was on that TV show, wasn't she? I dunno. Is it still even on?

I saw only two episodes of "Seinfeld" while it was on. And one of those was the series finale.

I may have watched a couple of episodes of "Cheers". I can't remember. And I think Kelsey Grammer went on to star in something else after that, didn't he?

I've heard that there are a dozen different shows on TV named "csi" or some other tla.

I have never seen an episode of "Survivor". But last spring a friend convinced me to get hooked on "American Idol". I probably saw two-thirds of the episodes, but I missed the finale when Carrie won. I yawned.

I own a television and I subscribe to basic cable. TiVo has no interest for me. I watch a lot of Fox News, some Discovery Channel and Court TV. My son is hooked on Nickelodeon.

But me? If it's a series — if it's fiction — I have no use for it. The truth is strange enough for me.

Friday, March 03, 2006

What If You Don't Agree With Me?

Sometimes I'll post things to this forum that not everybody agrees with. Some people write to me and say they don't agree with me. They have very strong, convincing arguments that prove their point. And they demand that I post a retraction to this obvious erosion of the truth.

The simplistic response to them would be that they have every right to be wrong. After all, I wouldn't have posted it if I hadn't believed in all my heart that I was telling the truth. Actually, it's more than that — it's not just that I believe  I am posting the truth. In fact, it is  the truth. After all, how can truth be relative?

But that goes beyond the stated purpose of the forum. It's not my intent to prove that I'm right and you're wrong — however true that might be. My intent is to drill a hole in my head, insert a microscope, and invite you to peek inside.

If you discover why  I believe the things that I do -- whether you agree with me or not — then the stated purpose of the forum has been fulfilled.

On the other hand, if you walk away from here thinking "How can he be such an idiot..." — well, you have a right to be wrong.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Lesson in Accountability

A few days ago, I learned a lesson in accountability. My eight-year-old son had to use my computer to look for pictures of invertebrates on Google and Wikipedia It was for a science notebook that he's working on for school.

My browser has an auto fill-in feature, which means that if he typed in something that was close to something I had already typed it, it would try to complete it for him. That means he pretty much has access to everything that I have ever looked up.

I look up a lot of stuff on Google and Wikipedia. Some of it is because of my job. Some of it is related to research that I'm doing for other projects I'm working on. And some of it is just because I'm naturally curious. I never look at anything on the Internet that I wouldn't want my son to know about.

But it was a reminder to me that he's getting to the age where he's going to want to use the Internet to answer questions that he might not want to find out anywhere else. It was a nice reminder to me that he's watching everything I do, which is a heavy burden for me to bear.

Speaking of stuff that you find on the Internet... Did you know that Samuel Seymour was the last person alive to actually be present when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated? He was five years old and was in Ford's Theatre attending "Our American Cousin" when he heard the shot and saw all the commotion. He appeared on the TV game show "I've Got A Secret" in 1956, just a couple of months before his death at age 96. (His secret, of course, was that he had witnessed Lincoln's assassination.)

The things you learn on the Internet...

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Erratic Mouses and Other Microsoft Problems

Here's something that's amusing and frustrating at the same time:

My computer was having an erratic mouse problem. The pointer would slow down, would crawl, would leap all over the screen as if it had a mind of its own.

While trying to fix the problem, one of the things that I tried was to download a new mouse driver from That didn't help any, so I un-installed the driver. That didn't help, either, but I was finally able to fix it the problem doing some other stuff.

I later stumbled on to some other entries on Microsoft's web site that dealt with erratic mouse behavior.

One said the symptom was "a slowing of the computer and erratic mouse behavior". So I dug further. The cause listed was "recently installed mouse driver downloaded from".

Their solution? Un-install the driver!

So on one page, they say that the problem can be fixed by downloading and installing this driver. On anther page, they say that the problem may have been caused because you followed their advice on the previous page to fix the problem that you started out with. And their solution is to un-do the solution that they previously told you about to fix the problem that their solution caused!

Sheesh... talk about circular logic!

If that story made you alternately shake your head in disbelief and nod your head in wise agreement, you're just geeky enough to be my kindred spirit.

And all you Mac people out there — I don't want to hear from you. You've got enough other problems.