Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Aging Computer Blues

My desktop PC is starting to show its age. When I bought a Gateway Pentium 4 1.5 Ghz computer in December 2000, it was state-of-the-art. I've weathered two hard drive failures (luckily they were gradual failures that gave me a chance to do a final back-up as they died) and countless crashes (it is Windows, after all). On the other hand, I have everything I want installed on it, and it works fine most of the time.

I almost replaced it in December (for tax reasons, I always end up buying computers in December when I discover that I had "too much" profit for the year). Since I was on the road most of the month researching my book, I didn't get around to it. After two inexplicable crashes in the past week, I have a feeling that I'm going to regret it.

John Dvorak's PC magazine online column often has interesting and amusing insights. While clearing out a backlog of e-mail, I found a gem called The Ten Axioms of Modern Computing. Every experienced user will find himself agreeing with nearly all of these. The last one really hit home:
COMPUTERS CRASH MORE AS THEY GET OLDER.This is part of a scheme hatched by the hardware and software companies to get you to buy new machines. It's a slow degenerative process that you can do nothing about it. Nobody is really sure how it works. We're studying it.
My guess is that it's mostly due to so much garbage being installed, uninstalled, reinstalled, etc. over the years.

Boy Genius And Alan Keyes

I just finished reading Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush by Lou Dubose, Jan Reid, and Carl M. Cannon. I'll admit that I started reading with a huge chip on my shoulder about all that is evil in the modern Republican Party. While this book didn't change my mind (I doubt that anything could), it gave me an appreciation for Rove's political brilliance (and occasional dirty tricks). Sure, you could say that our current predicament is his fault, but he did a darn good job making it happen.

The book ends with a description of Rove's top-down management of the 2002 elections across the country. Rove hand-picked candidates and even discouraged or redirected the less desirable ones. For example, Rove convinced Norm Coleman to run for senator in Minnesota. He also talked Tim Pawlenty out of it, pushing him toward the governorship instead. Both won in 2002 (though Coleman was undoubtedly helped by the tragic death of his opponent, incumbent Senator Paul Wellstone).

This makes me wonder what the heck happened in Illinois in 2004. Republican Peter Fitzgerald did not seek reelection, and Republican primary victor Jack Ryan bowed out after some racy details came out regarding his divorce from actress Jeri Ryan (it was way overblown, but I didn't mind seeing a Republican victimized by the sort of moral witch hunt that Clinton endured).

Democrat Barack Obama was a solid candidate, but still he was only a state senator. When a couple of misguided Republican committee members (it was definitely not unanimous) pushed for Alan Keyes to replace Ryan, where was Rove? I know he had Bush's campaign to manage, but somebody at the national level should have stepped in to put the kibosh on that ridiculous idea. As it was, the GOP practically conceded an open seat to someone with no federal experience. Obama won by a greater margin than any senator in state history. Even worse, Keyes' ultraconservative ideology turned off a lot of Illinois voters who have a reputation for supporting moderate Republicans. I can't see how the Keyes campaign was positive in any way for the Illinois GOP.

Don't get me wrong; I'm thrilled that Obama won. It's just that the Illinois GOP's strategy seems even less explicable after reading Boy Genius. It also underscores the reason people like Rove have to manage everything--obviously the state parties cannot be trusted to make good decisions on their own.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Clever Packaging From Dell

I found a small package in my mailbox from Dell the other day. Inside was a lonely sheet of tri-folded paper. The letter alerted me to an AC adapter recall for a notebook computer I bought half a decade ago. Certain adapters can overheat and possibly cause fire or electric shock. I still have the computer, although it's been years since I used it. It had some quirky performance issues, so I never trusted it. I have learned since that flaky Windows Me was probably responsible for my troubles rather than the hardware, but I do all of my mobile work on a Panasonic ToughBook instead (the Panasonic is slower but more durable than the Dell, the sort of computer that is ideal for the abuse of a cross-country bike trip).

Anyway, as soon as I read the letter I recognized the genius of the 5"x9"x1" white cardboard box. I could have easily ignored a plain envelope from Dell, figuring that it was just a sales pitch (though it occurs to me that a professional copywriter should not admit to ignoring sales letters!), or it could have been lost amid an overwhelming pile of charity solicitations and credit card offers. Instead, the unusual packaging immediately got my attention. As it turns out, my adapter is not affected, but you can check your Dell AC adapter here.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Misused Word Of The Day - Hoi Polloi

Context: "If the people are too hoi polloi to ride the train as it is, they can probably afford a cab."

I won't embarrass the author by name, but this was in an e-mail discussion of whether proposed express train service from downtown Chicago to O'Hare Airport is a worthwhile transit investment. Alas, what he said was the opposite of what he meant (we'll set aside the issue of making the noun into an adjective). Hoi polloi means "the common people," "the general populace," "the masses." That makes this misusage particularly amusing--he was implying that some people are too "of the masses" to ride mass transit!

I see this word misused so often that I occasionally look it up just to remind myself that I am using it correctly. How did this misunderstanding arise? Perhaps hoi polloi (which is Greek) sounds too exotic to refer to ordinary people. Or maybe it is incorrectly associated with the snobbish, elitist connotations of hoity-toity.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Chicago Ed Sacked

The Lerner Newspapers, including our local News-Star, were recently merged into Pioneer Press by owner Hollinger International. Last week I mentioned to my wife that our favorite columnist, "Chicago" Eddie Schwartz, had disappeared from the opinion pages. She suggested that maybe he was on vacation. I recalled that when he was sick for a long time, there was always a blurb that said he would be back. This time there was nothing.

Schwartz and I go way back, so to speak. I used to listen to his overnight radio show on WIND and later WGN when I was in grade school over 20 years ago (generally Friday nights and during summer vacation). I even called in a couple of times and got on the radio, a big deal for a pre-teenager. When I subscribed to the News-Star in 1998, Schwartz's column quickly became my favorite. Chicago Ed was like an old friend, and every week he offered commentary on local, state, and national issues ranging from politics to entertainment. Schwartz often incorporated his years of talk radio experience into his columns, spinning yarns of long lost interviews. My wife, a police officer, especially liked him because he was one of the few media people who was genuinely pro-police, even when the department was embroiled in controversy or scandal.

This week Eric Zorn
eulogized the Lerner Newspapers. In that column, he confirmed our fears: one of the first acts of Pioneer Press was to fire Chicago Ed. That was sad enough, but my disappointment turned to anger when I read more details at Zorn's blog today. As it turns out, Schwartz was not even informed of his termination--he found out when he picked up a newspaper and found his column missing! According to a Pioneer editor, Schwartz's column wasn't "intensely local" enough. But they didn't even give Schwartz a chance to redirect his column toward local topics; they just dumped him. When I told my wife, she suggested we cancel our subscription immediately. It was classless for Pioneer to sack a Chicago media legend like Schwartz without even telling him. Ideally, they would have offered him the graceful exit of a farewell column.

Thanks to Zorn's blog, at least we can see the last column that Schwartz submitted
. It's typical Chicago Ed--take a national story and add some local color and personal recollections. Schwartz's web site (which looks Lerner-centric enough that its days may be numbered) doesn't mention his column's absence from print. Maybe if enough readers complain to Pioneer he will return.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Should I Worry About Our Country Going To Hell?

I mean that figuratively, not in the literal sense like evangelicals believe will happen if we don't ban gay marriage and abortion. I've been reading a lot of books and articles lately that make me pessimistic about our future (most recently Chalmers Johnson's Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire). More specifically, I am wondering whether our country will decline dramatically and/or fall apart before I die (if it happens after, well, I'm not planning on having kids, so it's not really my concern).

I expressed my fears to a close friend the other day, and his answer was worth sharing. First he said, "If you asked my dad, he would say our country is going to self-destruct in fifteen minutes, but he's been saying that since Reagan got reelected." Then he gave me his own philosophy:
If the country doesn't go to hell, then you're just wasting your time worrying about it. If the country does go to hell, there isn't anything you can do to stop it, so you're just wasting your time worrying about it.
I tried weakly to counter with something naively idealistic (quite out-of-character for cynical me) about possibly being able to make a difference and change our nation's course. He responded with deserved laughter.

My friend's words spun me into a panic. If I don't worry about the direction our country is headed, then what am I going to do with all of my time? And what am I going to blog about?

Friday, February 11, 2005

A Helping Hand

If people had three hands instead of two, would we say we wished we had a fourth hand?

I was wondering about this as I carried nine plastic bags of groceries in my two hands from the car to my front door. I may have strained every tendon and ligament in my fingers, but by golly, I got everything in one trip! Of course, I had to put down the bags to unlock the front door, which made me wish I had three hands. But if I had three hands, wouldn't I just carry even more stuff in those hands? Then I would wish I had a fourth hand. So I guess my thinking is that if we had three hands, we still wouldn't be satisfied. We'd always want more. Thoughts?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Michael Kinsley On Social Security Privatization

Michael Kinsley of the L.A. Times was on the Al Franken Show yesterday. He gave this analogy about social security privatization (paraphrased):
You're walking through the desert, and you are really thirsty. George W. Bush appears, and you ask him for water. He says, "Well, I don't have any of that, but I can give you lemonade." You figure that lemonade would be just fine. G.W. hands you the lemonade, which bears the instruction "just add water."
Kinsley's point was that despite all the effort being expended to push privatization, it won't really solve the Social Security problem anyway. Even people in the administration are admitting as much.

Also, Kinsley has written a "proof" showing that
privatization "is mathematically certain to fail," and not because of the usual reasons one hears. His logic seems reasonable to me, but you'll have to go read it for yourself (I won't try to paraphrase it here).

Monday, February 07, 2005

What's The Matter With Kansas?

I just finished this great book by Thomas Frank (not to be confused with retired General Tommy Franks) that examines how his home state of Kansas, once controlled by Republican moderates, has been taken over by fundamentalist conservatives in the past 15 years. These people have sided with the GOP even as the party's pro-business policies have devastated their communities. The book seeks to explain why Kansans vote against their own economic interests in the name of moral battles that they can't really win.

While I enjoyed the entire book, I had an epiphany as I read the Epilogue. I guess I knew it subconsciously, but I never quite put it into words: I am a historical Democrat. What I mean is that my support of the Democratic Party is largely based upon its history, not the message it is delivering today. Although I still see the Democrats as the party of Roosevelt and workers, they don't talk that way anymore. They often sound merely like socially liberal Republicans.

The Republicans have been the corporate party for a long time, but for the Democrats, this is a more recent development. The decline of the Democratic Party culminated in Bill Clinton's Faustian bargain with big business. Clinton had to govern from the center to accomplish anything and to get reelected. But in the process, the economic distinctions between the two parties were downplayed, then forgotten. In fact, Clinton could be the best thing that ever happened to the Republican Party, despite how virulently they attacked him for eight years (and still do, four years after he left office). Frank points out that since the Democrats stopped standing for and talking about class conflict (i.e., workers versus owners), "moral" issues are the only argument left.

I'm not saying there aren't Democratic politicians who still believe in workers and are not beholden to big business. But they aren't conveying that message anymore. If the Democrats ever want to win back the country, they have to change their stance. That does not mean they should move further to the right; that would be the death knell for the party. They need to offer a clear alternative that really speaks to the common man's economic well-being, like the Democrats of old. While the more militant anti-abortion and anti-gay evangelicals will never change parties, other people with lousy jobs in dying towns just might if they thought it would make a difference.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Drinking Yourself To Death - A New Variation

Leave it to The Smoking Gun to spread the latest techniques in alcohol ingestion. A frightening-looking Texas woman gave her husband a sherry enema and killed him. An article in the Houston Chronicle quotes a police detective: "I heard of this kind of thing in mortuary school in 1970, but this is the first time I've ever heard of someone actually doing it."

Upon further research, I found that alcohol enemas are just new to me (somehow the Internet always makes me feel naive). In a widely circulated article, Jay Wiseman
explains the danger, just in case you were considering this method for your next bender. Apparently, it's a great way to keep that pesky liver from weakening your buzz:

When we drink alcohol (or take medications) by mouth, and they are absorbed into our bloodstream, they are taken by a network of veins called the portal venous system directly to our liver and usually at least partially metabolized. This is called "first-pass effect." The veins of the stomach, small intestine, and most of large intestine drain via the portal venous system. However, there are two small veins at the very end of the rectum (called the middle and inferior rectal veins) that drain _directly_ into the veins of the systemic circulatory system -- thus, anything absorbed via this route goes directly into the main circulation without being subjected to first-pass effect.
If you are still itching to try this despite the risks, the same web site offers detailed instructions for both warm red wine and beer (what better way to enjoy the Super Bowl?). In fact, they give instructions for just about anything you could imagine putting in a bag and squirting in your bum, even Mountain Dew (more like Mountain Ewwww) . And while Mae West may have said, "When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I've never tried before," she apparently had a favorite enema that she tried again and again.

And If you are still considering this for your next frat party, be
advised that a man gave himself a vodka enema and got severe colitis.

Doing research for this blog entry has proven to be even more disturbing than the original story.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

8-Track Memories - Lynyrd Skynyrd

In honor of the Super Bowl being played in Jacksonville this weekend, I'm writing about the most famous band to hail from that city, Lynyrd Skynyrd (no, they weren't from Alabama!).This legendary Southern-rock band featured the three-guitar attack of Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, and Ed King (later replaced by Steve Gaines). Ronnie Van Zant sang and co-wrote almost all of the group's songs.

When the band's plane crashed in a Mississippi swamp, killing Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines (a back-up singer, Steve's sister), I was only seven years old. A couple years later, my dad bought Gold & Platinum, a two-record collection of the band's best songs. He taped the LPs onto a 90-minute 8-track, filling up the extra time with several songs by faux-Southern Creedence Clearwater Revival (coincidentally, CCR frontman John Fogerty is going to perform at the Super Bowl Tailgate Party on Sunday). I liked that 8-track so much that I collected all of Skynyrd's albums, no easy feat for a nine-year-old kid.

Gold & Platinum was the first of many Skynyrd compilations, and it turned out to be a decent sampling of their career. The hits are all there, of course, as well as all of the good songs from their mediocre middle albums. The collection's most glaring flaw, however, is that Second Helping, one of their best albums, was represented solely by "Sweet Home Alabama." I suppose they were limited by what would fit on two records, and songs like "Free Bird" and "Tuesday's Gone" took up a lot of space. For a new fan, I would recommend The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd (2 CDs) or the Lynyrd Skynyrd box set (3 CDs) instead.

I've never listened to the "new" Skynyrd with Ronnie's brother, Johnny, but I still enjoy the older stuff. In fact, this is the first "8-Track Memories" band that I actually went back and listened to before writing. Their first two albums were my favorites, even with all the cracks and pops of my old LPs. I reveled in every change in pace of the guitars on Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd's "Free Bird" (still a great song despite overexposure), and hearing "Call Me The Breeze" from Second Helping again was downright rapturous (perhaps the most egregious omission from Gold & Platinum).

The Drive-By Truckers put out a great concept album about Ronnie Van Zant and George Wallace, among other things, called Southern Rock Opera a few years ago. I was completely blown away the first time I listened to it.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Great Marketing Idea: Pen!s Shrinkage Products

We've all received plenty of spam e-mail for products to enlarge pen!ses. Heck, I even get e-mail to enlarge my breasts (if I wanted big hairy man-boobs, I wouldn't have gone on a diet). Anyway, I think the Next Big Thing could be peni!s shrinkage products.

"Huh?" you ask. "Why would a man want a smaller unit?" Ah, that is why I am such a visionary marketeer. Shrinkage products would only be sold at retail stores. Think about it. You see a cut/hot/babelicious woman working the check-out line. How are you going to impress her? Yep, you'll just take that pen!s shrinkage product to the counter. Maybe give her a wink or mumble something about having too much for most women to handle.

Bingo, you've just gotten your foot in the door. Now you have a great chance with that babe, at least until that rolled-up sock stuffed in your shorts falls out.

New Web Site Traffic-Generating Tactic

I was reviewing my web statistics today, and I saw a couple of unexpected "Referrer URLS" from [domain deleted so as not to give them free advertising] in my top twenty. Ever curious, I pasted the addresses into my browser and found that they led to online casino gaming sites. I found a few other gaming site URLs further down the list, as well as a couple of "performance enhancement pill" dealers.

I know these guys aren't actually linking to me, so this must be a new (to me, at least) tactic to boost traffic to their web site. I am guessing that they have some sort of spam bot that plucked my URL off a search engine and generated a "click" to it from their URL. Interesting idea, but I doubt that they would have much luck with this sort of tactic. Then again, it worked on me, although I didn't stay for long--just long enough for a big popup window to appear. When I closed it, three more popups appeared. With a design that obnoxious, do they ever get returning visitors?

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Bush to Seniors: "Don't Worry, I'm Just Going to Screw Your Kids and Grandkids"

That was the gist of his Social Security plan as described last night. He says that people over 55 will keep the old plan, but younger people will be covered under the new plan. I guess he's trying to get the AARP off his back. I'll be very disappointed in the AARP if they change their stance--shouldn't they stand up for retirees of the future as well as their current members?

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal today about how privatization has worked elsewhere. In short, it hasn't. I already knew about a couple of them. Argentina's privatized system eventually led to the country's economic collapse in December 2001. Britain privatized under Margaret Thatcher, and now they are looking to change again... to make their system like our current system (I don't know if that last fact was in the WSJ article). Add Bolivia to the list as well. Since the WSJ charges for access, here are some highlights at Think Progress, a new blog from the Center for American Progress.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Power Up The B.S. Meters

Our dear President will be giving his State of the Union address tonight. He probably won't say anything important, but he'll try to put a happy face on his miserable approval ratings (the worst for a second-term president since Nixon during Watergate!). It's appropriate that today is Groundhog Day, because we're going to hear the same old things all over again.

Expect him to carry on and on about the election in Iraq. He'll probably reiterate the freedom theme of his inauguration speech. Don't expect a timetable for when we're going to get out of there so our soldiers stop getting killed. He may talk about the economy, but his words probably won't match your wallet. He'll say it's getting better. He won't talk about offshoring of jobs or the growing trade deficit. He certainly won't declare war on the corporatocracy that is holding down wages and benefits, ravaging the environment, reaping the benefits of deregulation and capitalist cronyism, and paying minimal taxes for the privilege of doing so. He won't brag about how this is the best time for big business since the 1920s. If he talks about health care, he'll probably blame it all on the trial lawyers and malpractice lawsuits. He won't mention how his tort reform plan will rob us of our only recourse against incompetent doctors and unregulated corporations. Hee won't mention that abortions are up or that his "abstinence-only" approach is not effective. Expect him to tell us how Social Security is in big trouble, and expect him to use the same bogus figures and logic that he has been using for the past month. Don't expect any concrete details about how he intends to implement privatization (which he now spins as "personal accounts"), and surely nothing about where those trillions of dollars will come from to fund it (hint: when you go the bathroom after the speech, look in the mirror, or better yet, look at your kids). Oh, and he'll probably mention God/Jesus a few times.

This begs the question, why bother having a State of the Union address? The informational purpose it once served has long been outdated, or "rendered quaint" as Alberto Gonzales might say. Nowadays it is more like the "Spin on my Policies" address.

I'd love to join you all to watch the show, but, uh, I have to wash my hair.

Who Needs The First Amendment?

When I saw a story in the Chicago Tribune with the headline "Students say free speech goes `too far'," I thought this had to be some crackpot poll of 200 anti-ACLU kids who bought Bill O'Reilly's book and want to stop the "liberal media." I was wrong. The Knight Foundation (think Knight-Ridder newspapers) spent two years and a million dollars asking 100,000 students, 8,000 teachers, and 500 administrators about the First Amendment. Here are some of their findings:

  • Nearly three-fourths of high school students either do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted. Okay, that one isn't surprising. I can understand that most high school students don't think about the Constitution a lot. I did, but I was the editor of the student newspaper (the survey found that student journalists were far more aware of their rights than other students were).
  • Seventy-five percent erroneously think flag burning is illegal. I'll chalk this up to misunderstanding all the controversy. Besides, there are a lot of rules about how to handle the flag (like not letting it touch the ground), and students could infer that there was some law about burning it.
  • Only 51% think that newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories. Yikes! That one got my attention! It would be bad enough if only 51% believed that newspapers were allowed to publish without government approval. But how could just 51% believe that newspapers should be allowed to publish without government intervention? That means that half of these students think the media have too much freedom!
  • More than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. Huh? This seems like a ridiculous opinion to me, but my wife and I actually got into a fight about it, with her on the oppressive side of the argument. "What about violent pornography? What about obscene 'shock' art?" Doesn't matter, I say. I may not want to see it, but you have the right to create it. I am a hardcore First Amendment defender. I'll have to keep working on her.
At a time when our constitutional rights are more endangered than ever (except the Second Amendment, of course), it is critical for people to understand what rights they have and why they are important. The First Amendment is the most obvious and most applicable in daily life. I think it's safe to assume that if students don't have a good grasp on that one, they know even less about unreasonable searches and seizures, due process of law, a speedy and public trial, excessive bail, cruel and unusual punishments, etc. If high school students are not aware, what kind of a society will we have when it's their turn to run the country?

The complete report is available here. I found something in the study that diminishes the previous paragraph's rant a bit, though. They surveyed students of all grades, slightly skewed toward lower grades (from 29% in 9th grade to 19% in 12th). If students don't take government or political science classes until junior or senior year (as was the case at my high school), then it is understandable that younger students might not know as much about the Bill of Rights as they will when they graduate. While this study is an overview of what high school students think, it isn't necessarily evidence that these things are not being taught in high school or that students won't know them by the time they graduate.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Savage Book Placement

I was in a B. Dalton Booksellers the other day checking out the remains of their after-Christmas clearance sale. I saw a book called Letting Go Of Anger, and right next to it on the shelf was Michael Savage's The Savage Nation. Savage happens to be among the angriest of the "angry white men" who dominate conservative talk radio. I started cracking up--the side-by-side placement couldn't have been an accident.

I have listened to Savage a few times while wandering the vast, empty red states on vacation, trolling AM radio for signs of life. To put it bluntly, the guy is a nut. He exists so that listeners think guys like Limbaugh sound reasonable. "Well, at least Rush isn't saying that gays deserve AIDS," they might reason. Unlike Sean Hannity, Savage isn't a shill for the GOP, either. I've heard him sharply criticize Bush. Of course, that's because to Savage, Bush is too much of a centrist. I'm not kidding. But there is something to respect about a nut like Savage. While Hannity simply hates Democrats and everything they support, Savage at least has a creed, "The Paul Revere Society 8-Point Program," the gist of which is "protecting our borders, language, and culture." Granted, I don't agree with any of those points (although I'm neutral on a couple of them), but at least you know where he stands. In fact, he's too far off the deep end for much of his audience. A lot of Savage Nation listeners say they don't really agree with him (here's one). I guess it's just entertaining to listen to a raving right-wing lunatic. But I don't recommend listening for too long, or some of that vitriol is bound to stick.

Incidentally, I recently learned that Michael Savage's given name is Michael Weiner. We'll call it wiener, as in The Wiener Nation. Sounds like an Oscar Mayer slogan. So the next time you hear Savage utter some over-the-top, hateful words, feel free to shout out, "What a wiener!"