Monday, February 27, 2006

Bastard of the Day

I have been having trouble with my DSL connection all day. It's been going down once or twice an hour with no rhyme or reason. And of course whatever I'm downloading when it crashes is lost. Plus I have to close and reopen my browser. I curse a blue streak and throw a bunch of stuff around my office, but so far that hasn't fixed the problem. The Bastard of the Day award goes to EarthLink tech support. I was on the telephone for 107 minutes while they tried to figure out what was wrong. Actually, at least 40 of those minutes were spent on hold for two people as I got passed from one level to the next. If I ever get to design a tech support system, I'm going to have nine levels, and I'll call them circles.

Tech support people seem to think every person with a problem is some newbie who can't connect because his telephone is plugged into his DSL router. I wish there was a secret codeword that techies (I can still call myself one, given my computer science degree) could use to cut through the crap in cases like this. These guys asked me every stupid question, even as I answered one step ahead of them. No, the router hasn't been moved in months. No, I haven't moved anything close to the router in weeks. Blah blah blah. And of course these guys were foreigners. I'm not xenophobic, but I'm really lousy with accents. Surely things would have gone more smoothly/quickly if I hadn't had to ask the tech support guys to repeat every statement.

I followed their instructions like a good little monkey, unplugging this and plugging in that. I even obeyed when they sent me outside to the gray telephone box. Fortunately, this was a mild day for a Chicago winter. Unfortunately, there's a freaking padlock on my gray box, and I don't have the key. Okay, never mind. So I go back inside, try this, try that, yadda yadda yadda... and I missed the TV show I wanted to see. There have been two stinking weeks of repeats on CBS thanks to the Olympics that I didn't watch on NBC, and now finally there was a new episode on, and I missed it. At this point some smart aleck is saying "Tivo." Bullsh*t. I called tech support 1-1/2 hours before my show started. They damn well should have solved my problems and kissed me goodnight in that amount of time.

And the best part is that the longwinded bastards didn't even fix my problem. My DSL connection still fails randomly once or twice an hour. Can someone tell me why I pay a premium price for this kind of treatment? (That was a rhetorical question!)

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Actually, this is my nominee for Bastard of the Decade, but she's in the news again. Katherine Harris wants to be Florida's next senator, and The New Republic has a an article about this peculiar woman. Although she got into the House easily enough, the GOP bigwigs aren't so enthusiastic about her running for the Senate.

Ironically (and I'm surprised the article didn't mention it), it's the same problem with running Hillary Clinton for president -- so many people have already made up their minds before she opens her mouth that it's going to be hard to win over anyone who isn't a hardcore party supporter. Every mention of Harris in the news is like picking at the scab of the 2000 election. The Republicans know that she won't attract votes from anyone who doesn't like Bush at the moment since she, ever the dutiful campaign chairman, delivered victory to him. The scary thing shown in the article is that the true believers really think she's wonderful. (Of course the difference between the two women is that the Senate is relatively "low stakes" compared with the Oval Office.)

TNR cruelly resurrects a litany of slurs flung at Harris regarding her makeup in 2000, which seems petty to me. This article gives me plenty of better reasons to hate Harris:
  • She is a citrus heiress with a net worth once estimated at $5.5 million. Don't get me wrong; I don't despise rich people in general. But an heiress is just someone who popped out of a lucky womb like Paris Hilton, and the last thing the U.S. Senate needs today is another fat cat with a sense of entitlement (of course, the House also has its share of those).
  • She was a prom queen. I'll admit that I hate prom queens in general. I think they all should be vanquished to trailer parks within five years of graduation. Call it the price of popularity, or peaking too soon.
  • Worst of all, in her two terms in the House, she has consistently toed the party line, and we know where that has led us.

The most shocking thing in the article is an assertion by one of her former aides: "She thinks she's the smartest person in the room." That's pretty amazing coming from the most notorious party stooge in recent history. If she's so smart, why did she let herself be Karl Rove's marionette in November 2000? If Harris is smart, it is only in the most cynical, sinister, Machiavellian sense of the word. By subverting democratic principles, she got an easy ride to Congress. The ends justify the means, I suppose. Kathy, you'll always be a bastard in my book.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Chili's Grill & Bar, particularly the bartender at the Chili's where I purchased gift cards last Christmas - During the holiday season, Chili's was running a special promotion that gave customers a $5 coupon card for every $25 worth of gift cards they purchased. I bought cards for several people and even kicked in an extra $5 so I could reach the next $25 increment (figuring I'd get it right back), accruing a total of $25 in coupon cards.

I asked the bartender who sold me the gift cards if I had to use the coupon cards on separate visits. She assured me that I could use them all at once if I wanted to, which was great because they were only valid for two months, January or February. The nearest Chili's is a 20-minute drive (passing many equal or better eating establishments along the way), and my wife and I only dine together twice a week due to her work schedule, but I figured we could manage to eat there sometime in two months.

Well, here it is just days before the February 28 expiration date. We planned to go out Friday night and use our $25 worth of coupon cards. We were ready to head out the door with the coupon cards when I thought to double-check the fine print on the back. Sure enough, only one $5 coupon card can be used per visit. Bastards! Sure, we could probably get $10 off by demanding separate checks (though I loathe "separate checks" people even more than waitstaff do), but it just isn't worth the hassle anymore. It would have been worth $25, but not $5 or $10. Besides, I'm not giving those bastards another dime. We went to the restaurant down the block for dinner instead, and it's better than Chili's anyway (bonus: saw Sasha Cohen get interviewed on the big TV -- she's even prettier off the ice, and unlike other Olympic skaters, she's old enough that I don't feel like a perv looking at her).

If I had known that the bartender was lying to me, I would have given away the coupon cards along with the gift cards because there's no way I could eat at Chili's five times in two months. Instead they will be wasted. This won't be a problem next year because I won't buy Chili's gift cards ever again. My ire extends to Brinker International, the corporate parent of Chili's, so my family shouldn't expect gift cards for Romano's Macaroni Grill, On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, Maggiano's Little Italy, or Rockfish Seafood Grill either. And don't tell me I should have read the back of the coupon card before -- as far as I'm concerned, it is their job to know the rules.

If I were the bastard, I'd go back to that Chili's, order a few margaritas, and toss my lunch on that bar for the bartender to clean up. Then I'd toss the $25 worth of coupon cards on the bar, wink at her, and stagger out the door. Hey, I still have a few days before the coupon cards expire...

New Feature: Bastard of the Day

I've been toying with this idea for a long while. This feature will be predicated on my First Theory of the Universe, which says that everyone was put here to irritate me, one way or another, at some point in time. Self-centered, I know, but bear with me. Whether it is a faceless corporation screwing me out of a rebate, a cell phone-toting motorist who nearly runs me over, or even my own dog clawing a radiator reflector to shreds in vain pursuit of a mouse, some entity irritates me daily. Some are worse than others, of course, and I won't bother to blog about them every single day, just the more interesting, frustrating, or egregious ones. Sometimes I will even include "If I were the bastard..." detailing what I would do to avenge my mistreatment. Frankly, this is all about catharsis.

I won't limit myself to those who impact me personally, though. For example, there was a news story a few weeks ago about drug smugglers using puppies as "mules" to transport their contraband. Obviously, those guys were bastards, and I would be remiss not to mention them. Dick Cheney shooting a hunting partner? Yep, a bastard. Even more bastardly than usual.

I know some people consider bastard to be a harsh word, but I've always liked it. Perhaps it is generational. I know my dad doesn't like the way I toss the word around, and trust me, he's no stranger to colorful language (as a three-year-old, I learned "bullshit" hanging around with him while he worked on his car, and I won't even repeat what he says to the TV when his football team is floundering). But when I was in high school, bastard was a favorite word, even among friends, for someone who did something that wasn't nice, regardless of severity -- whether you took the last piece of pizza or set your parents' house on fire, our collective response was, "You bastard!" Similarly, the Bastard of the Day will vary -- all bastards are not equal. My dog's bastardly transgressions are inferior to those of Dick Cheney.

As an invective, "bastard" occupies a position somewhere between "asshole" and "jerk." The former is too explicit, but the latter is too weak. Although I considered the quaint appeal of "rapscallion" for this feature, ultimately I prefer "bastard." Coming up next, the first Bastard of the Day...

Do These People Know Anything About Dogs?

The maker of Greenies, a popular dog treat, is responding to pet choking deaths and consumer complaints with "plans to clarify feeding instructions and increase the print size on packaging, which included a small-print warning that gulping any item can be harmful and even fatal." This is a hoot:
"Greenies are safe if they are fed properly and chewed by the dog," said Joe Roetheli, founder and chief executive officer of [manufacturer] S&M NuTec. "We really want people to read the directions and follow them."
"Fed properly?" Does that mean "crushed to bits with a 10-pound sledge before feeding?" That might work. And "chewed by the dog?" Just how does one make a dog chew food before swallowing? Mastication isn't exactly their strong point. Our dog Teddy practically inhaled anything that would fit in his mouth. He used to eat a 1/4-pound hamburger patty in three gulps or less. Rosco is a little better, but that has nothing to do with our influence as owners. It's not like you can tell a dog to chew thirty-two times before swallowing. Well, you can tell a dog whatever you want, but don't expect it to obey. No Greenies for us, thank you.

And don't get me started on the company's name. "S&M NuTec" sounds like Space Age bondage gear.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Rearranging the Virtual Furniture

Today a potential copywriting client found my Web site and called me regarding some work. Whenever someone finds me on the Web, it is an invitation for me to revisit my site's design and content. It has been several months since I updated even the "what's new" portion of the page. A quick review of the whole corporate section (only five pages, tiny compared to, say, Dave's Bicycling Pages) brought one word to mind: blah. My pages are pedestrian -- not blindingly ugly but not particularly attractive either. Tonight I tried to tweak a few things, but now I feel a redesign coming on. I'll start with a lighter shade of blue...

One thing I added to the home page and this blog is a handy link to Amazon.com to (pre) order my book. Someday there should be a cover photo in that little box, but right now even I don't know what the cover will look like. That's one part of the publishing process where I didn't have any input. (And no, you don't need to remind me that just weeks ago I was complaining about Amazon's Christmas order fulfilment problems.)

UPDATE 02/20/2006 - Okay, it's finished. Not exactly radical or cutting-edge, but I think it is cleaner and more direct. I eliminated pages that were placeholders for nonexistent content, and I put contact info on every page instead of separating it. After all, why make clients click an extra time to get in touch with me when that's the whole objective of the site?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Doors

Last night was "Doors night" at our house. First we watched Oliver Stone's film, The Doors. Then we watched it again with Stone's commentary. After 4-1/2 hours of watching the band, I was surprised my wife was willing to go for the ultimate -- listening to all six of the Doors' studio albums back to back.

The movie should have been called Jim Morrison instead of The Doors. Clearly Stone was focused on Morrison, and the rest of the band doesn't get enough coverage to be worthy of mention. Most notably, there is no clue as to how Morrison and Ray Manzarek found and recruited Robby Krieger and John Densmore -- they are just suddenly rehearsing together. And for a movie supposedly about the Doors, it spends too much time on Morrison's poetry and too little on the music. One thing I love about the Doors, something crucial to their unique sound, is the interplay between Manzarek's organ and Krieger's guitar.

Maybe I missed it, but I was surprised that "Peace Frog" wasn't used in the movie. That song includes lyrics about the film's opening scene, where a young Morrison (played by Stone's son) sees the aftermath of a highway accident involving a truckload of Indians. It also takes a jab at New Haven, site of another incident in the movie.

Stone actually does pretty good commentaries for his movies, not the rambling, butt-kissing fluff one hears on a lot of commentary tracks. One quibble: Stone is a little foggy about the band's last two albums, Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman. It seemed to me that he combined them in his head. Most obviously he said "Roadhouse Blues" was on their last album, but it led off Morrison Hotel. Up to that point, his recollection of the band's discography was pretty accurate.

Of course, I had a refresher course last night, listening to some records I haven't heard in many years. I was a Doors fan in high school (mid-late 1980s). More accurately, I was a 1960s fan in high school. I still have a huge collection of music from 1966-1970, most of it on vinyl. My wife is impressed with my knowledge of the Doors and other music from that era, but I don't know if she really understands how into music I was at the time. My teenage years were spent in my bedroom with the door closed, the turntable spinning record after record for hours on end. That's where all my extra money went -- to buy more records. Some people look at my 800 vinyl LPs and say I wasted my money, but hey, at least I wasn't buying booze or drugs.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Little Valentine's Day Ditty

I wrote this today while walking home from the grocery store. It was inspired by the holiday, Brokeback Mountain, and my best friend's sister (explanation to follow)...
Bisexual love
Bisexual love
If you can't get any for free
You can always buy sexual love
Once my friend and his parents were talking about the 1960s, hippies and free love. His dad asked my friend's sister what she thought about free love, and she replied a little indignantly, "Well, I wouldn't pay for it!" Alas, years later it appears that she probably would have been better off buying love than marrying the no-account loser who fathered her children.

So happy Valentine's Day everybody, and may the love you get for free be better than money can buy.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Don't Buy a Wal-Mart Bicycle!

In a California court case this week, Wal-Mart and importer Dynacraft BSC defended themselves against a lawsuit accusing them of knowingly distributing bikes with faulty quick-release levers.

The defendants say that any front-wheel failures associated with the bicycles are most likely a result of improper assembly, parental neglect, failure to adjust the quick-release device, or children's neglect or abuse of the bikes.
I know from experience that many people don't know how to operate quick-release levers -- I once showed a new commuter how to take off her front wheel in order to lock it up alongside the frame. It hardly bears mentioning that her bike was a cheap brand such as those sold at Wal-Mart. Any decent bike shop would never let you roll the bike out the front door without explaining how the quick-release mechanism works. Even if you think you know, they'll probably show you again just to be sure. No one at Wal-Mart is going to tell you about important things like properly using and adjusting your front wheel's quick-release.

But this court case offered an even better reason not to buy a Wal-Mart bike. The jury was given a bicycle to examine in order to understand how the quick-release works. About five hours into their deliberations, a juror broke the quick-release lever! Oops. That couldn't have helped Wal-Mart's defense. And according to a press release put out on behalf of the plaintiffs, "The bicycle came straight out of the box and had never been ridden."

Discount store and department store bikes are the Yugos of the bicycle industry. Sure, they are cheap, but you get an unreliable product that should not be trusted. Parents, would you buy your daughter the cheapest "beater" on the used-car lot for her to drive home from work at night? Of course not. Then why do so many people put their kids on these dangerous bikes just to save a few bucks?

As one who writes about cycling on the Web, I get many e-mails asking, "What bike should I buy?" My answer is always the same: always buy from a bike shop (unless you're buying something fancy via mail-order like a Bike Friday) and start out with the cheapest bicycle built by a well-known, well-regarded manufacturer. Companies like Trek, Giant, Cannondale and Specialized cannot afford to have their good reputations destroyed by inferior products. The cheapest Trek mountain bike will be far better than the fanciest full-suspension $100 Wal-Mart bike. And when you consider that the Trek will last as long as several Wal-Mart bikes in succession, it really doesn't cost more money than the cheap bike. You can certainly spend a lot more and get an even better bike, but buying a good brand is the bare minimum. And no, Huffy is not considered a good brand. Go to a bike shop. Trust me on this.

UPDATE - 02/12/2006 - Well, it looks like Wal-Mart won their case despite the broken quick-release. The jury voted 11-1 that it was the fault of the kids and parents. Without knowing the details of the case, I suspect this was an example of one side winning largely because they could afford better lawyers. Ironically, a high-profile Wal-Mart lawyer said in his closing argument, "Theories are a dime a dozen. Where's the proof? Where's the data?" Uh, maybe that broken quick-release in the jury room was the proof? Regardless of the results of this case, their bikes are still junk. If the quick-release doesn't fail, something else will. And don't go crying to the local bike shop when that Wal-Mart bike breaks. It's not their fault you bought a pretty piece of scrap metal instead of a bicycle.

Monday, February 06, 2006

I'm on Amazon!!!!!

Just for grins I searched for Biking Illinois on Amazon.com tonight... and it is there! They spelled my name correctly, thank goodness (I've had nightmares about that). Barnes & Noble has it listed as well. Oddly enough, my publisher's web site doesn't mention it yet. And of course, if you'd like to find out more, check out my slowly growing companion web site, www.bikingillinois.com.

UPDATE - 02/09/2006 - I signed up for Amazon.com's affiliate program a few days ago, and now I have a link at www.bikingillinois.com to pre-order my book.

Friday, February 03, 2006

400 Gigs of Porn

Not really, but at least I got your attention. The last time I bought a high capacity hard drive, my brother and I joked about filling the whole thing with Internet porn. That was "only" 200 GB, but this week I got a Seagate 400 GB external hard drive.

I've been in dire need of disk space since my desktop died and I decided to use my new ThinkPad exclusively. Since that hadn't been the original plan, I only ordered a 40 GB drive inside the notebook. Needless to say, I've been doing some complicated data juggling over the past few months. Every time I finish shooting a memory card with my 7-megapixel camera, I have to find something to delete on the hard drive before uploading.

Bigger hard drives are inevitable. Think of George Carlin's old routine about having a place for his stuff. Ultimately people buy bigger houses to hold all of their stuff. After ten years of home computing and Internet use, I have a lot of digital stuff, and now I need a bigger hard drive to hold it all. Fortunately, the technology is advancing at just the right pace so that I pay the same amount or less every time I upgrade. Hence, 400 GB from a quality manufacturer only cost $240 after rebate at Buy.com. Two years ago, my 250 GB hard drive was about $10 more after rebate, but it was from CompUSA so I never got my rebate (caveat emptor: it happens a lot with them).

Thanks to luck and foresight, I've never lost much data to a hardware failure. I'm fanatical about redundancy. Even when I had to carry the equipment across the country on my bike, I made sure I wouldn't lose a photo by saving it three times -- to the hard drive, a back-up hard drive, and a CD-R (which I mailed home). So if a gravel hauler in Arizona had turned me and my Panasonic ToughBook into a greasy spot on the highway, at least my wife would have had good pictures of my final adventure to show at the wake.

My redundancy strategy paid off this summer when my desktop PC died and left me with an unreadable hard drive (it uses a special controller card that I can't connect to my notebook). My last full back-up was three weeks earlier (and I had been out of town for two of those), so I didn't lose much. As soon as I finish loading data onto my new drive, I will back up its contents to two smaller drives. At the moment, my ThinkPad is just a USB data transfer hub.