Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Father's Day presents

Gosh, has it been that long since my last post? It's not that I don't have things to post, I just haven't had much time. There was the computer crash, of course. And I've been preparing for a Western roleplaying game "one shot" I'm running on the weekend for the guys in Texarkana. There, you can blame those guys for me not having time to write.

For Father's Day I received a Sandisk Sansa 1GB MP3 player. Yay! It sounds pretty good, and there was a healthy rebate with it! I loaded it (all but 185 MB of it) the day before the laptop's hard drive crashed. I'm still debating what I want to put on it, but for now I have a smattering of albums and Tragically Hip and Rush hits. The player isn't an iPod, but I really can't see how an iPod would be worth the money (particularly since, apparently, you have to jump through hoops to load it with songs from anywhere but iTunes). It doesn't really have its own software, it uses Windows Media Player 10. Loading the device is, thus, a little obtuse (though you can also load it manually by treating it as a disk drive and copying files). Still, it sounds great and is very small. I almost can't wait for my next plane trip. On Saturday we bought a set of JBL speakers for it, half off. I can use it in a hotel room, or in the office I might be getting.

We received some free downloads from Connect.com through a Coca Cola point program, and so Saturday night I downloaded several songs and a Lewis Black CD (none of which are on my MP3 player, but they will soon be). It's funny how much of a pain online music sites can be. First, to buy from iTunes you have to download Apple's software. To buy from Connect.com, Sony's site, you need their software. Why is it that Sony's software takes longer to install and requires a reboot, when Apple can write Windows software that installs without a reboot?

Then there's the music. I went looking for "Optimistic" by Radiohead. It is only available as a track on the whole Kid A album. So much for the idea that you can cherry pick songs online. So, I checked out iTunes. Apparently Radiohead is signed with Sony, because there are only two songs — and no albums — available on iTunes, neither of the songs were "Optimistic". The same two songs were available on Napster. So, you wonder why with "over a million songs" per site and only a buck a track people are still sharing songs? There's a good reason. I'll continue to rip tracks from my CDs for now. (Which, funny enough, is legal in Canada. The music industry got Canada to enforce a royalty on every cassette tape purchased back in the 90s. They may have extended it to blank CDs. This has turned into somewhat of a "deal with the devil", as ripping and burning is now legal in Canada. Hey, music industry, you got the royalties fair and square...)

My other present was Formtool Deluxe. This was one of those $20 software packages you buy in office supply stores. I'm usually pretty wary about these packages, as I was burned about 10 years ago on crappy software. Still, I suggested that I could use this package... and got it! I'm quite impressed. The program allows you to design forms, either for printing or for typing on a computer. I designed a custom character sheet for the Coyote Trail roleplaying game in it. To my surprise, it worked quite well. You can create just about any type of form, with graphics included. Each field on the form has a name, allowing you to create formulae where the value of one field depends on another field. You can even give the form to someone as an executable program, and they can fill it in (but can't change the form itself). It's a little finicky when selecting fields, and there are some features I'd like to see. Otherwise, it's an excellent program. Well worth the money. I intend to use it for other roleplaying game character sheets.

Formtool Deluxe was what I was running when the laptop's hard drive crashed. Of course I lost the form I had been creating. I've since recreated the form and used it to create the character sheets for our game this week. I have copies of the character sheets on my jump drive. I can't risk losing them this close to the game. So far the laptop has been running well, but I don't trust it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The kid cracks me up...

Logan (age 7) just said, "Mom, can I see the 'microwave of death'?"

Okay, so that comment is out of context. It's still funny! The kid cracks me up...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Palm M100 series class action suit

I know the occasional person who doesn't know me reads this blog. This public service message is for you, uh, if you have an M-series Palm PDA (such as the M105).

I bought one for Alana for Christmas of 2001 or 2002. It worked fine for a while, but shortly after the warranty expired the Palm started dying when you changed the batteries. No matter how quickly you changed them, all the data was lost. This was annoying, requiring you to reinstall after every battery change. (It also meant you couldn't change batteries while away from a computer where you could sync the thing.)

We figured it was "just one of those things". For her birthday this year I got her a new Palm Zire 22. It gave her what the M105 had, but with more memory and colour. We planned to put the old M105 on eBay for parts. Before I did that, though, I thought I'd try one last time to find a fix for the battery change problem. I have an even older Palm IIIxe (bought the original one in 2000; replaced it with this one two years ago, bought for $30 on eBay). If I could fix the M105 it would be a step up.

While searching, I found mention of a class action suit. I then found this link to the law firm handling the suit: http://www.taylorsettlement.com/

It's a pretty spartan little web site, but it had some pretty legitimate looking documents.

Apparently the battery capacitors (electronic devices that store an electrical charge even when the device is turned off or without power) were faulty. Palm refused to acknowledge the problem or replace the devices. Someone sued them. Palm settled, though they still don't admit fault.

I sent in a claim in Alana's name. Yesterday the mailer showed up from Palm asking us to send in the device. I mailed it away today. They will either refurbish the device or replace it with a device of equal or greater value. I'm hoping for the latter, of course. I'll let everyone know what happens. If I get something out of this, it would be the first time I received more than a discount coupon from a class action suit!

The claim has to be filed by July 16, so if you have a faulty Palm M100 series you will want to file your claim right away.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Why Dell still sells computers

The hard drive on our laptop crashed this weekend. Until Sunday, I thought the problem with the laptop was the overheating issue endemic to Inspiron 1100s. For two days of fairly heavy loading I had the laptop on a chill mat and had the fan temperature keep the laptop's innards below 50°C. On Sunday, after about 3 hours of work, the computer blue-screened again. This time the computer wouldn't come back alive. The error wasn't just a page fault, it was an "unmountable volume" problem.

A "volume" is an old name for a computer's hard drive (more or less). Windows XP couldn't find the hard drive.

We went to pick up Logan from Alana's ex, and I ran the CHKDSK utility while we were gone. It was still running when we got back. Eventually it popped up and said that it couldn't fix the problem with the hard drive. I ran FIXBOOT (which fixes the hard drives boot sector, the part of the drive read when the computer fires up). It replaced the boot sector, but still no dice. I ran FIXMBR (another hard drive utility) which would pretty much wreck my chance of recovering anything. I then reformatted the hard drive and installed Windows. At first the install didn't work, saying there was a problem with the drive, but reformatting seemed to fix the issue. Finally, by 11:00 pm I had the laptop talking to the wireless router and the internet.

I'm still not convinced the problem is solved. Formatting should isolate bad sectors of the disk and mark them as unusable. That's assuming that the problem was just bad sectors. It could also be a problem with the physical functioning of the hard drive, or it could be a problem with the drive controller (which, being a laptop, is part of the motherboard). It's quite possible (even likely) that the overheating caused problems with the hard drive, so I'm going to keep the machine cool.

Since I'm half expecting the computer to crash again, we started to look at replacement laptops. I was set against buying from Dell again. Now I'm not sure we could avoid it. I now know why Dell continues to sell computers in spite of shoddy workmanship and ignorant customer service.

I had heard good things about Alienware computers a few years ago. They supposedly use top notch components and they have cool case designs (featuring your stereotypical alien). You pay more for Alienware, so you'd think it would be worth it. I did some checking of reviews on C/Net and found a number of disturbing comments about Alienware's service. A number of people noted failures in their Sentia laptop as soon as they received it. There were delays in getting the laptops fixed. When the owner decided they simply wanted to send it back and get a refund, Alienware kept 15% as a "restocking fee". Given that you pay more for Alienware, this shouldn't have been the case.

To be fair to Alienware, there were only 33 reviews. People will complain about problems more than they'll praise good service. Still, the average score was 5.0 and with a number of 9.0 scores roughly half the customers who wrote a review didn't like them. Given that Alienware's scores were less than Dell's, I didn't get the warm and fuzzies. I was prepared to pay more for the reliability and the neat designs. Not now. Alienware is off my list of potential vendors.

I looked into other laptops as well. Best Buy has a good deal on the Toshiba Satellite series. Many years ago, in a previous life, I had to deal with Compaq laptops and was not impressed. Toshiba had a better reputation. Today, not so much. The user reviews on the Satellite models were similar to those of Dell: problems out of the box, bad customer service.

Alana had an HP at one point and swore she'd never buy another. The HP laptop I looked at got a good rating. I went so far as to "build" a system. I wasn't crazy that you had to pay for the disks with your operating system (Dell might do the same thing now). And, of course, it's an HP.

I even looked at an Apple. They didn't get hugely great reviews, either (they were reviewed below HP), suggesting that for all their ease of use they aren't any better made than average PCs.

About the only company that got consistently high grades was Voodoo. They make high end game computers. Their laptops looked great. They also ran at a minimum of $2,000. Ouch!

This explains why Dell is still selling computers in spite of shoddy workmanship and service: all of their competitors are about as bad as they are. There isn't a single vendor that I thought was worth the risk for the extra money they charge over Dell. That's pretty sad.

If anyone out there has recommendations for laptops, please post a comment.

We're hoping the Inspiron will limp along. I could simply buy a new hard drive. At $70, we're not sure we want to throw more money into it, though, especially if the controller is more the culprit than the hard drive. We don't want the laptop to become a money pit. If it crashes again, we'll look at getting a new laptop (though we can't really afford it).

Fortunately I didn't lose much stuff on the reformat. I lost some files I had updated since the last backup. The backup was 3 months ago, but I also have a bunch of files backed up on jump drives. It turns out that I'm such a packrat that I have duplicates of files all over the place. I think the only thing that really bugged me was the loss, yet again, of the character sheets for our upcoming Coyote Trail Western roleplaying game. I, of course, was working on them when the crash happened. Oh, and I entered a bunch of information on Civil War magazine articles into a database, for easy searching. All that work, about an evening's worth, was lost. Not bad considering I had to reformat. At least now it's a much leaner installation, and without all the garbage Dell packs into a new computer.

I only hope the laptop's problems are over.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Scots invented soccer!

The English have long claimed to be the inventors of modern soccer. According to an article at The Scotsman (found at http://news.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=872362006), there is strong evidence that it was the Scots — and not the English — who invented modern football! (That is, "football" as known around most of the world, not the version of "football" invented by Canadians and Americans — known as "American football" elsewhere — or the Australian variant known as "Aussie Rules Football".

(I lifted most of this entry from that article, so you don't have to hop their if you don't feel like it!)

Ancestors to the game of football — soccer — date back several millennia. The Chinese had a game called cuju (kickball) about 4,700 years ago, where teams of soldiers tried to kick a ball through a hole in a gate. Two stone balls some 6,000 years old were unearthed in the U.S., and they are similar to those used in soccer-like games played by native Americans.

What separates these antecedents from the modern game is the concept of passing the ball from one player to another. Another major difference is the use of goalkeepers to stop the ball.

The English FA (Football Association) was formed in 1863, and it is this date that Englishmen use to lay claim to the invention of football. Soccer, as defined by the FA at the time, did not mention goalkeepers. It also didn't allow forward passing. It was based more on the rugby model where you could only pass the ball to the side or behind you, and was mostly a free for all with players acting on their own to move the ball forward. (A remnant of the "no forward pass" rule exists in soccer, where the starting kick must be backwards or to the side, not forward.)

David Wedderburn was a teacher and poet at the Aberdeen Grammar School in the early 17th century. In 1633 he wrote, in Latin, a book called Vocabula. In his Vocabula he mentions a ball game involving kicking. What sets this book, and the described game, apart is the use of passing in order to score, and the use of goalkeepers! This was some 230 years before the formation of the English FA.

This is very important to the history of soccer. Until recently it was believed that passing wasn't added to the game until the late 1860s, but here is a game played in Aberdeen that may actually have looked more like modern soccer than what was played by the English FA in the 1860s. Richard McBrearty, curator of the Scottish Football Museum, said, "The original football game that we know about through paintings and descriptions were like folk games — a bit of a free-for-all. But this Aberdeen game is different — the play is structured and it's a passing game with goalkeepers."

The reason history is being rewritten at such a late date is because the book was only recently translated. A 1711 edition of the book lay in the National Library of Scotland, but it was translated for a World Cup exhibition at the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany.

The oldest soccer ball known, a 500 year old leather ball, is on display at the World Cup exhibition. It was found in the roof beams of the Queen's chamber in Stirling Castle in the 1970s. It is believed to have belonged to Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary Queen of Scots.

It should also be noted that Scots were instrumental in spreading the game to other parts of the world. Scots introduced the game to Brazil and Mexico.

While England apparently did not invent the game, there is some consolation for English men and women: England is in the World Cup while Scotland is not.

Laptop is still running

I ran the laptop for 5 hours yesterday without it blue screening. I don't know how much this is attributable to the cleaning of the heat sink. I think the greater help was the fan utility that I downloaded from a link on the site I mentioned yesterday. You can find it at http://www.diefer.de/i8kfan/.

When I first booted the computer the CPU was running at 53°C (about 127°F). I set up the utility to run the fan at low speed when the CPU hit a certain temperature. At this point the CPU's temperature dropped such that it peaked at 42°C (108°F). I noticed, though, that the hard drive temperature was slowly climbing, passing 41°C to 42°C in a half an hour. I set the utility to run the fan on high for the rest of the evening. This dropped the CPU temperature to an average of 37°C (98.6°F, or average body temperature) and the hard drive maxed out at 46°C (115°F). The CPU temperature climbed late in the evening when I installed the latest Windows updates, which were both CPU and hard drive intensive, but the CPU didn't go above 42°C and the hard drive stayed around 47°C.

This all happened with the Chill Mat turned off. Tonight I'm going to see what happens with the Chill Mat on. I will also experiment with setting the laptop's fan to turn on and off based on the CPU temperature, instead of running it full out all the time as I did last night.

It's ridiculous that I have to do this, but if will be worth it if it saves us having to buy a new laptop for the time being.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Spoke too soon

Last night, about half an hour after posting my blog entry, the laptop blue-screened (i.e. crashed) on me. This was after only a couple of hours use, and with the Chill Mat running. It seemed to me that it was a hard drive issue. The mat was keeping things cool (at least the outside case was cool), and it appeared that things worked okay if the laptop was tipped on its side.

At any rate, I thought perhaps the issue had to do with overheating, so I Googled "Dell Inspiron 1100 overheating". I found a lot of people complaining about overheating on the Inspiron series. The best site was here, where the guy explained exactly how to open up the case and blow out the heat sink.

I followed the site's instructions at lunch (after first picking up some thermal grease, also known as heat sink compound). I took apart the computer and popped off the heat sink. I blew out the dust. It didn't look like there was all that much dust on it, which worries me. If there hard been huge dust bunnies I would have felt better. Now I'm worried that it really is the hard drive. At least the motherboard wasn't warped, as is possible with the Inspiron overheating issue.

I also downloaded a fan utility mentioned on the above site. This apparently allows you to customize how the fan works, causing it to blow more frequently (and, thus, cool the machine down better). I also downloaded the most recent BIOS upgrade, but I think I already ran that some time in the past.

I fear this is all a stop-gap at best and that the hard drive is messed up. If that's the case, we'll have to consider getting another laptop. I don't want to buy another Dell. I've had too much trouble with them. They never fixed the problem that stopped the laptop from recovering properly from hibernation (you'd have to reboot, defeating the point of hibernation), the desktop's motherboard was essentially DOA, the tech support was horrible for the desktop's problem, requiring me to call four times to get anything done, and now there's this problem with the laptop. I'd rather spend the money and go with someone like Alienware.

We'll see tonight, and the coming days, if the laptop continues to crash. I sure hope not, because we can't afford a new laptop...

Monday, June 12, 2006

Broken things (myself included)

Entropy has assaulted the Goodall household this past week. It actually started about two months ago. My laptop crashed one day with a page fault. This can be a symptom of a number of problems, including viruses and hard drive failure. The laptop had been running all day. A couple of weeks ago it happened again. This time the laptop had been running for about six or seven hours. Last Tuesday it crashed after two hours, and Thursday it crashed after about an hour and a half. Swapping memory modules seemed to help for a short while.

I determined that the problem was overheating. The laptop, a 26 month old Dell Inspiron 1100, always ran hot. Uncomfortably so, even while sitting on a lap tray. When I let the computer cool everything was fine. Once it warmed up, the fault happened again. We realized we might have to replace it, though we really couldn't afford to. I would like to get a new one, but I'd prefer to get one that was lighter (this sucker is such a pain to lug through airports).

Fortunately, it looks like I solved (or temporarily alleviated) the problem. I bought a Targus "Chill Mat" on Friday. It's a plastic laptop mat with two fans in it. The fans are powered by the USB port and are fairly quiet. (They certainly aren't as noisy as our Dell desktop, which sometimes sounds like the turbofans on an Airbus A380 during takeoff.) I was pleasantly surprised by just how much those two little fans cool the laptop. The bottom of the case is warm — not hot — and not unpleasantly so. I ran the laptop for about 16 hours yesterday as a test, and didn't have a single problem, though I also had the battery out to let air flow through the battery slot, too. Looks like the problem may be licked, at least for now. I would advise anyone to buy the chill mat. I don't doubt that it would extend the lifetime of a laptop.

The other thing that broke last Thursday was me. More accurately, I threw my back out. I go home for lunch most days. I decided to vacuum the carpet. Sabine, our wee mutt, sheds like no one's business. Neither of the two old vacuums we had could touch it. The only thing that does a half decent job is the Dyson we bought as a demonstrator from Target. Anyway, I lifted up one end of our couch (which is pretty light) and had no problem. I lifted the other end, and I must have twisted at the same time. The muscle in my right lower back gave. I've been in pain ever since. Today was the worst so far. I think it tensed up overnight. At times I was bent over slightly while walking. We have a heavy duty massager at home; it helped a lot and I can now walk without wincing.

Alana stayed home with Logan today. Good thing, as the air conditioner was leaking. This happens every year. Two years ago we had the Great Flood, where I lost about $500 in books after the water heater burst and soaked into the carpet. Later that week the a/c leaked. Last year the drain line needed to be blown out after it started leaking, and they ended up replacing the main unit. Now, again, it leaked with the same drain line problem. Ridiculous. We're looking for some place else to live, but can't really afford it.

Alana's cell phone seems to be acting up, too! I tried calling her earlier when I was at work, but she kept cutting out. Her phone is the same model as mine, but mine works just fine in the apartment. We haven't been too happy with our phones (fairly new Sony Ericssons). I like the fact that you can run MP3s on them as ringtones. I used free software to create an Invader Zim theme for mine. It's very cool. Unfortunately the phones had to be replaced due to a firmware problem. They have a bad form factor that makes it far too easy to take photographs of your pocket lint. I tried three different phone clips before I found one that worked, but not before my phone picked up some battle scars. And now Alana's is acting up. They are good phones... when they work.

I ought to be writing something more indepth, and I will in the coming days, but right now I need to massage my back and get to bed. I went to bed way too late last night, spending far too much time preparing for a roleplaying game on the July 4th weekend. So, apparently my brain is broken too...

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The World Cup begins

I'm writing this blog entry while I have the World Cup on television in the background. Currently The Netherlands are beating Serbia & Montenegro. At a 25th wedding anniversary for Alana's dad and stepmom yesterday I discovered that few of her family even knew that the World Cup was on, or that the U.S. is ranked 5th in the world.

I was out of work during the 2002 World Cup, so I was able to see a lot of it live. In 1998 I gave the VCR a workout. I think I'll have to do that this year, too. I'd like to follow Team USA (in spite of their rating, they are a perennial underdog because of professional soccer's lack of presence in this country). Scotland didn't make it to the Cup (and let's not even talk about Canada...), so team USA is my team of choice. As a Scot, I can't support England. I just can't.

I was talking to my Mum on the phone yesterday. She told me that Ontario was getting World Cup fever. Canadians follow professional soccer like Americans: they don't, unless they have a strong ethnic identity to a home country. The difference in Canada and the US is that Canadian immigrants don't have the same push to assimilate. As we were taught in school, the US is a cultural melting pot and Canada is a cultural mosaic. This is most visible during the World Cup. Every ethnic neighbourhood in Toronto is flying the flags of their native countries. Mum lives in Oshawa, a city of about 150,000 some 30 miles east of Toronto. It's not usually known for its ethnic diversity, but she's seen a ton of red-cross-on-a-white-background flags in recent days.

The red cross on a field of white is the flag of England. The Union Jack is not flown for England during the World Cup. The Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Since Britain consist of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — all of which have their own teams, though England is the only one in the World Cup — it is improper for England to fly the Union Jack during the games.

Scots are having a hard time deciding who to cheer on right now. Many don't want to root for England, also known as the Auld Enemie. It would be like Boston Red Sox fans having to decide to cheer for the New York Yankees or, oh, a Japanese team. Some Scots are cheering for England because it's a British team. Others are cheering for other nations, particularly smaller, underdog countries. A lot of Scots are cheering for Trinidad and Tobago because of a single player: the fortunately named Jason Scotland, who happens to play for the St. Johnstone Football Club in the city of Perth, Scotland. Replicas of his jersey, with his last name on the back, have sold out in soccer stores throughout Scotland.

I find it weird living in Monroe, Louisiana during the World Cup. I know there are people of different ethnic origins around here, but I just don't see them flying flags in support of their home country. Mexico is in the World Cup, but I don't see cars driving down the road with Mexican flags hanging out. Perhaps they are scared people think they are protesting immigration laws.

Meanwhile in Toronto I'm sure there are plenty of Italian, Portuguese, Brazilian, and English flags flying. In fact, I'm sure there's an ethnic neighbourhood for pretty much every nation in the World Cup. Personally, I'm glad I'm not there right now. There are large Italian and Brazilian areas of Toronto. I have a major hate-on for Italy's and Brazil's soccer teams dating back to the 1994 World Cup. They met in the final. It was one of the most boring games I'd ever seen. It was obvious that instead of trying to win, both teams were desperately trying not to lose. They played to a scoreless draw, and Brazil won the game in a shootout, scoring three penalty shots to two. Dad and I were disgusted with the game. Ever since, I've been sworn enemies of both teams (even though I'm 1/8th Italian). I even cheered on France in 1998, who defeated Brazil 3 to 2 in a very enjoyable game.

Here's a tip for first time soccer viewers: if you plan to watch the final, you should really plan to watch the consolation game between the third and fourth place teams. That's usually a much more enjoyable game, as neither team has the pressure of being in the final.

I miss my Dad during World Cup time. He was a huge soccer fan. He followed particular teams when he was younger, but during the World Cup he was simply a fan of the game. He would watch as many games as he could, taping what he thought were the best for later viewing. Dad was very glad to see the US hold the World Cup in 1994. He figured it would be the impetus for greater recognition of soccer in the only two countries in the world where it isn't the number one sport: Canada and the US. However, he thought that much of the benefit was diluted because of the boring Brazil-Italy final. I have fond memories of the two of us, and my brother Ian, seeing Toronto Blizzard games when the NASL (North American Soccer League) was functioning. Dad had soccer in his blood. He played as a child. He messed up his feet playing the game in army boots when he did his national service in the Highland Light Infantry in the late 50s. He had two uncles who played soccer professionally, one of which was a cap for Scotland (meaning he played on the national team). Dad died of cancer in November, 1998. Though he was sick, he did manage to see the World Cup that year. I really miss him this time of year...

The game I was watching is over. I won't say who won, just in case you have the game on tape. That was the first World Cup game I've seen this time around, but it won't be the last. I'm looking forward to following Team USA. They've come a long way since 1994, when they were matched against Brazil at the end of the first round, and were knocked out of the field of 16 by Brazil (though Brazil only scored a single goal). In 1998 the US didn't get out of the first round, but they made it to the quarter finals in 2002. This time they are in Group E, playing against Italy, Ghana, and the Czech Republic. The top two finishers of each of the eight groups are seeded in a group of 16, with the winner of each pairing advancing to the next round. The Czech Republic is ranked 2nd in the world. Italy is 12th. Ghana is 50th, but that doesn't mean they can be taken lightly. Each team only plays three games in the first round; no team can afford to be complacent against any opponent.

In case you want to know who is winning, this site at Yahoo has a list of all teams and the results: http://fifaworldcup.yahoo.com/06/en/w/team/index.html

I haven't been able to watch any hockey games (the Stanley Cup playoffs have only been playing on the Outdoor Life Network, and we don't get that with our cable company), and they simply don't play Canadian Football League games down here, but ESPN2 is running World Cup games. I can finally get my "obscure sport" fix... even though this "obscure sport" is the most popular, by far, in the world.

Feds back off from citizenship requirements... for now

Alana was told on Friday that they don't need proof of citizenship for Medicaid recipients by the first of July. As she predicted, the feds backed off from the requirement, at least for now. Alana was right, although the decision came a little sooner than she expected.

But not soon enough, as her letters to the seniors she supports went out on Thursday...

Friday, June 09, 2006

Louisiana to ban violent video game sales to minors

Measure HB 1381 was passed by Louisiana's legislature, and only needs the governor's signature to be made into a law. It makes it illegal to sell violent video games to minors, punishing a store owner with a fine of between $100 and $2,000 and up to a year in jail for doing so.

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, as a parent I don't want Logan — our seven year old — playing Grand Theft Auto.

On the other hand, I abhor governments passing laws that will not stand up to scrutiny, and for reasons that are flat out wrong.

This bill was drafted due to a murder a couple of years ago. Two teens shot a man with a rifle and then bludgeoned him with it. When the police raided their home, they found violent video games. Jack Thompson, an anti-game lawyer/advocate in Florida, helped draft the bill. His reasons are posted here.

It's a "motherhood argument": violent games are causing kids to be violent, so we need to ban them.

One little problem: the rate of violent crime has actually decreased in recent years, while the number of violent video games has increased. No one has ever been able to show a causal link between violence and violent video games. People have attempted to tie violent movies and violent television to teen violence without any success. Last night, on The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert interviewed Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. Johnson mentioned in the interview the decline in violence in the country, making an interesting counterpoint to the legislature's bill.

This bill sounds like a good idea, but it's based on emotional arguments with no scientific backing. Since the rate of violence has gone down as these games increased in appearance, it doesn't seem likely that games cause violence. Could it be that teens pre-disposed to violence play these games, and that we're looking at a symptom and not a cause? The link I gave above suggests that the Columbine murders used the computer game Doom to plan out their attack. I played Doom all the way through; I find it hard to believe that they used it to plan their rampage. More likely these kids, with violent leanings, became engrossed in a game that they simply identified with.

Note that they didn't ban guns. The teen murderers used a gun to kill the man. They found a gun and a violent video games. Which are they banning? Of course the 2nd Amendment prevents that, but the 1st Amendment prevents this bill from forcing violent games off store shelves. Similar laws have been struck down before, so it could just be a waste of time and money designed to make politicians look socially conscious in an election year.

I don't think a child can buy a gun in this state, but there are plenty of kids in this state (aged 7, and younger) hunting with their own guns. I notice no one is saying kids shouldn't go hunting — with its real-life blood and killing — while they are all set to stop kids from playing games where they shoot zombies and aliens. I've always thought that kids have a greater capacity for understanding reality than they are given credit.

I wonder who will enforce this law? Do we have enough inspectors? Will they be the same people responsible for making sure kids don't buy cigarettes and alcohol? If so, is the government going after a perceived danger at the expense of real dangers?

While I applaud the need to protect children, I am against passing laws — even "feel good" laws — that don't have any real effect except to add a layer of bureaucracy. I am especially against laws that are likely to be unconstitutional and struck down by higher courts. That's just a waste of money for a state that can't afford to waste a penny.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Al Quaida reads my blog?

Tonight on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart they mentioned the death of Al-Zarqawi. They had a "video" of Al-Zarqawi, and how he supposedly knew his death was coming. The video's English dubbed dialog had Al-Zarqawi saying that he had tickets for a cruise in August, and that he hoped nothing would happen before then. The reason? The tickets were non-refundable.

Or, as the video showed him saying, "Those people at Orbitz are total a-holes about changing dates."

Do you think maybe Al-Zarqaqwi read my "Northworst Airlines and Orbutts" blog entry???

(If nothing else, my blog should now score bigger with CARNIVORE.)

Feds require proof of citizenship for Medicaid by July

Alana spent a good deal of time today going through files at the Medicaid office where she works to see which of her clients have submitted proof of citizenship. This is due to a federal government mandate. By July 1, all Medicare and Medicaid recipients must have proof of citizenship. Acceptable proof is a birth certificate or a passport.

At first blush this sounds like a good idea. There are, however, problems...
  • A lot of Alana's clients are elderly. Many of them don't have birth certificates, either because they were lost (and they didn't see the need for replacing it), or because they weren't issued one. There are citizens of this state around 100 years old. For many, the only real proof of citizenship they have is a page from a family bible, a very common occurrence around the turn of the 20th century.

  • Many elderly don't have close relatives to help them with this, and there are those who aren't mentally competent. If they were born in another state, proving it could be difficult, or at least time consuming.

  • There is currently a four month wait to get a birth certificate from the Bureau of Vital Statistics. That's before this government mandate.

  • You can get birth certificates online. It costs the individual, or the government department, $1 per person to verify this. Imagine how expensive this could get for people who have to verify the citizenship of entire families.

The feds decided this was important, so they rushed it through so that it goes into effect July 1. The order is coming from the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS). Although the states heard it was rumored to be in the works, the deadline of July 1 was given to the state Medicaid offices last week.

If someone on Medicaid or Medicare does not have acceptable proof of citizenship they can be denied coverage. They have until July 1, less than a month, to prove it. Many of them don't know they need to prove it, and won't until the letters arrive early next week.

I didn't mention that most of Alana's clients have some sort of Social Security benefit. The Social Security Administration requires proof of citizenship before they can give out benefits. The Social Security Administration okaying someone is not good enough; Medicare must have proof themselves.

Obviously this is the decree of someone in the federal government who wants to show they are doing something about the illegal immigrant problem. The cynic in me thinks the timing was deliberately set for July 1 so that it wouldn't look like an election year ploy.

Alana suspects that within a couple of months the stupidity of the situation will reach the highest levels of the bureaucracy and something will change. Perhaps they will grandfather anyone of a certain age, or anyone who received benefits at a certain time. Maybe they will extend the list of documents they will accept as proof of citizenship.

For now, a lot of elderly people across the country are getting scary letters telling them they must send in proof of citizenship. Instead of giving these people reasonable time to get the proper documentation (say, by the end of the year), the government is giving them less than a month. Why do I get the feeling that fewer illegals will be denied coverage than those legitimately entitled to it?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Top 100 albums of all time

Sorry for the delay in writing, good readers. Life has been nuts. Last Saturday was Logan's last baseball game (he was the bat boy since breaking his arm) in the morning, and the end-of-season party in the evening. Work, since I got back from North Carolina, has been insanely busy. I haven't had time to think, let alone blog.

Enough of the excuses.

Back on June 2nd, The Scotsman posted the results of a poll for a book about British hit singles. The poll asked people what they thought was the best albums of all time. The results are quite surprising. Topping the list was Definitely Maybe, by Oasis. I always thought of British radio as being insipidly infested with pop, but that was from my trip to Scotland in '92 and what I've seen of British culture in television shows. Pop music is rather under represented in the poll. Oh, sure, Michael Jackson (when he was still black) is at #35, but there are surprisingly few other pop albums on the list.

There is a strong 80s and 90s presence. Part of this is refreshing, having grown up with "top 100 album" countdowns on Toronto radio during holiday long weekends, where nothing good seemed to come out after 1980. Part of it is a little unfortunate: the Spice Girls at #89 but Jimi Hendrix at #98? Even so, a number of classic 70s albums made the list, proving that the taint of disco could not hide the good stuff that came from that decade.

My own list would differ, having been exposed to more excellent Canadian music than the average Brit. There's almost nothing from Motown or the late 50s (which, to be honest, were better known for singles, not albums). Eighties New Wave bands are overrated, in my opinion. The Who doesn't show up until woefully low on the list. I understand that most non-Canadians don't have the sophisticated palate to appreciate The Tragically Hip, but no Rush??? There are a few groups I've never heard of (Kaiser Chefs; are Manic Street Preachers even a group?) and a few albums I want but never got around to buying (Radiohead's OK Computer, and Green Day's Dookie). Overall though, I like the list.

Below is the list, in order. I've bolded the albums I have on CD, and italicized those I have on vinyl... I'm not sure why, just thought someone might wonder if I had anything on the list. I notice that I have greatest hits CDs that cover most of the songs on a number of albums. I also realize there are a few I have on vinyl that for some reason I never got on CD. Need to hunt some of those down (particularly ELO's Out of the Blue, which was the first rock album I ever bought).

[Edit: Alana wants me to add albums she has, too. You see, our albums are completely comingled. Our musical tastes are so close that I can't remember when we last bought a CD for just one of us... though I do want to get the last Tragically Hip album.]

The Scotsman article is here: http://news.scotsman.com/music.cfm?id=813472006

1. Definitely Maybe, Oasis
2. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, The Beatles
3. Revolver, The Beatles
4. OK Computer, Radiohead
5. (What's The Story) Morning Glory?, Oasis
6. Nevermind, Nirvana
7. The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses
8. Dark Side Of The Moon, Pink Floyd
9. The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths
10. The Bends, Radiohead
11. The Joshua Tree, U2
12. London Calling, The Clash
13. The Beatles (The White Album), The Beatles
14. Abbey Road, The Beatles
15. Up The Bracket, The Libertines
16. Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols, Sex Pistols
17. Four Symbols (Led Zeppelin IV), Led Zeppelin
18. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, David Bowie
19. A Night At The Opera, Queen
20. Is This It, The Strokes
21. Hot Fuss, The Killers
22. Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys
23. Grace, Jeff Buckley
24. The Holy Bible, Manic Street Preachers
25. Bat Out Of Hell, MeatLoaf
26. Appetite For Destruction, Guns 'N' Roses
27. Employment, Kaiser Chiefs
28. Rubber Soul, The Beatles
29. Rumours, Fleetwood Mac
30. The Libertines, The Libertines
31. Urban Hymns, The Verve
32. American Idiot, Green Day
33. A Rush Of Blood To The Head, Coldplay
34. Parklife, Blur
35. Thriller, Michael Jackson
36. The Wall, Pink Floyd
37. Automatic For The People, R.E.M.
38. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
39. Tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield
40. Achtung Baby, U2
41. Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd
42. Exile On Main Street, The Rolling Stones
43. Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel
44. Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin
45. Parallel Lines, Blondie
46. Brothers In Arms, Dire Straits
47. Blood On The Tracks, Bob Dylan
48. Hunky Dory, David Bowie
49. X&Y, Coldplay
50. Who's Next, The Who
51. Hopes And Fears, Keane
52. Parachutes, Coldplay
53. Arrival, Abba
54. Different Class, Pulp
55. The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Velvet Underground
56. Forever Changes, Love
57. What's Going On, Marvin Gaye
58. Let It Bleed, The Rolling Stones
59. Elephant, The White Stripes
60. Doolittle, Pixies
61. Absolution, Muse
62. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John
63. Sheer Heart Attack, Queen
64. Come On Over, Shania Twain
65. Sign O The Times, Prince
66. Ten, Pearl Jam
67. Kasabian, Kasabian
68. Dookie, Green Day
69. Origin Of Symmetry, Muse
70. Hounds Of Love, Kate Bush
71. Blonde On Blonde, Bob Dylan
72. All Mod Cons, The Jam
73. Blue, Joni Mitchell
74. White Blood Cells, The White Stripes
75. Dog Man Star, Suede
76. Metallica (The Black Album), Metallica
77. Dare!, Human League
78. Closer, Joy Division
79. In Utero, Nirvana
80. Back In Black, AC/DC
81. Funeral, Arcade Fire
82. Up All Night, Razorlight
83. Ray Of Light, Madonna
84. Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen
85. Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin
86. Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, Arctic Monkeys
87. A Day At The Races, Queen
88. The Lexicon Of Love, ABC
89. Spice, Spice Girls
90. Violator, Depeche Mode
91. Final Straw, Snow Patrol
92. Electric Warrior, T. Rex
93. Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette
94. Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division
95. Kid A, Radiohead
96. Out Of The Blue, Electric Light Orchestra
97. The Smiths, The Smiths
98. Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix
99. Rage Against The Machine, Rage Against The Machine
100. Hotel California, Eagles

Thursday, June 01, 2006

I need to look at getting an MP3 player

I've mostly been ahead of the mainstream curve with regard to electronics. I had a CD player before most of my friends. I had a 286 computer in the early 80s, and an Atari 800 XL before that. I bought a 486 and then a Pentium II before most of my friends. I bought a DVD player once they dropped below C$400. I even had a Photo CD player, a digital picture format that could have been the world standard if Kodak hadn't messed up by keeping it proprietary.

In spite of all this, I've been woefully behind the curve with regard to MP3s. I'm a little bit of an audiophile. When I heard that MP3s were of inferior sound quality wise I pretty much gave them a pass. Okay, so now there's lossless MP3 compression. And in almost every location where I listen to music (in a car, on public transit, in aircraft, in airports, or in the house with Logan and the dog running around) the background noise drowns out the loss of fidelity. Still, I pretty much ignored MP3s.

I started to look into them after my plane trip last November. I didn't even bother taking a CD player, since there's too much noise in a plane. Aircraft seats are so cramped that it's a pain stowing CDs and changing them on a flight. I considered ripping some MP3s from my CDs and putting them onto a single disk. This time out I had noise canceling headphones, courtesy of American Express's customer point catalogue. The sound quality is okay (not wonderful, but definitely worth the money), and the noise canceling made it actually feasible to listen on a propeller driven aircraft. Space was still an issue, though. I had to keep the CD player and the CDs at my feet while we were climbing. An MP3 player would be much handier.

A further demonstration of the advantages of MP3 players was had on the way back from Alana's parents' place. Logan had a CD player with a 60 second anti-skip feature, which he received from his grandparents. Three times during the trip Logan complained that the CD was skipping. This is more a testament to the shabby condition of Louisiana roads, but it demonstrated a problem with CD players. They have moving parts that don't like shocks or bumps.

Alana and I have been vaguely looking at MP3 players. The ubiquitous iPod seems a bit steep in price. I'm guessing that with the iPod you are paying for sound quality and organizational ability. MP3 players from companies like Sandisk are pretty basic in the organization department, but they are also about half to a third the cost for the same memory. We're starting to do some research, and we are keeping our eyes open for sales.

MP3s fix so many problems with portable music that there's no getting away from them. They only real hassle with them is that you can't easily play them in rental cars. You can get adapters to play your MP3s in your own car, but it's not something you'd want to cart along with on a business trip. Considering the crappy choice of music I had in North Carolina, I will still be packing CDs for business trips. I will simply stick them in my checked luggage (after first ripping them onto blank discs so I won't cry if they are lost).

(For an earlier rant about music quality on radio stations, see my Clear Channeling of America post from October 27, 2005.)

As Alana told me, she suddenly understands why the recording companies are worried. MP3s are strictly digital. It doesn't have to exist in any tangible way: no vinyl album, no 8-track, cassette tape, or reel-to-reel tape, no CD. It's ludicrously easy to copy and send. Unlike taping albums and CDs for friends, MP3s can be sent to complete strangers at virtually no cost to the sender or the receiver. At the same time, they don't have the scratch and skip problems of CDs.

This isn't news to anyone. What surprises me is that with everyone aware of the threat of digital music, CDs are still expensive and the record companies still pump out crappy music on radio stations across the country. If anything, my musical choices were worse in North Carolina than in Michigan. (The only reason I listen to music in Monroe on the radio is the excellent local college station, KXUL.) Why should someone risk money buying a CD that they've only heard one song from when they can download it for free? Sure, because it's stealing, but people have an amazing capacity to rationalize that part of it.

Recently I went looking for an old song, "Phasers on Stun" by the Canadian progressive rock band FM. I found it through a file sharing service. It is not available on iTunes and there is no way I'd find it in a store. You can't find the CD. You can't legally download the MP3. What's the legal status of "illegally" downloading the MP3? Well, it's illegal. The artist or label might release the album later, and they have the copyright. This reminds me of the line in "Download This Song" by MC Lars, "Hey, Mr. Record Man, the joke's on you. Living off your catalog from 1982." In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find something from 1982 unless it was a huge hit.

In order for CDs to have "value added", the recording companies are doing things like releasing CDs that are CDs on one side and DVDs on the other. Unfortunately, such disks don't work in the CD player of our 2000 Chevy Tracker. I found this out at Christmas when I received the latest Our Lady Peace CD. I had to cut the CD to another disk in order for it to work in the Tracker. Such copying is legal in Canada, but technically illegal in the U.S. I hope the RIAA isn't reading this!

The recording companies control the supply of the product, completely, both what is developed and what is heard. They've ruined radio. They've priced CDs so as to make a huge profit, even when the production cost is very small. At the same time, demand is widening while people are finding their own way of satisfying that demand. As "Download This Song" says, music is no longer a product, it's a service. Maybe at some point someone in the recording industry will embrace this.

Meanwhile, until I get an MP3 player I'll continue to feed the machine and buy CDs. For now, I'll stay behind the curve.