Friday, August 31, 2007

Saying "Eff It"?

Well, the month of August is almost over, and regular readers of this blog might have been wondering what has happened. In July I averaged one post per day or better. In June I almost did. In August my average looks more like one post every three or four days - which is still not bad, for a blog. I stopped doing Blogmail in mid-July with the intention of going month to month rather than week to week, but as of now there really isn't enough to justify another edition. Perhaps the end of September will see one, but then it will have been a full nine to ten weeks since one was sent out, so I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

So, why have I not been writing? I've been asking myself that a lot lately. Since my blog has been so successful for my creative spirit, I've been trying to analyze myself in its regard. Some of you may know, but I once wrote a first draft of a novel, back in the early 90s. Parts had been written on two typewriters, but I wrote 130 pages of action and dialogue on an IBM PS/2 computer - one of the ugly all-in-one deals, like the equivalent of the Mac Plus but IBM. I had been meaning to go back and expand it - put in descriptions, but in backstory, subplots, etc., fatten it up to around 400-450 pages - and maybe publish it. Well, it never happened - and the sad part is I no longer have the file. It was lost years ago. It's still in my head, and I've been meaning to finish it for over 10 years. (I'm only 27.)

So here comes this blog, and I'm really writing in it. But the same thing happens - writers' block. I think of something to say, and I just say "Eff it". Not to the whole blog, but posting, that story, that day. I put it off. Believe me, I have a lot of stories I've put off posting up here. Hopefully over the next couple weeks I can get them out.

Why have I been away? I think I can narrow it down to five reasons. Most of these deserve a post of their own - trust me, it's coming - but I'll post a little about them here.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

I don't know why or how I missed this game years ago - probably playing so much Deus Ex. You don't really have to be a Star Wars geek to play this game, but it does help if you've at least seen the movies. You at least, I think, have to know that the Republic is a centuries-old alliance spanning hundreds of worlds, that the Force is this universal force that controls and permeats everything (it's really hard to explain) and that the Jedi and Sith are sort of monks/swordsmen who can control the Force - they basically have magic powers the Jedi use for good and peace and the Sith use for evil and war. You play a character - male or female; scout, scoundrel, or soldier - who learns that they can use the Force, and trains as a Jedi, on a quest to save the galaxy from the Sith. But you don't have to be good - you can actually become a Sith Lord, as I understand it. I'm near the end, I think, playing a good guy. I started a game as a bad girl, but I won't play that much until I've completed my first game.

Fixing a computer

I spent a good few days fixing a buddy's computer. I actually didn't touch his for a while, except to back up his files. See, I've been toying around with this great program, Microsoft's VirtualPC 2007, which basically lets you make a virtual computer, inside your own. It starts out empty, so you have to put an operating system on it. Windows, Linux, it doesn't matter. So I tested a few versions of Windows XP Home with his license code to see which would work. There was actually some confusion over whether it was OEM (came with the computer) or Retail (bought new from a store). At one point neither would work - but I mistook a B for an 8 and that made all the difference. I actually ended up not even reformatting his computer, which would have been the better solution, but he decided instead I should just put some good programs (freeware!) on it, and of course I loaded it up with some other cool stuff, too.


We have a new addition to our family, a black cat with tan and white markings. I consulted one of my favorite cousins, since we were at a loss for the name; she helped us pick out the name Smores (we omit the usual apostrophe). She's a good cat, but a skittish little tweeker thing. More pictures to follow, but for now, well... read on.

Pimpin' out MySpace

I'm not too big a fan of the popular social networking site (the fact that it was started by an ad agency says most of why) but I do maintain a MySpace page here. I have a blog there, but I haven't updated it in months, except to point here and to discuss updates to my profile there. I've added a TON of pictures, going from around 5 pictures to around 40. I have galleries for myself, for Jen, for family, for friends, and for stuff we own (brag gallery). So go ahead and check that out - under my profile picture, click on Pics or Pictures under, it's either "Check out this user's" or something like that, followed by Pics/Pictures and Vids/Videos. I have no videos there as of yet. As I said about the cat, I have a picture of Smores in the Our Family gallery, and I think it's the best one we've taken of her. If you're out in CA, you can see my family here; if you're in NC, you can see some of my CA family.

Work, work, work

As of today, I have officially worked the last 16 nights. I have a fairly easy job, but I still have to go there every day, and I have to deal with the public. No, it's more accurate to say I have to deal with idiotic college students. These clowns and alcoholics who will be our future doctors and scientists are a real sorry lot now. Half these idiots can't read, at least not without thinking about it a little. And their common sense is uncommonly laughable.

So I guess I'm back to writing. But I've been up all night, I still got a doctor's appointment to go to, and I've still got a few errands to run, so, ta ta for now. (I think Anthony Hopkins said that in one of the Hannibal movies.)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

My Summerslam 2007 predictions

Summerslam: Live on Pay-Per-View Sunday August 26, 2007, 8PM ET

WWE Summerslam, dubbed the biggest party of the summer by the famous Connecticut pro wrestling federation, will indeed be a major event for the "sport". Two legends-in-the-making, Triple H (Paul Levesque, son-in-law of WWE chairman Vince McMahon), and Rey Mysterio return from injury to heavily promoted matches. Three titles will be defended (there is no tag team match listed on the card) and we have a few wildcard matches. Going down the card (which starts with the main event and ends with what will probably be the first match, going mostly in reverse chronological order):

First on the card and the last event of the PPV, we have reigning champion John Cena defending against rival Randy Orton. John Cena has been the champ for as long as I've been watching - almost 2 years. He's lost it twice, I think, both times to Edge, and both times for only a week or two. He's never been a very credible champion, highlighting the fact that pro wrestling is, for the most part, fake. This over-the-top rapper-turned-Marine has maybe three or four signature moves on top of some basic brawling. He's tough enough to hold his own, sure, but he's beaten guys that, were the match unscripted, would send him away on a stretcher, or in a body bag.

Orton, on the other hand, has been built up for the past several months as a credible contender, but he's only a little more credible than Edge (who has failed to retake the tile) and not nearly as credible as Bobby Lashley, who also failed to beat Cena, at least in title matches (otherwise, he'd stomp all over him). Although Cena has had the title too long, I don't think Orton is quite the one to do it.

I can't tell you who will take Cena's title because I don't know yet. Vince McMahon previously stated (in-character) that he wanted to do something to "galvanize the family", and then it comes out that one of the male wrestlers is his illegitimate son. This may be revealed at SummerSlam or it may not, but once this individual is discovered/revealed, I believe they'll get a huge push, and if they get a title shot you can expect Vince to help them beat Cena.


I had written a LOT more, but due to unforseen errors on the Blogger site, I lost a lot of work - just as extensive writeups on the next three matches, to be exact. I won't rewrite it all, since in interests of fairness this does need to be done this morning at the absolute latest, because the event is this evening.


Triple H will beat King Booker, no contest. Booker T hasn't been doing well since coming to Monday Night RAW, and Triple H is one of the main characters. Plus he happens to be married to Vince's real-life daughter Stephanie, and they have one child together. Though Triple H and Vince have often played bitter enemies, it's not reflective of real life at all; by all accounts they get along great. Vince isn't going to do Triple H like that, having him lose to Booker of all people. This will be a squash match.


This one should be close. Khali is one of those never-lose monsters the WWE is famous for, but Batista is a brawler with a good record. They keep saying if he loses, he won't get a shot at the title again, but I seem to remember them saying that when he lost to Edge, and either to Edge again or someone else (Taker?). If he loses, I hope they keep their word, but I don't think they'll take Batista out of the title running. He's got to win, even if he only holds the title for five days and drops it on the following SmackDown.


Rey Mysterio is also returning, and it would be a crying shame if he lost to Chavo. Rey "earned" all of his credibility, being the smallest man in the WWE (midgets aside) and doing what he does. Chavo's whole image is all based on Eddie, his relative who died in 2005. Ever since Eddie died, Chavo's gotten one hell of a push, and I don't think it's as well earned as Rey's. Rey is a favorite of mine, though, so I admit to showing some bias.


So Johnny Nitro calls himself John Morrison now, obviously taking after the Doors frontman. For that reason alone I hate his guts, as Jim Morrison was literally a god made mortal for a short time. But I hate CM Punk's corporate-sponsored "straight-edge" gimmick even more, and Johnny Nitro is a good athlete anyway. CM Punk may be as well, but ECW has had pretty long title runs, and I don't think Nitro's/Morrison's is over yet. He'd lose a lot of valuable cred if he didn't last as long as Rob Van Dam, the Big Show, Bobby Lashley, and one I may be forgetting.


Now it's Carlito and Mr. Kennedy they're feeding to the Samoan beast, eh? Umaga has lost a lot of his invincible monster image, but he's still a force to be reckoned with. My prediction here is nothing more than a guess. Carlito hasn't had a good push in over a year. Ric Flair was carrying him, and now he seems doomed to stay on the midcard forever. Umaga doesn't need a push, he's a force all his own. Kennedy on the other hand seems to have been lightly pushed. I think he'll take this. If Umaga does, it'll be a squash match. If Carlito does, it'll start a Carlito push, but the odds favor Kennedy, and I side with the odds here.


Last (well, first, I'm sure) is the Divas Battle Royal. I just don't care who wins, even though they will be the number 1 contender for the women's title. I just don't see any credibility in the women's division, except perhaps Melina - maybe Mickie James. Some losers on a message board I will not name said that my choice to not predict a winner is based on cowardice, being "afraid to be wrong". That's simply not true, I just feel that until the WWE establishes a credible women's division, it's not worth the effort to try to predict the matches. Vince, if you happen to read this, there are good female wrestlers out there. My wife used to be one, though a knee injury forced her to retire before she was anywhere near fame. (Her gimmick was mostly based on Mankind.) I'm sure you could find a woman who could beat Cena in a fair, non-kayfabe, straight wrestling, no interference match. She might not look as good as a Diva, Playboy may never approach her, but she could bring credibility to the womens' division. I'm sure there are a lot of such women out there.

Well, those are my predictions. They've remained consistent since Tuesday, and are being posted at a little over 12 hours before the start of the show. A quick summary:

WWE Champion John Cena vs. Randy Orton (Cena retains)
Triple H vs. King Booker (HHH wins)
World Heavyweight Champion The Great Khali vs. Batista (Bastista wins)
Rey Mysterio vs. Chavo Guerrero (Rey wins)
ECW Champion John Morrison vs. CM Punk (Morrison wins)
Umaga vs. Carlito vs. Mr. Kennedy (Mistah Kennedy wins)
Divas Battle Royal (Don't give a hoot)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Nathan's Mix 2007-3

I am beginning to think I should come up with a better name for the series of popular music mixes I make, but over the last two years it's just been "Nathan's Mix [Year]-[Volume]" and that's served me well. In 2005 I made two mixes - "Nathan's Party Mix 2005" and "Nathan's Slammin' Mix 2005" (the former being more mellow, the latter being more rock-oriented). Before that - before NOW, even, I called my mixes "Music That Doesn't Suck", with a couple spinoffs ("Metal That Doesn't Suck", etc.).

Then they come out with this "Now That's What I Call Music" series, where they take 3-4 good songs and bundle them with 15-16 crappy ones, and they sell millions of copies, but such is the music industry. I don't sell my mixes (to do so would require paying royalties and licensing use of a CD distribution center, among other things) so it's not really fair to compare, but I'd like to think I pick better music. And there's no filler to be found on my mixes. I collect good songs until I have enough to make a CD (80 minutes) and then organize them so they flow well.

Anyway, here's the listing for the third mix of 2007. All in all I like it, and like its predecessor, it mixes in some country as well as rock and pop. This mix features a few interesting covers, so read the notes for each song.

1. Time After Time (Quietdrive)
Quietdrive are virtually unknown, coming onto the popular radio scene with a cover of Cyndi Lauper's 1984 classic. The original was good as a pop song, and the cover is great as a rock song. I only prefer the cover to the original because I prefer rock to pop, but hey, a good song is a good song.

2. Paralyzer (Finger Eleven)
This and the first track were two of the first songs added for the mix, back when the mix was just four songs in rotation (see the ending notes for the one that didn't make the cut). They sounded so well together, I couldn't separate them. This song is hard rock, but it has dance qualities as well, and an infectious pop beat, it's really hard to classify it.

3. Girlfriend (Avril Lavigne)
As a fan of Lavigne's slower songs (e.g. I'm With You, Keep Holding On) it was hard to accept this cheerleader-chant fast-pop/punk song, but I dig it now. I just have to remember, this is basically where Avril started out - though it's a lot faster than Sk8r Boi, it's kind of the same thing. And this is not the radio edit ("I'm the one and only princess"), it's the album version ("Hell yeah I'm the motherf**kin' princess"). I couldn't find the radio edit - and the album version has more bite.

4. You Give Love a Bad Name (Blake Lewis)
This is a pretty faithful cover of the Bon Jovi hit from 1986, except for the beatbox bit which may offend some nostalgics (my wife, for one). I personaly think it adds to the song, giving it a new twist and adding something original from the artist. Not having TV, I did not know that Blake Lewis was an American Idol finalist, but that's what Wikipedia says. I'm surprised he didn't win, but I wouldn't be surprised if many of the finalists are better than the winner. I'm sure you'd have to be at least decent to get on the show to start with.

5. Big Girls Don't Cry (Fergie)
This song however is not a cover of a Cyndi Lauper song (or whoever did that song of the same name in the 80s). No, this one's original - and it shows a different side of Fergie that we've seen in "My Humps" and "London Bridge". This is a good, serious ballad, and in my opinion one of the two strongest tracks on the album. Not best, mind you, but strong, powerful, engaging.

6. 19 Somethin' (Mark Wills)
Now we get into nostalgic country, singing about the 70s and 80s. You know a song that opens with the line "Saw Star Wars at least 8 times" is gonna get my attention. I've had people (even those who didn't like country) tell me that this song perfectly describes the experience of living through these decades for them, so even if country isn't your thing, this song wins with the mass appeal.

7. Red Dirt Road (Brooks & Dunn)
Here's another good country song. Brooks & Dunn is a country band (duo) I'm coming to appreciate as having mostly good songs (the first one to catch my ear was "Play Something Country"). There's nothing particularly special about this song, but for general country, it's pretty good and I enjoy listening to it.

8. I Need You (Tim McGraw and Faith Hill)
"I wanna drive across West Virginia... In the back seat of a Cadillac". Instant classic. This song was absolutely beautiful with just McGraw singing it, but then Faith Hill comes in with the second verse and the quality shoots through the roof. "I wanna dance to the static of an AM radio". Classic indeed. And I thought "Live Like You Were Dying" (Tim McGraw) was great, but this manages to top it. I liked Faith Hill's songs (e.g. "Breathe") before McGraw's, though, and when Faith Hill turns 40, I turn 28. (I also share my birthday with Stephen King, how's that?)

9. Little Wonders (Rob Thomas)
Please, nobody tell Rob Thomas that the 1990s ended seven years ago, because he continues to make the same great music that his band Matchbox Twenty and countless others made great in that decade. (Another 1990s relic also graces this compilation, keep reading.) Thomas has that distinct voice you instantly recognize, and when it comes to male pop singers, he's in the top of his class.

10. (You Want To) Make a Memory (Bon Jovi)
I'm one of those old farts that remembers when Bon Jovi were hard rock, in their 1986 classic Slippery When Wet and the follow-up New Jersey. This song is much more mellow, but it's still good and remeniscent of Slippery's second-half, slower songs.

11. Working Class Hero (Green Day)
Green Day join the fraternity of bands and artists who have covered Working Class Hero, originally by liberal genius and Beatles member John Lennon. I prefer Marilyn Manson's cover - Manson covering Lennon was an instant classic before hearing it - it just has more bite. But this isn't bad. If you follow the provided Wikipedia link for Working Class Hero, you can see who all has covered it.

12. Hey There Delilah (Plain White T's)
I've never been too big a fan of this song, but my wife seems to think it's the best song ever recorded. It is a good song, though, I must admit - so it gets included. I tend to skip it when it comes on, but sometimes I listen to it. "Delilah" just makes me think of that stupid syndicated radio show that plays late at night on virtually every adult pop radio station, although the two aren't related. But still, too many memories of being at home or at work and being in the minority of people who didn't want to listen to the bloody thing.

13. If You're Not the One (Daniel Bedingfield)
This pop song reminds me of the Savage Garden hits, and though it seems written for a much younger audience, I find myself enjoying it. It's a very well written and performed song I grudgingly came to accept into the mix.

14. The Remedy (Jason Mraz)
Here's another song I disliked when it first came out, but it grew on me. It's a fun fast-talking pop song that doesn't seem to get old, if you like it.

15. Hurt (Christina Aguilera)
I used to love hating Christina Aguilera alongside Britney Spears and others a few years ago, but I cannot deny that this song is great, regardless of what I've previously thought of its singer. When I mentioned the two strong tracks in Track 5's notes, this is the one I meant. Others are strong as well, but these two stand out. They originally were together in early versions of the mix, but whichever one I put as the second one would upstage the other, so they had to be separated to show their individual strengths, and to strengthen both halves of the album.

16. I'll Be (Edwin McCain)
I thought I had the album this was on, but I must have been thinking of someone else. I loved this song when it was new - I know I bought it. I must have left it in California when I moved out. Years later I find out one of my favorite cousin's songs is "I'll Be" and I'm thinking it's probably some new hip-hop song, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn it was the 1998 pop/folk song I loved so much. It's an older song, but it's on here, not only for my cousin, but because I hadn't heard the song in years, it's still great today, and it fits well with Rob Thomas' single.

17. Don't Matter (Akon)
A fairly big fan of old-school rap (Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, some NWA, Cypress Hill, etc.), it's rare that I find a new hip-hop artist that really impresses me, but Akon is awesome. His best work seems derivative of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (e.g. Tha Crossroads, an old favorite of mine) but I'm sure those more familiar with the hip-hop genre would name more relevant and recent connections. Either way, Akon makes some of the best music in the genre; his entire "Konvicted" album being at least good, this being one of the better tracks.

18. Umbrella (Rihanna featuring Jay-Z)
I've found Rihanna's songs to be hit-and-miss, but with Unfaithful (and maybe SOS) this one is a hit. It's a little less accessible to those not inclined to hip-hop, but still worth a spin, and it fits on the album. I can see it not holding its newness as long as some of the other songs on the album, but for now it's good.

19. Rehab (Amy Winehouse)
Amy Winehouse sounds like an older black lady, but she's neither. 23 years old as of this writing and English (white), who she really is may come as a surprise for those who are only familiar with her music. I've had people tell me they were sure this song was from the 60s, and were shocked to learn the song came out in 2006. This song completes the set, a good finisher to the album.

Closing notes: This album was dangerously close to being the first mix in my series to include the same song in two simultaneous mixes: "Makes Me Wonder" by Maroon 5. I was only starting to like the song when I put it on Nathan's Mix 2007-2, and it was one of the first four songs on this mix, along with the first three. Until I added the last three ("I Need You", "Little Wonders", and "I'll Be") I intended to leave it. But the total running time came in at 84 minutes. "Makes Me Wonder" was the obvious first choice for removal, but I still had about 50 seconds to remove. The second song cut from the mix was Ozzy Osbourne's "Never Gonna Stop". As good as Ozzy's songs are, they just annoy me for some reason. I did intend for the song to be included, so it'll be on the next one, guaranteed. It is a good song. And the Maroon 5 song might be on the early versions, but it will be cut from the final version again. It's already on one mix anyway.

I really don't have any hints for what Nathan's Mix 2007-4 will contain, if I even make it. We still have three and a half months left in the year, and these mixes generally take 3 weeks to 2 months, just guessing, so there's no reason to assume I won't. But it depends on what good songs are released between now and the end of the year. The Ozzy song will most likely make the cut. There's a new Goo Goo Dolls song, and my wife loves them. If she loves the song, she'll probably vote it in like she did with "Hey There Delilah". Nightwish have a new album coming out soon (albeit with a new vocalist), so if I can find a good song there, I'll try to sneak it in. I'm not too impressed with their current (UK) single, Eva, but there has to be something great on the album. I love introducing people to them. You can bet I'll find a couple good country songs and at least one good hip-hop track to go up there. All in all it'll have the best of popular music with a couple hidden gems.

Monday, August 13, 2007

People like this are why I worry about younger drivers

Typically there is nothing unsafe about driving, as long as you know how to drive and have a little bit of experience, but there are a few idiots that, because of what they do, make me worry for younger drivers in my family. One of my first posts on this blog were about bad drivers, and one, the insurance scammer, is what I met on the road today.

So I was coming back from the store, pretty much minding my own business. I can be an aggressive driver or I can be an assertive/defensive driver, depending on my mood. I was tired, thirsty, and not really feeling like changing the world, so basically I was driving safely. I was minding my speed, mirrors, following distance, all those good things.

Well, I came up behind this red car - a Dodge Neon, I think. Newer model, it was a little more curvy than I remember the Neon being. The car seemed just like all the others, until it stopped. No red light - no light at all actually, the light ahead was green. I had plenty of time to stop, so it wasn't a big deal. Maybe a cat ran across the road, I don't know. I didn't pay it much mind. But then when I didn't see anything, a caution flag waved in my mind. I got around him when it was safe.

I must have either had "easy target" or "has money" written all over me (though I fail to see how), because he sped up and whipped around me. I dropped back, and sure enough, he stopped again, this time in a 55mph zone, and again with no clear reason. His brakes were better than mine, but I was able to get over in time. Both times I passed him, he purposefully looked down and away from me. He didn't want me to see his face.

Maybe I should have called the police. But I figured it would have sounded silly. "This guy keeps cutting me off and slamming on his brakes, I think he's trying to cause an accident and file a fraudulent insurance claim." Yeah, real believable. And maybe there's more to it. But there was.

I was on Hwy. 17 heading south from Washington to Chocowinity. This guy's first stop happened in Washington itself, and the second time we were between the two towns. Chocowinity is basically some homes and businesses around the intersection of Hwy's. 17 and 33, 17 heading to New Bern, Wilmington, and eventually Myrtle Beach; 33 goes to Greenville through a bunch of small towns. Anyway, between the Food Lion and post office in Chocowinity, there is a side road which leads to another side road, which leads to 33. It's not even a shortcut, but it does bypass the light, and it's used as a detour when they're doing road work. So I take that road - dude follows me! I take the one to 33 again, dude follows me again.

We turn on 33, and I don't signal, but I turn onto the road leading home. Dude doesn't signal either, but he follows. He came right up on me, but I knew of another side road which turns at an easy angle. Again without signaling, I took the turn at the last minute. It was an easy turn as planned, but not planning it, the Neon missed it, so I quickly lost him. I don't know what his intention was following me. I could have hit my brakes and turned his game right around on him, but I didn't want to get in an accident, fault regardless. I thought about pulling over, but I didn't have any kind of weapon handy, and who knows what someone like that carries. I used to have a tool at my side, but I sold it to someone who needed it. (A tie rod separater, it looks like a really thick bacon fork.) So I just lost him. When I came back to the road I needed, he was nowhere to be seen - probably went back to 33 in search of easier prey.

Next time, dude, go after a Mercedes or BMW. Not a 20-year-old Honda. (Well, Acura, but from back when Acura and Honda were the same thing - my Acura Legend is just a Honda Accord with slightly better options, still the same car but $30,000 new.)

Oh, if I only had my camera, I might have gotten pictures or video. But maybe if I would have photographed the rear of his car (including license plate) when he stopped he would have been less apt to try to get me a second time, with proof he had pulled it before. When you rear-end someone it's automatically your fault. I don't think proof the guy was trying to cause an accident would change that, but it would make me look like a harder target. These guys want easy marks anyway, obviously the mark's fault, quick settlement, big payoff.

So, my advice to drivers of any experience, keeping a safe distance behind the car in front of you is just as important, if not more so, than many other safety tips. If they slam on their brakes and you don't hit them, most of the time I think they'll go for someone else. If they persist in their malacious efforts, try to take another way home. If you're in a city, throw them for a loop - if you make four right turns and they follow you through all four, they're following you. Take them to a crowded place and stop somewhere people will see you - most likely these people won't make a scene with witnesses.

Scary dream I had - slasher films

I believe the biggest reason I'm not afraid of horror movies or books is that I don't project myself into the situations, that I don't imagine myself in the situation.

Earlier I had a dream (I sleep days, remember) that, as a movie would be your average horror film. But since I was a part of it (I think), it was kind of scary. As with any dream, I only remember so much of it, but using logic and imagination, I can fill in some details.

The premise: A group of people held hostage in a furniture store by a madman. It doesn't sound like much, but this guy proves he is capable of anything - but he's not very capable. This furniture store is a free-standing building on a lot, with employee parking and freight docking in the back and a decent parking lot out front. Also in front, to the right of the entrance, are two trailers. One might transport two motorcycles, but also might be a weekend hotdog/popcorn/soda booth/stand. The other is a camper. The lights were off, but someone may live there. (The store owner?)

The hostages: As I write this I don't even know how many there are. I haven't stopped to count. So here they are:

The girl: Not the only girl, but that's her description, considering I don't know any names. She's the wild type, perhaps grew up in the country. Her major screen time in my dream was escaping, through the front door, while the madman was busy elsewhere. She runs down the parking lot, to the right to a convenience store, and tells the clerk what she knows. The lady behind the counter offers to call the police, but the girl doesn't trust them, and steals a Harley owned by the clerk, who reports it as stolen. The girl is caught about 20 miles up the road. Associates of the madman break into the jail and bring her back to the store.

The geek: This may or may not be the main character. He reminds me a lot of me, but I don't think he's the main guy. Anyway, he has a modified iPod with a camera and wireless transmitter on it. He's upstairs in the office when the madman and his associates break in, but he sees the action on his iPod's camera and tries, unsuccessfully, to hide. He's caught and tied to some large hand-truck/dollie, whatever they're called.

The geek's girlfriend: Oddly enough the geek has a girlfriend, and she's a freak. City girl, kinda Goth/Emo style - I thought of the love interest in The Waterboy. When the madman takes over, she knows she can't do anything, but she positions the geek's iPod to record the events in the hope that he sees and calls the police. Which he doesn't, for reasons unknown to me. Anyway, she is tied up same as he is, but before he gets caught. I think one or both of them were supposed to be tortured - I saw a knife - but I don't recall it actually being used.

The hero: I still don't know why this guy and the geek aren't the same character. I think that they might be, it's like I had the dream twice and in one they were, the other they weren't. In the one they weren't, though, this guy is your average Dude character, drives a muscle car, smokes, drinks, listens to classic rock, jeans and T-shirt.

He actually provokes the madman somehow. I saw him at the madman's place, maybe getting directions, maybe he had to use the phone, maybe car trouble, but something wasn't right and he had to get out of there. The guy may have been a hunter and talked openly of killing not just animals, but people as well - maybe kids. Anyway, the madman was a creep and the dude just wanted to move on. On his way out, though, he threw some trash out the side of his car in the madman's yard or driveway, and that set the madman off to begin with.

The dude/hero is the only other character that made an escape attempt. His was a little more thought-out, perhaps. He first runs to the left, around the corner, then around back. Then around to the right side of the building, and he creeps up to the front. The back and sides are fenced in, and there's nothing back there anyway - this is a small town. (Why it has a furniture store is beyond me, but I know it wasn't a grocery store.) So he comes back up along the right side, and creeps behind what may be the hotdog stand, then the trailer. I woke up shortly after this point, so I don't know if he gets away or tries a rescue attempt.

The black guy: There was also a black guy around the madman's home. I didn't see him around the furniture store, but he came around, I think he was a journalist writing a story about the Klan in the 21st century. He asked about the madman's five associates, who wore white masks and their features were obscured (nothing like the traditional Klan dunce cap and sheet) but he still suspected them of it. The madman said yes they were Klan, but they were his men. It's later revealed that they weren't, in fact one of them was black as well. Weird, I know, but this dream didn't make much sense.

There might be more, but you know how dreams fade, if you have them, that is. None of these events really took place chronologically, nor did they take place in the order I named them. I just posted on a first remember, first logged basis. But I stand back from the dream and just look at the story from the point of view of, well, anybody else, and I realize it's just your average slasher film. Below average, maybe, and probably not even deserving of an R rating. Another PG-13 horror film, cast the lastest Mickey Mouse Club alumni in the lead roles and someone like Dennis Hopper or Gene Hackman as the villain, and you have an instant blockbuster.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Heatwave from Hell

So I haven't been making too many posts up here, and I have a good reason. Well, the main reason is this awesome Star Wars game, Knights of the Old Republic. You start out as a regular soldier, but turn out to have Jedi powers, and through the game you learn to hone them to become a Master - but that isn't what this is about.

The last three days have been not only the hottest days of the year, but probably the hottest since I've been out here. It's unusually hot, even the locals are complaining when previous "hot" days (that I thought were unnaturally hot compared to California were nothing. So it's pretty hot.

The Weather Channel's website says that it's only 93° out, but the "feels like" thing says it feels like 111°. I've experienced 105° that I know of in CA, and this is hotter. Much hotter.

Wednesday I got 9 hours of sleep, but I went to bed early. Thursday I got an almost unheard-of (between workdays) 10 hours of sleep. It's almost 4:30pm Friday and I haven't been to sleep. Not only am I not that tired, it's actually too hot to sleep.

Today is easily the hottest day. The last two days, I put our house fan (only 9" but it works great) right over the A/C vent and was fairly cool - as long as I didn't move. Now doing the same trick, it's only tolerable - but it's almost intolerable everywhere else. Even with the A/C working its hardest, it's still 91° inside, so I don't buy that it's only 93° outside. Our A/C can take the inside temperature 10-20° below the outside temperature, on average. So I don't know where the Weather Channel's thermometer is, but it's at least 101-111° outside my place, judging by the internal temperature.

If you're reading this from CA, you probably haven't seen it this hot. At least not up in Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa did get this hot, or almost this hot, once in the 80s. I remember because my mother kept kicking me out, making me play outside, and I got this terrible headache. I was probably between 5 and 8, so between 1984 and 1987. And I think it was in August, too. Fresno and Sacramento get this hot, but it's not as humid. So it's bad, but not quite as bad. Couple that with the overabundance of mosquitos and the aggressiveness of flying insects in general and it makes for a pretty nasty outside experience.

Well well what do you know? The inside thermostat just dropped to 90°!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Last night's dinner: Sausage Rigatoni

When I lived in California, my mother didn't let me cook much, and when she did, I cooked for myself. Nobody was going to eat my food. So when I moved out here, I took some of my mother's recipes with me, of course, and a couple I still make faithfully, but this is one I adapted to better suit our needs.

I made spaghetti just as my mother does a time or two. It was OK, but it didn't impress us. I didn't do it exactly right (practice makes perfect and all) and though hers was always good, it wasn't exactly how I would do it. Over the past, almost 2 years, I've developed my own pasta dish. Mostly I just call it "rigatoni" (since the Italian tradition seems to call it after the type of noodles used) or "pasta" or "the killer pasta", but I suppose a more proper name would be "Sausage Rigatoni".

I've never been a big fan of spaghetti (the noodle, not the dish). So my first change was to change the noodle. I experimented with a few before deciding on Rigatoni. I don't know why I chose it, but I like it. I like my pasta al dente (which means it's not completely softened) and even after baking in the oven, Rigatoni holds up better than anything I've tried.

Also, beef doesn't really stand out in a good sauce. It becomes a texture, but trivializes the difference between meat and meatless pasta, unless you use meatballs, which I haven't learned yet. (If I do establish a spaghetti dish, it will be with meatballs.) Also, ground beef is rather bland (even steak is, unseasoned). I discovered the Johnsonville Hot Italian sausage, and first experimented with the ground variety before settling on the links.

I start out with this wide and deep skillet. It's not wide nor deep enough as you will see later, but for now it's fine. I'm shown using the Food Lion generic hot Italian sausage. The Johnsonville is better, but on a budget this is fine.

I put about a cup of water in the skillet, but enough to put ¼" to ½" of water along the surface. I put a generous amount of crushed red pepper and Tabasco sauce in this water, let it heat up some, and then put the links in. Our pan slopes somewhat (or the stove does, I dunno) so I put one on top and the other four side by side. If you can get a more even surface, I recommend one on top, one on the bottom, and the other 3 in the middle. Have some space between them.

WARNING! The steam will be very bad because of the combination of Tabasco and red pepper. It will make your eyes water, clear your sinuses like nothing else! Ensure adequate ventilation when doing this.

While the sausage is simmering (cover it and vent, better if your lid has holes as mine does), chop up vegetables. These are optional, but will add to the dish. Here I used two zucchinis and two yellow crookneck squash, all about 6" long and 1" at the widest. I cut them down the middle and in 8 pieces (times 2 since it's cut longways). Squash not your thing? Some mushrooms would work, too, like one of those 4" square things you get at the grocery store.

Be sure to turn the sausage after about 5 minutes. Another 5-8 minutes after turning, and move onto the next step.

I then drain the sausage, but I don't rinse or wipe out the pan. What stays behind won't hurt the veggies. Whether you're using squash or mushrooms, I'd put some oil down (Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is the best for you, as I understand, and that's what I use here) and some chopped or minced garlic. We couldn't get minced, so those small chunks you see are chopped garlic. Stir this often. And, when you can, take out the sauce - you'll need it soon enough.

Slice up the sausage as thinly as you can. You should be able to get about
½" or a little less. Don't want it too thick. Don't worry if it's uncooked or undercooked in the middle. Trust me, it'll be fully cooked by the time the dish is done, but if you're really concerned, you can toss it in with the veggies until it's cooked thoroughly. Now's a good time to start the rigatoni boiling. As always with pasta, cover it with 1-3" of water, depending on the pan size, put the heat on high and cover, tilting the lid and checking occasionally.

As you can see, I use a large jar (not the biggest, but the biggest with the regular metal cap) of Prego sauce. That's one thing I learned from my Mama, stick with Prego. I've never tried Ragu, always heard it was too thin. But if you were raised on Ragu, or something else, by all means use it. But I recommend Prego. It is simply the best. Pick the flavor you like, it doesn't matter.

I then use two cans of tomatoes. Be creative here. I've found generic is perfectly fine, but I couldn't find a generic equivalent for one at Food Lion, so I used the national brand. Stewed tomatoes are alright, but I prefer them diced. The tomato paste (again, the Food Lion brand is just as good as Hunt's/Del Monte) is optional and will thicken the pasta sauce. I use it because I like a thicker sauce.

Drain the veggies, but be careful. Pouring oil down the drain isn't the smartest thing to do. Drain it into something, or run hot water for a couple minutes before and after.

When I do the sauce, I first pour the Prego in, and let that heat up. I then drain and add the diced tomato cans one at a time, stirring after each one. The paste I add last. Put the heat on low, or at least medium, and prepare for splatter.

Lastly, put the sausage and veggies in, stirring well. This image is one you have to see larger (click on it, same goes for the rest) to see the details. Otherwise, you can see that it's all mixed in. Reduce the heat and cover.

Carefully drain the rigatoni pasta, it will steam up good. The noodles should still be firm, yet soft enough to pinch. If you don't think it's quite soft enough, trust me, it'll soften some more when you bake it.

Our pan wasn't big enough, so we put it in two pans. The smaller one we're giving away, but the bigger one we keep for ourselves. I pour the pasta into the dishes, then put the sauce over it and mix. If you'd rather stir it in the pan you boiled the rigatoni in, that works too, but I didn't see the need. Had I done it, I probably would have gotten a little more even sauce:noodles ratio between the two. I think "ours" has more sauce to noodles, but the other one turned out fine.

Now, we cover this in tinfoil and bake for 45 minutes at 400° Fahrenheit - I don't know the Celsius equivalent for you if you're outside the United States.

After 45 minutes of cooking, I remove the tinfoil and cover in finely shredded Cheddar cheese - and pop it back in for another 15 minutes, uncovered, still at 400F.

After cooling down some, the pasta is ready to serve, but be careful, it's hot! And not just the temperature, it's pretty spicy, too! Especially if you add more crushed red pepper and Tabasco to the tomato sauce before putting the meat and veggies in, but I did not do that this time.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Two-screen trickery

I go to turn on my computer, but something isn't right. The screen is just a little bit sharper, the colors just a little richer and deeper, but for one small difference. The screen is also much, much smaller. I am using my "old", or "little" screen, my 19" LaCie flat-CRT (tube) monitor I've had for years. As a computer monitor, it's great and has served me well, but for the past couple of months, I have been using a widescreen 32" Sanyo HDTV as my monitor.

Now, this 19" screen I used to think of as "huge", as "gargantuan" (compared to your usual 15" and even 17" monitors), seems tiny in comparison to the HDTV. Even now that the HDTV is off, and I've been in the room watching Law & Order for the past hour, I'm still unaccustomed to the "small screen".

The resolution is set at 1024x768, which is about standard on a 15-17" monitors. My own monitor can go just above 1600x1200, 17**x13**, I forget the exact numbers. But even still, the text and icons seem tiny.

So, why am I using the 19" screen? No, my HDTV is not broken. There's the obvious, that it's kind of refreshing to be using a normal computer monitor for my computer, even though it is pretty special, despite being over 2 years old now. (I assembled it from parts bought on, I put it all together from case, motherboard, CPU, RAM, graphics card, hard drive, optical drive, etc.)

No, it's just that two games I have absolutely cannot, to my present knowledge, be played on a widescreen monitor. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, for instance, the HUD (heads-up display) is hard-coded for a 4:3 display, and its publishers have decided that it is too costly and/or not profitable enough to write a patch for widescreen monitors.

For some games, such as my favorite, Deus Ex (which came out the year prior, maybe 2 years earlier) this isn't a problem. You can select its predetermined resolutions or your desktop resolution, if it's not in the list. That is, 1176x664 wasn't a choice until I got the HDTV, and now that it is, everything looks as it should. But Deus Ex is based on the Unreal Engine, and the Unreal Engine is said to be one of the best and most versatile game engines one can develop for, meaning that games based on it can be more easily modified, adapted to newer operating environments - such as a widescreen display.

Of course, movies look better in widescreen, because you're seeing the movie as it was filmed. With the exception of TV shows, TV movies, and a few exceptions (e.g. Stanley Kubrick's films), most movies are shot with a wide-aspect camera, even before TVs. Why home televisions started out with the 4:3 ratio is still a mystery to me, but I imagine it was more cost effective to make a tube-based set as close to square as possible. There are tube-based widescreen TVs, but they are not common and are mostly being passed over for plasma or LCD sets.

As such, my current setup is a little more efficient. Both screens are connected to the computer, and via my control panel in Windows, I can switch between one monitor or the other. Our DVD player is connected to the TV, so it is possible for me to be on the computer, and Jen to be watching a movie, for instance. Or perhaps I could be watching a movie and blogging about it at the same time, doing a running commentary, or whatever.

I can even set up a horizontal stretch, which means I can literally move the mouse between one and the other. As it happens, right now I have my text editor spanning both. As I type on the left side of the screen, I am watching the text on the monitor, but as it crosses over, it winds up on the HDTV. Obviously, this is not going to work for, say, web browsing, but I can have my web browser on one screen, filling it, and I can have another web browser, or maybe a text editor, paint program, music jukebox software, or whatever, on the other screen. This is amazing, as I understand it, if you have two screens of the same size. As it is now, it's just a novelty. And my wallpaper looks bad. It's stretched more on the right screen than the left. I go to launch a game, though - Deus Ex - and it smartly disables the HDTV and goes to fill the little one (because at this point the little one is the Primary, I could change that).

As always, click these to see them bigger. Here you really have to. As you can see (at full magnification), the taskbar (the bar along the bottom of a Windows desktop) doesn't stop on the first screen, and there's no Start button on the second screen; the taskbar stretches across. Firefox is not maximized (doing so would occupy both screens); it's just set up to fill the right screen. That's nothing special, I just reduced it to a window and manually stretched it. As you can see, sometimes I write my blogs in a text editor, and then copy them over to the Blogger interface.

Here's Jen playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It only plays right on 4:3 screens. What a cutie, eh? I mean, a woman who's 1) into computers, 2) into Star Wars (enough to play KOTOR), and 3) into games. Girl geeks rock.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Some killer apps I've discovered recently

Usually the CD enclosed with the Maximum PC magazine isn't worth much, but I found a few gems on it this month. Or should I say next month, it's the September issue, which was probably written in May and June and printed in July, because I got it at the end of July. Weird; I shall never understand the magazine industry. But be that as it may, there were some good finds on the CD, regardless of what month it is.

1. Dark Room

I had no idea what this was, but the name sounded cool so I tried it. To my surprise, the whole screen went dark save for a few arrows, and a blinking cursor for text entry. "WTF is this?" I asked myself, typing around in it. I hit Escape, and lo and behold, it's just a text editor. One that fills the screen and has green text. Which is really ironic, because my trusty text editor, Editpad Lite, is configured to have a black background and green text. When you have a widescreen 32" monitor, well, it attracts flies and mosquitos like nothing else, so the darker I keep it, the better.

Dark Room does have a bug that annoys me, but it's not that big a deal. If you resize it to see around it or whatever, it won't always go back to fullscreen, obscuring part of it behind the taskbar and you can see a few pixels on the right. The solution is simple: quit and start over. Also, it maintains the text inside when you close it and reopen it, which can be confusing but not bad.

2. PortableApps

I had only heard of this, and it's ironic that MaximumPC included it, because I just got a USB keychain drive - 2GB to be exact. Now what can you do with a thumb drive? Sure, you can tote 2GB of files around with it, but so what? DVD-RW is 4.5GB, maybe a little less but still more than 2GB. DVD-RAM holds a little more than 5GB. A USB drive is a little more portable, but what can you do with it? Really?

Well, you can install PortableApps on it. There are three versions: Standard (includes antivirus, Sudoku, an office suite (OpenOffice), Firefox, a scheduler (Sunbird), a universal instant messager (Gaim) and an email client (Thunderbird). The next one down replaces OpenOffice with AbiWord, a word processor. And the base one has only the menu. All of these programs run from the drive and don't store any settings or files on the "host" computer, so you can take your software with you wherever you go. And has more programs you can put on your USB drive that integrate right into the menu.

PortableApps does have an interesting limitation, however. It only uses open-source applications, programs where the source code can be freely modified. Perhaps this is so the application can be configured for the PortableApps menu, but I don't think so. I'm sure there are software providers out there who would (and maybe they do) provide a PortableApps package, but I get the impression PortableApps is more interested in pushing the open source movement than diversifying available software - and that's fine, open source has a lot to offer. I just don't think it should be a limitation. I would give an open source app a chance to replace a closed-source freeware (and especially a closed-source commercial) application, but choice is an important element. Rather than having an all-opensource set of apps, I would rather have a set that does everything I need.

But, that aside, PortableApps is great. I've updated to the latest Firefox (which works with all the extensions, like Adblock), installed KeePass (a password vault with government-level-plus security), dropped Thunderbird (I use Gmail), and installed VideoLAN (aka VLC, this is a media player), VirtualDub (video editing), and Gimp (a Photoshop clone). Oh, and Audacity (an audio editor). It needs more stuff - how about a music player? The open source Winamp clone, XMMS, was fun to use in Linux. It needed work (lots!) but I'm sure it's more usable now. And CD burning. And more games. Maybe a download manager, a simple photo editor like Microsoft's. So I'm watching, hopefully they get more stuff.

3. Instiki

This wasn't on the MPC CD, but it should have been - along with Ruby, but I'll get to that. There was an article in Maximum PC about "setting up your own Wiki". Any of my faithful readers can tell you I am a big fan of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia subject to edit by anybody. A lot of my links go there when I want to give the reader a chance to learn more about a particular keyword or thing. One's own Wiki isn't going to have the extensive knowledge of Wikipedia, to be sure, but it does give one the ability to run this sort of interconnected web of pages that any user can edit, and they're all linked. It's like a text editor, maybe word processor, database, all rolled into one and accessed through your web browser.

Getting this thing set up and running isn't quite as easy as Instiki's site makes it out to be, but it's not hard, either. First of all, Instiki requires a much larger installation first, a development environment (thusly in the same category as the .Net Framework, or Java, or Flash or Shockwave) called Ruby, also known as Ruby on Rails. Ruby does nothing more than allow Ruby-based applications to be ran; without Ruby, stuff written in Ruby does not work. Once Ruby is installed, you can install Instiki and get it working.

Now you just unpack the Instiki installation to a folder. I recommend C:\Instiki if you have space on your C drive and you don't reformat often. If you don't have the space or like to reformat, then X:\Instiki where X is your other hard drive's drive letter. Then go to Start, then Run, and type in CMD, hit Enter. You'll be at a command prompt. Without the quotes type "CD \" to get to the root. If you put it on another hard drive, simply type X: where X is the drive letter. Then, "CD instiki". CD isn't CD-ROM here, it's "change directory". Then you just type "instiki.cmd", hit enter, and let it do its thing. Shortly, your web browser should open and present you with the configuration page. Once you've configured it, the Wiki's main page will load. Bookmark this now. Note that your firewall at some point may warn you. Just hit OK, allow, whatever.

To actually use the Wiki... Well, I'm still learning that. To the right of every edit page is some instructions, but they're fairly basic - you can do more than it lets on.