Friday, January 30, 2009

GOP: No healthcare for poor kids

Any Republican-voting family seeking medical care for their children this week should feel ashamed to vote Republican or to have voted Republican following the passage of a healthcare bill to extend medical coverage to 4 million poor kids. Why? Well, the bill passed, 66-32, and nine of the 66 were, in fact, Republicans... but ALL 32 opposed were also Republicans. Not a single Democrat senator opposed this. Senate Democrats tried to do this twice under former President Bush (Jr.) but Dubya vetoed it both times.

Things like this are at the cornerstone of what's wrong with the economy here in America today. The government is run by the rich. Even Barack Obama, supposed hero of the working class and minorities, is loaded. To get any kind of leadership role in the US Government, you must be rich. (Poor people shouldn't pay taxes - wasn't the Boston Tea Party considered a success, and itself based on "No taxation without representation"? Kidding, of course, but am I not onto something here?) The difference is, some of them care about us while others only care about themselves and their class. Of those who care, there are those who are genuinely compassionate, and others who realize that the worse off the working poor are, the worse off everybody is, such as is happening now. As always, I do believe the rich need representation in the government as well as their needs are important, too, but they can't be allowed to have the final say. They just can't, and this is why.

Sources: CNN, Washington Post

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Unmasking racism and bigotry

I used to love watching Jerry Springer on TV. Channel 2 (a FOX affiliate, KTVU), 11am, I'd watch this silly cross between a talk show and pro wrestling, before I actually took the leap and actually started watching pro wrestling (that's "pro" with the quotes, you don't need to tell me it's scripted, but so is Lost, and Heroes, so STFU). Anyway, my favorite episodes were the ones with the Klan, these big men hiding behind sheets and shouting "White Power!". Some would oppose freedom of speech on the basis that idiots like these guys spread intolerance and fear, but I think Jerry had the right idea. Show these clowns for what they really are and let the public decide. It's one thing when they're marching on a courthouse or burning crosses, but when you put them on a panel under bright light, they're not so scary. But the best of all was when an audience member (might not have even been a black guy) tried to yank one's mask off. He wasn't having it, wouldn't let that mask go for anything. The guy got the hood off, but he was just clinging to the last bit of the mask, and turning away from the audience and the camera.

On a tangent point, you'll notice that journalists and most bloggers, myself included, post their real name. (In my case, look at the URL. Dark Reality has been my screen name since 1994 and my pen name since 1992 (long story).) There's nothing wrong with anonymous posting, but if you're trying to make a point, your opinion carries a lot more weight if it includes your real name. In an active debate, I lend a lot more credence to the guy using his real name than the guy hiding behind a screen name. By using your real name, you're putting your reputation, such as it is (or isn't) on the line. You're saying "this is who I am and this is what I believe". By using an alias, you're attributing your beliefs and your point of view to your fictional persona, which carries a lot less weight with some. Now, sure, you're up on a casual site, say, GameFAQs, and you don't want to post personal data, that's fine. But winning a fight on GameFAQs' forums, as they say, it's like winning the Special Olympics. (No disrespect to the mentally handicapped, of course, but that's how the joke goes; you'll see I left the punch line unsaid.)

So I thought it was funny that the financial backers of California's bigoted measure, Proposition 8, which ultimately defines marriage as being limited to a man and a woman, are pushing the courts to hide their identities. In this recession, they're willing to spend precious money to push an agenda of hate, but only from the comfort of their masks, and they're fighting like hell to keep the mask on. The reason why is pretty obvious. If you're in the Klan, you can go harass blacks and others behind the comfort of anonymity, which, if you didn't have, prevents a bunch of them from getting together and repaying the favor, since they don't know who you are. Smart idea as far as your own safety goes, but as with Internet debates, if you're hiding behind a mask, do you really believe the hate? Enough to sign your name on it? Obviously not, back to Proposition 8, as some of the supporters said that, in light of possible harassment, they wouldn't back a future law of this nature if their identities were made public.

I haven't blogged much about Proposition 8 or gay rights, because it's pretty much a non-issue for me. I'm not gay, myself, and I'm happily married to a woman I love. I know gays, on both coasts, and none of them really care much about marriage. They're not legally forbidden to be together, and some have exchanged vows before God without the approval of the Church or the state. Marriage itself, that act of vowing faithfulness before God, isn't illegal for anybody, but legally backed marriages are limited to a man and woman, most places. It's an interesting distinction. Again, gay couples can live together and they can exchange vows. You couldn't stop that with a law. It's pretty much free speech. The difference between a gay marriage and a straight marriage is that the latter is recognized by the state. If I were to cheat on my wife, she could ask for a divorce and I'd be financially liable. No such protection on the gay marriage, which means the marriage is based more on trust than on state law. And I haven't even gotten to the Church.

The Catholic Church will tell you that any same-sex relationship is forbidden under Levitican law (the book of Leviticus), but the quotes they cite only apply to gay men. Nothing about lesbians whatsoever. They love that quote that goes "And Man shall not lay with another man as he do his wife, for that is unclean." Now I'm no Biblical scholar, but "unclean" doesn't mean "one-way ticket to Hell". Eating pork is unclean, too, according to the Bible. But we do it. On top of any Levitican interpretation, Christianity is centered around one passage in the Bible: John 3:16, the one that states that if you believe Christ died for your sins, you're going to Heaven. Of course, Jews don't have this benefit as they don't believe in that part of the Bible; they're strictly Old Testament, as I understand, but it's not the Jews that are leading the opposition to gay marriage, it's the Christians, which is very interesting. But on top of any Biblical interpretation, you have the Catholic Church itself, an institution which promotes homosexuality within its very ranks. But it's not the gay marriage based on love and trust the Church promotes, it's a very dark kind, based on rape and pedophilia. The Church has not only not punished gay pedophile priests, it's kept them active and moved them around. See, in the Church, homosexuality is only OK if it's a man forcing himself on a young boy. Two men or two women who love each other and trust each other? They don't approve of that.

But religion, as organized religion, is by its very nature hypocritical. The purpose of religion is one of many to allow a small group to control a much larger group, through fear of eternal damnation. We're talking about the same group who once tortured and murdered men for suggesting that Earth wasn't at the center of the universe and that the Sun didn't revolve around Earth. The same group who once taught that blacks were the property of whites, who once taught that women were the property of their husbands and girls the property of their fathers. They change their image every so often to fit the public and to maintain that level of control. Don't get me wrong, though, I do believe in God, but not because a church tells me to. But I don't preach, and I keep my beliefs personal, because while they work for me, they're based on my experiences, and I believe one must come to one's own conclusions; beliefs aren't beliefs if they're forced. Then you're just somebody's puppet.

(Bonus round: Many anti-gay Christians aren't even heterosexual, they're bisexual. You can identify the bisexuals because they state that sexuality is a choice and they encourage gays to choose to be straight. Just ask yourself when you chose your own sexual orientation. If your answer is "I didn't" or "never", you're simply the way you are. Being able to make a choice means you have a choice, which means both choices are potentially viable. So next time you see, hear, or hear of a Christian telling gays to "choose heterosexuality", just do as I do and laugh a little at the irony.)

But, to return to the issue at hand, there is and it should be recognized that there is a difference between "subjective morality" and "objective morality". For the former, some religions say that it is wrong to eat pork, to recycle a previous example. That's subjective morality; you're taught one thing and you believe it and that's all fine and good, but it doesn't apply to everybody. For the latter, rape is horribly wrong. It doesn't matter who you are, what you believe, what you were taught, to force sex on another person (especially a child). The issue of gay marriage is purely a matter of subjective morality. I don't mean to infer that somebody's granpappy was wrong when he said "ain't no man need to be laying up with no other man"; by all means, if homosexuality offends you, stick with the opposite sex. But, if you truly believe it's wrong, go ahead and make your point, just be sure to sign your name, otherwise it's rather pointless.

And if you don't believe in it enough to put your name on it, surely your ideas shouldn't be forced on millions of Americans.

News Roundup 5

News Roundup 5

Senate passes bill to delay DTV switch
Looks like they might actually delay the transition to digital TV from next month to June. I can't believe how frakkin' stupid people are (yeah, I'm going to adopt the Battlestar Galactica censor bypass, not only because it sounds cool, but also because it's classier than the real F-bomb). You tell people something's going to happen for a year and a half, people ignore it. You set a date, they dig their heels, whether it'll affect them or not.

Honestly though, I don't see what the big deal is. I believe everybody opposed to the switch and some in favor of it are seriously misinformed as to what it will mean. Me, I just want them to get it over with so they can stop nagging about it every five minutes on TV. I mean, bloody hell, anybody who doesn't know by now is too stupid to get it if you tell them again, so why bother?

The main reason for the delay, besides and in addition to misunderstanding, is the economy. The biggest misunderstanding is that everybody seems to think that the DTV switch means they will have to buy an HDTV. That's wonderful, because demand has driven HDTV prices through the floor. If you're in the market for a new TV, you can get an HDTV for hardly anything more than a tube-based SDTV, so you'd have to be an idiot to get one (though, some retailers still carry them, hoping some dipstick will take them off their hands). We paid just under $1000 for a 32" 720p set (entry level HD) in 2007, and the same TV can be had now for about $600. HDTV has nothing to do with the DTV switch, but if you have an HDTV you have absolutely nothing to worry about. All HDTVs contain the technology in those converter boxes they're giving out coupons for.

Like they say, if you have cable or satellite, you're fine. Cable and satellite are not required to switch, only over-the-air broadcasters are. The only people who need to worry are those who have a) an analog TV (one with a tube), and b) bunny ears (an antenna). If you have both of these, you're SOL following the switch because the analog signals that the bunny ears pick up will cease.

The solution is real simple. You apply for a voucher, which takes $40 off the cost of the converter, which Walmart sells for $50. So you pay ten bucks plus the tax on $50. It's $15-16 tops depending on the state you're in. This bad boy sits between your TV and your antenna, and can pull digital broadcasts over your bunny ears and downsamples it to SD and analog and sends it to your TV. Even comes with a remote control, so if your TV didn't have one before, it will after the switch.

Here are some real-world examples to help you understand what's going on.

My wife and I have an HDTV with DirecTV. The transition won't affect us because we haven't got an antenna. We get our TV service from DirecTV and they won't be affected. (Again, neither will cable companies or Dish Network.)

My wife's brother has an SDTV (square analog thing) with DirecTV as well (we both live outside the city limits). He won't be affected either, for the same reason as us but also because his DirecTV receiver, while not itself an HD unit, converts the signal from digital to analog just like those conversion boxes.

At work, right next to me in fact, is the ugliest 13" TV I've ever had the displeasure of looking at, and it's got bunny ears on it. No cable service, no satellite service. We can kinda get the news on it, but it's fuzzy. After the conversion, this TV will fail to get any kind of service.

The advantage with the conversion is that analog broadcasting has never been very good. Real fuzzy, and you're always adjusting the antenna to get it "just right". With digital, the signal is much stronger. It's an all-or-nothing deal, so either you've got a crisp, clear picture, or you've got nothing at all.

Also, if you have a converter box to receive over-the-air broadcasting, your TV programs will look just as good as if you hooked up cable or satellite to it. It's digital picture and sound, at least the quality of DVD, which is higher than an analog TV can display in the first place, and in many cases in HD, which you won't get without an HDTV, but it'll be clearer. You might get little black bars on the top and bottom; HDTV is naturally widescreen to better accomodate human vision. Stare at a blank wall and imagine a red line around the edge of your vision. Is it closer to a square or a rectangle? It's actually the shape of an eye, elliptical, but it's closer to the rectangle.

I hope for the sake of my coworkers they get a conversion box in here. I don't watch the bloody thing, but all of them do.

Oh, and you don't have to wait until the switch to get and take advantage of a converter box. We're less than a month away from the original conversion date; I daresay your local broadcasters are broadcasting in digital as well as analog, if they haven't switched. I'm in the Middle of Nowhere, Eastern North Carolina, and we have digital TV. In the South. Yee-haw. The vouchers/coupons program ran out of money, but President Obama and others in the government are trying to get it more funding. Once that's announced, you'll hear about it (I'll certainly blog about it) and you can get yourself one.

Upgrade your damn TV if the switch is going to affect you. It ain't gonna set you back a whole lot, and everything will just work better.

What's new with Internet Explorer 8 RC1? Have a look.
Lovely. Microsoft's likely crappiest product, Internet Explorer, is out of beta in this 8th version, and excited is the last word I'd use to describe my feelings for it. As you can see in PC World's screenshots, not only does it look just like Internet Explorer 7 (and why are they using Windows 2000 or at least the Windows 2000 theme?), but it appears they're still playing catch-up to Mozilla Firefox.

Not a lot to say here, really. You start typing something in on the address bar, and it pulls up results from your history and bookmarks. That was one of the cool new features in Firefox 3, and it really helps. I mean, you find something you like, you can come back to it at any time by just typing in part of the name. Also, Firefox has a new thing called "unsorted bookmarks". They're not formal bookmarks and they're not listed, but if you know you'll be coming back to something, there's a little grey star you can click to turn it gold, and that puts it in the unsorted bookmarks, so it can be found via the address bar trick after it falls out of your history. MSIE users will also get other Firefox features, like the browser warning you if the site appears in some database of dangerous websites.

All neat tricks and well adapted from Firefox, but the cornerstone of my dislike for Internet Explorer is that Microsoft sold out IE users years ago with their continued refusal to support ad blocking. Ads are the biggest nuisance on the Net after the really dangerous stuff, and it's extremely simple for a web browser to block them. Firefox has proven this. I surf the Net, I don't see ads. I've almost come to take it for granted. When an Internet Explorer user looks at the same sites, they see ads all over the place. It's ugly, and it's distracting. To add insult to injury, Microsoft offers a compromise: pay the advertising industry $30 and you can have an industry-regulated ad blocker which will block a few ads they can let you get away with missing. Not all of them.

Where was the advertising industry when I paid over $900 to build my PC? They certainly didn't chip in. I've spent over $1500 on it to date (including the initial $900 of course) and it's all been on me. They haven't chipped in a dime. I pay about $50 a month to Embarq for phone and DSL. The former we don't use but it's required for the DSL. We don't even have a home phone unit/handset, but should we decide to buy one, the service is there. The advertising industry doesn't cover any of my DSL bill, either. Or the light bill to keep the computer running. Or the rent to keep a roof over the computer. So why then, should I look at their ads when I surf the Net? They get money. The site owner gets money. Where's mine? Of course it's not illegal what they're doing. They found a way to farm the web for money. Good for them. They even make enough to put Microsoft on their payroll. Bloody Microsoft, the richest company in the world, and the advertising industry has their balls in a sling. What over, I'd love to know. And here comes open source looking the hero, not only do you have Linux looking nice and pretty and costing $400 less than Windows Vista Ultimate (aka, free) and doing many of the same things, but then you have Firefox, the open-source web browser which will not lay down for the advertising industry, and will actually let you block their ads.

And I'm not nearly as militant as some FOSS (Free, Open Source Software) supporters by half! I just love the hell out of what they're doing. Free software, free to change, free to redistribute, and all they want out of the deal is for computing to be easier and more secure for everybody? Where do I sign up? Oh, I don't? I just use the programs, become a statistic, another nobody using their stuff instead of paid and/or closed-source stuff? Sounds great.

IE 8 can burn...

Forbes: Rock Band no more than "shameless knock-off" of Guitar Hero
My wife's gonna love this.

Here's the score, in a nutshell. Guitar Hero was the result of collaboration between Red Octane, a PC and console peripheral (controller) maker, who had developed a guitar-shaped controller; and Harmonix Music Systems, a small game developer who had made a few puzzle games syncing to music on the PlayStation 2. All of the songs were covers, but they were well-done, and it was fun to take a plastic guitar and pretend to jam with your favorite rock stars.

For the two or three of you who don't understand the concept of the virtual musician games that have come out, colored balls (Guitar Hero) or bricks (Rock Band) fall, kinda like in Tetris, but each column has its own distinct color, and these colors correspond to colored buttons on the neck of the plastic guitar: Green, Red, Yellow, Blue, and Orange. The columns are in the same order on the screen. When a green block falls, you hold the green button (you can do this in advance) and just as it crosses the line at the bottom, you flip the "strum bar" with your right hand to symbolize strumming the strings with a pick. If two or more fall side-by-side, you have to hold those two or more colored buttons. At higher difficulty levels, more bricks or balls fall, and they fall faster. On Easy only the first three columns are activated. Medium activates the fourth one, and Hard and Expert enable all five. Since most people only have four fingers (not counting the thumb) these last two provide an additional challenge. The balls or bricks sort of represent notes, but there's no real system of conversion. You're really just solving a hand-eye coordination puzzle based on the sound of the song. And at the end of the song, you're rated by percentage and given a score. There's a hell of a lot more to it than that, but that's the basic idea.

Guitar Hero 2 followed, and was also released on the Xbox 360, and this is when people started noticing it. It started becoming cool to play classic rock songs on plastic guitars. Friends got together, and even family members who wouldn't ordinarily play a video game got in on the fun, not because of the game per se, but because of the music they love. The game element became completely transparent.

Harmonix, however, wasn't satisfied with just guitars, so they began a much more imaginative project. Activision wanted in, so Harmonix sold the dying franchise, and Activision threw a ton of money at it. Master tracks and endorsements by former Guns n' Roses guitarist Slash and former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello made Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock a sure hit, and Harmonix gave them all the rope they needed to hang themselves, and dropped Rock Band shortly after. Same thing but with the second guitarist being a cooperative bassist rather than a competitor, also adding a drum kit and a microphone. The drum kit works just like the guitars except there are only four drum pads and a kick pedal. Hitting a drummer's bricks was only a one-step process - simply hit the pad. No "hold this while doing that". Singing was just like karaoke, except the software tracked your pitch and tone and compared it to a line you're expected to follow. And the songs were much, much better and more varied.

Guitar Hero: World Tour was soon announced, but not before two more games. Guitar Hero Aerosmith, which was Guitar Hero 3 but focused on Aerosmith's career, and Guitar Hero On Tour, a handheld, four-button variation of the game for the Nintendo DS, with strumming done with the touch screen and the guitar neck plugging into the GBA slot of the DS. A lovely idea which brought hours of wrist-cramping rock, which we can just abbreviate to "what a crock". World Tour was the real gem, though. Like Rock Band, it would allow four people to cooperate. Also a lead guitarist, bassist, drummer, and singer. Activision threw a ton of money at that, too, and the track list is very impressive. They bought exclusive contracts with a lot of great bands. The Eagles, The Doors, and Metallica, among others, would only license their music to Activision. Sadly, while some parts of World Tour were interesting, the game itself failed on many levels, starting with the vocals not reading the microphone right.

Harmonix buried them yet again with Rock Band 2. In addition to more songs on the game disc, the game came with 20 free (pre-selected) downloads, the ability to export 55 of the 58 Rock Band 1 songs (for example, Metallica's song "Enter Sandman" could not be exported, due to their agreement with Activision), and over 300 songs available for purchase online, the game was much larger. Our own library boasts 237 songs, and yes, we are counting. This weekend, it's going to be 240 when we add two more Steve Miller Band songs and the Godsmack song.

Harmonix haven't ripped off or knocked off anything here. They made Guitar Hero, and after selling it to Activision, they've innovated and Activision has struggled to play catch-up. The only thing Activision has over Harmonix is that the Red Octane guitars are of higher build quality than the ones Harmonix is making themselves. All of the Red Octane instruments are sturdier and, between us and Jen's brother, the Guitar Hero controllers have outlasted the Rock Band ones. It's a good thing, then, that the controllers are cross-compatible. Rock Band stuff doesn't work on the first three Guitar Hero games, but that's the exception.

At the end of the day, Activision hasn't actually made any of these games. Harmonix made the first two Guitar Hero games, and the rest were developed by Neversoft, who made the Tony Hawk games. Activision just publishes and provides the press. And apparently the spin.

Idiot calls for ban on silent camera phones
Whoops, guess he's a Congressman. Oh, he's also a Republican. Surprise surprise.

It would seem that our freedoms would be best protected if cell phones were required by law to beep or otherwise sound a tone when they record an image, and also if the tone could not be disabled. Because apparently people are sticking them under dressing room doors and taking candid pictures of women, and in some cases, children changing their clothes.

Silent cameras are weird, but the fake shutter tones are, well, fake, and tones are just stupid. So both of my cameras (my phone, and my actual camera) are silent. It's not to be sneaky, though, it's just the most logical way to use both of them.

Here's what's stupid about this. They're only worried about camera phones, when actual cameras (well, digital ones without moving parts) can be silenced too. And some of them (e.g. Canon's Elph line) are about as small as phones. There are some that are just stupidly small, they don't even look like real cameras, but they take shots so vivid and clear it's hard to imagine. But we only want the ban on camera phones, right? Commercial camera phones at this point have a cap of 2 megapixels, which ain't bad, but only if the angle and lighting is just right. Otherwise, the image is grainy and hard to see. Not having a flash makes a world of difference. Of course, if you're sticking a camera under a dressing room door, the flash would kind of give you away.

I've heard of reports of camera phones being used illicitly in the past. It's not something that's going to change, and making them silent and enforcing it ain't going to change anything.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Former" President George W. Bush

I almost can't believe it when I hear those words on TV or read them on the Web or in print media. "'Former' President George W. Bush". It should have a nice ring to it, but it doesn't sound real - yet. It should be wonderful to see the most hated President since Nixon dethroned, and even two months and some change after the election, it still hasn't set in that we have a black President now.

Don't get me wrong - besides restraining history as John McCain's biggest and most unfair disadvantage in the 2008 election - race shouldn't have anything to do with Obama as a President. Skin color/pigmentation and racial heritage should be neither an advantage nor a detriment to anybody, but to America as a whole, that for the first time in, well, ever, we've been able to look past race and break another one of the four unwritten rules about what a President must be. Most of us know the legal requirements - 35 years of age, US-born citizen, and a couple others. The four unwritten ones are Protestant, White, Male, and Heterosexual. John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, broke the first one in the 1960s. We got a Catholic President. It didn't affect much. Sure, history will remember him as one of the greats, but not for what he was, but for what he did. Early last year, the Democratic party gave its members a choice as to which of the other three unwritten rules to try to break, race or gender. (And with McCain all but promising to continue everything Bush had started, whoever the Democrats nominated pretty much had it anyway.) They went with race. (I say "they" because I didn't vote in the primaries.) And now we, as a people, have torn down two of the walls the Republicans and other conservatives have built up. I'm fully confident the third one (gender) will be torn down in my lifetime. As for the last one, that will take some doing, but at some point, it will have to be done. Why? Simply because we have a black President now, and that proves that a demographic statistic which was repressed by the conservatives for hundreds of years can, just a short while later, provide a President. The same kind of "people" who repressed African-Americans a hundred years ago or more are alive and well today and have moved on to homosexuals, and if history's taught us anything, it's that these "peoples'" kids learn from their parents' mistakes and general ignorance, and things change.

John McCain was opposed to change. The economy hadn't gotten bad enough, he thought; the war hadn't failed hard enough; gas prices hadn't multiplied enough and continuing along the same path as Bush was exactly what the doctor ordered, McCain tried to tell us, and as I've said before and will probably say again, that is why he lost, because the millions of Americans out of work or who have lost their homes due to the economy or loved ones in the war or 9/11 disagreed and believed that the path we were going down was the wrong one and we needed a change in direction. I am not, I would say, a "fan" of Obama, and I don't think he's a "Messiah" or anything the Republicans are accusing the Democrats of feeling, but I do think he's got the right personality. A President should be charismatic. Clinton was - every time he came on, it was like "The President has something to say, let's pay attention". Bush was not - the only value in listening to him was for laughs. McCain had more solidity and presence than Bush, not nearly as much charisma as Clinton or Obama, though. Obama has all of the presence of Clinton (this is Bill I'm talking about, not Hillary) and more charisma, though it's different. He seems more down to earth, more of a straight shooter, where Clinton was a little less serious, I thought, and seemingly happier. I don't know, he seemed more easy-going. A President should also be taken seriously. Clinton seemed easy-going, but he was serious enough. Bush couldn't be taken seriously, and in agreeing with Bush's mistakes, McCain couldn't be taken very seriously, either, but I believe Obama will prove to be as serious as one should expect.

Another "I don't mean to say" but, conservatives are not all that bad, as they do have their place. First and foremost, until somebody figures out how to represent the rich as well as the working class, the rich do need an advocate. Bush filled that role for eight years so well, he mostly forgot about the working class. McCain probably never knew such a thing existed - his ads as much as said you weren't a citizen of "his" America if you made less than $250,000 a year, at least within the context of Obama's ads. Oops! Yeah... I have an uncle who does alright for himself and his family, and they're the most "well-off" folks I know, him and my aunt, and I don't believe they make $250,000 a year together, let alone individually. How many Americans actually make that much? How many Americans KNOW somebody who makes that much, personally, and working for them doesn't count? But still, these rare folks do need some representation, as their money does help our country advance. We leave them out in the cold, don't throw them a bone once in a while, and their misfortune affects the working class that way; as they say, shit rolls downhill. Second of all, and just as important in some regards, our government is based on a system of checks and balances. If the liberals and Democrats ran the show all of the time, we wouldn't have a diversity of opinion in government, and that's bad either way. The liberals really needed to take over in 2004 as Bush had driven us far enough into the ground in four years as would take an ordinary Republican eight years, and if we'd have swung the economy and government the other way in '04, we most likely wouldn't be in a bad recession, or as bad of one, now in 2009.

But, we are where we are, and Bush has laid out some serious challenges for his successor. We often talk of economic prosperity under Clinton, but Bill Clinton didn't have to rebuild (much). The economy wasn't exactly bad under either Ronald Reagan or George H. W. Bush. FDR was always my favorite President for fixing the economy after the Great Depression. It took him over ten years to accomplish that. (Never mind that before he went nuts, Hitler fixed Germany's economy, which was worse than America's at that point, in a hell of a lot less time.) So Barack Obama has a lot of work ahead of him. We're not as bad as we were in 1929, but I do believe Bush had us on that path, and I do believe if McCain would have won, we would have been there by 2012, and maybe that's what the wealthy want, I don't know, but I do call Obama's victory a victory for the economy; maybe the "war" isn't won yet, but we've just won a heck of a battle to turn things around.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

New Music Buzz: January 2009

New Music Buzz: January 2009

I don't know if I'll be able to keep this as a recurring series up here, as I don't discover new music nearly as often as I'd like to, but over the last month I've heard a lot of new stuff that's showing some real promise. Not sure if it'll get picked up by popular radio, but it's certainly worth looking at if the genre interests you. These first two are from Rock Band 2, and both come from the free 20 songs that can be downloaded with a key on the back of the game's manual.

"Magnetic Baby" by Semi-Precious Weapons from "We Love You", Glam rock

Normally you wouldn't catch me listening to glam rock, and this song sounds like it missed the bus to the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack, but there's something catchy about the chorus that keeps me coming back at least once a week. Given the context of the song, I have to wonder if "Magnetic" is a code word for "Gay" (magnets do attract one another), and while I'm not, the song is a lot of fun.

"It's not my fault this is how [my mama/my daddy/I-I-I] made me
I've been magnetic since I was a baby..."

It is fun to play on guitar... and the vocals are less grating if you've got a woman singing (and has vocal track turned down and the mic turned up).

"I Don't Care" by Apocalyptica from "Worlds Collide", Symphonic rock

Apocalyptica have come a long way in the music industry since their first album in the mid-90s, "Plays Metallica on Four Cellos", which was exactly that: Four guys from Finland doing Metallica covers on cellos. And, to varying degrees, it worked. "Enter Sandman" was recognizable, sort of, and "The Unforgiven" was hauntingly beautiful, much like the original. For this new album however, Apocalyptica have gone the "Santana route" (to reference his "Supernatural" album) and brought in guest vocalists, including Till Lindemann of Rammstein, Corey Taylor of Slipknot and Stone Sour, and in this case, Adam Gontier of Three Days Grace, as well as a drummer.

This song sounds like a Three Days Grace song, which would be cool on its own, but having the cellos in the background takes the ownage factor to a whole new level.

There are two versions of this song out. The first one, featured on the album, is good, but the single, retooled for the radio, is better. It's a little faster, it's heavier, and the lyrics are changed in some areas, most notably the chorus. The original's chorus is shorter, but hits a little harder, where the single's chorus and verses flow together more naturally. Both are good, but having heard the single first, the original seems lacking.

News Roundup IV

Welcome to the fourth news roundup. Wasn't sure when I was going to do another after a slow night Sunday night in the news, but one of the first articles I saw Monday night just jumped right out at me, so I thought I'd tackle it.

I'd like to note first, though, the slight change in format. At first I'd quote an article, summarize it, and then comment. Recently though, I've been linking to the story and just belting out the comments. I'm going to stick with that, because it seemed a little rough to sum up an article I thought was incredibly stupid.

Idiots: Handsfree cellphone chat while driving is just as dangerous

Clearly you don't have to be bright to write for the New York Times or to be a quoted source in a Times article. So much for me tending to think news from them was a cut above others.

In many places, including here in NC, it's illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving if you have to hold the cell phone in your hand. The solution, aside from not doing it at all, is to use a handsfree kit, either a wired one or a Bluetooth wireless earpiece.

I've tried driving and talking on a cell phone while driving without handsfree. It's not hard to do, but it does create a distraction. But then, I was raised on video games and I use computers a lot. I'm used to things coming at me fast. I can do a few things at once. Like anybody, though, I've seen the effects cell phones can have on bad drivers.

I don't think a Bluetooth or wired handsfree kit can make a bad driver on a cell phone better, but I'd rather see a bad driver have both hands on the wheel and be looking at the road rather than having one hand on the phone and looking cockeyed between the road and somewhere else only they can see.

The article does claim that handsfree cell phone chatter is not the same as talking to a person in the passenger seat because if you're looking for a specific exit on the freeway, the passenger can help you while the person on the phone cannot. This is a good point, but it only works for someone who's lost. If I know where I'm going, what's the difference?

The article claims that a driver listening to an educational tape while driving is safer than a cellphone driver with handsfree, and on top of that the driver can pass a test on the materials later. Maybe that's true, but the more you learn from the tape, the less attention you paid to the road, increasing your chances of winding up in an accident. The article specifically states that the drivers were paying attention to the programs - if the same source is saying cell phones are distracting, what it's saying by virtue of omission is that those test subjects were not paying attention to the road.

What about kids in the back seat? The article doesn't even touch that. Kids in the back seat can be arguing, fighting, or actively trying to distract the driver. So how can they say that they support banning handsfree cell phones with no mention of a far more dangerous driving habit?

Some countries will actually... miss Bush?

While most of America is counting down the days until Dubya goes back to his Texas ranch to make way for a new administration, the BBC reports that the dislike for Bush is not entirely universal, and to the surprise of many, myself included, some folks actually appreciate what he's done over the last 8 years. Countries in Africa he's increased aid to since the Clinton administration, countries he hasn't bombed back to the Stone Age.

And let's not forget America itself. Well, John McCain's America, where everybody's rich. I'm pretty sure that anyone who would have financially gained from a McCain presidency will miss Bush. Those who weren't hurt by the quadrupling of gas prices, and who profited from the exploitations of the working class. How these "people" slept at night for the past eight years eludes me, but I take a small amount of comfort in knowing that over the next four years, they'll be feeling the fear the rest of us have, that their time could come at any time, that they could be left without a job, without a means to provide for their families. Not something I'd wish on anybody, but I could make an exception for those who heartlessly wished the same fate on thousands of Americans and then sat down to a steak dinner in their houses on the hills.

Of course Israel will miss Bush. It's always been seen as a big no-no to have less than a glowing opinion of Israel. As I understand it, the UN gave the area to the Jews following World War II and the Muslims were there first. Why we couldn't just give them a part of South Dakota or something is what I'll probably never understand. I guess we (the powers that be) really don't want them here, and more to the point thought they would just fight it out over there and leave us alone. Well, 9/11 proved that wrong. And I'm not sure who's right and who's wrong or what the solution is over there, but supporting one side exclusively isn't going to make the other side happy, and if 9/11 was indeed the tragedy so many of us call it, I think we need to look at what led up to it and work towards preventing a repeat incident. Military action is the obvious and easy way, but it hasn't worked. All we did was give Bush the diversion he needed to finish what his daddy started. (Not that I'll mourn Saddam's passing for a second, or his child-molesting son, Uday.) President-elect Obama has the right idea wanting to talk and seek a diplomatic solution. We've tried looking the other way and we've tried bombs, the worst that could happen is it doesn't work, either. And maybe Israel will not appreciate a President who isn't in their back pocket, but maybe they'll appreciate peace, less killing, if there's a chance it can be attained. Maybe not, I don't know.

GTA Chinatown Wars (DS) sparks controversy
Grand Theft Auto games get a lot of crap from the conservative right, and often unjustly so. Though a little dated, GTA San Andreas (PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC) was a wonderful story of redemption set amidst the rise of "West coast" gangsta rap in and around Los Angeles in the early 1990s. We followed once-troublemaker Carl "CJ" Johnson, who returned home to Los Santos (what the GTA world calls Los Angeles) from Liberty City (fake New York City) where he returns to bury his mother and reconnect with his family. His brothers try to draw him into the all-too-familiar world of crime, but while dodging a corrupt cop, he ends up going into exile, starting a business (albeit one of questionable legality), and returning home to clean up his neighborhood of police corruption and gang violence. Of course, this is a heavily biased way of looking at the game, but it does have the virtue of being true, from an optimistic point of view. Also, it's assuming the player plays CJ as straight as possible - it's entirely possible, and from certain characters encouraged, to commit all kinds of crimes while completing the game. You can even go on unsanctioned killing sprees, killing civilians left and right and running from the police until you're killed or can reach a safehouse. And it's even fun. But the point is, San Andreas gave the player what he or she put into it. A little more perhaps, but no less.

The problem with San Andreas wasn't that it was a GTA game, but rather that Rockstar, the developer of the game, snuck adult content into the game past the censors. As it was, the game was released with an "M" rating, but once the included sex scenes were accounted for, it was rebranded with the sales-killing "AO" rating. (No amount of violence or gore can fetch an "AO" rating; however, explicit sex calls for the higher rating implicitly.) In the game, as released, CJ can date a half-dozen girls at various points in the game (mostly, as a side plot). All the date is, is you take her to a bar or restaurant, or a dance hall, and utilize adapted controller games of skill to impress your girl, for example dancing by pressing various buttons in a timed sequence. After you take her home, she thanks you, and that's the end of it. However, in the original build of the game, after a few dates, after you take the girl home, she'll invite you in for coffee. Choosing yes shows her first performing oral sex on CJ, and then they go to the bedroom and begin intercourse. Pressing two buttons in rhythm (at increasing speeds) controls the rhythm of the lovemaking, and another button changes positions (there are four, I believe). The point is to raise the girl's "pleasure meter" up to a certain point in a certain amount of time in order to make the date a "success" and further the relationship. The coffee request was removed from the first retail build, but the code was not, and a simple hack restored the coffee question and therefore the entire X-rated element. Rockstar initially denied involvement, claiming that the hack added the explicit scenes, and in the ensuing confusion, the next two GTA games were never released for the PC and a "Second Edition" of San Andreas was released, with the sex scenes completely removed.

Rockstar has, with GTA, a chance to make history, but they're afraid to take it. The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board, they rate the games in the US) has no authority to stop Rockstar from making a game with explicit sex scenes, or even the tame ones in San Andreas (the characters were clothed during the sex, unless you used a nude patch, but that changes the game). All they can do is put the AO rating on it. And Rockstar is afraid that if a GTA game is rated AO, it will not sell well. Why? Well, Walmart will not carry a game rated AO, and neither will many other retailers. This would only be their initial reactions, however, as demand for the game would push consumers to and other less-restrictive sellers. There is no way the entire retail industry is going to boycott a GTA game. There are various porn games which are boycotted by most retailers, and as such, they cost a heck of a lot more money. Retailers have nothing to lose by not selling a game made by Hustler or Penthouse, but they have everything to lose if they choose not to stock a GTA game. Because a high-profile game like a GTA game doesn't just generate title sales. It brings people to the stores. They come for GTA, maybe they buy the strategy guide, maybe they buy another controller. Maybe they buy a couple DVDs, as Walmart and Gamestop keep their DVDs very close to their games, and both sell them cheap (Gamestop's because they're used, Walmart's because... it's Walmart). So you know you're gonna spend $60 on the GTA game, but you're gonna spend more. Refuse to carry the GTA game, and that's not just $60 you're losing. Then there's brand loyalty. "Hey, I couldn't get GTA 5 at Walmart, but I was able to get it on Amazon, the shipping was free (shipping's free on orders of $25 or more, that's not made up), and it came inside a week." Maybe the consumer goes back to Amazon for their next game without checking to see if Walmart has it or not.

Gray wolves no longer endangered. Environmentalists have a cow.
Environmentalists are some of the biggest hypocrites in the world, after evangelical religious fanatics. Not only do you have the folks over at PETA fighting animal cruelty when animals themselves are cruel to each other, and even some domestic terrorist activities (like handing out flyers at elementary schools calling kids' mothers murderers for not going vegan). And now that the gray wolf is no longer endangered and the Bush administration is taking them off the endangered species list, these nuts are having a fit?

Do they really think they can have it both ways? Jeez, if you want them to stay endangered, go kill a few? As opposed to, I don't know, patting yourselves on the back for a job well done? You'd think animals being no longer endangered would be their goal. I guess not.

Now granted, wolves are beautiful creatures, and I don't think they should be killed for fur. I wouldn't throw paint on someone for wearing fur (wolf or otherwise) but I think it's a stupid reason to kill an animal. I have a leather jacket, but cows aren't endangered, and it was my father's. I wouldn't buy a leather jacket, though my reasons aren't politically motivated. I just don't care for the feel of leather. Too rough and doesn't look that great. I'll take a warmer jacket made with the regular stuff, and for less.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

News Roundup 3

...At least I think it's the third one... It's been a while since I got any keyboard time. I never get much at home; I primarily write these at work, and edit and publish them at home. I've only recently found out that Blogger/Blogspot isn't blocked at work (having inadvertently stumbled upon one of their blogs), but I try to login to as few sites as possible at work, keeping in mind that communications channels can be monitored and logged at the server level, which is probably offsite, at corporate HQ or something. I don't know enough about browser security to know what is and isn't encoded, and to err on the side of caution, I prefer not to let sensitive login information go out over the Net here. Anyway, onto the news.

DRM-free iTunes

So, it seems that iTunes, arguably and at least perceptually the largest legitimate distributor of digital music on the Internet, has abandoned DRM entirely. This is a very bold move for a company which is known for setting trends. The original Macintosh brought desktop computing home in a way IBM didn't think of. Microsoft might have stolen the GUI concept from Xerox before Apple, but Apple did it right first. Fast forward 20 years - the portable Mp3 players were out years before the iPod. First one I saw was Creative's Nomad, a 4GB hard drive in something that looked like two Discmans back to back, ugly as sin with a $450 price tag - and I wanted one. But no, Apple hung back until they could accurately gauge consumer interest, and when the iPod came out, it was what everyone wanted, and they've led the game since. Likewise with cell phones. If they ever make a game console, I imagine it will be pretty impressive. (For a Microsoft product, the Xbox 360 is very good - if Apple's console is to the Xbox 360 what Mac OS X is to Windows Vista, we should all be in for a surprise.) For all this praise, I've never actually owned an Apple product. While I like what they're doing, I don't agree with their approach to certain things. Who I am, I can never be a "Mac user"; the most I'll do with them is appreciate from the outside.

That said, digital music has always been about music lovers. The last big thing, the CD, was the brainchild of the music industry. Actually, at the quality they wanted and the size they wanted, they'd only get 8 minutes on the disc, so I heard. They compromised on both (increased the size and decreased the quality) and we wound up with 5" discs that hold 80 minutes, much less than their predecessors, the cassette tapes, blanks of which came in variable size (limited by the amount of tape on the reels) and sold up to 120 minutes between the two sides. But with digital music, we had these CDs (or CD collections) and we had computers with CD-ROM drives, and hard drives were (and still are) getting bigger. We were willing to use 700MB per 80 minutes of music for our storage, impracticle as that would have been, but the technology just wasn't there. "CD rippers", as they were called, were not very good and failed often, and were not officially supported by any major company, and certainly weren't part of Windows Media Player, as they are now.

Long story short, Mp3s came about, but it wasn't through official channels. The MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 standards were hacked, and an audio format was born, not from a corporation or the MPEG group, but by "regular" people. The music industry ignored it, claiming that Mp3s were much lower quality than CDs. They were smaller in file size, but the quality was the same to most ears. By their claim that Mp3s were such low quality, the music industry all but gave permission for people to share them online. After all, if they were such low quality, they would want the popular songs passed around online. Remember that in the mid-to-late 1990s broadband access was very limited. If you were willing to spend 30 minutes downloading one five-minute song, it must be good, and if you were willing to do that for such a low quality song, you'd probably buy the CD, right? Wrong. DSL got big, a nerd named Shawn Fanning made a program called Napster, and everyone was off to the races. The record industry found itself fighting two battles. Their first battle was a PR battle for the CD format, to claim Mp3s were worthless. Their second battle was to stop people from swapping Mp3s over the Internet. But they really had no way to do that. Only the FBI really tracked people swapping files, but that wasn't music, that was kiddie. They were only willing to use this technology on stuff that was really, really bad, and with the RIAA swearing that Mp3s were far inferior in quality to CDs, it didn't look very serious.

Some years later, of course, the record industry began to recognize Mp3s as a viable means of listening to music. Even though the bitrate (amount of data per second) was about a tenth that of CDs (and keep in mind CDs were themselves inferior to the industry's ideas about digital music), they were all but forced to concede that the human ear just can't tell the difference, and most music lovers can't afford equipment that will make a CD sound better than a well-encoded Mp3. Suing people (or threatening to do so) wasn't working as a deterrent, so they began offering a legal alternative. Apple was one of the first to offer reliable music downloads from most record labels - to this day, only a few smaller ones hold out. The Beatles, for instance, will never be on iTunes, they say, because of a dispute over the name Apple. Apple promised them in the 80s they'd never use the name for music. With iTunes, they casually forgot about that, and John Lennon's band ain't too happy about that. But for the most part, you can get your favorite music on iTunes.

But the music industry has always been two steps behind the so-called pirates. While a pirate gets unrestricted Mp3s which can be used any way they like, the iTunes user can only use their iTunes songs on the computer they downloaded them on, and a couple other devices, and can only be burned to CD with certain restrictions. (Once something's on CD, it can be ripped to unprotected Mp3, but going from Mp3 or even iTunes' AAC files to CD "pads" the data to fill the space of a CD, and to rip that back to something like Mp3 means the whole track, including the "padding", is recompressed, meaning you lose a lot of quality.) So while iTunes was a good idea and worked for some people, it was widely argued (and irrefutable) that you could buy a CD and rip it to Mp3 for not much more than downloading restricted tracks from iTunes - or you could just download the songs for free, albeit illegally. Sony made a much bigger misstep - they planted computer viruses on several CDs under the idea that anyone sticking a music CD in a computer was going to rip it and share it online. They thought they'd kill piracy at the source, but as soon as word got out, many people just stopped buying Sony CDs and started downloading (mostly, illegally) the albums. The Mp3s didn't carry the viruses, and you could play and rip the CD just fine on a Linux computer. Linux, unlike Windows, doesn't take viruses. That is, how a virus works, to do damage and spread, Linux just ain't set up to allow that, like Windows is. So again the "pirates" win.

So now Apple's selling DRM (restriction) free music. They aren't the first - Amazon's done it for a while, for one - but again, Apple's looking at what works and what doesn't. Selling music with restrictions doesn't work. Hasn't worked. Well, it's made them successful, but they must be seeing now they could have done much better had they been DRM free from the get-go (although, the record industry most certainly would not have allowed that then). Now when you download from iTunes, you're getting about the same thing as when you download from illegal sites and services, except now you have a guarantee of quality and authenticity. Oh, and they're still using the AAC format, and the songs probably still contain your personal information, you know, so you don't go sharing them. But that shouldn't deter an honest customer, and if you're paying a buck per song as opposed to freeloading, you're somewhat honest to start with.

Porn industry now wants federal bailout

I'm not entirely sure MSNBC are being completely serious here in reporting that Hustler and Girls Gone Wild are asking for $5 billion from the government. Oh, I'm not surprised; the porn industry, much like pro wrestling, in fact, will do anything to be noticed or recognized by the general public. What the hell, I'll throw 'em a bone and drop 'em a mention. I'm nobody famous to start with. Anyway, Larry Flynt claims that the bad state of the economy means folks are spending less on pornography products.

Mr. Flynt, lemme tell you why your economy's hurting. Ain't got a thing to do with the economy, but economics does come into play. A pornographic DVD costs about $40, about twice what you pay for a Hollywood blockbuster on DVD. Granted, the porn DVD might be four hours long, so per minute it might be cheaper. But still, $40 was what we paid for DVDs before Best Buy and Walmart told us we could get them for under $20. Suncoast, FYE, and other mall-type stores sold most of the DVDs when the format came out, and they set the prices that high. The prices are still that high in those stores. It disgusts most people. We've come to expect to pay no more than $20 for a DVD. Walmart spoils the hell out of people with its $13, $7, and $5 bargain racks and drop boxes. Best Buy runs $10 sales regularly. And used DVDs are cheaper still. So nobody's gonna pay $40 for a DVD that, on top of the cost, they're only gonna watch in private, they aren't gonna watch it with their siblings or parents, and they ain't gonna put it on to occupy the kids - it's a different kind of DVD.

On top of that, commercial porn is pretty extreme... extremely tame, that is. It's commercial pornography. It's regulated. Everyone knows the most common laws. No kids, no animals. The animals part is easy. The kids thing, they have to verify each actor is 18 or older... they have procedures to do all this, get them certified. Not that I'm saying that's a bad thing, but with all the red tape, there's only so much they can do.

Here's the flip side. Here's what's sapping all their money away. It's the Internet. Like with the music, you can get all your commercial porn for free in much the same way. Those $40 DVDs? They can be downloaded for free. No brown bag shipping, your postal carrier doesn't get suspicious, and nobody has been sued for downloading porn that didn't feature kids or animals or rape or other crimes. The government don't care that you download a Hustler DVD. But the problem is bigger than that. High speed Internet plus the growing popularity in digital cameras that double as cheap camcorders means anyone - literally anyone - can whip up a video in ten minutes (as long as it takes to do the deed) and upload it in half an hour, as long as they have high speed Internet. They don't even have to be 18, let alone prove it. Say you download a video made by a pair of 16 year olds. Can you tell they're not 18? Do you really care? Sure, it's technically wrong, but if you don't know, is it so much worse than a video or picture of an 18 year old posing as someone much younger? Because that happens in the industry, and as long as the actor can prove he or she is actually 18, it's legal. A girl can be short, like midget height but not a dwarf, have a flat chest or a near-flat chest, and shave down there, and do a movie, in the role of a 12 year old. She's 18 and has the papers to prove it, but you can't tell she's not 12 by looking at her. What would you rather be caught looking at? What appears to be a 12 year old girl (who's actually 18) or what appears to be a college girl (who's actually 16)? I know what I'd rather be caught with, and it's the same as what I'd rather look at. Still, the point remains, anybody can make porn now. Anyone can get viewers. Selling it is another matter entirely.

Bottom line is, there's much less money to be made in the industry. If the economy was better... that would just mean people were spending frivolously, not that porn's any more valuable because people have money. It don't change the fact that you can get the same stuff and better stuff online for free. Oh... and in commercial stuff the women always fake it, and just about any guy who's not a virgin can tell. It's much more interesting when it's real and you can tell it's real. The industry can make money, they just need big changes in how they do things. Like any other business, really. Change, or be left behind.

Brave techies can try Windows 7 legally

Following, or perhaps to plug a leak, Microsoft has announced that they will allow anybody [brave enough to try] to download Windows 7 from their website. It's an early beta version, so it's not guaranteed to do anything for any particular system configuration, but the average Joe with a modern PC should at least expect it to boot.

Windows 7, Windows 7... what is Windows 7? In layman's terms, it's the next version of Windows, following Vista. The 7 represents (besides luck, which Microsoft will bank on - bank on it) the internal software version. Windows started using version names like most programs; Windows 3.1 was the last. Windows 95 and 98 also belonged to the Windows 3 family, as did the first Windows NT. Windows NT 4, Windows ME, and Windows 2000 represent Windows 4. XP is 5 and Vista is 6. I think. It's really confusing. What this means is that Windows 7 is a whole step above Vista, but since Windows 98 was still in the Windows 3 family with Windows 3.1, it doesn't seem to mean much. And that Vista, like ME before it, proved that newer is not always better. Especially when it comes to Microsoft.

7 isn't a lucky number for Microsoft. Windows Media Player 7 came shipped with technologies based upon the crackpot idea that if Windows Media Player refused to play .AVI files (which pirated movies come off the Net in) that people would give up and buy the DVD. Real smart, Microsoft - all ya did was send the business over to RealNetworks and Apple, as the RealPlayer and QuickTime could still play .AVIs. It's because of WMP 7 that WMP is still not trusted, to this day, why a lot of folks' favorite media players resemble WMP 6.4 (e.g. Media Player Classic, or even VLC, to an extent). WMP 7.1 quickly came out, able to take .AVI files again, but the damage was done. And then Internet Explorer 7 was the first version to come out that people really didn't care about. In the Internet Explorer vs. Netscape days, new versions of one would offset the userbase of the other. Now with Firefox, new IE versions 7 (and 8) didn't touch Firefox's userbase. Maybe if IE 9 includes ad blocking... nah, Microsoft'll never pop that titty out of their mouth. They want their share of the advertising revenue. Mozilla might not be invited to those parties, but something tells me they don't care. And now Windows 7. Third time's a charm?

Vista, for everything wrong with it, is a fundamentally broken OS. It's like what Mac OS was ten years ago. Sure, it looks pretty, but it can't do squat. At least it won't do what you want it to, the way you want it to. You have to learn the "Mac way". Same with Vista. You have to forget what you know and learn to do things the "Vista way". I say... "Uh-uh." I do things MY way. Even Windows XP doesn't always agree with me, but between nLite and a few other programs, I DO do things MY way on MY computer. (OUR computer, should my wife happen to read this.) But Vista, it's exceptionally bad. Take for instance my 750GB SATA drive. SATA's a relatively new hard drive technology that lets data transfer faster. Took me hours to get it working in my BIOS. I almost sent it back. For some reason, Windows XP has no problem with it. But Vista won't touch it unless I reformat it first. Nice, in theory, but it's almost filled with my stuff. Where will I PUT all that stuff while it's reformatting? Therein lies the problem with Vista. "We see you have a drive. We know it's SATA. We speak SATA. But we won't allow you to USE your drive until WE put OUR mark on it... and by the way, that involves erasing it." Before I drop the almighty HELL NO... would I have to reformat it every time I install Vista, or just once? (This ain't the C drive, the system drive, the drive I'm putting Windows on, by the way, this is just a data dump drive. Nothing gets installed on it.) Also, some genius (read: asshole) up in Redmond decided to dump XP's support for sound cards or motherboards' audio components made before 2007 or whenever Vista came out. In other words, I get no sound. Speakers don't work, headphones don't work. My motherboard was... well I bought it in 2005, so it was probably made in 2004... maybe 2003. Socket 939 Gigabyte nForce 4... you figure it out. Still decent, but in 2009 it's dated. And it wasn't blessed by Redmond, so I gets no sounds in Vista. XP don't mind it though.

One more F.U. before I play nice again. This ain't the first time Microsoft's let the public try an operating system before it came out. They did it with Vista, too. No problems there, aside from, well, what I said above, but just a couple months ago, they released the new Xbox 360 OS, Dashboard 2 aka "NXE" or "New Xbox Experience" early. When you install it (simply copy it to a flash drive or burn it to a CD and stick it in the Xbox) it gives you a bunch of crap to read. Nowhere does it say you get kicked off the paid Xbox Live internet service for three weeks until the OS gets force-fed to every 360 connected to the Net (3 months later, my brother-in-law's 360 still runs Dashboard 1 (aka the "blades"), but his isn't online). Nowhere at all. Nor does it give you a chance to reconsider, it just installs and restarts. And then every time you log in it spent 5 minutes looking for Xbox Live and not finding it. So now 3 months later, Microsoft's offering another OS for brave geeks to test... F.U. Microsoft.

Now, as promised, I'll try to play nice. Obviously Windows 7 needs to succeed. It needs to replace Windows XP on the desktop. Here's what needs to happen for that to come about. It's real simple. First of all, it's gotta run just as well on anything XP runs on. That has got to be a given. If I have a computer running XP and XP works with all my devices, Windows 7 needs to do the same thing. I can't install Windows 7 and have it tell me it doesn't like my printer or my camera or my flash drive, or my SATA drive, anything. It's gotta just work. All the basics need to be there. Because if they're not, I'm gonna go right back to XP and it's gonna take a small miracle to get me to try Windows 7 again. First thing they need to do is take all the drivers off the Windows XP disc and make them work with Windows 7. Maybe Windows 7 has some better drivers. Fine. But it comes on a DVD. It's not quite 4GB. There's room on the disc for both versions. Get everything working with the XP drivers during install. A couple days later, pop up a bubble saying "We have Windows 7 drivers for the following devices. This... that... the other... Would you like to try?" Then - and this is important - ONE at a time, starting with LEAST important, you upgrade the driver. If it works, the NEXT DAY, you offer to upgrade another driver. If it doesn't work, we go back to the XP driver. Once all drivers have been updated or tested, it gives you a report. Either all your devices work under Windows 7 drivers, or some (or all) need the XP drivers. The program then gives you a file, maybe even offers to burn it to CD (maybe you can even re-burn your Windows 7 installer DVD) and this lets it set the driver version during install, so you have the best working drivers next time you install.

Second, we need a transition mode. Full learning mode means you turn the OS into an XP clone. It's Windows 7 under the hood, but looks and feels like XP. Every time you go to do something, it offers to show you how the same thing would be done in Windows 7. You can tell it you know and it won't ask again, you can say "not now" to do it later, or you can look, and a Flash video or something would come up and show you. It ain't to my benefit that Vista moved everything around. I like how XP works. However, Vista is a little more approachable to Suzy Q Soccermom than XP, and that's a good thing, in the grander scheme of things. XP could pretend to be Windows 2000 and it did it quite well. Why can't Vista pretend to be XP, even if just for a while while the user learns the new stuff? Windows 7 ought to do this. As an extension of this point, not everybody wants a pretty OS. Yeah, we might all want a picture of our kid or a nice nature shot on the desktop, yeah, but the entire OS? Yeah, that's good for the soccer moms and junior high kids learning computers, but businesses and nerds alike want something more serious. Gates said 25 years ago that his vision was a computer on every desk running Microsoft software. We're there. We were there 10 years ago. Now they need to acknowledge that not everybody's the same, and give more people what they want, more choices.

Windows 2000 was the first really good version of Windows, and the only reason most of its users now use XP is because after the first service pack, it really had everything Win2k had, but a couple more features and looked a little better. Windows 7 needs to put the legacy of Win2k and Windows XP first, the productivity and efficiency second, and aesthetics a distant third, if it's to succeed.

Congress asked to delay the Digital TV conversion next month

Now what the shit is this? People are whining that their TV won't work after the change. The project's out of money. I say let them whine. These aren't real people who have anything to say worth hearing. These are just people looking for something to whine about. If it wasn't this, it'd be something else.

They've only been talking about doing this for over a year now. Several channels run a feed about the conversion; I know The CW runs theirs hourly, and it's very hard to miss. So people know. They've known for over a year. I would say that if you don't know by now, you haven't been watching TV, and you don't have any place to complain about not having TV in a month and a half because... you don't watch it now.

On top of that, the government is willing to pay for your conversion box. The basic model costs $40, the value of the voucher. There are more advanced models, but if your needs are simple, just get the basic one the voucher covers. All you're responsible for is the sales tax. Even if it's 10% it's only $4. If your TV's not worth $4 you don't deserve to have it. Don't you pay that much for batteries anyway when they go out?

And then you don't even need a converter box if you have digital cable or satellite, or a digital TV. Here's the real issue. Local TV stations which broadcast via antenna are going to switch to digital. Most already broadcast in digital as well. They're just going to stop doing analog. ALL this means is analog TVs (SDTV=analog; HDTV=digital, for the most part) receiving analog broadcasts are going to not be able to do so in March. If you have an analog TV and you get cable or have satellite, you're fine. If you have digital TV and have a digital antenna, you're fine.

Who relies primarily on an antenna anyway? Well, at work, we do. We have a tiny little TV with bunny ears on it. We can pick up four stations. We haven't got a converter box. If I had been working here six months ago, I would have applied for a coupon and bought a converter box. I'd have eaten the $4 so my coworkers could still have TV after the switch. Because I knew about this for months. But I'm relatively new here, and now that there are no more coupons, it isn't an option. Besides, some speculate that since the place has satellite TV in other areas, they'll hook us up. (Yeah, right, eh?) Me, well, I got my flash drive and (for now, until it's over) my Babylon 5 episodes. I watch TV and whatnot on the computer.

All that being said, removing access to a technology that seems to work fine is stupid. What, really, are we going to gain by cutting off analog TV? You ask me, I think this whole thing's funded by Sony or someone selling HDTVs. Maybe the HDTV makers, a few cable companies, and DirecTV and/or Dish Network got together and whipped this stupid mess up. Nobody should be forced to upgrade. But it's been on the table for over a year, they're willing to pay for your upgrade, so I say quit bitchin and take it - or shut up and enjoy the snow on your TV come March.

Friday, January 2, 2009

"I Chose to Look the Other Way"

I saw this as a poster at work among safety bulletins, and thought it was really touching. If you know anyone who works around heavy equipment or machines, please print this out and give it to them, even anonymously.


-author unknown-

I could have saved a life that day.
But I chose to look the other way.
It wasn't that I didn't care,
I had the time, and I was there.
But I didn't want to seem the fool,
Or argue over a safety rule.
I knew he had done the job before,
If I called it wrong, he might get sore.
The chances didn't seem that bad,
I've done the same, he knew I had.
So I shook my head and walked on by,
He knew the risks as well as I.
He took the chance; I closed an eye,
And with that act, I let him die.
I could have saved a life that day,
But I chose to look the other way.
Now every time I see his wife,
I'll know I should have saved his life.
That guilt is something I must bear,
But it isn't something you need to share.
If you see a risk, that others take,
That puts their health or life at stake.
The questions asked, or things you say,
Could help them live another day.
If you see a risk and walk away,
Then hope you never have to say,
I could have saved a life that day,
But I chose to look the other way.