Friday, December 30, 2005

Believe it or not, another World War II Delta Green write-up posted!

Believe it or not, I finally posted the write-up from our Fourth of July weekend game. This was part of our World War II Delta Green campaign using the Feng Shui rule system that we played up in Texarkana. This is the second of three parts (the first part was played on the Memorial Day weekend).

I still have today and tomorrow to get the last part of the campaign posted before my self-imposed deadline of New Year's Day (which I made after I missed my previously self-imposed deadlines of Thanksgiving — both Canadian and U.S. — and Christmas Day).

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

In those 1165 days...

I received the latest Our Lady Peace CD (actually a DualDisc made up of a DVD on one side and a CD on the other) for Christmas. The album, Healty in Paranoid Times is pretty good, at least that was the impression hearing it played once.

In the booklet that comes with the CD, the band says that it took them 1165 days to complete the album. They then list a bunch of things that happened in those 1165 days. The items listed are staggering, particularly given the juxtaposition of North America versus the world.

I can't vouch for the veracity of the items listed, but here is a partial list (mostly omitting the band specific stuff):
  • 30 active wars were started across the globe
  • Iraq was invaded for a second time
  • 9.8 million people died from AIDS
  • 19.2 million people had cosmetic surgery in North America
  • 2000 American soldiers died in Iraq
  • 300,000 civilians died in Darfur
  • 2 million were displaced in Darfur
  • 30 billion cases of soft drinks were sold
  • 6708 hours of t.v. was watched by the average child
  • 4,042,030 people died of cancer in North America
  • 40,000 hybrid vehicles sold
  • 118,000,000 gas vehicles sold
  • 3 trillion dollars spent on global arms trade
  • 138 million people ate at McDonald's
  • 38 billion dollars was spent on pornography
  • 815 billion dollars was profted by pharmaceutical companies
  • 54 million people died from extreme poverty
  • Apple iTunes sold its 500,000,000th song.
  • 0 weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq
  • 42 insects swallowed by the average person while sleeping
  • 6 billion people walked on our planet
  • 3 billion people lived on 2 dollars a day
  • 9 billion dollars was all that was needed for all the Third World to have clean water
  • 27 billion dollars was spent on music in the U.S.
  • 30,000 animal and plant species became extinct
  • 1 billion metric tons of hazardous waste was generated
  • 29 billion dollars was spent on video games
  • 400,000 dollars donated by Paris Hilton to charity from sales of her porn DVD
  • 4.8 million children taking Ritalin

Saturday, December 24, 2005

A piece of Christmas Eve trivia

It's Christmas Eve, one of my favourite nights of the year. My parents often had friends and family visiting, especially after I moved out of the house. I have fond memories of nights when Ian (my brother), Lynn (my sister) and I woke up in the wee hours of the morning waiting for it to be late enough to get up. Now it's my turn to wait for kids to fall asleep before quietly playing Santa.

Instead of the usual Christmasy comments, though, I'll just mention an interesting piece of trivia. It was 20 years ago today that the last descendant of Abraham Lincoln died.

Of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln's four children, only Robert Todd Lincoln reached adulthood. Robert and his wife Mary had three children, Mary, Abraham and Jessie.

Mary married Charles Isham, and they had a single child, Lincoln Isham. Lincoln Isham married, but had no children. Lincoln Isham, Abraham Lincoln's great grandson died in 1971.

Abraham "Jack" Lincoln II had no children.

Jessie Harlan Lincoln married Warren Beckwith in 1897. They had two children, both of whom were Abraham Lincoln's great-grandchildren: Mary Lincoln Beckwith and Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith. Neither had children of their own. Mary Beckwith died in 1975. Robert Beckwith, the last living descendant of Abraham Lincoln, died on December 24, 1985.

So, there you have it. A little Christmas trivia. Don't let it be said that Designated Import isn't educational!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Items in the news

Here are a few news items from the last week or so that I found interesting.

  • Hurricane Katrina was only a Category 3 storm when it made landfall: Yesterday the National Weather Service stated that — after checking all of the data — that Hurricane Katrina was only a strong Category 3 storm, not Category 4, when it made landfall in southern Louisiana.

    This is important not just for historical reasons. The levees around New Orleans were designed to handle a Cat3 storm, yet failed. This underlines accusations that the state and federal governments let the conditions of the levees deteriorate over the years, and that to be safe the city really needs levees that can handle a Cat5 storm.

  • Author of the Roswell "flying saucer" news release is dead: Former U.S. Army lieutenant Walter Haut, the author of the press release stating that a "flying saucer" had crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, died in Roswell last Thursday at the age of 83. Something, which the Army says was a classified weather balloon, crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Haut wrote the initial news release on July 8, 1947, which was dictated to him by Roswell Army Air Field base commander Col. William Blanchard. The news release stated that a "flying saucer" had been recovered on a ranch 75 miles northeast of Roswell.

    Haut's press release is the point where UFOs entered pop culture, and it coined the phrase "flying saucer". The Army (back then the U.S. Air Force was part of the Army) quickly changed their story, saying that a weather balloon had crashed. Many years later it was determined that the object was a weather balloon, but that it had a special instruments package, probably part of the top secret "Project Mogul". From the Skeptical Inquirer site: "Its classified purpose was to try to develop a way to monitor possible Soviet nuclear detonations with the use of low-frequency acoustic microphones placed at high altitudes. No other means of monitoring the nuclear activities of a closed country like the USSR was yet available, and the project was given a high priority." Mogul was moved from New York, where they had problems with high winds, to Alamogordo, New Mexico.

    Haut later recalled a staff meeting a week or two later where Blanchard reportedly said, "Well, we sure shot ourselves in the foot with that balloon fiasco. It was just something from a project at Alamogordo, and some of the guys were here on our base later, too. Anyway, it's done and over with."

  • Police fear the worst for stolen baby penguin: This has been all over the news, but I missed it. A baby penguin was stolen from the Amazon World zoo on the Isle of Wight last Saturday. Police suspect someone wanted to give him as a Christmas present, possibly after having seen March of the Penquins. Zoo officials say that unless the penguin is returned soon, it will likely die.

    People from around the world have been writing letters and e-mails of sympathy over the penguin. At least two churches in the U.S. are praying for the penguin. An unidentified man reported that he had dropped off the penguin in a plastic bag at the Portsmouth docks on the English mainland. The penguin has not been found, but police fear that the bird may already be dead.

  • Microsoft may soon be fined $2.4 million per day by EU: The BBC is reporting that the European Union is threatening to sue Microsoft for $2.4 million per day because Microsoft has so far refused to comply with an EU ruling. The European Union ordered Microsoft to hand over documentation of the inner workings of its Windows operating system so that other systems, particularly "non-Microsoft workgroup servers", could reach "full interoperability" with Microsoft. Microsoft has not complied, so a frustrated EU is giving Microsoft 5 weeks to come up with the documentation or face a fine of $2.4 million a day until they comply.

  • French government legalizes file sharing: I don't understand French politics, but apparently the French parliament (as opposed to the French government) voted into law yesterday a bill that would legalize file sharing. This goes against the French government and the music industry. The parliament wants it legal to share downloaded music, but wants to reimburse artists through a tax on ISP fees (the tax was not, apparently, part of this bill). The French government vows to fight the bill.

  • Britain plans to record movements of all vehicles: Big Brother comes to Britain next spring. In March, 2006, Britain will begin building a database of all vehicle movement in the country. They will start by capturing license plate numbers via television cameras, whose locations are known via GPS positioning, at a rate of 35 million "reads" per day. The data will be stored for two years. Later they will extend the system with additional cameras, increasing the number of "reads" to 100 million per day, and with additional storage so that the data can be kept for five years. The authorities are signing agreements with gas stations, supermarkets, etc. to integrate their cameras into the network.

    Not surprisingly, British police say that this is an invaluable tool while civil liberties groups worry about infringement of privacy, and the harm caused when erroneous data is used to prosecute an innocent citizen. The authorities intend to use the data to track terrorists, organized criminal gangs, stolen cars, and "associated vehicles". The police contend that thieves often drive somewhere in a vehicle, steal it, and then drive back with it along side their legal vehicle. The police may be more interested in this "associated vehicle" than with the stolen vehicle.

  • Congress planning to outlaw analog-to-digital devices: Just before adjourning for Christmas, Congress introduced a proposal that would outlaw the manufacture or sale of devices that convert analog signals to digital signals one year after the bill's signing. The film industry in particular wants this, because they don't want people recording television or video tape signals onto DVDs, or pulling the same type of content onto a computer and distributing it over the Internet. Unfortunately, it would also make it impossible to pull your family videos off that old, analog 8mm videotape and store it on a DVD. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is fighting the law.

  • Judge rules against "Intelligent Design" in Dover, PA: A federal judge has ruled "intelligent design" cannot be mentioned in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican and Bush appointee, found that the school board's attempt to teach "intelligent design" in area high schools was a breach of the Constitution's separation of church and state. Said Jones, "The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy," Jones wrote. "It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

    This Doonesbury comic, posted to, is particularly appropriate. Click on the picture to see a bigger (more readable) version of it:

Monday, December 19, 2005

CRS reports that administration knew more about Iraq than Congress

For years now, George Bush and his administration have stated that Congress had access to the same pre-war intelligence data on Iraq as the president. According to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, Bush stated this some 102 times as of December 15, 2005 (see

What the president knew versus what Congress knew is an important argument in the debate over Iraq. Democrats who rolled over and gave Bush carte blanche now claim that they never would have done so if they had been given all the facts. Republicans, particularly members of the Bush League running the White House, claim that Congress knew just as much as the president knew.

On December 15, the Congressional Research Service — a nonpartisan branch of Congress that supplies Congress with research information — released a report clearly stating that the administration has "access to more intelligence and reviewed more sensitive material than what was shared with Congress when it gave Bush the authority to wage war against Iraq".

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the media. I have no idea what happened over the weekend on television, as we were so busy that I was mostly out of touch with TV news. So far, though, it doesn't look promising. CNN's web site has a report about the Senate balking at extending the PATRIOT Act, but nothing about the CRS report. There is no mention of the report at,, or, in spite of all sites having posts dating before the CRS report. I didn't bother checking Fox.

Considering that the news outlets let Bush make his false claim of equal knowledge for ages without checking that statement's credibility lends me to believe that they will not be quick to point out their own failings.

For more information about the CRS report, see the Media Matters web site at

Oh, Tanenbaum...

Someone at work posted an e-mail saying the following:

Christmas is once again politically correct. Congress passed a resolution declaring the national tree the National Christmas Tree not the National Holiday Tree and that this the Christmas season and not the Holidays.

Heard that from Michael Savage – The Savage Nation radio show.

I pointed out the flaws in this e-mail soon after with the following response:

Is that the National Christmas Tree or the Capitol Christmas Tree that was renamed? They are two different trees.

The National Christmas Tree is at the White House and has always been called the National Christmas Tree. The Capitol Christmas Tree stands on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol grounds. It was the one that was renamed the Holiday Tree back in the 90s.

The Capitol's senior landscape architect confirmed that the Capitol tree was to be called the the Capitol Christmas Tree back on November 28.

"The Capitol tree, traditionally overshadowed by the White House's "National Christmas Tree," was renamed a "holiday tree" several years ago, according to the Capitol Architect's offices, in an effort to acknowledge the other holidays of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah -- although no one seemed to know exactly when the name was changed or by whom."

I have no idea if the e-mailer got the name of the tree wrong, or if he heard it right and the person he was listening to got it wrong. What this underscores, though, is the belief that the National Christmas Tree was called the Holiday Tree, when it was not. It was the lesser known Capitol Christmas Tree that was renamed.

Just another object lesson on how people will hear what they want to hear.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Amazing Race ends in Toronto area

Last Tuesday I was hit with a bout of homesickness. The Amazing Race 8 ended with a two-hour episode set mainly in Canada. The teams flew from Montana to Montreal for the first half of the episode. The second half was spent mostly in Toronto.

They didn't go anywhere that I recognized from our single trip to Montreal (back in 2003, when I went to get my U.S. visa) but Toronto was a different story. They flew into the Toronto Island airport, went to the CN Tower, drove back down to the harbour area, and then left Toronto for the Queenston area near Niagara Falls. The race ended at Lewiston, NY, just opposite Queenston.

I lived in the harbour area, on Queen's Quay (pronounced "queen's key", not "queen's qway", as one player called it) for the last 7 months I lived in Toronto. I only ever went up the CN Tower once, back in grade 11 or 12, but I was a regular at Toronto Argonauts games held at the Skydome (now the Rogers Centre, or some such) which is next door to the tower. I used to walk past the tower regularly. My apartment was right next to the approach to the Toronto Island airport (for planes coming in from the east).

What's interesting about seeing The Amazing Race when you know the area is that you can tell just how they edit things for interest sake. On the commercials for this episode they showed the team that eventually won the race running into the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The stadium was set up for Canadian football. One of the family members exclaims, "I love this game!" Now, I figured (as did any Americans watching) that he meant football in general. I was pretty sure by the commercials that they were in Canada even before I saw the episode, due to the placement of the goal posts, so I thought it would be fun to find out he really did mean Canadian football. Well, no he didn't. He didn't mean American football, either. It turns out that during the episode two of the three teams had to play curling, another sport popular in Canada. (I've never played it but I love watching it, due to a combination of being a Canadian citizen, being born in Scotland where the sport was invented, and from being a gamer — the sport has a fair bit of strategy to it). One of the Linz family members fell in love with curling. It's curling, not football, to which he exclaims, "I love this sport!"

The clue box for this leg was "at centre field" on the Olympic Stadium football field. When they zoomed in, sure enough, it was on the 50 yard line! One problem... Canadian football fields are 110 yards long (not including end zones), not 100. The box should have been on the centre line, sometimes marked with a C in the middle. Someone operating the cameras must have decided they wanted the box on the 50 yard line so that American viewers would understand the location of the box.

Toronto was the mystery destination. After landing in Toronto they had to go up to the CN Tower to search for a clue. The show insisted on calling it by its French name, La Tour CN (you can see they call it that on their web site, at
show/ep13/index2.shtml). The funny thing is, noone in Toronto calls it "La Tour CN". It's "the CN Tower". At least a couple of people thought they'd have to speak French in Toronto. This is funny considering that English is spoken the most in Toronto, followed by Cantonese and Mandarin, then Italian, then I think it's Portuguese. French is something like 8th.

Anyway, the clue they were searching for was down in the dockland area near a go cart track. I didn't even know there was a go cart track there! That must be fairly new (in the last 4 years, anyway). When the teams got there they had to choose between climbing the mast of a tall ship in Toronto harbour or search for a single person out of 100 people at the Bata Shoe Museum. I was yelling at the screen telling them to go with the ship. They had to sail across part of the harbour in a sailboat, but they would stay at the south end of the city. The Bata Shoe Museum is up on Bloor Street. Depending on the day of the race, the trip to the museum alone could take them 20 minutes or more from where they got the clue on a good day.

This was another place where judicious editing was done. The next leg was as Queenston, in the Niagara-on-the-Lake area. The best way to get there is via the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way, a six-lane — sometimes eight-lane — highway to Niagara Falls. You get there via the Gardiner Expressway, which is right down near the harbour. Again, depending on the route and time of day, the round trip from the harbour to the museum and back to the Gardiner could easily add 40 minutes to the trip time for the team that chose the museum challenge. In the race, the Linz family and the Bransen family were neck-and-neck at that point. They were pretty close to neck-and-neck at the final. That means that in spite of the extra 40 minute trip time, the slow and frustrating challenge in the shoe museum (match a pair of shoes to one of 100 women walking barefoot in the museum) was actually the faster of the two challenges to complete.

I just checked the pictures at The Amazing Race web site. The tall ship is near the Toronto Island airport. You can see a plane hanger in the background. That meant that they had to sail a boat from the east side of the harbour to the west, climb the ship, and then sail back. Yeah, okay, I can see how the team at the museum could keep up. The Weaver family got to the dockland clue box just as the Bransens were leaving. They chose the ship challenge. They were way behind in the final, suggesting that there was some considerable time difference in their sale across the harbour.. That doesn't show up in the show. The editing made it look like the Weavers weren't that far behind the Linzs heading for the tall ship.

(Toronto traffic being what it is, it could easily have been 30 to 60 minutes one way from the harbour to the shoe museum. Traffic was light from what I could see, and the racers apparently flew into Toronto in the morning, so I'm guessing they got there on a Sunday.)

If you haven't guessed by now, this was a fun episode for me. The racers were all worried they'd have to speak French in Montreal, but everyone they met spoke English. This was the same thing that Alana and I discovered when we went to Montreal (35 years living in Canada and that was only the first time I'd visited Montreal, and my previous experience in Quebec had not been a positive one, language wise). One team stopped a Montrealer asking if the big building nearby was the Stade Olympique (the French name, displayed on their clues). They pronounced it "Stayed Olympeek". The Montrealer, corrected them, saying, "Stade (pronounced "stad") Olympique? Yes." It was a very Canadian moment, a Montrealer with an anglophone accent correcting an American on the pronunciation of a French-Canadian name. The shots of Toronto brought back some homesickness, but it also brought some "Oh, I've been there!" excitement that comes from seeing your neighbourhood on television, and American television at that! Torontonians play a game called "spot the building" when they watch a movie filmed in Toronto. I did the same thing with this episode.

I couldn't get over the fact that the teams found easy parking in Toronto. They must have a crew on hand to make sure parking places are secure, otherwise the team that went to the shoe museum might still be looking for a parking space. The shots of Montreal showed a different quality of light to those in other places during the race, including Toronto. This was something that I noticed when I was up there, that there really is less light hitting Canada. (Last year my mother noted how much brighter it is here in Louisiana. It makes sense, otherwise why would it be so much hotter?)

The final Canadian leg took the racers down the QEW to highway 405, which takes them to Queenston, site of a War of 1812 battle and a really lovely place to visit. If you don't like the tacky tourist trap that is Niagara Falls, the nature trails, historical sites, and classier shops of Queenston and Niagara-on-the-Lake are for you. The teams mirrored much of the route Alana and I took into Toronto when we went for my visa, only we crossed at the Queenston-Lewiston bridge. The teams had to take a speed boat around the whirlpool along the Niagara River (down river from the Falls), and then take the boat to the New York side of the river. Alana and I have been above the whirlpool, so that part looked very familiar. Alana was wondering aloud how they managed to get into the U.S. without clearing customs, though.

(Here's a little travel tip for anyone driving into Canada from the U.S. at Niagara Falls, or vice versa. Do not cross at Niagara Falls! It's far too busy. Go north to Lewiston on the U.S. side, or Queenston on the Canadian side, and cross there. You're only about 10 or 15 miles from Niagara Falls, but the crossing is a lot faster. Besides, you'll want to see the stuff around Queenston anyway.)

When the signs for Niagara, Queenston, and the 405 popped up, it was all I could do to refrain from dragging Alana out to the car and driving up there.

That didn't happen, of course. Beside the distance, and us having to work the next day, there was another reason. The Amazing Race was apparently shot during the summer. Southern Ontario is covered in snow right now, and gets dark incredibly early. While Alana would love to see snow that lasts for more than a few hours, I'm in no big rush to drive on salt-covered roads any time soon.

I can wait until Canada thaws out.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

That was liberal media bias, right?

Last night I read an article on about Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco's e-mail. In order to show that her government asked for federal help in the wake of hurricane Katrina her office released 100,000 pages of documents. CNN's first story with regard to the contents of the documents focused on how Blanco —— or her staffers —— were concerned about appearance, both the appearance of racism and her physical appearance on TV. The story, the first story on the release and probably the one most people will remember, concentrated on 13 pages of e-mails. Granted, pouring through this massive pile of documents will take time. Still, the first story —— a negative story against a Democrat —— focused on 0.013% of the documents released.

This item, and several others including that mentioned in my last post, got me thinking about so-called liberal media bias.

You can't argue in this country about existenc of liberal media bias. It is ingrained in popular culture. It's certainly ingrained in the people I work with. It was most noticeable during last year's presidential election. There was lots of "water cooler" talk about liberal bias (thank you, Dan Rather) but they were completely oblivious to any conservative media bias. It was terribly frustrating, but also quite amusing at times.

Everyone believes it exists, but does it?

Forget that "liberal media bias" being a negative assumes that liberal and conservative view points are equally valid. That certainly hasn't been true historically. There was a big push to ban the atomic bomb in the 60s by liberals, in spite of the fact that the Soviet Union was never going to just do away with the bomb on their own. Southern conservatives (though mostly Democrats due to the hatred of the Republicans among white Southerners) were vocal in their opposition of desegregation at the same time. Not every liberal or conservative opinion should have equal weight, but I won't get into that in this post.

Every cable news outlet says they try to be balanced. Most of them consider it balanced if they give both sides of every issue regardless of the opinion's merit. Or, to put it more succinctly —— and to quote my friend Michael Skeet —— they think that "balanced reporting is two idiots spinning in opposite directions".

The one notable exception in this is Fox News. They don't even try to be balanced. Fox takes the "liberal media bias" assumption to heart. Their news is heavily biased in favour of conservatives, with the assumption that by showing a conservative balance they correct the liberal bias. This isn't any better than the other outlets with their oppositely spinning idiots. In fact it's worse because far too many people only watch Fox News. I know of a number of people at work that watch nothing but Fox. It's the reason for Fox's business success. It's good for their bottom line, but it's not good for informing the American populace.

There have been some interesting trends in network news recently that shows a biased media, but it's not exactly what everyone believes.
  • Several media outlets have made much of Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman's December 6 speech against Democrats who speak out about the war. It's been heavily covered by CNN. On the other hand, virtually no one covered Republican Senator Chuck Hagel's speech blasting the Bush administration for attacking those who disagree with them. The New York Times even ignored it. (Link)
  • On December 8, a CBS-New York Times poll showed President Bush's approval rating had climbed 5% from 35% to 40%. CNN and NBC both announced that Bush had made a strong bounce back in opinion. They failed to mention that the 5% increase was within the margin of error in the poll. The "strong bounce" could be a statistical anomaly. (Link)
  • The media has been incredibly quiet about on polls asking Americans, "If President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment." Back in June 42% of Americans said they would be in favour of it. In a comment on the Washington Post's web site in early November, another poll showed Americans were 52% in favour of an impeachment proceding. Some conservatives called the question "bias against the president". Apparently asking that question is "biased", but asking"If Clinton lied by testifying under oath that he did not have an affair with the woman, and he did not resign, is this something for which Clinton should be impeached, or not?" is not. ( Link)
  • The Associated Press and USA Today published Bushes claims of success in Mosul and Najaf in Iraq without any critical analysis of those claims. (Link)
Those are just some of the more recent examples. Anyone who has followed the Bush presidency since 9/11 will note the fairly light treatment he's had, in spite of waging a war in Iraq on claims that were unfounded, despite racking up a huge deficit (after Clinton created a budget surplus), despite the gap between rich and poor expanding, despite the huge increase in gas prices, and despite the fact that Osama bin Laden is still at large. It really wasn't until hurricane Katrina, where what the press was told and reality collided head on, that Bush hit any real, solid, consistent criticism.

While conservatives cry "media liberal bias", some of the most popular conservative pundits continue to distort the facts for their own ends. There are too many to go into, but check out the Media Matters web site at for more information. Not surprising, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and David Horowitz are prominant in the list.

Okay, so maybe Media Matters is biased. Hey, they probably are! On the other hand, perhaps they just see themselves as balancing out Fox News. That would make them "fair and balanced", wouldn't it?

The fact is that all media is biased to some extent. The very fact that a news outlet has to accept money from someone means there will be some bias. Citizens are only served by news outlets if they try hard to get to the truth and clearly, and openly, state their biases. The idea is to bring people the news. Distortions should be punished. No one gains when journalists (or, in Bill O'Reilly's case, "journalists") distort the truth, or show two opposite, distorted views and claim they are "balanced".

I fear that instead of bringing truth, news outlets will simply spin their idiots faster and faster.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The secular war on Christmas, or so we are told.

On December 2, Bill O'Reilly (of Fox's The O'Reilly Factor) played a clip on his TV program of a Daily Show joke about Christmas. The joke was told by Samantha Bee (The Daily Show's resident Canadian). O'Reilly said this:

Predictably, the opponents of public displays of Christmas continue to put forth counter-arguments on 'Secular Central.' I — I mean, Comedy Central. They said this:

This was followed by Samantha Bee's joke, which went like this:

Christmas: It's the only religious holiday that's also a federal holiday. That way, Christians can go to their services and everyone else can stay home and reflect on the true meaning of separation of church and state.

O'Reilly finished with, "And a Merry Christmas to you, Jon Stewart."

Now, Jon Stewart's hilarious follow-up on December 7 is too long to put here. If you want to read it, you can find a transcript for it at the Media Matters web site: The important point is this: the item was first broadcast last year, though O'Reilly implied that it was broadcast the night before. It's easy to prove that wasn't the case... in fact Stewart and Bee did just that. You see, Samantha Bee was wearing a tight pink blouse in the show. She wore the same blouse on The Daily Show's December 7 episode. It didn't quite fit, though, because she is now about 8 months pregnant. She was quite obviously not pregnant when the joke originally aired.

Secularists are out to kill Christmas. This is the latest neocon cry. It's part of their whole "persecution of Christians in the United States" battlecry. Or rather, it's their latest battlecry because it's the Christmas season. This isn't really new or anything, as they trotted out the same argument last year. Apparently secularists have banded together (no mention where they hold their meetings, as I'm guessing they won't be able to organize in Church basements; probably in a Starbucks in San Francisco) to do away with Christmas. This incredibly influential group has even coerced — again, according to neocons — stores like Wal-Mart to stop saying "Merry Christmas" and start saying, "Happy Holidays".

Secularists are stealing Christmas from Christians!

Funny enough, there seems to be a dearth of proof for this. Last year the same three stories were trotted out again and again as proof of this "war on Christmas" (as O'Reilly puts it). The Columbia Journalism Review piece from last year, found at
, said that there were three stories recycled again and again as proof of this "war", two of which were essentially false. This year the Washington Times went looking for "war on Christmas" battlefields within the federal government but, according to CJR at this link:
, they came up a little short.

So, the Washington Times had a hard time finding any real evidence of this war (must be clandestine!), and O'Reilly resorted to displaying year-old jokes as current evidence. Why would they do this? Is it because controversy sells, and Fox's conservative (and largely Christian) base eats this stuff up? Could it be that they are counter-programming the recent bad press shovelled on the Bush administration? Or could it be that back in October Fox News host John Gibson released a book, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought? Gosh, they wouldn't be making things up to push an agenda and sell books, would they?

(I haven't heard any secularists pounding the streets of Monroe calling for a ban against Christmas. I do know that the Puritans banned Christmas during the 1600s, though. Damn those liberal, secularist, Puritans!)

As a secular humanist (I guess I'm one, according to this definition anyway: I have to say that all of my secular friends call the holiday "Christmas". None of them seem to be offended in the least that it's a religous holiday. Some express concern at the erosion of the separation between church and state, but they are quite happy to get the day off work, give presents, and listen to Christmas music.

Christians have a right to be upset at the way Christmas has become commercialized, but that has little to do with liberals or secularists. It has to do with businesses co-opting every holiday they can find in order to make people buy more stuff. That should be good for the country, right? After all, the neocons are all about spurring the economy by helping business.

I bet you won't see Fox news doing a show on how businesses are stripping Christianity from Christmas. Nope, it's — once again — the fault of liberals. And their sneaky, hidden but well-organized cousins, the secularists.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Another little U.S./Canada difference

I have a longer post in mind for later. Right now, while I'm waiting for someone to come into the office to answer a question, I have time for a quick posting.

Robert, the president of the company I work for, noticed something about the leather jacket I was wearing the other day. The zipper was on the left-hand side. He said that women's jackets have the zipper on the left, men's have it on the right.

My jacket was most definitely a men's jacket, but it was made in Toronto in the garment district. When I got home I did a quick check. Two jackets and a fleece sweater with zippers that I purchased in Canada have the zipper on the left. One jacket I bought in Canada has the zipper on the right, but it was made in the U.S. Alana's fleece sweater had the zipper on the right, but it's reversable and I couldn't tell which was the "original" side. Her raincoat has the zipper on the right, but she said that it was a men's jacket.

So, it appears that the U.S. and Canada differ in this respect. Of course, being right handed, I find the Canadian method superior. You hold the zipper side still while you maneuver the other side into the zipper and end piece. It's (slightly) easier for me to do this with my right hand.

This, of course, begs the question of why men's and women's zipper sides differ. I mean, what's the point? If there's a slight advantage to it one way or the other, half the population is being slightly inconvenienced. If there is no advantage, why are manufacturers not increasing efficiency and decreasing cost by making only one type of zipper?

Just some silly trivia for you to ponder.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

HarnMaster write-up on HyperBear. No! Really!

After a delay of two months, I finally posted the latest HârnMaster write-up to HyperBear.

Our last roleplaying session was one of those times when we were in more of a socializing mood than a gaming mood. That meant that we didn't get too far in our Delta Green scenario on the Saturday. Instead of playing HârnMaster on the Sunday, we decided to finish the Delta Green scenario.

Okay, so where is the Delta Green write-up? Umm, well... Okay, I was busy. No, really! I've been modifying my Cthulhu miniatures rules. And when I wasn't doing that, I was working on the write-ups for our 4th of July Feng Shui/Delta Green game. I plan to have those write-ups done before Christmas. (Yeah, I know, I told the gang I'd have it ready by Thanksgiving. They'll be done before 2006, I promise! Unless I get busy...)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Okay, I'm not as depressed as the title makes it sound! That's a quote from "Time" by Pink Floyd. I thought it appropriate as my birthday was yesterday, and Pink Floyd was recently inducted into the U.K. rock music Hall of Fame.

My birthday was a low key event, but very nice. Alana and Logan presented me with a Lilliput Lane cottage from the Scotland collection (I now have 18 Lilliput Lane pieces, a David Winter cottage, and two Fraser Creations pieces), and The Night the War was Lost by Charles Dufour, about the fall of New Orleans to the Union during the Civil War. This is on top of the four sets of the Heroscape game I received a few weeks ago! Heroscape can be used as a stand-alone game, or as a terrain set for miniatures games.

We went to O'Charley's for dinner. Alana and I had been with Jason and his Mom last weekend and we had a coupon for a free apetizer. For the second time in a row we were underwhelmed with their service. Alana had asked the waitress to bring a cake for my birthday, to surprise me with cake and singing waiters, but the woman forgot. Alana was most peeved!

I really enjoyed the day, though it would have been better if I didn't have to go in to work! Alana always makes me feel special on my birthday, and I appreciate that more than I tell her. She knows I get a little depressed when my birthday rolls around (it was pretty bad when I turned 40) but this year I didn't really feel that way at all. Okay, maybe a little, but not much! Alana's a big part of that. So is Logan, who couldn't wait for me to open my presents (literally! When I asked what present I should open first, he said, "The book!" He paused. "Not the building!")

Anyway, I'm another year older. Today I continued to celebrate by eating a piece of cake the size of my head! This weekend I still intend to play Panzer Leader, which will take me back to the first days of my teens. Who says you have to wait until you're old to enjoy your senility!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

It started 30 years ago...

Today is my birthday. It also marks the 30th anniversary of my most loved hobby: strategy gaming, also known as wargaming.

Actually, my love of strategy games predates 1975. I remember having a number of strategic games a few years before this. One of the early ones had a square grid with plastic tanks, the name of which escapes me. I also had a pair of very simple games that were essentially wargames featuring Patton and McArthur, but I seem to recall that they weren't "serious" wargames, just positional games with a military theme.

My first miniatures game pitted my Airfix Scottish Napoleonic figures against a friend's (David Higham, whom I haven't talked to in decades) French figures. He had more than I did. I lined mine up in a "wedge" formation (no idea why). He split his into three waves. In spite of being outnumbered, I won simply because of the laws of probability. At the time we were both reading library books about miniature wargaming by Charles Grant and Donald Featherstone, but neither of us could paint at the time and neither of us could afford metal figures. We played in his basement. I can't date that game. It could have been as early as 1973 or as late as 1977.

The next time I remember miniatures gaming, my family lived in the house that my mother still owns. We moved into that house in the summer of 1975. I set up a small battle on a table in the basement. Buildings were constructed from bristol board (poster board) and I used plastic 1/32 scale figures. Based on my memories, I'd put it no later than 1978. I recently gave Logan my plastic 1/72 scale figures. They still have paint on the bases where I had written unit organization numbers back in high school.

The precise dates for my burgeoning interest in wargaming are murky, but there's one date I know for certain. For my 13th birthday I received the game Panzer Leader by Avalon Hill. I still have the game. It's one of my favourites.

Panzer Leader is the younger sibling of PanzerBlitz. Avalon Hill was one of the first companies (the first?) to produce board games based on historical battles. Starting in the early 1960s, they created games based on such battles as Gettysburg, Waterloo, and the D-Day invasion. Their games focused on strategic (dealing with whole armies) and operational (dealing with divisions up to corps) campaigns. PanzerBlitz was a revolution in gaming. Released in 1970, it was the first truly tactical game. Instead of a cardboard counter representing several thousand soldiers, a counter represented 30 or 40 men or four or five vehicles. PanzerBlitz was set on the Eastern Front of World War II with Germany fighting the Soviet Union. It came with three "geomorphic" boards that did not represent a "real" battlefield, but could be arranged to roughly represent a host of battlefields. Instead of squares, movement on the board was regulated by a grid of interconnected hexagons (not a first for PanzerBlitz, but it was the introduction to the "hex grid" for many a young wargamer). There were 12 "situations" in PanzerBlitz, so it was like getting 12 different games in one box. The rules also encouraged players to design new situations. PanzerBlitz was very popular at the time, and can still be purchased at a reasonable cost on eBay. I bought my copy used in the late 1980s.

Panzer Leader was the Western Front version of PanzerBlitz. It covered the conflict between Germany and the armed forces of the United States, Britain, and Canada. The rules were a little more complicated than PanzerBlitz, but not a lot more complicated. More importantly, it fixed a number of issues that appeared between 1970 and Panzer Leader's release in 1974. It was also a bigger game than PanzerBlitz: more counters, four boards instead of three, and 20 situations instead of 12.

I first saw the game in a Shoprite catalogue (one of two catalogue stores in Canada at the time, Shoprite was the only one to carry wargames). I will never forget its yellow and black cover. I can still remember what it was like to open the game box that day. I remember the smell of the components and the slick feel of the rule book. There might have been snow on the ground; I vaguely remember that, too. The game was fascinating. Over 400 counters to punch out and organize into little baggies. A rule book that, at the time, was the most complicated set of rules I'd ever read (I recently re-read them, and compared to some of today's monster games they are incredibly compact and clear) was devoured before the week was out. I was hooked!

Panzer Leader is not my favourite wargame (that goes to Avalon Hill's Up Front, which I bought in college) but it's one of my favourites. Later games were better simulations. In particular, there are no command control rules in Panzer Leader ("command control" rules model the difficulty in commanding troops in combat, and explore the reason soldiers were organized in particular formations). In some ways, it was ahead of its time. PanzerBlitz was sometimes called "Panzerbush". Counters receive benefits for being in tree areas, so players often ran vehicles from one tree hexagon to another. Opposing forces couldn't touch the counter even if the counter spent the vast majority of its time moving in plain view. Panzer Leader fixed this problem with an optional "opportunity fire" rule, a rule that's sometimes missing in games produced today.

Unfortunately, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I played Panzer Leader against an opponent. This was (and continues to be) a common problem for wargamers. The last time I played it against someone was in the winter of 1984/1985 (yikes, more than 20 years ago!). There's a reason wargames began to list their "solitaire suitability" in the late 70s.

Board wargames started to die off in the late 80s/early 90s. Powerful home computers and video game systems attracted the attention of players more than the more complicated board games. It took hours (sometimes days!) for someone to read the rules (and in the case of Advanced Squad Leader, months or years). They got more and more expensive as production values went up. Panzer Leader's boards are mostly off-white with the occasional splash of green (trees), brown or orange (hills and ridges). Towns are a cross hatch of lines. The boards for games like Avalon Hill's/Multi-Man Publishing's Great Campaigns of the Civil War, by contrast, are almost beautiful, with exquisite, accurate detail. All that colour and detail costs money.

Avalon Hill's main rival, SPI, was purchased by TSR (the Dungeons and Dragonscompany) in the 1980s. Those games were out of print before TSR itself was saved from bankruptcy by Wizards of the Coast. Avalon Hill was folded by its parent company, only to be snatched up at the last second by Hasbro. They still produce games under the Avalon Hill banner, but only Diplomacy and Acquire date back to the old AH, and these are games of easy mechanics and mass market appeal.

I noticed that there's been a resurgence of wargames in recent years. Computers just can't match the tactile appeal of unfolding a map and moving counters with a friend. Computer programs, like VASSAL, allow games to be played by e-mail. (You could play Avalon Hill games by mail for many years, using things like random number tables or stock market quote lookups for dice rolls, but you were stuck playing at the speed of snail mail.) Web sites devoted to Panzer Leader, PanzerBlitz, and The Arab-Israeli War (Panzer Leader's more complex and less successful younger brother) add new situations, new counters, and new board layouts. Some new games look absolutely gorgeous. There's a new wargame magazine that produces four games a year; one of their most recent games, about the fall of Berlin in 1945, is stunning in its graphics and use of colour. The old AH games are long out of print, but thanks to eBay they are still in circulation (as are the games of Avalon Hill's competitors: SPI, West End Games, and GDW). I think the Shoprite catalogue pegged it at C$10, a monumental sum in those days. You can now get it for US$10 to $20 on eBay. PanzerBlitz sells for just a little less. Some enterprising folk are selling die-cut variant counters and new mounted game boards. These games may be out of print but they are not gone.

My Panzer Leader box is over full. I purchased an expansion set for it in the mid 1990s which added counters and situations for the fight between Germany versus Britain and France in 1940. Somewhere along the line I picked up an additional copy of board D. I would still like to get another copy of the game, as my boards are slightly torn at the joins and I'd like to keep the game for many more years to come. Multi-Man Publishing has the rights to Panzer Leader and PanzerBlitz. The company, whose president is Curt Schilling, the Bost Red Sox pitcher, has yet to re-release the game.

Sometime this coming weekend I intend to play the game again, some 30 years after I first opened the box. I'll post my impressions of the game after that, to let you know if it still feels the same after all these years.

(For the record, I wrote this on the 2nd, but only because I didn't have time to write it down on the 1st.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

St. Andrew's Day

Today is St. Andrew's Day. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland. St. Andrew's Day is the Scottish equivalent to St. Patrick's Day, though it is far less well known in North America. Ironically, St. Andrew's Day is celebrated more by ex-patriot Scots than native Scots. (This is probably why St. Andrew's Day is a little bit better known outside of Scotland than St. George's Day for England — April 23 — or St. David's Day for Wales — March 1). My mother, a Scottish nationalist, was always a little bit disappointed that I missed being born on St. Andrew's Day by a few hours.

This St. Andrew's Day I find myself thinking about my "roots" and my national identity.

Yesterday, the Canadian government fell. American media outlets that don't understand such things seemed to imply a collapse of governmental order. This isn't the case. The ruling party, the Liberals, were in a minority situation, meaning that they had more seats in the House of Commons than any other party (so they formed the government) but fewer seats than all the other parties combined. Certain pieces of legislation, when voted on and defeated, can result in a call for a "non-confidence vote". If the majority of parliament votes for "non-confidence", the governing party is required to ask the Governor-General to dissolve parliament, and an election campaign gets under way. This is the same as any other election campaign, but it's brought about by the minority government.

Okay, so much for the Canadian civics lesson. I heard about the non-confidence vote when I was channel surfing Monday night and came across the C-SPAN coverage of the vote from the CBC. I didn't know it was coming, though the Canadian government apparently did. This highlighted how out of touch I am with Canadian news.

When I first moved to Monroe, LA, I read the Toronto Star (where I used to work) online. After a while I stopped, partly out of homesickness and mostly out of a lessening connection with the city. Now I'm woefully ignorant of Canadian current events (except for what little filters through via The Daily Show, or the Colbert Report, both of which had hilarious segments on Canada last night).

I didn't really think of myself as Canadian until I was in my twenties. I was born in Scotland and grew up in a Scottish family. Until high school, my best friend was an English immigrant so the two of us revelled in our "not Canadian-ness". Now that I no longer live in Canada, I find I'm losing my Canadian identity. I am a Canadian Football fan, but you just don't see the games down here. (More specifically, I'm a Toronto Argonauts fan. Torontonians bug the hell out of me by going out of their way to ignore the CFL. Instead of watching some of the most exciting football on the planet, they'd rather watch a dull NFL exhibition game. End of rant.) Very little Canadian news filters down here. I've lost touch with most of my Canadian friends. Right now, about the only thing connecting me to Canada is my family, those few friends that still stay in touch, my accent, and my love of butter tarts and Tim Horton's doughnuts.

I've noticed that my Scottish identity has increased. While I miss my family, I no longer get homesick for Toronto. Weirdly, I do get homesick for Scotland, in spite of Scotland being a foreign country to me. I guess it must be an instinctive and ancestral attraction, as I was 4 when we moved to Canada and I've only visited Scotland once, for 3 weeks 13 years ago.

I may be losing my Canadian identity but I'm not gaining an American identity. My accent is wrong. I have no nostalgia for this place. My political views are certainly not the norm for this area, and probably too far to the left for most Americans (though as a Canadian I considered myself centrist). Being a secularist (the current neo-con label for anyone who's not an evangelical Christian) I don't fit in well with the Bible Belt.

(This having been said, I don't see Alana, the kids, or our friends as foreign, either. This is a very strange feeling living in a foreign country, and yet surrounded by foreign friends and family that aren't foreign. I don't think anyone can understand this unless they've been through it themselves.)

Not having a national identity is a bit disorienting, but it's not a negative thing. I get to pick and choose a national identity when I need it. I've always been particularly Scottish on St. Andrew's Day. I get to be Canadian on Canada Day, and still participate in the 4th of July. When a country inevitably does something stupid I get to pick and choose my nationality. If Americans get peeved at Canadian softwood stump fees, I can claim to be Scottish. If there's an anti-American riot in Scotland over a G8 summit, I'm Canadian. I have two different passports (a Canadian passport and a British/Euro passport, both expired) and a Green Card, so I have plenty of travel options.

On reflection, maybe having a strong national identity is more of a negative than a positive. After all, wars are usually fought between nations or between religious groups. Americans have a strong national identity but can't figure out why Europeans are repelled by that. The two world wars ravaged Europe for largely nationalistic reasons. Europeans have suffered the downside of intense patriotism, so they find patriotism in Americans to be disturbing. (At some point in the future I'll explain why Europeans misunderstand American patriotism, and why the patriotic feelings of Americans is quite different from the feelings that plunged Europe into war.) Perhaps the world would be better off if people lost their sense of nationalism.

Or perhaps not. The recent riots in France have a lot to do with young people who live in a country where they don't have a strong national identity. Without nationalism the world might plunge into the chaos of tribalism. Perhaps what is needed is not a loss of nationalism, but an identity that transcends nations. Europe is trying this now, with mixed results. Canada and the U.S. have forged a "North American identity" (even if it does ignore Mexico and Central America) without consciously trying. Maybe the road to peace isn't the dissolution of national identity, but the creation of continental identities on the road to a worldwide (or human wide) identity.

Anyway, it's St. Andrew's Day and I'm wearing blue (I don't have anything tartan to wear). If we had a flag pole I'd run one of my Scottish flags on it. While on many days my national identity may be conflicted, today I am Scottish.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving - not what we planned

The Thanksgiving weekend is over, and it didn't turn out the way we had planned.

Alana was sick throughout the weekend with the flu or something. It didn't slow her down too much, but she felt miserable through most of it. That pales compared to what happened to Logan.

Logan was over at Alana's ex's place on Thanksgiving day. He was swinging on a swing. Like all little kids, he couldn't resist jumping off the swing. He landed funny and broke his left arm. It was a clean break, thankfully, but he was in a lot of pain. Alana and I were in the middle of cleaning out our storage locker when we got the call. We were literally in the middle of it; almost all the stuff was out of the locker. Alana took the Tracker to the hospital. I stayed behind with Sabine (our dog) and put everything back in the locker after fixing some collapsed boxes. By the time I closed the locker, dumped the garbage, and walked back to the apartment Alana was on the way back home.

Logan's doing quite well. He's home now and in pretty good spirits. His arm is in a splint, not a cast. He has to see the orthopedic doctor on Thursday. He might get a cast then. He seems to be doing quite well, though he is beating himself up about doing "something stupid". I guess that's a sign he's growing up. His arm will probably still be in a sling or a cast for his 7th birthday (January 20).

Friday was, of course, Black Friday. This is the day that stores begin to make money, as it's the traditional start of the U.S. gift buying season. Black Friday sort of has a Canadian equivalent: Boxing Day. In Canada, Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October (makes sense, as the growing season is shorter in the northern latitudes). There's no day of big sales in Canada prior to Christmas, at least not like they have down here. The day after Christmas is Boxing Day, a statutory holiday. For years it was illegal in Ontario for any store in a non-tourist area (or for certain types of places, like convenience stores) to be open on that day. It may still be illegal, I'm not sure. It didn't stop a number of stores opening that day with deep discount prices on stuff. Those that stuck to the law opened on December 27. That's Canada's closet equivalent to Black Friday.

Alana and I were up at 4:30 to head out to the stores. We saw something we thought of buying as a Christmas gift in Wal-Mart but there was no way we were going to deal with the lines in Wally World. Good thing, too, as they only had a handful of the item we were thinking about getting and it was sold out in 5 minutes. Instead we went to the mall. McRae's had a bunch of things we wanted; they opened at 5. By the time we got there they were packed, but we found everything we wanted. We went to Sears and J.C. Penny's, but didn't buy anything. We got some stuff at Office Depot, Michael's (a cool carousel for holding the paint I use for miniatures), Target and Toys R' Us.

The thrill of Black Friday this year was muted over last year; last year was the first time I'd ever risen at the crack of dawn to go shopping! I still enjoyed it, during those moments when I was actually awake. The sales weren't bad, not great but not bad. We knew what we wanted before we went to the stores, hit those sale items and then moved on. I'm sure that's not what most stores wanted. Most stores slash prices on some items as "loss leaders". They entice you into the store with the loss leader in the hope that you will continue to shop there.

We crashed that afternoon for a couple of hours. Our Thanksgiving Day meal was to be two Cornish hens, but Logan's broken arm spoiled that. We were then going to do the hens on Friday, but we both fell asleep until about 4:30 p.m. They are still in the fridge!

Friday night Jason and his mom came over. They visited with us and slept over. The next day Alana and Jason's mom went shopping while Jason and I playtested my Call of Cthulhu miniatures rules, which I'm calling Death May Die. The playtest went very well. There are still "bugs" in the game, but the test showed that the game mechanics are mostly sound. Jason seemed to enjoy the game, which is a great sign. This was the first time I'd played the game with someone else (up until now I had mostly playtested it solitaire).

I include some pictures of the game, below:

This is a shot of the game as it was initially set up. The police, at the bottom left, are raiding a bootlegger's home. What most of the cops don't know is that the bootleggers, fronted by an Arkham, Massachusetts mob boss, are involved with a cult. The cultists are currently trying to summon a monster (top, left). One of the people on the police side is Henry Armitage, of Miskatonic University (a well known figure in H. P. Lovecraft's fiction). The main cultist is Wilbur Whatley (also well known in the literature).

You probably can't make out what's happening; I didn't take the time for good pictures. It's midway through the game. The police have cleared out most of the thugs. O'Bannion, the local gangster, has gone insane from one of Henry's spells and shot at one of his own men. Henry lost is Nightgaunt, though (a bat-like creature), which could have been of great help to the good guys.

This is near the end of the game. The police captured two thugs and killed another two, but they lost a couple of officers and Henry Armitage. The cultists managed to summon the creature, a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath. The Dark Young and the cultists (along with a routing thug) are seen in this shot. Now the police have only one chance to tie the game: capture Wilbur's strange book.

The game is over. The police were unable to capture Wilbur Whatley's copy of the Necronomicon. This shot is after the Dark Young ate the remaining police officers (except for one who managed to run away).

The game was close, but in the end it was a clear win for the cultists (played by Jason). We both made mistakes and forgot rules (sad, considering I wrote them!), but I probably made the biggest mistake by misplaying the Nightgaunt. I'd like to play the scenario again, which is a good sign. At some point I'll post close-up pictures of the figures on my web site.

So that was our long weekend. It's back to work tomorrow. I'm not looking forward to it. I have an install to prepare for and a couple of installed sites that will be calling with support questions. This wouldn't be so bad if a part of our system worked properly, but it doesn't. Hopefully it will Real Soon Now. Alana's not looking forward to work, either. Things are pretty hectic at the local Medicaid office between regular applications, Hurricane Katrina applications, and people calling about the Medicare drug plans (a duty that was thrown at Medicaid by the Feds).

Oh, yeah, and I get a year older this week. Can we just fast forward to Christmas?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Canada beats Denmark (over toy blocks, anyway)

I just learned, through Slashdot, that Mega Bloks won its lawsuit against Lego. Mega Bloks is a Montreal company that makes blocks that are very similar to Lego. Sounds like they are cheap knock-offs, right? Some have suggested that they are.

Personally, I prefer Mega Bloks. Their blocks might not be as good a quality as Lego's blocks, but their sets are very cool. Their Dragons fantasy line has actual orcs! I've been collecting them for use as skirmish miniatures, and they are very cool. While Lego people have the typical Lego yellow, round heads, Mega Bloks' fantasy figures have human (or orc) faces, Viking like ships with rounded hulls and fabric sails, and very cool rock formations. We have used their Alien Agency line (think "men in black" and Majestic-12) as Delta Green miniatures. I want to get one of their more complicated military sets at some point.

Lego sued Mega Bloks in Canada, with the suit finally coming to its completion with the Supreme Court of Canada this week. Lego's patents had been expiring since the 70s, and the last of its patents expired in Canada in 1988. They sued Mega Bloks claiming trademark infringement. Their argument was that the look and feel of plastic stackable blocks was part of Lego's trademark. They claimed the bumps on the blocks (which allow them to connect) was an intrinsic part of Lego's trademark. The Canadian Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, declared otherwise. The Supreme Court said,

..."purely functional" features, such as the well-known geometrical pattern of raised studs on the top of the bricks, could not be the basis of a trademark.

Trademark law should not be used to perpetuate monopoly rights enjoyed under now-expired patents...

They continued with:

The fact is ... that the monopoly on the bricks is over, and Mega Bloks and Lego bricks may be interchangeable in the bins of the playrooms of the nation – dragons, castles and knights may be designed with them, without any distinction.

This isn't the first dispute between Canada and Denmark. Both claim tiny Hans Island, between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. It's unlikely to result in a shooting war, and it's been called "a friendly dispute". Here's a story on the island from the CBC News site:

Monday, November 21, 2005

Latest Cthulhu write-up online

The latest Delta Green/Call of Cthulhu write-up is on my web site. You can find it by going to

This write-up is for the session that was held back in early October. The latest session was on the weekend of November 12. I hope to get that one online within the next month.

Rootkit affected CDs

Slashdot ( for the non-techies in the audience) published a link to the list of 52 CDs that include Sony's rootkit. I'm suddenly very thankful we didn't buy the latest Switchfoot CD!

The Washington Post is reporting that Sony will replace any tainted CD on the list with one that does not have the rootkit program. They are also offering to give folks MP3s, but only after they have received your old CD.

You can find the list at

The latest in this weird, ongoing saga is that the rootkit had even more open source code in it, in violation of the license agreement with that software.

Finally, today's Foxtrot cartoon is appropriate:

Updated 11/23/2005 to fix the URL to the titles affected by Sony's rootkit.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Sony rootkit issue deepens

In my November 4 post, titled "Sony distributes malicious software; cheaters rejoice", I described how Sony was distributing a "rootkit" program as part of a copy protection scheme, and how this program could be used by hackers to get into your system.

The issue has intensified in the last two weeks.

For the full story, see the Schneier on Security blog rootkit posting. See my earlier blog entry for information on what this "rootkit" is. I'll assume you've read it. If not, go read it. I'll wait...

...Back? Cool. Summarized, here's what's happened:
  • Mark Russinovich discovered the rootkit on October 31, 2005.
  • Soon after, Sony gave instructions on how to remove the cloaking that hid the rootkit. They did not give instructions on how to remove the rootkit. Removing it could potentially crash your machine and make it unbootable (without reformatting and reinstalling everything).
  • Sony claimed that the rootkit did not "phone home" (i.e. that it did not access the internet and send information about your system to a home base). It was soon discovered that it did just that.
  • On November 4, Thomas Hesse, Sony BMG's president of global digital business said, "Most people don't even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?"
  • On November 9, McAffee — the computer anti-virus people — released code to detect the rootkit. Their products do not remove the rootkit, just the cloaking portion.
  • On November 11, blog outrage and mainstream media coverage resulted in Sony "temporarily halting the production of the copy protection scheme".
  • Also on November 11, Symantec — another computer anti-virus company — released a tool for removing the cloaking. Their products do not remove the rootkit, just the cloaking portion.
  • In spite of the fact that trying to remove the rootkit can cause Windows to crash in a horrible manner, Microsoft didn't mention the rootkit until November 13. It announced that it would update its security tools to remove the cloaking, but not the rootkit itself.
  • On November 14, Sony announced it was pulling infected discs from store shelves, and replacing infected discs with uninfected discs for free.
An an initial estimate said that half a million computers were infected. According to a post on DoxPara Research's site there are actually half a million nameservers infected. A nameserver is a computer that turns internet domain names (i.e. into IP addresses, and vice versa. Each nameserver is attached to at least one computer, and usually hundreds, thousands, and more computers. Half a million is the lowest possible estimate for infected computers.

If a criminal organization had distributed rootkit in this manner, the police would be all over them. It' s unlikely that Sony will have much trouble, even though they've broken cyberlaw. They've also broken copyright law, as part of their copy protection scheme seems to include an MP3 encoder in violation of its user agreement.

The Department of Homeland Security is none too happy with Sony, as the rootkit was found on Department of Defense computers. It's left up to the student to decide how this could hurt national security.

What burns me is how the anti-malware companies have utterly failed to protect against this infection. Sony has been distributing these discs for some eight months. None of the major malware programs caught it. Even though it was distributed by CD, it should still have been caught. An article on states that Symantec and other anti-virus companies already knew about the rootkit, and that First 4 Internet — the British company that created the rootkit for Sony — contacted them to make sure it would not turn up in their anti-virus programs!

This results in some unhappy questions for Microsoft. Was Microsoft told ahead of time by First 4 Internet about the rootkit? If it was, why did Microsoft allow the inclusion of malware on Windows platforms without some way to remove it without crashing the operating system? And if Microsoft was not informed, are Microsoft's security programs as good as the anti-virus companies? After all, shouldn't Microsoft's own programs caught the rootkit if they didn't know Sony was distributing it? What does this mean for Windows Vista, the next Microsoft operating system, which will come with "digital rights management" (i.e. copy protection) bundled with it?

Lots of questions and few answers. The only people laughing right now are those who own Apples, and those who don't buy Sony CDs. There's a call to boycott Sony music. Like Sony needed another reason for people to pirate their songs.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Halloween Revisited

I set up an ID over on Photobucket in order to host pictures for my blog. Jimmy Pope held his annual Halloween party in Texarkana back on October 29. I took pictures at the party. The first roll of film was developed, and the pictures are now online.

You can see the pictures by clicking on this link:

The pictures are in thumbnail format. Click on the picture and you will get a larger version of the picture, and a full caption.

We first went to Jimmy's Halloween party last year and enjoyed ourselves quite a bit. This year we were both in dire need of relaxation when it rolled around. Alana spent her evenings the week before the party sewing the cloak for my costume. She was still sewing parts of it in the car on the way to the party! You'll notice that Alana and I aren't in the pictures. Those shots are on the next roll, which I hope to get developed Real Soon Now.

A wonderful time was had by all! We picked up a box of 100 Raising Cane's chicken fingers (the best in the world!) in Shreveport for Jimmy, and they were still warm by the time we got to the party. I was dressed as a generic fantasy nasty critter, sort of like I did the year before. I have an actual theme costume in mind for next year. Alana insists she wasn't in a costume, but she had on leather boots, leather jacket, an "I'm no Princess" t-shirt, and a gun, so I think that qualified.

The only real downside to the party was that I discovered it's almost impossible to eat while wearing my cloak; the sleeves tend to drag through things on the table. Oh, and I refuse to wear a mask next year, as it's very hard to mingle and, well, breathe while wearing a mask. I didn't sample the "brains" (jello and alcohol set in a brain mould) but Alana, several times from what I've heard. *grin*

Jimmy throws a wonderful party (thanks Jimmy!) The bar room had a casket on sawhorses for a bar, and the TV played The Rocky Horror Picture Show throughout the evening. The living room was full of helium balloons and streamers, which was a nice touch (even if it did make picture taking problematic). The dining room was incredibly laid out, both with decorations and food. I understand that all of the chicken was devoured before morning. I know not everyone liked the fog machine, but I loved it, particularly since the airsoft gun Alana was using had an under-barrel light and a laser, both of which look great in the fog.

Can't wait for next year's party!


Here are some pictures from Halloween night.

This is how we decorated the front door of our apartment. The witch hangs on the door in front of a bubbling cauldron. The cauldron wasn't bubbling too much that evening. The flames are white material that flaps upwards due to a fan in the cauldron. The rain soaked the material, preventing it from bubbling.

This is the same part of the apartment, but a different angle and with a better idea of how it looked at night.

The front of the apartment below our bedroom window. This is where we put up our "graveyard". Not visible are two ghosts we had hanging from the window shutters.

Our favourite part of the set up is the skeleton coming out of the ground to take candy from a dropped candy bucket. The bucket is shaped like a silly ghost head. We glued artificial candy to a transluscent container lid and placed that on top of the bucket. Inside a bucket is a florescent light. This picture doesn't do it justice; it's a pretty cute set up, and takes away a little bit of the fright a skeleton might have for small kids. Or, at least, it would have, if we had any kids actually show up this year!

Now, a couple of pictures of our own little monster! This is Logan in his army costume before he went out trick-or- treating.

And this is Logan, outside, with the veil of his hat pulled down. How stealthy is that!

Monday, November 07, 2005

American program (programme?) notices Canada

We're watching the Colbert Report (pronounced "Coal-bear Re-pore") tonight. It's on after The Daily Show. It's been running for about three weeks here in the U.S. Apparently it's only now running in Canada. It seems to have caught its rythm the last couple of weeks. In fact, while it's not as satirically clever as The Daily Show, I find myself laughing out loud more to the Colbert Report.

Anyway, tonight Stephen Colbert mentioned that the show was now playing in Canada. He spent a whole five minutes on the Great White North, with a sprinkling of Canadian jokes throughout the rest of the episode. He even mentioned Nunavut! The best joke started with him saying, "To those Canadians not living in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver, this is a television..."

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that at least one major Canadian newspaper runs a story tomorrow about how the Colbert Report noticed Canada. Why? Because an American TV show mentioned Canada without it having to do with softwood lumber (though he did talk about that), immigration (though they did send an intern up north to become a Canadian citizen), or cheap medicine (though that was the main punchline of the skit).

Friday, November 04, 2005

Sony distributes malicious software; cheaters rejoice

It was all over the tech news sites yesterday and Wednesday. Sony has distributed malicious software, known as malware, on some of its CDs.
The software involved is something called a rootkit. It's a program that hides files from the computer's operating system. In order to listen to Sony's copy protected CDs on a computer (the one that started this was Get Right by the Man by the Van Zant brothers) you have to use the media player that comes on the CD. If you load the CD into your CD-ROM drive, it installs the player, the rootkit, and several other files on your computer. The rootkit hides the files, and any associated directories, from your operating system. The files and the player prevent you from copying the CD more than 3 times. They are hidden so people can't simply disable the player and copy the CD.

A lot of people are upset about this, and not just folk who want to copy CDs. The security expert that found the rootkit discovered two important facts:
  1. The rootkit ate up between 1% and 2% of his CPU usage, mostly due to poor programming. The program will impair your computer's performance.
  2. It's almost impossible for the average user to uninstall the rootkit. The above average user who makes use of standard deletion techniques could cripple their computer!
So, in order to play Sony's music from a copy protected CD, you have to install poorly written software that could wreck your set up if you tried to uninstall it!

Mark's Sysinternals Blog has the technical details of how he discovered the rootkit program at

The software is similar to that used by hackers to hide viruses and spyware. If it was distributed widely, Sony would have put a hacker tool on every computer playing their CDs. The tool has already been used for malicious deeds. There's a game called World of Warcraft. You can play it online. To prevent players from cheating the game with cheating programs, Bungie
— the company that runs the game — scans players' computers for cheat files. This is, itself, controversial. Anyway, some players are using the rootkit distributed by Sony to hide cheat programs while playing World of Warcraft!

The Security Focus website has an article on the World of Warcraft issue at

Sony is apparently "fixing" the issue with a version of copy protection that doesn't use rootkit, and they have delete instructions on their web site. That's little consolation for the havoc this could cause.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

How did I become "edgy"???

I seem to be out of step with popular music. People first accused me of this back in high school, when my taste changed in grade 11 from something close to my parents' to what is now called "classic rock" (but was simply "rock" or "progressive rock" back then).

Apparently, at the age of 42 (almost 43), I listen to "edgier" music than most people half my age. A case in point. I created a mix CD of music suitable for Halloween. I didn't think it was that "out there" (it had the Beatles, for heaven sake!) but apparently it was. I took it to Jimmy's Halloween party on Saturday. It didn't make it more than half way before someone asked to have it pulled. In it's place was some rather bland pop music CD.

So when did I become non-mainstream??? Me, of all people??? When I was in high school, what I listened to was pretty common. Nobody in my class admitted to listening to disco or pop. Rush was very popular. Led Zepplin, and The Who were also big. I never got into the Stones. I remember doing a movie for grade 12 Film Arts class and surprising my peers by using Pink Floyd for the theme music, not because Pink Floyd was strange but because they couldn't believe I was that "with it". Now stuff that's worse than late 70s disco is the rage while interesting alt-rock languishes on college radio.

I saw on one of the music stations up high on the digital tier mention of death metal. I used to know the names of a couple of death metal groups (though I never cared for it), but I hadn't heard of any of these. I remember when metal was played on mainstream stations (I may still have AC/DC's Back in Black on vinyl in the storage locker), now it's only played on the odd VH1 offshoot or late on a weekend night on classic rock stations. This is just more of the "lowest common denominator" trend I mentioned in my previous "Clear Channeling of America" post. Thank god for KXUL.

When Ashlee Simpson (the less talented sister of the horrible ditz Jessica Simpson) has the number one album on the charts, you know it's a sign of the Apocalypse.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Disappointing Halloween

The rain continued until sometime this morning. Including Logan, when he got back from Alana taking him out trick-or-treating, we had one visitor. No other kid showed up at our door, not even Logan's friend from down the street.

I took some pictures of the apartment with the digital camera. I'll try to post them later.

Monday, October 31, 2005


It hasn't rained, literally, in 3 weeks, so of course it started raining about half an hour ago, just in time for the sun to set and kids to go out for Halloween. Figures.

While I was away in Michigan Alana came home to find a business card in the door. The card was from a local pastor. He possibly thought we were in dire need of saving due to the Halloween decorations on the front yard of our apartment. (I'm not sure if I'm more scared/amused at the idea of a pastor stopping by our apartment because he happened to be in the neighbourhood and saw the decorations, or of a pastor who is campaigning door-to-door. I mean, it's not like there are that many "undecideds" around here...)

Halloween is a little different here in the bible belt than it is elsewhere in the country. Evangelical Christians have a hard time with Halloween. On the one hand it appears to celebrate paganism. On the other hand it's a part of American culture (at least secular culture), and the "celebration" of it is growing.

I'm in the cusp of Gen-X and the Boomers, when Halloween started to become very commercialized in our youth. This seems to have translated to a rise in popularity for adult Halloween parties. You can now find more adult costumes for Halloween than kid costumes.

This increase in popularity goes against the grain of Southern Christians. Halloween was, originally, pagan after all. They fail to note two things:

  1. All Hallow's Eve came before the day of All Hallowed Souls, but it was taken over by early Christians as the even of All Hallowed Saints day, so it's popularity is due to Christianity absorbing the fall festival into its religion.

  2. All Hallow's Eve is hardly the first holiday to be absorbed by Christians. It's pretty certain, for instance, that Christ was not born in December, and that early Christians set Christ's birthday mass on Saturnalia to absorb the popular pagan winter solstice festival.

In these parts Christians absorb Halloween and try to de-paganize it with "Fall festivals". These "festivals" look a lot like Halloween — kids dress up in costumes and receive candy — but overtly pagan costumes are frowned upon. As a result, there's not a whole lot of ghoulishness present. Kids play games and hang out almost exclusively at the church. It does make Halloween safer, and parents appreciate that.

The "Fall festival" idea has spread to schools. Local Christians have managed to eliminate the "Halloween party" from schools. Instead, schools have their own Fall festivals. Kids aren't allowed to wear costumes, but they do get to go from room to room playing games and getting candy. Ironically, the decorations used in Logan's school were most definitely Halloween-ish, with ghosts, bats and spiders well represented.

(Aside: there has never been a documentated case of tampered candy. Or, rather, there has never been a case where the person doing the tampering wasn't involved in the victim. That's right, no tampering has happened. It appears to be an urban legend. There are cases of tampered candy, but these are all by people who sought to harm a specific child. They assumed that there was so much tampering that they'd never be caught, only to have the police discover the truth pretty quickly.)

Not only do some Christians believe Halloween to be pagan, they believe it to be Satanic. This is quite misguided. Halloween corresponds with the Celtic holiday of Samhain, with November 1 marking the first day of the Celtic year. Celts believed that the ghosts of the dead could best mingle with the living on this day of the year, so they held a festival to honour the dead, to help them on their journey to the Celtic underworld, and to keep them away from the living. It was not a celebration of the Satanic or evil but a way of protecting the living.

For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on the history and folklore of Halloween.

It's now after 6 pm and it's still raining. It's dark and I turned on the orange lights draped over our decorations. Nobody has come to the door yet. I suspect we will have a fair bit of candy to eat by ourselves.

If it stops raining long enough, I'll take — and post — pictures of our apartment with the Halloween decorations up.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Xenu (the link checker, not the Scientology guy)

I was searching for a link checker for work, when I came across Xenu's Link Stealth. This is a freeware program that searches web sites for broken links. I ran it on my web site and found I had some broken links in it. Thanks to Xenu, I've been able to fix it. If you have a web site, I heartily recommend that you download and use Xenu.

The name Xenu comes from the Church of Scientology's mythology. To quote Wikipedia:

In Scientology doctrine, Xenu (also Xemu) is a galactic ruler who, 75 million years ago, brought billions of people to Earth, stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. Their souls then clustered together and stuck to the bodies of the living, and continue to cause problems today. These events are known to Scientologists as "Incident II", and the traumatic memories associated with them as The Wall of Fire or the R6 implant. The story of Xenu is part of a much wider range of Scientology beliefs in extraterrestrial civilizations and alien interventions in Earthly events, collectively described as space opera by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

You can find out more about Scientology on Wikipedia's Scientology page on Xenu. At the very least, you'll see that Tom Cruise is a bigger whack job than you might have thought.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Clear Channeling of America

The worst part of visiting southwest Michigan was the radio. The radio stations sucked pond scum. There was a single alt-rock station out of Grand Rapids, but it was pretty faint in Kalamazoo and kept fading in and out. Locally the only thing half-way palatable were a couple (as in "more than one") classic rock stations. You know, I grew up with classic rock. By the mid 80s I was pretty tired of classic rock. Why it's outpacing modern rock is beyond me.

Ironically, while I was there the news reported that sales of CDs were down last year. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) blamed illegal downloads. I'm sure that's a big part of it. Why pay $15 for a new CD when you can grab it for free via file sharing. But that's only part of the issue, and maybe not even the main issue. My theory is that CD sales are lower because radio stations in America suck pond scum.

It used to be that you'd hear two or three songs off a successful album, minimum. Now you're lucky if they play more than one single from an album, taking the word all too seriously. How do you decide to commit $15 to a CD when you only hear one song? What if the rest of the album bites? Besides, if you wait a month you'll be so sick of that single that you won't even want to buy the album.

Radio in Monroe is pretty awful, too, with one exception: 91.1 KXUL, the University of Louisiana at Monroe radio station, which is the only true alt-rock station in the area. The other stations are pretty much the same garbage as I found in Michigan: top 40, classic rock, country, and a handful of religious stations.

I blame Clear Channel, the huge conglomerate that owns most of the radio stations in the country. They control the music. They aim their stations at the lowest common denominator in each musical genre in order to pull in the most advertising money.

I also blame the recording industry. They pay stations to play their songs (not in money, which is illegal, and not directly, which is also illegal, but by offering tickets and prizes through middle-men known as "indies"). They pay to have the same tripe played over and over. I'm not sure why they push a single song from each album, unless its because they figured out the kids will by the CDs to get the one hot song so there's no need to push more than one song.

Except that the kids aren't buying CDs. They are illegally downloading them. After all, how do you decide to buy a 15 song CD based on the one song that you're sick of hearing? Instead, they download those albums they've heard about on the Net but never hear on the radio. Plus they've learned that most CDs contain crappy filler and are not worth the $15 price tag.

The RIAA is looking to shut down file sharing. I don't think they'll ever be able to completely shut it down, but I also think it's just a delaying tactic while they work on stronger encryption. If they succeed, I think they'll be in for a surprise: CD sales won't increase dramatically. Why? Because the only way to hear new songs these days is on radio, and radio sucks pond scum.