Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Ten Top 2009 Top Ten Lists

Sweet December, the time when editors scramble to use up the last of their vacation days by the end of the year, when their temps and interns abandon forward-looking news and recycle the content from days past. In short, December is the time for lists of the best and worst of everything from the past year.

And so here I follow suit, offering my choices for (and links to) the best "Top Ten of 2009" lists out there on the Internet. Some of them are informative, some fun, some beautiful (and at least one that's all three). And in order not to be a total spoiler, I offer up the number two item for each list.

10. Top Ten Sports Moments from AskMen.com

I don't follow a lot of sports, so this type of highlights list is perfect for me. Why watch the whole forgettable game/match/round/inning when I can just skip to the cool parts and then go back to reading and writing? (The pix of bikini- and underwear-clad babes are a plus as well.)

  • Roger Federer regains his #1 position after defeating Andy Roddick in a marathon 4 hour, 16 minute final match encompassing 30 sets at Wimbledon.


9. Top Ten Google Doodles from InventorSpot

You never know what you'll find on the Google home page from day to day. Over the years, the "standard" Google logo has been artistically replaced with so-called "Google Doodles" to mark holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries of all sorts.

  • #2: On November 4, GoogleUK marked the 20th anniversary of Wallace & Grommit with this search page image.



Note: This is currently listed as #2, but when you get to the end of the list, you'll find a poll that lets you vote for your favorite. Vote now to move your favorite to the top spot!

8. Top Ten Books of 2009 from The Book Maven

Everyone and their brother has posted a list of the top ten books of the year, from book-biz mainstays like Amazon, Publisher's Weekly, and the New York Times to readers, writers, and influencers like Stephen King and Oprah. Although I haven't read any of the books on any of these lists yet, I prefer The Book Maven's list for her relaxed writing style and succinct yet informative summaries.

  • The Book Maven lists her books in no particular order, so there really isn't a "#2" to list here. From the descriptions, though, Zoe Heller's The Believers goes near the top of my to-read list.

7. Top Ten 2009 Cryptozoology Deaths

This is a strange one, yes, but it is interesting to see what insiders have to say about the frontiersmen of fringe science. This list includes people who searched for Bigfoot, people who spotted the Mothman, and even the recently deceased director of the X-Files episode in which the word cryptozoology was first uttered.

The deaths are listed in the order in which they occurred. The first, James Colvin, who died January 4, was the director of two expeditions in search of the Loch Ness Monster, funded by World Book Encyclopedia in the late '60s and early '70s.

6. Top Ten New Species of 2009, from the International Institute for Species Exploration

We so often hear about the effects of global climate change and the endangerment of various species around the world that we sometimes forget that scientists are discovering (or creating) new species all the time. I'll give you #2, but you've really got to see #1; it's just difficult to believe without seeing.

  • #2: Coffea charrieriana:
    A new caffeine-free coffee bean from Cameroon.

5. National Geographic's Top Ten Discoveries of 2009

This list is based on the popularity of the coverage and not on the decisions of Nat'l Geographic Researchers or any other scientific (or intern-packed) committee. The list is in large part taken up by large, dangerous, and downright weird animals that were discovered, rediscovered, and sometimes eaten.

  • #2: Fish With Transparent Head Seen Alive for First Time


4. Discover Magazine's Top Ten Astronomy Pictures

As new technology for studying the heavens is created and improved, the images we get of the outer reaches become clearer, more useful, and more beautiful. To quote the blog itself, "Colorful stars, wispy, ethereal nebulae, galactic vistas sprawling out across our telescopes . . . it's art no matter how you look at it."

  • #2: Images from Mars: This is an image of the sand dunes of Mars, swirled and swept by the mysterious winds the tickle the Red Planet's plains, taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.


3. Top Ten Fails of 2009 from FAILBlog

From cryptic signs and stupid warnings to crotch-crunching skateboarders and Darwin Award nominees, FAILBlog offers up the stupidest, silliest, and most unbelievable idiocy in the world today. FAILBlog offers not one, but three lists of this year's top fails:

  • Top Ten Most Memorable FAIL Moments: #2. Bolivian newscasts air a scene from Lost as actual footage from the last moments of Flight 447.
  • Top Ten Most Memorable FAIL People: #2. Jon Gosselin.
  • Top 10 Most Memorable Videos and Photos on FAIL Blog: #2. A photo of a playground slide that ends in a small pit about a foot deep — suitable for an episode of Parks and Recreation.

2. THE FUTURIST Magazine's Top 10 Forecasts for 2010 and Beyond

From the site itself:

Each year since 1985, the editors of THE FUTURIST have selected the most thought-provoking ideas and forecasts appearing in the magazine to go into our annual Outlook report. Over the years, Outlook has spotlighted the emergence of such epochal developments as the Internet, virtual reality, and the end of the Cold War. Here are the top ten forecasts for 2010 and beyond.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

  • #2: In the design economy of the future, people will download and print their own products, including auto parts, jewelry, and even the kitchen sink. (Neal Stephenson fans may recognize a hint of The Diamond Age in this forecast.)

1. Buzzfeed's Top Ten Flash Mobs

There's something heartwarming about a large number of strangers coming together for a single purpose, even if it is only to dance in a public place. (I assume that these are actually listed in reverse order qualitatively, considering that the video in tenth place is listed as "The apex of flash mobs. This is what all flash mobs strive to be.")

  • #2 (er, 9): Sweden's Tribute to Michael Jackson

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Wish List 09

Holiday season rolls around again! Last year's wish list did so well, I figured I'd give it another go. So, here are a few gift ideas to consider:

Music

  • Tori Amos, Midwinter Graces
  • Amanda Palmer, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?
  • Coldplay, Viva la Vida
  • Stevie Wonder, Talking Book
  • The Tiger Lillies with Kronos Quartet, The Gorey End
  • Counting Crows, August and Everything After [thanks to the kids!]
  • Anything from Red Hot Chili Peppers

Books

Other Stuff

  • An application to turn PowerPoint presentations into videos
  • An end to debt
  • A microSD card for my phone — the bigger the better [thanks, dad]
  • The new Star Trek movie [didn't get it for Christmas; couldn't wait so I bought it myself]
  • Spiderman 3
  • A house
  • A 32GB iPod Touch
  • Something I can use as a medicine cabinet [thanks dad, er, indirectly]
  • Bath towels — navy blue or a dark olive
  • Spore Heroes for the Wii
  • Nine ladies dancing
  • Whole-bean coffee
  • A fun calendar or two
  • A comfy office chair
  • A nice dinner
  • Pretty much anything from the ThinkGeek catalogue

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

We're Too Fat! Please Send Money!

I honestly hope someone can come along and prove that this article in the Telegraph is a hoax. Here's the short of it:

A family of four in Blackburn (somewhere in the UK) has a combined weight of 83 stone. A stone is (somehow) 14 pounds, so in total they weigh 1,162 pounds. The members of this family receive government assistance because of numerous medical conditions — all related to being overweight — in the amount of £22,508 a year, approximately US$37,500. They claim that their income assistance checks are too small.

But here's the rub: They haven't worked in 11 years! They claim that their hereditary weight problems keep them from working regular jobs. They believe that the government should give them more money, and that they shouldn't have to find jobs. Says the father, "It's not our fault we can't work. We deserve more."

Where does this overblown sense of entitlement come from? I'll admit to having problems with my weight, but I would never, never, claim that someone else is responsible for my livelihood because of it. Someone please tell me this is a hoax, that there really aren't people in the world like this!

(Sadly, the next "job" this family is likely to find is a reality TV show. Will we soon see The Couch Potatoes on BBC? Superfatties on FOX? Little Minds, Big Asses on TLC?)

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Story of the Birthday Roadkill

My 35th birthday was Saturday, and as usually happens among my friends, we celebrate by going out for sushi. J and E and lil Lil arrived at the apartment first, but V wasn't far behind. As soon as I close the door behind V, she says, "You know how they say that it's the thought that counts? That really applies here." Turns out she made some sort of rich, fat-packed chocolate-brownie/cookie dessert squares for me. She took them out to the car, along with her coat in case she needed it (she didn't), set the nummies on the roof of the car and fished out her keys to unlock the door. Then she slid into the car and started off.

Somewhere between her condo and my apartment, she heard a couple mysterious thumps. She didn't realize what it was until she got to the apartment complex that I just moved into. She had left my chocolate nummies on the roof of her car, and the directions to my new place were on a sticky note attached to them!

Luckily, she remembered my building number and some sketchy directions, so she made it there for sushi. I guess she was able to find the doomed desserts the next morning, completely flattened at the edge of the road.

When I came into work this morning, sitting on my office desk were four dessert squares that V hadn't originally wrapped up the night before. (They're like finger sandwiches but with cookies for the bread and fudge for the meat. I think she's trying to kill me.) The note on top of the nummies said "NOT ROADKILL."

It's the thought that counts.


 

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Generic Update Title about Being Really Busy

I haven't posted in quite a while because I've been so godawful busy. And stressed.

The last week of October was particularly packed for me. During the course of that week, I moved to a new apartment. It's a bit cheaper, and it's a lot closer to where my kids live and go to school. Moving there has cut 10 minutes a day off my usual morning drive to take them to school, which I'm hoping will help clear up some of my financial difficulties.

So I spent most of my free time that week packing stuff up and moving it. I got the last of my stuff moved on Halloween and turned my keys in with time to spare — though I realized the next day that I forgot to empty out the freezer at the old place. Not much of a loss, though: months-old half-empty bags of frozen tilapia and broccoli. I did have two relatively recent servings of ground turkey that I left behind, though.

Friday night, the IWS had its Halloween concert. Since I do the group's programs, as well as a lot of other stuff, concerts in general can be pretty stressful. This one was moreso for three reasons:

  1. We played The Sorcerer's Apprentice. I haven't had my ass so thoroughly kicked by a piece of music in quite a while. Essentially playing the violin part on a clarinet is normally a horrid experience, but this was one of the worst. (Not that it wasn't a good transcription; it was just so damned hard!)
  2. We were supposed to come in costume. I fretted (waaaaay too much) over my costume since the end of September. I originally thought of dressing as a cubicle, but in the end, I took my mother's old bee outfit and paired it with a sword, shield, and crown. That's right, I was a Bee King. But not just any king! I was Bee Arthur. (I have to stop being so obscure with my costume. Nobody recognized it right away, and when I told them the pun, I got a mix of laughter, rolled eyes, and disgust. Two years ago, very few people even recognized that I was dressed as Ned Flanders. Next year, I'm just wearing a white T-shirt with the words "Obscure Fictional Character" written on the front.)
  3. I had to create a PowerPoint presentation to be shown while the band played Barry Kopetz's The Raven. Our concert was in part billed as a commemoration of Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday. We had an actress from Cabaret Poe (which I know nothing about) come in and enact the poem before we played. For the presentation, I was lucky that Gustav Doré had created a series of engravings to illustrate "The Raven," so I could just use those. If the recording of our performance is any good, I'll eventually put the two together, turn it into a movie, and then post it online.

All this on top of my usual nine-to-five job, some freelance copy editing, and going with my kids to see the Headless Horseman at Conner Prairie. Things are finally calming down, though.

My "next big thing" is that I'm making my way through Beginning XML, Third Edition, from Wrox Press. (Full disclosure: I work for Wrox Press's parent company.) I'm trying to learn XML for a number of reasons — number one is just because it's there. I'm hoping that, eventually, I'll be able to put together a small XML program that'll let people track Google Sidewiki comments on their Web sites (I'll probably write more about Sidewiki later), but I won't consider my efforts a failure if I never make it that far. I'm learning XML mostly for fun and to boost my overall skill set.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is 7 Lucky for Microsoft? Changes You'll See in Windows 7

Windows 7 becomes widely available today, and it's big. How big? On Amazon UK, more people have pre-ordered Windows 7 than pre-ordered Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I haven't had the chance to actually try Windows 7, but I've been editing a lot of articles about the new OS at work. After reading a bunch of Windows 7 how-to's, I'm kind of excited about the new Windows. At least as excited as someone can get about an OS upgrade. Here are some of the changes you can expect to find:

New Win7 Features to be Happy About

Aero Shake. Grab a window and shake the mouse, and all the other windows minimize. Shake it again, and they all pop back up. It sounds like a great way to unclutter your desktop, and also to quickly hide what you were really doing when your boss walked into the office.

Aero Snap. Drag a window all the way to the left or right, and it automatically resizes to cover half the desktop. You can place any two application windows side by side now!

Slide Show Wallpaper. Can't decide which picture of your kids to plaster on your desktop? Select them all, and the desktop wallpaper will flip through them like a slideshow.

Expanded calculator. It seems kind of backward that it has taken so long to make the built-in calculator as powerful as some TI handheld, but there it is. The calculator noew does unit conversions, date calculations, statistics, and number system conversions (e.g., decimal to hexadecimal), as well as, well, adding, subtracting, and the like. These improvements will make someone, somewhere happy.

Adjustable user account settings. One might describe Windows Vista's security as, well, paranoid. Any time anyone does something that remotely looks like it will affect the system, an annoying UAC security window appears. Sometimes twice. Windows 7 lets you customize how, er, paranoid the Windows lookouts are.

The Sidebar is gone. All those gadgets that you added to the right side of the Windows Vista desktop — from weather alerts and stock price tickers to xkcd cartoons and virtual strippers — have now been cut free from their anchors. Place your gadgets wherever you want to on your desktop and they'll stay there. ('So what?!' say Mac owners. 'We've been doing that forever!')

The return of the Disk Defragmenter. Microsoft really wants you to automate this maintenance process, but I guess enough people complained about its disappearance in Windows Vista that Microsoft brought it back in Windows 7. To some, it's an important maintenance tool; to me, it's just a neat-o visualization tool.

Stability and speed. By all accounts, Windows 7 fixes most or all of the major problems apparent in Vista, making it more secure and less prone to falling to the BSOD. Plus, the new search feature is expected to work with Google-like speed to find documents on your hard drive.

Win7 Changes I'm Not So Sure About

The Scenic Ribbon. Microsoft expanded on the Ribbon interface that was introduced on Office 2007 and took it into a number of other programs, rebranding it as the "Scenic Ribbon." Most notably, you'll find the Ribbon in MS Paint and Wordpad, but Microsoft has released the API for the Scenic Ribbon and is encouraging developers to incorporate the Ribbon into their programs.

The Device Stage. Vista switched around the Control Panel, and now Windows 7 is redoing how you interact with hardware. In the long run, this may prove to be a good change, but there'll be a learning curve here that'll slow you down in the beginning.

Fewer parental controls. Microsoft cut down on the parental controls in Windows 7, but they ramped up the parental controls in Internet Explorer 8. (Of course, I use Firefox . . . )

Win7 Changes to Grumble About

Where's Windows Defender? I haven't been able yet to verify this claim, but I have read that Windows Defender, though it's still built into the system, is more difficult to find. It isn't where it used to be. Although I don't interact directly with Windows Defender very often, it is quite good at telling me what programs are launching automatically when I log in.

Fewer built-in freebies. If you upgrade to Windows 7, you might be surprised to find that you no longer have the Movie Maker, e-mail, an Instant Messenger, and a few other things. Some of the mainstays of Windows have been removed from the installation disc (probably because of a lawsuit or the threat of one). You can, however, download the Windows Live Essentials pack. It just makes installation that much longer and more tedious.

No Ink Ball! That fun (ish) new game that appeared in Windows Vista has been axed. (It has, however, been replaced by online, multiplayer versions of backgammon, checkers, and spades.


Then there's the new desktop, which acts a lot more like a Mac desktop. (Is anyone surprised?) It'll be a change, but, like using the Ribbon, it'll just take time to get used to it. The toolbar offers more useful features than it has in the past. Buttons now have jump lists that pop up showing related documents that you pin there, or recently used or frequently used documents (you can tell Windows which you want to see). These really do sound like navigational improvements rather than bells and whistles . . . time will tell.

If Windows 7 is all it appears to be, the days of those last XP holders-on are numbered. That, of course, depends on Microsoft keeping its promises and avoiding stupid choices, both of which have been problems in the past.


One last bit of info that I want to share. It came up in my forays through windows 7 info, but it's something you can use now, in XP and Vista.
I don't know why it never occurred to me that this might be the case, but there are cheats built into the windows games, specifically, in Minesweeper, Free Cell, and Solitaire. Follow those links and get the lowdown. (Anyone know any cheats for Hearts?)

(Full disclosure, those are links to the Web site that I get paid to help maintain.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Global Climate Change — Whom Do You Trust for Information?

[Quick note: When I began this blog post, it was going to be about finding honest, complete information about global climate change. It spun off into an epistemological tangent. My apologies if you don't think this truly falls under the "global climate change" topic for Blog Action Day 09 that prompted this post. What can I say? Sometimes you control the pen, sometimes the pen controls you.]

As both individuals and governments scramble to find ways to slow or reverse the progress of global climate change, one barrier consistently gets in the way: The information barrier.

This may sound like an odd statement, what with this ginormous, ubiquitous Internet thingy out there feeding us terabytes of new information every hour. There's plenty of information — or data, or just words, depending on how you look at it — about climate change out there on the Interwebs. A quick Google search for "climate change" yields 46.5 million web hits in under a second. So it isn't the lack of information that's the problem, it's too much information. With so many words and images and tables and charts and graphs to choose from, how do we separate the noise from the music? The opinions from the facts? The jejune meanderings of schmoes like me from the hard data from the people working the front lines of discovery?

And when we do find a morsel of seemingly good data, how much can we trust it?

Government debate — salted with both expert opinions and million-dollar science budgets as well as corporate lobbyists and pork barrel politics — is one thing, but when it comes to really understanding what the global climate change conversation is really about, and what it all means, it really boils down to the individual. What do I, a lowly, lonely nonscientist, really know about climate change?

I don't have the gear or the background to test, research, and gather my own raw data about what is happening in the world. And even if I get my hands on raw data, I likely won't understand how to read and interpret it. No, I must rely on someone else, or several someone elses, to discovery, decipher, and deliver the relevant scientific research. But how do I know that such technological jargon is being interpreted accurately?

I don't.

And that's the point that I've been getting to: My understanding (hoi polloi's understanding) of global climate change boils down to a matter of trust.

Whom can you or I trust to give us accurate and complete information about what's really going on in the atmosphere? Very rarely do we get unfiltered information directly from researchers. We get science news from, well, new reports, and bloggers, and science magazines, and movies. Many times, these reports are based only on a reading of a research abstract. More common, though, is a report written after reading a couple of other articles or reports which were in turn written after reading a research abstract.

Science journalism in particular has taken a pretty
severe
beating
around
the
head
and
shoulders recently. Reading about shoddy and suspicious journalism in particular cases can make one wary of journalistic practices as a whole. Even if people aren't consciously withholding the truth, it's too easy to just let some fact-checking slide. But if I can't trust the news media, where do I go for good information?

There's always Al Gore!

I trust that Al Gore's efforts truly are an attempt to create positive change. Unfortunately, that trust also leads me to more doubt. "Creating a positive change" isn't the same as "presenting the whole truth." Al Gore (and Michael Moore, and Ralph Nader, et al.) have their own agendas based on what they believe and the information that they trust. And when you have such an angle, it's difficult, if not impossible, to be totally unbiased. It's too easy to ignore or undervalue data and opinions that don't jibe with what you already believe and what you're trying to say.

(Who'd've thought that science and religion would have so much in common?)

But if we can't trust someone to accurately describe the facts, surely we can trust what we see with our own eyes! There are plenty of videos and images floating around out there showing glaciers crashing down and icebergs melting and starving penguins, but do we really know that we're seeing the effects of climate change? Do we know that an image is truly representative of a larger trend and not just an isolated event?

So if we can't totally trust science journalists to get it right, and we can't trust Al Gore and his ilk to give us the whole story, and we can't connect disparate images to global data, who can we trust? Where can we get the information we need to draw real conclusions?

Some may argue that the simple volume of apparent evidence is enough to point us toward the truth, that so many people saying the same things couldn't be wrong. But how much of the buzz about climate change is just the same handful of stories recycled and rewritten and reposted online . . . the game of Telephone on a grand scale?

And besides, the idea that general agreement can dictate truth is a cop-out. Think flat Earth. Think slavery.

So I guess the issue of trust is really just a stepping stone. Ultimately, deciding whom and what to believe is a matter of faith. (Again, science meets religion.) You have to believe something, but you can never know everything about anything. Ultimately, you have to have faith in the sources you've chosen and go forward as if that information is infallible — at least until some better, more trustworthy information comes along.

And that's the epistemological conundrum behind every decision we make: we're always basing our decisions on incomplete and unprovable information.


 

Not to elevate my intellectual status, but I imagine this is the type of conundrum that Descartes slogged through before arriving at his famous Cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am — the ultimate undeniable truth. I doubt even Descartes could start with that one foundational belief and work his way all the way up to global climate change.

I certainly can't.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Keeping Schools Safe by Avoiding Common Sense

Six-year-old Zachary Christie has been suspended from school and faces 45 days in a reform school. What Stephen King novel–worthy acts did he perpetrate on his teacher and classmates? Is he a budding pyromaniac? Is his vocabulary limited to four-letter sailor-esque slurs? Did he disfigure the class hamster?

Of course, it's none of this. Little Zachary got excited about joining the Cub Scouts and wanted to share that excitement with his friends, and he made the mistake of bringing his new "camping utensil" to school. This camping utensil serves as a spoon, fork, and knife. That's right . . . Zachary Christie has been suspended from the first grade for bringing a knife to school.

In the wake of Columbine and Virginia Tech, Zachary's school has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for bringing weapons into a school. What they haven't done is temper that lack of tolerance with common sense, forethought, and concern for a child's intellectual and emotional education.

Honestly, I thought we were past this. I don't personally think that zero-tolerance positions do any good — especially at this age level — but you can keep your zero-tolerance policies as long as you consider what "zero tolerance" really means.

Take a different example of something that is not tolerated in schools: bikinis. All schools have guidelines about what students can wear to school — from dress codes to school uniforms — and whether it is written down or not, you simply can't come to school wearing nothing but a bikini. It simply isn't tolerated.

So if a girl (or boy, I don't want to be sexist!) comes to school in a bikini, are they suspended and carted off to a reform school for 45 days? No. They are sent home to change clothes. It's that simple: A zero-tolerance policy that doesn't involve horribly marring a child's education and extinguish any love of learning that a child might already have.

(And before you argue that a pocketknife is more dangerous than a bikini, consider the my-child-is-ruined attitude that many had following Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.)

Unfortunately, the rules don't give school officials the leeway to deal with these situations case by case — for fear of seeming discriminatory. Zero-tolerance rules don't account for the differences between a handgun, a Swiss army knife, a Molotov cocktail, or a box cutter. How long will it be before schools start applying the same rules to the contents of a student's backpack that the FSA applies to carry-ons? We're nearly there already.

So zero-tolerance policies aren't the problem; the discipline punishment that follows with them is. Here's the worst that should have happened to poor Zachary: He gets his pocket scimitar taken from him and is sent to the principal's office; his parents are called in for a conference; they have a chat about the zero-tolerance policy. Maybe Zach gets detention.

If Zachary continues to try to bring his death-maker to school, then and only then does the reaction need to escalate.

What? That sounds like a three-strikes rule? Well sure — a three-strikes rule might make sense. What's more, a zero-tolerance rule and a three-strikes rule are not mutually exclusive!

Think about it, zero-tolerance is about rule-breaking, and three-strikes is about the punishment for that rule-breaking. Zero-tolerance for something means that you won't let it exist or happen in your bailiwick. It doesn't (have to) mean that whoever tries bring that something into your bailiwick is a dangerous, psychologically broken individual who should be separated from the general population and punished beyond reason.

I wish I could say I'm surprised when I read stories like this. Saddened, yes. Frustrated, absolutely. But in a country where school boards consider teaching creationism in science class, I can't really expect them to apply common sense when they decide what a student can and can't bring to class. And apparently I can't expect them to realize that fair rules must take into account that first graders, sixth graders, and high school seniors each have different intellectual, emotional, and physical characteristics.

Homeschooling is looking better all the time.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Language of Twitter with Indy IABC

Participated in a "Coffee & Conversation" hosted by the Indy IABC after work today at the local Stir Crazy. (I don't know how their coffee is, but they have great chicken potstickers.) The topic of the day was incorporating Twitter into business. The dozen participants ran the gamut of Twitter experience — from those who hadn't created a Twitter account yet to those who've been tweeting since 2007. I haven't been using Twitter long, so I had something to learn. Here are a few thoughts and ideas that came up concerning how one can make Twitter a more useful tool:

(If you aren't at all interested in social media or social marketing, or if you're a Twitter pro, or if you don't have a cell phone and you have to go to the library whenever you need to use a computer, you've probably already stopped reading. If you haven't stop now.)

These are admittedly random, as group conversations often are, and they certainly aren't comprehensive to any stretch of the imagination.

Retweet tracking

I liked this idea: One gent tracked his retweets by creating a new shortened URL whenever he retweeted someone. By comparing the tracking on his retweet URLs to tracking on the original URL, he discovered that links in retweets often garnered more traffic than the original tweets. From a business perspective, this points to the idea that, with Twitter, your customers can be your best advertisers. People are more likely to look at something if someone who isn't trying to make money off of you sends you a link. Self-promotion can get you only so far.

What you can do with your Twitterfeed

If you have a business Twitterfeed, why not stream it to your home page? It's a simple widget that you can add with minimal customization, and it will further humanize your brand/business, create a more dynamic site, and make your customers part of what's going on.

Easy way to get involved in conversations

Just search for a question mark! You'll end up with a whole bunch of tweeted questions. Just reply and join the conversation!

The difference between replies and mentions

This is probably just a sign of my ignorance and relative inexperience, but new Twitter users might appreciate someone putting this in print: If you just tack an @username in a message, it's a mention, and it appears with a link to that person's Twitter page. Only slightly different is if you use the Reply button. It appears the same as just adding an @username, but under your tweet is an "in reply to" link that will take you to the original tweet that you replied to. This link lets you see what a person was actually replying to.

Building a social marketing campaign

An important part of a social marketing campaign is figuring out how you're going to measure success. Is it the number of links back to your site? Is it the number of followers? The number of retweets? Are you using Twitter for marketing or PR? There's no wrong answer here, just questions that need to be answered in the earlier stages of creating a social marketing campaign.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Not André Breton’s Blog: Unique vs. Original

When I came up with the name Soluble Fish, I swear I thought of it on my own. But now that I look around a little more, maybe not.

French Surrealist André Breton wrote a book called Poisson Soluble. I've had a copy of Poems of André Breton
(trans. & ed. by Jean-Pierre Cauvin and Mary Ann Caws; pub. by U of Texas Press) since sometime in college. From the 1994 Kroger receipt serving as a bookmark, I must have read up to page 125, well past the excerpts from Soluble Fish. When I named this blog, I thought I had come up with an interesting, paradoxical name, full of metaphorical potential. (I knew that there used to be a Canadian band with this name, but hey.)

Did part of me "know" about this surrealist tome? Or was my mind able to formulate it on its own, having completely forgotten Poisson Soluble? Was this an independent yet non-unique creation? Or subliminal plagiarism? I'll never know.

Luckily, Breton won't be complaining about it; he died in 1966. I do rather enjoy being linked to the surrealist movement. Like many others, I went through my Salvador Dali stage, but I also expanded into surrealist literature, too. But that was a while ago.

So anyway, thank's André. Here's some of what he wrote:

Avec la musique j'ai lié partie pour une seconde seulement et maintenant je ne sais plus que penser du suicide, car si je veux me séparer do moi-même, la sortie est de ce côté et, j'ajoute malicieusement: l'entrée, le rentrée de cet autre côté. Tu vois ce qu'il te reste à faire. Les heures, le chagrin, je n'en tiens pas un compte raisonnable; je suis seul, je regarde par la fenêtre; il ne passe personne, ou plutôt personne ne passe.

En anglais:

I've kept company with music for a second only and now I no longer know what to think of suicide, for if I want to part from myself, the exit is on this side and, I add mischievously, the entrance, the re-entrance, on the other. You see what you still have to do. The hours, the grief, I don't keep a reasonable account of them; I'm alone, I look out the window; there is no passerby, or rather no one passes.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Google Sidewiki: CyberGraffiti vs. Online Marginalia

This week, Google released a public beta version of its new Sidewiki, a browser sidebar feature that lets you add comments to any (yes, any) Web page. (You can read the official Google blog post or an article from Ars Technica that describes it.) You actually don't add the comment to the Web page itself, but your comment is linked to that page, and all comments added for that page can be seen by anyone else who visits it and who has downloaded the Google toolbar. Google Sidewiki is a feature added to the browser and not to a Web site, thus giving the Web site owner no control over the comments and no legal ground to stand on if you end up with a lot of harsh comments. (I can only imagine the kind of ranting we'll see on Creationist Web sites!)

I'm going to have to reserve judgement for the time being. It's exciting the way a new pit bull puppy is exciting: In the beginning, it'll be fun to feed it and watch it grow, but it can quickly grow into something dangerous that could eat your children.

There are some safeguards built into Sidewiki:

  • You have to have a Google account to use it. This will (one hopes) lessen the opportunity to leave profane, argumentative, juvenile, and jejune comments anonymously. It also gives Google a lot more information about its users; some bloggers are bringing up Big Brother in their descriptions.
  • Comments won't appear in chronological order. Sidewiki will use an algorithm (Google has an algorithm for everything, no?) to rank a page's comments by relevance. If it's anything like their search algorithm, I don't hold much hope that it'll work well. If you own the site (presumably indicated by linking Google Analytics and Webmaster codes embedded in the site to your Google account), you can create an anchor comment that will stick to the top of the Sidewiki panel. Site owners can use this space to inficate what type of comments are expected of site visitors. (So far, the people who've tried Sidewiki haven't really know what type of comments to leave.)
  • Comments can be policed and ranked by the community. Drawing off the ideas crowdsource ranking sites like StumbleUpon and Digg, visitors can thumb up or thumb down a comment that is more or less helpful. There is also a way to report over-the-top, unacceptable comments. (It seems to me that it would take an enormous workforce just to review these abuse reports. Could we see mass hirings of low-level workers at Google soon?)
  • Google's legal language sets decent limits. Google reserves the right to limit the number of transmissions or the amount of storage space that a user can use. This ought to rein in bots and automatic spam in the Sidewiki. They also prohibit access to the Sidewiki services through any means other than Google's interface. (This, of course, can be bypassed with a written agreement with Google.)

I think people's biggest fear right now is that using the Sidewiki gives the Google folks an awful lot of personally identifiable information about online habits. It's a breakdown of the wall of anonymity. I perused the user agreement looking for language about what Google can do with your comments. I was uplifted when I read the legal language allowing Google to "pre-screen, review, flag, filter, modify, refuse, and remove" comments. Notice some missing words: republish, sell, market, repackage, etc. However, farther down in the legal lingo we find that Google can give your content to its partners for syndication. Your comments could make someone else some money. I'm not opposed to capitalism, but I am worried about plagiarism and intellectual property. As I said before, I'm going to have to reserve judgement until I see what actually transpires.

I'd been looking around for a cheap, simple commenting feature to add to my own Web site (Infinite Cadenza). Now I'm going to hold off on that and invite (the few) people who visit my site to use Sidewiki. I think a tool like this could be quite useful for small sites like mine, and could be a great source for me to figure out what types of content I should publish next. I don't know that big sites with lots of visitors will get much good out of being forced into social media. It's going to be a big mess come election time in 2012.

I couldn't find any information about what types of analytics Google will be able to offer Web site owners, and I'm really interested in what I'll find. (I've added a comment to my own site to see what pops up in my analytics.) I'm sure I'll post more about this later as I learn more about it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Heroes Predictions

[Spoiler alert]

The new season of Heroes kicked off last night, and I wasn't disappointed. Already we've seen the return of characters presumed dead (Tracy and, of course, Sylar), the death of one bad guy (Danko), a new power in Peter's arsenal (speed), and a collection of carnie freaks a la HBO's Carnivàle. The Heroes folks certainly aren't shying away from a ginormous cast.

Of course, that only means that a number of them won't survive the season.

True to form, the Easter Eggs have started as well — you know, like George Takei stepping out of a car with the license plate NCC1701. I only caught two that made me giggle like a little girl, but I've seen the episode only once:

  • At the math class test, the professor is reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is a real book that has been on my too-read list for a couple months now.
  • Angela Petrelli's chauffeur is named Alfred, a la Batman.

I'm sure there were more that I just didn't catch.

Anyway, here are my predictions for the next season:

  • Sylar isn't going to stay in Matt Parkman. At some point during the season, Sylar will move into the mind of either Mrs. Parkman or Baby Matt, or both. Big Matt will sacrifice and take Sylar back on. In the end, though, I think Sylar will return to his own body, but Nathan will still be in there, too. Then we'll have a full-blown, devil-inside, Hulk-vs.-Bruce Banner psychological conflict on our hands, made more serious by the fact that Nathan is a US Senator.
  • Samuel, the new ink-controlling character, and his topless muse are reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man. Keep your eyes open for people reading Bradbury (especially this book) and your ears open for references to his work: something wicked this way comes, fahrenheit 451, the martian chronicles, etc. (Note that his first collection of short stories was titled Dark Carnival.)
  • How will Tracy and Noah's relationship develop? They'll probably go back and forth, never falling for each other at the same time (shades of Ross and Rachel). It'll probably provide a good deal of tension between Noah and Nathan, though, who will probably also want to hook up with Tracy.
  • Claire's new friend Gretchen has a power and caused Annie's death. Gretchen is one of the carnies. I mean, it has to be her, right? Claire hasn't met any other characters at college yet, so who else could it be? The appearance of the suicide note points to passing through walls, freezing time, or being invisible. I vote for the last.
  • Matt is going to be the wildcard, at least for a while. Eventually, he'll return to NYC to get away from his family to keep them safe from Sylar.
  • Who will die and who will live? The old guy and the knife guy at the carnival will be minor losses. Tracy won't die — honestly, they can't kill Ali Larder every season, can they? (Or are they going for a "They killed Kenny!" vibe?) Last season, I thought that Angela would bite the dust, but now that she's the last of the old school, she's got to stay around. Someone will have to die to get rid of Sylar — either Matt or Nathan. Or maybe they'll come to their senses and Matt will push Sylar into the mind of someone on death row?
  • One possibility that might throw a wrench in these predictions: Samuel and Sylar somehow team up — maybe Sylar takes over Samuel, not only giving him a body and a new power, but putting him at the head of the gaggle of geeks, the Heroes version of Magneto's Brotherhood.

So I'm excited about this season. I do need to go back and rewatch some of last season's shows because I'm having a hard time remembering who is still alive, even.

Where is Mohinder, and what is he doing?

Monopoly City Streets Still Crime-Ridden

Last Thursday, Hasbro relaunched Monopoly City Streets with a new set of rules designed to make the game fairer. I wasn't sure about all the changes (read about it here), but I was happy to see that Hasbro was trying to make their online game better.

Well, it was a good try, but there are still problems. Take a look at the leaderboard as of this morning:

The game has been running for less than a week, and already these Cheaters show earnings of over half a quadrillion dollars. Mathematically impossible. And when you actually click on one of those names and take a closer look, the results are even more confounding. Some of them place high in the rankings, but when you look at what they own, they have only two or three streets and less than $200,000.

At least they aren't hiding the fact that they're cheating. (By the way, all those "Cheaters" in the top spots come from the same place in Iowa.) I can only hope that the Hasbro folks will put the kibosh on most of these accounts.

Meanwhile, I'll keep playing by the rules.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Was I Right? Monopoly City Streets Takes a Do-Over

I was doing okay with Monopoly City Streets, building up my kingdom by slowly buying up my hometown. While following "the rules," I was taking in about $7 million in rent. Or at least I was set up for that, and then Friday morning, I couldn't log in.

Eventually I noticed and clicked the Blog link in the bottom right corner and found out why. After about a week of gameplay — and bugs and cheaters and slow servers — the Monopoly folks decided they would RESTART THE GAME. Essentially they're giving themselves a do-over. Check out the Monopoly blog posts starting at September 15 for the details.

But they didn't just start over, they changed some of the rules. A few of them worth noting:

  • They removed the bidding cap for streets for players over Level 3. I don't know about this one. The cap is what made it harder to cheat. Without a cap, it's possible to buy cheap property and then sell it at a super-high price to a shell user account. Which is probably why they instituted the next rule change.
  • Property can be exchanged only once per day. I assume this also includes changing hands from the bank to a user, so you can't buy an unused problem and immediately resell it at a higher price.
  • Taxes?! That's right, taxes find their way into this game, and they're a little odd. Here's what they say about it on the blog:

    There is only one certainty in MONOPOLY City Streets. Tax. Just like in real life, tax now plays an integral part of the game. Tax works as follows: The first 5 streets owned are not taxed. Thereafter, the current tax rate is 3% PER STREET you own.

    For example, if you own 15 streets your tax will be 30% of your total rent collected every day. If you own 25 streets your tax will be 60%. Remember, at 38 streets you will effectively be taxed 100% and so won't be making any profit and your bank balance won't increase.

This changes the strategy of the game a bit. Now, as you build an empire, it behooves you to sell your smaller properties — your shorter streets — when the tax you pay exceeds the amount of rent you earn from those streets. I suppose it's good for people who discover and join the game later in the game, too.

I'm really glad that they have been listening to their users. I'm not thrilled that I lost all my streets, though. I'll get over it. I wish they had made a more obvious statement of the game restart on the game page instead of just on the blog, though. I would have re-created my profile (Andyman) this morning had I been told.

At any rate, I think this version could actually last until the January 31 end date, unlike my previous predictions. See my earlier posts here:

Worldwide Monopoly Goes Online

Monopoly City Streets: The Letdown

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Windows 7 and Ribbon Changes

I've been reading up lately on what we can expect to see in Windows 7 (coming October 22), and I've mostly been excited about the new features. But today I found something that worries me a bit.

Windows 7 is implementing what MS is calling the "Scenic Ribbon." Essentially, they're expanding the Ribbon interface that they introduced with Office 2007 to more of Windows. We'll find a Ribbon in WordPad and Paint (which hasn't been updated since Nixon was president), as well as the next version of Visio (Visio 2007 didn't have the Ribbon). They're releasing the Scenic Ribbon API so that developers can bring Ribbon functionality to their software.

None of this worries me. In fact, I think it's kind of cool. What worries me, though, is that they will be releasing an update to Vista and Office 2007 so that it integrates the new Scenic Ribbon feature. That worries me because I have a bunch of Ribbon customizations in Office 2007, and I don't know for sure whether (a) the customizations will stick with the new API or (b) my normal route for customizing the Ribbon will still be usable. Microsoft is normally pretty good about backward compatibility (they'll continue to release XP security updates until 2014), but their documentation is wanting. I've noticed a distinct lack of consideration for intermediate programmers (aka tinkerers like me) in the coverage. For example, you can see a highly technical video that gives an overview of the Scenic Ribbon and how to use it in your programs, and you can find plenty of information for Office novices, but I have to rely on outside sources for the in-between info. (A warning or two about the video: You need to have Silverlight installed to watch it, and one of the two guys in the video has a heavy accent. French, I think. It took me a bit to realize that "zamil" is XML.)

A lot of the information about Scenic Ribbon creation involves C++ programming. I don't know squat about C++ programming. I can only hope that it only applies to application development.

On a related note: The upcoming release of Windows 7 has given whiners new energy to complain about the Ribbon and bemoan the loss of the good ole toolbar interface. Like many of those who protest healthcare reform, these people seem to believe that the "old ways" are intrinsically better. Honestly! These same people would still be whining if Microsoft had started with the Ribbon back in the 90s and decided to switch to toolbars in 2007. All these anti-Ribbon whiners essentially just don't like the idea that they might have to learn something new — even though the difference between driving a manual and automatic transmission is larger than the difference between Office toolbars and the Ribbon.

All right. I'm shutting down MS HighHorse.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Second Nerdgasm: Spore Heroes

I just heard about the forthcoming Spore Heroes game for the Wii!

My initial excitement about the Spore Galactic Adventures add-on wore off quickly, and I honestly haven't played Spore in quite a while. (I think I need to upgrade my video card.) But the Spore Heroes game has got me excited again. No chance that my Wii is not up to snuff to enjoy it! I can only hope that I don't waste too much time (who am I kidding — of course I will) in front of the TV when this hits shelves on 6 October.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The Internet, like the real world, is full of idiots:

When you play with fire, there is a 50/50 chance something will go wrong, and nine times out of ten it does.

This is a complete blog entry from The Abstinence Clearinghouse, a group trying to "teach" us that schools should limit their sex ed classes to abstinence-only training. Is this proof that lack of sex makes you stupid? I wouldn't go so far as to say that, but you're certainly welcomed to.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Monopoly City Streets: The Letdown

It was an ambitious idea: Create a worldwide, online, Monopoly-like game, using Google Maps (and thus practically the entire planet) as the game board, and call it Monopoly City Streets. When I first read about it earlier this week, just a day before it was set to launch, I got all excited. This looked like it could be a neat combination of Monopoly, Sid Meier's Civilization, those crappy "games" on Facebook, and maybe a little Second Life thrown in. Then reality hit.

The first and most obvious problem was that they weren't ready. Perhaps more likely, the technology does not yet exist for them to have been ready. I tried twice on 9/9/09 during the day to start playing, but their servers were so overloaded I couldn't get in. I didn't start buying any property until shortly after midnight, by which time the world leader was already worth over 12 million Monopoly bucks.

And it was still soooooo slow. I don't know that the server power exists that can handle the number of people trying to get in and play this game. I'm sure it will die down after a while, when people get bored with it, and it might speed up a little. Time will tell.

Regardless of whether Monopoly City Streets will be fun to play, it could be an excellent way to learn about the difficulties of SEC oversight of meatspace businesses. The game is about buying, selling, and trading high-priced properties, and is subject to some of the very same graft and fraud (in the gaming world, it's simply called CHEATING) that real-world business is subject to.

Here are the basic rules: You start with $3 million. You buy property. You build rent-producing buildings on that property. Rent is delivered daily. You can trade properties with other players online. You can also, occasionally, sabotage other people's property by bulldozing buildings or erecting hazards that lower the overall rent.

Now notice what I said before: the world leader, just after midnight of the first day that the game was going, was worth $12 million. How could you turn $3 million into $12 million in a single day? It's really an easy cheat.

Given the availability of free and disposable e-mail accounts, you create one main Monopoly account and then use the others to create shell accounts. Then,

  • If you want to build up your property holdings, you have the shell accounts spend their $3 million buying up streets, and then you sell them back to your main account for cheap.
  • If you want to build up your money, you have your main account buy up the cheapest property it can find, then sell each property to a shell account for, I don't know, $3 million?
  • And you can have the best of both worlds: Have your main account buy a $200,000 street. Sell that street to a shell account for $3 million, and then have that shell account sell it back to your main account for $100 (I'm not sure how low a price you can offer). Voila! Your main account started with $3 million and nothing and now has $5.79 million, all with one little street! Repeat that 4 more times and you'll have over $14 million plus $15 in property!

These are some of the same tactics that the SEC keeps an eye out for. They have landed real-life unscrupulous fraudsters in prison. If course, the price of being exposed as an online unscrupulous cheater isn't nearly as high.

I don't think Monopoly City Streets will last all the way to its January 31, 2010, end date. I'll be surprised if it lasts until October.

But I'll still play, if only for the joy of trying to buy up the streets of my hometown.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Worldwide Monopoly Goes Online

Hasbro and Google Maps are coming together to launch the new online Monopoly City Streets today to raise some hype about the new version of the Monopoly board game that's coming out soon (I'll probably be playing it at Christmastime). It's still early today, so it isn't up and running yet, but it sounds like fun. You start off with $3 million in Monopoly bucks and you can purchase practically any street that you can find in Google Maps. Then you develop that area with parks, high-rises, and other buildings that were apparently built in Google SketchUp. It's free to play, but, like Second Life, I'm sure there will be options and upgrades that you can spend real money on.

It's being billed as a global Monopoly game with Google Maps as the game board. Sounds pretty ambitious, so I'm curious to see how well it does.

I'm kind of excited about this, but I hope it isn't horribly labor-intensive. I really don't need another place to waste time online. As soon as I can, though, I'm going to sign up and buy up as much of my hometown as I can. Maybe put a castle on top of the house I grew up in.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

And Just Like That, I'm a Twit

I'm a junkie for new online doohickies, especially when they're free. I have, however, been avoiding Twitter, partly because I know how quickly I can become addicted to this stuff, and partly because I (wrongly) thought that using Twitter would require text messaging on my cell phone, which I don't have (and don't want) as part of my cell phone plan.

But I work on the interweb, and we're constantly trying to connect with our audience and stay up to date on all the new online fun, especially, these days, social networking. So today I opened a Twitter account for business.

And, just like I thought, I was immediately hooked. So now I've created a personal Twitter account: twitter.com/4ndyman. I've even already downloaded Twadget, the Vista Sidebar Gadget that lets me read and post tweets from the desktop.

We'll see if I stick with it.

Be warned, though. I'll be tweeting many of the blog posts here at Soluble Fish, but more often they will link to the entries on my other blog, Logophilius, simply because those posts are of more general interest than the mundacities of my life that I write about here.

I Won! I Won! I Wo- . . . wait, I won what?

Going back to work after a long weekend is always difficult, even more difficult if you had as sorry a "vacation" as I did. I was figuratively a zombie all morning at work. For lunch, I enjoyed a nice too-big sammich from Subway. Subway is doing their now-annual Scrabble contest — you know, you get a letter with every drink, and if you can spell out, say, HYBRID, you can win a Prius. Since Scrabble is one of my favorite games, I can't resist logging on to SubwayFreshBuzz.com and entering my codes.

I haven't been able to spell anything on the board to win a "big" prize (I keep getting N's. A string of these might win me a bionic leg [say it with me: "nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh"] or, more likely, a ball gag ["Nnnn! Nn NNN!"].). But after you enter your code, you get to spin the instant win wheel. Well, today, the wheel didn't stop on the big SORRY spot!!! I won a three-month subscription to Club Pogo!

After giving them my info to claim my prize, I set out to find out what the hell Club Pogo is. Apparently, it's some sort of online gaming site, like WildTangent or PopCap (or, for some of us, Facebook). Just what I need: Another place to waste time on the Internet. I'm sure my boys will appreciate the free gaming, though, if I decide to tell them about it.

Actually, this is the second thing I've won at Subway this summer. I also have a little paper square that says I won a cookie, which I haven't redeemed yet. Subway's white chocolate macadamia cookies are num-nummy! I won't be sharing that one with the boys, that's for sure.

At any rate, it was a ray of joy in an otherwise Monday-esque Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Did Microsoft Get Some New Blood for Windows 7?

Microsoft is scheduled to release Windows 7 at the end of October. I've been editing a bunch of articles at work about the upcoming Windows 7 release (based on the release candidate), and I must say that I'm pleased with some of the changes to the OS. Perhaps Microsoft finally got sick of being accused of copying the look and feel of Apple's OSes and hired some new people with new ideas, because these sound to me like bona fide unique additions. Granted, they're mostly bells and whistles, but they're the type of bells and whistles that I love to have fun with. Here are a few things you have to look forward to with Windows 7:

  • Slideshow backgrounds: Instead of choosing one picture as a background, you can choose multiple pictures to create a slideshow background. Can it be long before we start seeing animated backgrounds, perhaps based on the trademarked animated screen savers of a decade ago? (I still remember a Disney screen saver in which Goofy physically moved file icons around the desktop, and Donald Duck, descending on a window-cleaner's trolley, painted over everything on the screen in plaid.)
  • Aero Shake: This is just a neat idea. Say you have ten different windows open, and you just want to concentrate on one. Click and hold on to that window's title bar and then shake your mouse back and forth, and every window but that one automatically minimizes.
  • Aero Snap: This is more than a bell or whistle: drag a window all the way to the left side of the screen, and it automatically docks there and shrinks to half-width. You can then do the same on the right side of the screen with another window, making side-by side windows a breeze with any applications.
  • Expanded calculator: I don't know why, if Microsoft is going to take the time to upgrade the built-in calculator, they don't just go all the way and put in a complete graphing calculator. Windows 7's calculator offers Standard mode, your basic desk calculator; Scientific mode, for trigonometric calculations; Programming mode, for dealing with binary, octal, decimal, and hexadecimal calculations; and Statistics mode, for doing linear regressions and other statistical number-crunching. It also includes some special features that normally I would open Excel to calculate, like calculating a mortgage payment, making calculations based on dates, converting among measurement systems, and figuring interest. You can probably treat this like a Gadget by dropping its shortcut in the StartUp folder.
  • Adjustable User Account Control settings: Microsoft promises that, even if you don't change a thing, you'll see fewer of those annoying UAC dialog boxes, but they also give you the opportunity to adjust how closely you want the UAC to watch what goes on. You can even turn it completely off.
  • New parental settings: You can now set when, what, and how much a child can play on the computer. I'll definitely use this. (I wish Nintendo would build this into the Wii!)
  • Frequently accessed/recent documents from the toolbar: From the Windows toolbar (which itself has undergone a facelift), you can access a pop-up window for each application showing a) any open documents or files; and b) a list of recently used or frequently used documents or files — presumably the same type of list that appears in the Office button of any of the Office programs.
  • Internet-like search speed with auto suggestions: The online demonstrations of new Windows 7 search feature show it working a lot like Google does now. You start typing in the search box, and as you type, Windows suggests what you might be typing. (Assuming it works this well . . .) This type of searching won't seem "new," but the underlying Windows indexing and search process is supposed to be improved and extremely sped up, making it actually useful.

Although they aren't quite as exciting and/or useful, here are a few other changes you can expect in Windows 7:

  • New Aero Glass colors: With Windows Vista,
    Microsoft introduced Aero, the translucent window effect. Windows 7 offers more colors for translucency. If you look at the world through rose-colored glasses, you can now look at your computer desktop through rose-colored Aero Glass, as well as a few other colors.
  • The Sidebar is gone, but the gadgets stay: Vista came (and no doubt Windows 7 will come) with a slew of gadgets that you could add to the Windows Sidebar — things like an analogue clock, a CPU usage gauge, a slider game, etc. — and plenty more were available online. I, for one, have a piano gadget that lets me play an octave worth of notes. The Windows Sidebar was docked to an edge of the screen and held all those gadgets. In Windows 7, the Sidebar is gone, but the gadgets can stay — they're now free-floating!

No word yet on what the upgrade will cost. The Mac OS X Snow Leopard upgrade hits shelves this week for a mere $29. Dare I dream that Microsoft will attempt to compete with this price? Would a $24.99 Windows 7 upgrade be too much to ask?


 

Probably.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Three Stooges, Two Children, One Video

Today, thanks to the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, I introduced my children to The Three Stooges. I haven't been much of a fan of Moe, Larry, and Curly — it had been a long time since I'd seen any Stooges — but while I was perusing the DVDs at the library, I saw this one and had to snag it.

Although my elder son was much more interested in playing Civilization IV, my younger son just loved the slapstick. I have to admit, I got a lot more laughs out of it than I remember. We might start getting

So I've put in my share of contributions to the delinquency of minors this weeking. Tomorrow, we're going to the zoo. I just hope neither of my children poke any baboons in the eyes.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tonight Was a Good Night

What a great, relaxing night! First, I performed with the IWS in an outdoor concert at the Carmel Gazebo, and we couldn't have had better weather. We had a decent and appreciative audience. With the exception of an accidental piccolo solo at the end of the first piece and some drag during Nimrod, the music went really well and we sounded really good. All in all, a great concert.

After tearing down the set, a bunch of us went to Bub's in Carmel, where I had a delicious quarter-pound elk burger with all the fixins. After a concert like this, six or eight band members sometimes pick a restaurant and have a little after-dinner gathering. Tonight, we had 17, which involved squeezing us all around 4 round tables on the patio. A cool evening, yummy food, and camaraderie. No deadlines, no expectations.

Like I said, it was a good night. Wish I had more of them.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Importance of Planning a Vacation, or, Stymied by God

I and my sons (the Elder and the Younger) have the whole first week of August together — one last hurrah before school starts up again. On the Thursday before, still not certain what we would do with our week together, I got the idea of going to Vincennes to see the George Rogers Clark Memorial and camp out. The Elder studied his Indiana history last year in the fourth grade, so he knew a lot more about GR Clark and Vincennes than either I or the Younger did. So I thought he, especially, would enjoy the trip.I made some hasty plans and, after plotting our journey while the oil was changed and the tires rotated, we set out on a sunny early Monday afternoon.

I saw that not far off I-70 is the largest waterfall in Indiana, Cataract Falls. So we made a little side-trip to see the wonders of nature and the unstoppable force of gravity. It started okay, with a covered bridge to nowhere.


Through a portal on the covered bridge at Cataract Falls.




This is near the top of the falls:



"What do you mean it's bath time?"


Sure, it was pretty there, but we were hoping for a mighty drop, the deafening rush of millions of pounds of relentless water. So we hopped back into the car and followed the signs to “the lower falls.” When we got there,


"You call this a waterfall?!"



The Elder pondering the nature of water, the sound of one hand clapping, and whether Ivysaur can defeat Pikachu.


No constant thunder. No misty rainbows. Just Bigfoot’s shower. We were underwhelmed.

So we went on to Vincennes. About two hours later (it could have been five), we arrived at our destination, the George Rogers Clark Memorial:


What was it the ranger said? The largest Greek revival memorial in the United States outside of Washington, D.C.?


I had come here with my fourth grade class a good two decades ago and remembered seeing an awesome, massive, limestone structure. It’s still awesome, still massive, and, er, still limestone. Unfortunately, there was a little snag:


The largest closed-for-renovation Greek revival memorial in the United States outside of Washington, D.C.


The memorial is closed for renovation. The visitors’ center was open, though, and we got there just in time to watch a rather old half-hour movie about Clark and what he and his troops did. Historically, he sounds like an impressive character and military strategist, but I wouldn’t have wanted to know him in person. He came off sounding like a dick.


"You don't think he'd really fire, do you?"



Not exactly Injun Joe



Reenacting our favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon


After getting directions from the park ranger, we drove a short distance to Ouabache Trails State Park. (Ouabache is the French spelling of Wabash.) We paid our fee, got our camping permit, and set up the brand new tent that we had purchased from Gander Mountain that weekend.


Hoosier ingenuity . . . and well-written instructions.


I had originally thought we might stay in Vincennes (or at least the area) for two nights, but with the memorial closed and the town pretty much dead, I changed my mind. Looking over the map, I traced my finger along more central areas and found that Bluespring Caverns was a straight shot east from Vincennes. I was hoping we could enjoy a nice, hike-resistant underground boat ride the next day. That could have saved the vacation.

We still needed hot dogs, buns, drinks, ice, and breakfast, so we set off in search of a nearby Vincennes supermarket. I drove up and down 6th street — north to south — passing two ice cream parlors, four pizza places, and three tattoo parlors, but no supermarkets. ‘Perhaps perpendicular paths could prove profitable,’ I thought. I ended up driving about three miles out, nearer the highway, before finding a Wal-Mart supercenter.

Now, I hate Wal-Mart, but I hate going hungry even more. Worse than that is spending time with two pre-teens with rumbly bellies. So I sucked it up and we got some food at Wally-World.

Back to camp, where my Webelo and I built a healthy fire upon which to feast on weiners and s’mores. (A tip: “Regular” s’mores are good. S’mores made from very dark chocolate are superb!)


My little scout prepares to feed and warm the family.



I tried to get a good picture of the Elder in the firelight; this is what I ended up with.


That night, I learned that the Younger really doesn’t like to camp — at least he doesn’t like to go camping when there isn’t something fun planned for every second of every hour until bedtime, which ought to be somewhere north of 11pm. Eventually, we went to bed — well, to bag.

A few hours later, after both children were unconscious and I was trying to get comfortable, the rolling thunder started, followed closely by some impressive lightning. After a while, this died away and the rain began. I thought it might rain, so I had put everything in either the car or the tent, so our stuff was relatively safe. This turned out to be the night that we tested the tent’s imperviousness to rain.

There was at least one leak — directly above where I laid my head.

I didn’t get much sleep, and when I did, I had strange, exhausting dreams.

The next morning, the rain had stopped. I discovered that I hadn’t gotten everything out of the elements. My little styrofoam cooler was lying on the ground under the picnic table. A racoon had apparently knocked it off the table and clawed his way into it in the night. He made off with our three extra hot dogs and two juice pouches. He wasn’t much interest in the ketchup.

After donuts and juice water, we (which is to say, I) packed away the damp, dirty tent, took showers in the nearby facilities, and made the short drive to Fort Knox II because it was there.

Fort Knox II is easy to miss. And if you miss it, you shouldn’t be too upset about it.



Keeping an eye out for injuns.


We had decided the day before that, for lunch, we would try out a local pizza place — Bill Bobe’s. The crust was thin and the cheese was plentiful. I loved it; neither the Younger (who got his own cheese-only pizza and who immediately complained about the “green stuff” [oregano] on it) nor the Elder (who tried to act like he was really enjoying and savoring his one thin piece) liked it. It was a whiny, hard-fought meal.

The rain started up again toward the end of the meal. We dashed to the car through quickly forming puddles and took off to the east. The rain picked up, turning into a downpour, and then into a deluge, and then into something that would send the Biblically minded to the Internet in search of ark blueprints. The only traffic on the road was my little red Jeep and some kamikaze truckers, still driving ten miles over the speed limit.

I decided that I must be heading in the same direction and at the same speed as the storm, and then the Elder’s bladder started screaming, so I pulled off in the first town I came across that looked like it still had electricity: Loogootee.


This picture hasn't been color-corrected or anything. This is how gray and dark it was after the rain let up a bit.


It was one of those small-town restaurants with holes in the tablecloths, mismatched chairs, and a dry-erase board showing misspelled daily specials. It seemed like a good place to stop and have a snack. The Younger had a chocolate sundae: three small, round scoops of vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate syrup and topped with oily, generic, aerosol whipped cream. No cherry. He loved it. I had two cups of coffee (in a mug advertising the local insurance salesman) and a piece of chocolate swirl cheesecake, which they obviously did not make themselves — it was so thick, rich, and delicious that it must have been store-bought. The Elder had a vanilla milkshake, thin and mostly flavorless. It could have been a few drops of vanilla flavoring in a glass of plain old cold milk whipped into a foam.

While we waited for the rain to subside, I concluded that Bluespring Caverns was probably not feasible. With all the rain, the underground rivers were probably too high to accommodate boating tourists, and everything else would just be too blamed muddy.

We decided the best bet, the safest bet, was to retreat to Grandma’s house, about halfway between Loogootee and home.

That took us near Bloomington, which really is one of the neatest small cities I know. (I’d love to spend a week there just trying out all the restaurants.) Bloomington is home to Wonderlab, the neatest little children’s museum you could pack in a space that size. The folks at Wonderlab know how to do it up right to make learning fun. The only things that really qualify as exhibits are the half-dozen aquaria and terraria holding various fish, lizards, and snakes; and a small beehive with lots of information about bees and honey. Everything else is hands-on, from the heat-sensing camera to the makeshift oscilloscope (made from a spinning cylinder and a neckless guitar) to a whole room dedicated to making bubbles in various ways.

It really is a neat place. If you’re ever in Bloomington, take your kids there. (Good luck figuring out where to park, though.) I won’t say that Wonderlab saved our little outing, but it made it not a complete loss.

And now we’re back home. The tent is airing out on the balcony, the kids are watching Star Wars, and I need to make us some dinner.

I’m setting my sights not so high for the second half of the week. A movie, maybe, or the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. And lots of sleeping in.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Movie Marathon

I gave Blockbuster $15 on Friday, July 17, for the privilege of watching as many movies as I want for a week, checking out two at a time. So I've been having a bit of a movie marathon this week. I've certainly gotten my money's worth:

Knowing (Nicholas Cage): Freakin' intense! Do not watch this alone or before you go to bed; this is the stuff that nightmares are made of. The story is compelling and intense, and punctuated by horrifically realistic and realistically horrific scenes of death and destruction: a jumbo jet crashes in the country, a subway at high speed derails and crashes through a subway station filled with people, and ultimately . . . well, I don't want to give away the ending, because it isn't what you expect to happen. It was a good story, but I won't be watching this again.

Zombie Strippers (Robert Englund and Jenna Jameson): Another in a long line of great, low-budget, campy zombie movies. If you liked Shaun of the Dead or Night of the Living Dorks or Evil Dead 2, you'll get a kick out of this one.

Religulous (Bill Maher): What Michael Moore does to conservativism, Bill Maher does to religion. If you don't like Bill Maher, you won't like this movie. I enjoyed it. I thought it interesting, though, that, out of all the purveyors of all the religions that Maher interviews, the Catholics come out seeming like the most down-to-earth and reasonable.

Burn After Reading (Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton): You've gotta love the Cohen Brothers. They're plots go together like Celtic Knots, and are even more interesting to look at. One of the things that I think sets them apart is that they aren't afraid to suddely kill off major characters, completely obliterating any idea you might have about the "happy ending" just before the credits role.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett):
After watching Burn After Reading, I realized how much I enjoy so much of Brad Pitt's work: Fight Club, Ocean's Eleven, The Mexican,
Twelve Monkeys, The Devil's Own, Thelma & Louse, even Mr. and Mrs. Smith. So I got this one with Brad and my favorite Cate, and was surprised to see Tilda Swinton pop up again. This is a wonderful movie for both the story and the acting. For my money, this movie should have gotten the hype and accolades given Titanic so many years ago.

Taken (Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen): I'm not sure Liam Neeson was the best casting choice for this movie. (A decade ago the role would have been filled by Harrison Ford.) I'm not sure who else I would have cast, though. Neeson certainly did a good job with the role as a retired "preventer" — a Bond-esque U.S. government agent who, according to the character, prevents bad things from happening — who has to save his 17-year-old daughter from the black market sex trade in Paris. It is a nice action-packed movie, and anything with Famke Janssen in it is worth watching. I give it OK.

The Savages (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney): I just love Laura Linney, so you'll never hear me say anything really bad about anything she's in. This was a touching, sad movie about love, hope, death, and family that follows these two siblings as they come together around their absentee father who is descending into old age and dementia. This is one of those movies that should be re-watched about every decade, because it will mean someething different to you as you change and grow older and more experienced. This time around, listening to Linney and Hoffman argue and laugh makes me miss my brother.

The Reader (Kate Winslet): This is a good, thought-provoking story. I don't understand why the movie was so long, though, or why they needed to jump around in time so much. It's just your average illiterate Nazi ethical conundrum winter-spring romance. And within the first half hour of the movie, you get to see every part of Kate Winslet's bare body, including the bottoms of her feet, her furry armpits, and the webbing between her thumb and forefinger. (Not that I'm complaining; I'm a big fan of naked women on film.) So, all in all, a good film, but it could have used a lot less brooding.

12 Rounds (John Cena — not to be confused with Michael Cera...huge difference): This could have been a great, exciting movie, along the lines of Speed, if only they could have gotten (a) Matt Damon to play the protagonist, instead of John Cena, who just looks like Matt Damon on steroids; and (b) Ed Norton to play the antagonist, instead of some unshaven guy who kind of looks like Ed Norton, but doesn't act as well — though he acted circles around John Cena. This is the kind of movie to watch on Fox on a Sunday afternoon, when the only other thing on TV is golf, infomercials, and political roundtables.

Role Models (Seann Michael Scott, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks): Maybe it's because I totally connect with his character, but I think Paul Rudd is just outstanding in this movie. With SM Scott in it, I was expecting something along the lines of American Pie, but instead I got something closer to Office Space, so I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. And this is one DVD that has some good deleted scenes that are worth watching, instead of a bunch of scenes that got cut just because they weren't very good. The movie poster might remind you of Adam Sandler's Big Daddy, but don't let it fool you; this is a much better movie.

Traitor (Don Cheadle): I think Don Cheadle is a great actor, but I don't think this was the best movie to show off his skills. It certainly had suspense, and tension, and excitement, but I think the moral of the story got in the way of the story. Don Cheadle plays a devout Muslim trying to stop Muslim terrorists from the inside. Throw in a devout Baptist FBI agent who doesn't know Samir (Cheadle) is undercover, and you've got a movie about how Christians and Muslims can work together for the greater good. Unfortunately, I was expecting a movie about espionage and terrorism. I also don't think that "Traitor" was the best title for this movie.

Network (Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall): This movie from the late '70s is a little weird, in the sense that you'll want to watch it again after it's over to see if you really saw what you think you saw. It's a story about a television network that will do anything to get ratings. On a larger scale, it's about the things that we'll do for love. This is the "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore" movie, and there's a lot of other great, though completely unrealistic, dialogue. This is one movie that everyone should see at least once.

So there you have it: Twelve movies totaling about 24 hours of Hollywood magic. Now I need to actually get some things done.