Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I'm in a bit of shock...

I heard some horrible, sad and disturbing news today. Laura Miller Edwards, of Pamlico County, North Carolina, is missing. Her truck was found in a rural town, with her purse inside and the doors locked.

Laura works for one of our clients. I trained her on our software product back in May, when I was conducting on site training. I didn't get to know her as well as some of the others in the office, as she didn't do as much on our system as the other folks, but I did talk to her a couple of times after I got back to Louisiana. The last time I spoke to her was about five weeks ago, when I talked her through a program problem over the phone. Unlike most people I support, she knew Windows quite well; I was able to walk her through something that most people would find fairly complicated in only a couple of minutes.

No one knows what happened to her.

Here are the two articles about her:



Of course, everyone at our office and hers hopes that she turns up safe and sound.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Canadian snacks!

The good news: I found two places that sell Canadian snacks, included my long lost, beloved Ruffles All Dressed potato chips, Vachon Jos. Louis snack cakes, Cadbury Dream bars, Nestle Aero Peppermint bars for Alana, Cadbury Smarties (like M&Ms but way better!) for Logan and me, and butter tarts! You can also get Heinz baked beans! (Yes, Heinz makes beans!) They deliver to the U.S., too!

The bad news: a six pack of Aeros, 6 pack of Dreams, 6 pack of Smarties, a 12 pack of butter tarts and a case of four big bags of potato chips would cost about $86 U.S.! *sigh*

Another site is a little bit cheaper for shipping, but you have to buy whole boxes of chocolate bars, at about $30 a box.

The two sites are canadaonly.ca and canadianfavourites.com.

Maybe I can bribe my Mom to pack a big box with potato chips...

Jimmy's Halloween party

We made it back safe and sound from Jimmy's Halloween party in Texarkana! We arrived home about 4:15 a.m. on Sunday morning, EDT, which was 3:15 after we adjusted for the return to Standard Time.

A fun time was had by all! I didn't drink anything but Diet Coke, because a) I was driving, b) I had to take some allergy medication on the way there, and c) I don't drink that much anyway. (Alana's seen me drink maybe half a dozen alcoholic drinks). Alana was... happy! *grin* The party was a lot of fun, particularly for me this year because my costume — that of a vampire hunter (Alana was the vampire) — didn't require me to wear a mask. It's a lot easier to enjoy yourself if you don't have to cover your head in latex. The music was good, with someone volunteering to DJ. The police showed up around 1 a.m. because of the noise; oops!

If there was a downside it was that far too many interesting people hung out in the smoking section, so I didn't get to talk to any of them.

I will post pictures when I get some from Jason that I took on his camera, and some that he took himself.

I'm curious how much chicken Jimmy had remaining. Alana and I brought chicken fingers from Raising Cane's (a Louisiana-based restaurant that makes the world's best chicken fingers), as per Jimmy's request. I think at least half the 150 fingers were gone by the time we left.

Jason spent a fair bit of time pouring absinthe for folks. They had the "completely legal and made in the U.S." stuff, and the "legal to possess, but illegal to bring into the country" stuff from Sweden. Gosh, wonder how that got there? Oh, and I learned that apparently absinthe was never made illegal in Canada. (According to Wikipedia, the U.S. is one of the few countries that outlawed absinthe — largely due to rumour, myth and innuendo — that hasn't removed the ban. Also according to Wikipedia, the drink's hallucinogenic properties are wildly exaggerated in properly distilled absinthe. The oil from wormwood isn't present in large enough quantities to be noticed, and to drink enough for it to be noticed you'd be too drunk to tell.)

There were probably fewer people there this year, though it's hard to be sure. I thought they layout of the house, particularly in Jimmy's living room where the casket bar was set up, was better this year. You could get more people in that room, and you could actually sit there, so I think it gave more space, thus the rest of the place felt a little less crowded.

The costumes were pretty good! Stephanie won the costume contest (she was dressed as a martini glass)... not that she was angling for the win or anything! Jimmy was an afro-haired hippie, who looked remarkably like Sib Hashian, the drummer for the band Boston from 1975 to 1982. Jason was dressed as a tourist, with Hawaiian shirt and matching hat (and shorts, socks, and sandals). Mark was a Harry Potter-esque wizard, with an excellent robe. Alana swears that she will hire the woman who made the robe instead of trying to do another one herself; she made a robe for me last year, and one for herself this year, and she probably wouldn't survive a third! Paige, a friend of Jason's and Jimmy's, did a good job of portraying Audrey Hepburn, even with her leg in a cast. A couple I recognize from last year, but whose names escape me, were another "couple costume": a pirate and his wench. I'm glad I got to see Tom in his highlander outfit, but sorry he had to leave soon after.

Next year we may put the dog up in a kennel. We were too poor for that this year, so we had to drive back that night to get back for Sabine. The drive home was uneventful, which is about the best you can hope for in a late night drive. I did discover that Tom's salt and vinegar potato chips (some of the few salt and vinegar potato chips you can find in this part of the world) help me stay awake while driving. I don't know if it's the process of eating, or the vinegar taste. I'll have to experiment... the next time I have a late night trip.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Capturing my biometrics

First off, this is post number 201! Never thought I'd make it to 100, let alone 200...

So Prez Dubya had his anti-illegal alien photo op today. I suppose this is to show that the Republicans are tough on illegal aliens, even though there are Republicans both for and against the fence (should that be Fence?) with Mexicon and there are Democrats for and against it. The law that was signed today didn't really mean anything, either. No money was stipulated for the project. An earlier bill did allow for $1 billion to be spent on the fence, but that bill was watered down so that the money could be used for other things instead. The actual money earmarked for building the fence is about the equivalent to that in our chequing account, which is pushing negative integers...

The Fence is to mollify voters who don't like Dubya's stand on grandfathering illegals into citizens. A lot of people in his own party don't like it either. About the only people who do like it are people in areas with large Mexican immigrant populations, because those folks see it as being easier to bring family into the country.

One voter who is not mollified is Alana. She's very much set against illegal aliens getting a free path to citizenship. We've spent at least $1,500 getting me my green card, not including gas and hotel money. She's not happy about someone sneaking into the country illegally and then lying low long enough to become a citizen. Ironically, given the timing of today's photo op, tomorrow I head over to Jackson, MS to have my biometrics captured. (I didn't know the little buggers had escaped!) This is all part and parcel of getting my Permanent Resident Alien status (I'm currently a Permanent Resident Alien - Conditional).

I'm not sure how I feel about the Fence. It seems to me that the estimated $7 billion could be better spent hunting employers who hire illegals. We have a friend who is a border guard. He is pretty much the border agent for northern Ohio. While he patrols the border with Canada (big border, called Lake Erie), the majority of the cases he deals with are people coming in from Mexico. From what we've seen of his case load, there aren't enough border patrol agents and immigration agents checking out employers. This is why I wonder about the biometrics they are going to capture on my green card. A border or immigration agent could tell a fake green card right now without the biometrics. Employers would be unable to read the biometrics, and wouldn't really try hard anyway.

As others have said, I think the problem is that there's not enough policing of employers. $7 billion would go toward a lot of new agents. Instead, the Feds are building the Fence. The trouble is that a lot of politicians, of both parties, are receiving contributions from folks who would rather that they not have their employment policies scrutinized. The illegal immigration problem is indictative of a growing feeling among Americans that it doesn't matter who is in office, neither side is doing a reasonable job. The failure to deal with illegals is one area where the Democrats and the Republicans are equally inept and handling.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Buffy and Angel RPG license cancelled

I found out on Monday that the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel roleplaying games have had their licenses cancelled.

Both games, based on Joss Whedon's television series', were produced by Eden Studios under license from Fox. Both games used the Unisystem game system common to Eden's other games, such as All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Witchcraft, and Conspiracy X, but with a cinematic flavour. The games sold well enough, but had been falling behind AFMBE and Conspiracy X since the TV shows were cancelled. The main problem was the production of new supplements on a timely basis. Everything had to be approved by Fox. There were a number of completed supplements waiting to see the light of day.

Eden managed to clear up the last remaining business issues with Fox, and signed a new deal. The new deal did not include re-issue of the license. From what anyone can gather, apparently Fox simply felt that the shows were gone and it wasn't worth the time or effort to okay the books for the RPG. The folks at Eden are not happy with this, but the company long since passed the point where they have to rely on the Buffy and Angel licenses.

The games are still available for sale. When Eden is sold out, that's it. They are also available as Adobe Acrobat PDFs, as Eden has been very good about distributing games in PDF format. You can get them from DriveThruRPG.com. No idea how long they will be allowed to keep selling the PDFs.

Eden hopes to have an idea sometime this week about the future of the supplements that had been written but not printed.

Back from Lafayette

We've been busy the last couple of days. Alana had to be in Lafayette for a meeting on Monday, so all three of us drove down there Sunday night (I took a vacation day; Logan took the day off school with his teacher's permission).

This was the first time I'd been in that part of the state. I'd been down to New Orleans, but never further south in Central Louisiana than Alexandria. Lafayette is a neat city. It's the heart of "Cajun country". The accents are cool, the kind of regional accent folks think is common throughout the state when it is not. Lafayette is bigger than Monroe, big enough to support two Lowe's and two Home Depots! And it has actual electronic stores: Circuit City and Best Buy. (Monroe is saturated with retail outlets, but the one thing that's really needed but is missing is a half decent electronics store. The only places we have for computers are Office Depot, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club.)

The first place we went to, after touring around looking for our hotel, was a place to eat. We ate at Prejean's. Outside the place looks like a big cabin, inside it's more like a large barn. They have live Cajun music and some excellent food. Alana had the alligator. I had probably the best crab cakes I've ever tasted. We had boudin (pronounced BOO-dan) balls for an appetizer. They were excellent, made even better with the creamy sauce served with them. My crab cakes came with dirty rice. I like Zatarain's packed dirty rice mix, but this stuff was the real McCoy, served in a ball. Very tasty! Alana and I finished with creme brule, which they served with whipped cream on top. About the only thing I didn't care for was the corn macque choux, but that was easily ignored. The place was a little pricey (averaging around $18 for an entree) but the State was paying for Alana's, so we didn't mind! Alana did hear about some other places that served good Cajun food for lower prices, but we were very happy we ate at Prejean's.

They have a web site: http://www.prejeans.com/. Check out their menu, and their live web cam! (If you watch the web cam, we sat at the small table along the right hand wall, third small table from the front. The web cam shows about half the dining area, if that, and it was easily a third to a half full when we got there at 7 pm on a Sunday.)

While Alana was at work, Logan and I tooled around town. We dropped her off and then checked out Acadiana Book and Comic Shop. The store sold some card and clix games, and some D&D books, but not much else game wise. We were there for about 40 minutes, checking out the stuff. Logan, who had spent his allowance this week already, still somehow managed to come away with three Star Wars comics.

The woman at the counter asked if Logan was home-schooled, or there was a holiday. I explained that it was neither, that we were visiting from Monroe. She said, "But you're not from there originally, are you?" I replied, "Uh, no," with a smile. She then asked, "Are you a damnyankee?" I laughed and said, "Actually, I'm from further north than that." Logan chimed in with, "He's from Canada!" We then got into a short discussion. She had recently heard that Canada has a higher life expectancy than the U.S. and she was wondering why. I said it was the health care system. One thing about living in Canada, you don't have an excuse for letting a health issue get really serious before seeing a doctor. I find that I tend not to go to the doctor as often as I should down here. After all, if it's going to cost me $15 per visit as a co-pay I want to make sure that I'm really sick before I get checked out. Tie that to people that don't have health insurance, and it's no wonder Canada has a higher life expectancy.

Anyway, after our visit we went back to the hotel so that Logan could do his homework. We took Sabine with us, to save $35 on kennel costs! The La Quinta where we stayed took pets. Oh, Sabine is mostly blue heeler. On the way down we stopped at Alana's step-sister's place for a birthday party. The next door neighbours have a blue heeler. The colouring and the head shape are very, very similar to Sabine. Sabine is a little shorter, and has black and brown spots; perhaps she's half beagle? At any rate, Sabine was happy to see us.

Logan finished his homework, we checked out and went out for lunch. The weather was beautiful. It's wet today, but Monday (and yesterday) were cool and sunny. The car never got above 75 degrees inside, making it pretty comfortable for Sabine in her crate.

After lunch we went to another comic store, though this was one that sold games as well. I believe it was called And Comics Too. We were there over an hour. I saw a few tempting things, including the Angel roleplaying game, but all I bought was more dice. Yeah, like I need more dice! These were sets for my Call of Cthulhu miniatures game, the one I've been designing for years. Oh, and Logan managed to come away with a pack of football cards, and a bookmark. (I don't think he's spoiled, do you?)

They didn't have much in the way of miniatures: some Reaper fantasy figures and some Warhammer stuff. They had Carcassonne and a couple of other German "designer games", but nothing that really grabbed me. Their roleplaying selection was all over the map. Like a lot of places, they had a smattering of supplements for a number of games but none of the core books, or they'd have a core book but no supplements. D20 games took precedent, but they did have some GURPS and other stuff. I was happy to see that they had Feng Shui supplements, though they didn't have the rule book. Go figure. So far Little Wars in Baton Rouge is still the best game store in the state. The prices at this Lafayette store were a bit high, too (on the stuff that wasn't pre-priced; their Axis and Allies and clix games were quite a bit higher than around here). Still, they were an actual comic and game store with a heavy amount of games! That's far more than you can say about Monroe.

Oh, and they had a permanent Warhammer 40,000 battlefield that completely enthralled Logan. He so wants us to have a big miniature wargame set up. One of these days...!

We drove around some more. We got to the mall and found a Hot Topic that had the first two Invader Zim DVDs! We bought volume 3 on sale earlier this year and had been looking for the other two. Sweet, lemony fresh victory is mine! Alana called us while I was writing down Christmas present ideas for Logan in the EB Games store. We picked her up, and drove her back to the store so that she could get World of Warcraft. Yes, my wife may get sucked into online fantasy games!

After that, we had supper (IHOP, nothing to write home about) and then drove home. I made the drive from Monroe to Lafayette in just under three hours.

If Lafayette taught us one thing, it was that we are most certainly in the wrong part of the state! Lafayette has much more of the stuff that interests us than is found in Monroe. Alana found the folks there to be a little less... shall we say "straight laced", too. Although quite religious, apparently the Bible Belt runs through Louisiana somewhere north of the I-10.

We didn't get to any touristy places, but for the food alone I'd visit Lafayette again!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Wikipedia to the rescue

We were watching television tonight. Steve Wright, a quirky standup comedian, was on Comedy Central. So, too, was another standup comedian, Jim Gaffigan, who is best known right now for being the abrasive blond man on the Sierra Mist commercials.

While watching, the usual slate of cable commercials showed up. One of the commercials was for the diet pill Leptopril. Leptopril is the cheaper generic version of Leptoprin. Leptoprin has been advertized for a while with a strange ad campaign: it claims that the pill is so powerful that it's not for "casual dieters" and it is "worth $153 a pill".

In fact, it's just a herbal concoction. The Leptoprin commercial states that the pill is patented and that the effectiveness was shown in a "clinical study". Actually, the fact that it was patented doesn't mean that it was effective, and the clinical trial showed that there was no difference between the pill and a placebo.

In other words, this is a huge rip off done in a way to skirt illegality.

So where did I hear the truth of this pill? Wikipedia, of course. More accurately:

I changed channels at 11 pm to History Channel International. Right now there's an interesting show about the German Tiger tank. In the last commercial break there was an ad for Video Professor. Video Professor is a series of lessons on various computer topics, like eBay and Microsoft Excel. The commercial offers you a free lesson as a trial.

I checked Wikipedia (just out of curiousity, not because I want to order any Video Professor products). Apparently the company has a bad reputation for ripping people off. They send you a couple of free discs, but they include a disc for $70 or $80. You have 10 days from the point that they mailed the item to return the discs, and you need a number from the company for the return to be official. Oh, and unless you specifically stop them from sending you anything else, about every 5 weeks you'll get another $70 or $80 disc!

The information is here, again on Wiipedia:

All hail Wikipedia!

(And now I need to go to bed, as my eyes are drooping. If you notice any grammar mistakes, it's because I'm falling asleep here!)

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Got a new Palm!

Back in June I wrote about a class action suit against PalmOne, the company that makes the Palm PDA (personal digital assistant), and how they lost the suit and had to replace the M100 series of PDAs because of bad battery capacitors. The story is here:


Well, the Palm arrived a week ago Thursday! About six weeks earlier, the president of my company phoned PalmOne to find out what was causing the delay in receiving his replacement. Even though they said you had to wait eight to 12 weeks, and it wasn't past the 12 weeks, he phoned them anyway. About a week or two later he received his Palm. It was a refurbshed M105, the same model he sent in.

A week ago Thursday, we received the replacement. Inside the package was a band new Palm Zire 22, in its blister pack!

I don't know why we received a new device when my boss' boss received a refurbished model. Maybe his was a slightly newer M105 model and could be fixed as opposed to completely replaced. Or, maybe it's because he sent his application in a week before us. Or, just maybe it's because he complained to them, and so someone rushed a replacement out to him to get him off their back.

So, I now have the same model Palm as Alana. I bought her a new Zire 22 for her birthday this year. It's had some problems. It shuts down when it runs low on batteries and is flakey turning back on. We do have the receipt, though, so we're going to send it in to have it fixed.

The Zire 22 is a big upgrade from my old IIIxe. It has a colour screen (slightly smaller than the old Palm's), and instead of 8MB of memory it has 32MB, though only 24MB is available for use. It also has the latest version of the Palm operating system (OS). This was a mixed blessing. I used X-Master, a free versioin of HackMaster, to add "hacks" to the Palm. X-Master and hacks no longer work in version 5 of the OS. Fortunately one of the hacks I liked was built into the system, and another has been replaced by a program. The OS does come with some new applications, including a neat little notepad and a cool puzzle game.

The Zire 22 is also a little bit smaller than the old Palm, so it's easier to carry around. I'm happy! My boss' boss, however, is not...

Friday, October 20, 2006

Idiotic poll, or idiotic poll respondents?

Here's the results of a poll that are just... bizaare.

If the presidential election were held today and the choices were Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain, "Hillary Rodham Clinton" would win 51% to 44%, according to a poll conducted by CNN. However, if "Hillary Clinton" ran, she'd only win 48% to 47%.

The poll suggests that Hillary Clinton has a better chance of beating John McCain if she runs using her middle (maiden) name.

On the other hand, if she runs against Rudy Giuliani, "Hillary Clinton" would win 50% to 44%, but if "Hillary Rodham Clinton" ran, she'd only be winning 48% to 47%.

The poll asked the question of 506 adult Americans. The margin of error is 4.5%

Even with the margin of error, you wouldn't expect people to reply differently. I mean, it's the same person they are talking about! It's not like it's between her and a twin sister.

This poll is just weird. Beside the fact that it was asked in the first place, why would people vote differently for a politician based on their name and their opponent? I could understand if her middle name was "Hitler" or something preposterous, and they answered the same way for her running against McCain or Giuliani, but I just can't understand why people would vote differently for her based on her middle name and her opponent.

I can't decide if there's something wrong with the poll, or something wrong with the people who were questioned. Maybe both.

CNN's article about the poll is here:

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Nobilis experiment is over

This past weekend (yeah, I know I'm late with this), our RPG — the Crazy 98s — ended our Nobilis game after one and a bit sessions.

Nobilis is a diceless roleplaying game set in a fantasy world that, more or less, looks like ours. There's a little bit more evil, there's a little bit more good. The law assumes people are guilty until proven innocent. Other than that, it's pretty much like our world... until the characters are "enobled". The players play Nobles. Nobles are an aspect of reality, any aspect of reality. So, you could play the Power of Fire, the Power of Rubber Bands, or the Power of Innocence. The Power of Fire could create fireballs, engulf a city in flame, or light the way with a flame on the end of their finger. The Power of Rubber Bands is a little more difficult, as rubber bands aren't exactly lying around everywhere. The Power of Innocence is even more difficult. The character could control anyone in the area who was innocent, or alter things that made someone appear guilty or innocent.

Characters can also see different aspects of reality, including the Mythic Earth where everything has a spirit. In the Prosaic Earth a car doesn't start because the battery is dead. In the Mythic Earth, the car doesn't start because the spirit of the engine is being ornery, or the spirit of the battery has been caged. This is just a taste of the background universe. It is far more detailed, encapsulating Christian, East Indian, Japanese, Norse, and other mythologies. It would take too long to explain it all, so I'll just point you to the following sites.

The Nobilis 101 page is found here in plain text format:

Nobilis 101 is also available in an altered form as a Microsoft Word document at:

I came across Nobilis on RPG.net. I posted a question asking about roleplaying games particularly suited to one-on-one games; Alana and I are considering playing a game, just the two of us. Nobilis was the game most mentioned. It was fairly pricey, but the hardback book is gorgeous. The background was a bit dense, but intriguing. The example of play made the game look really cool. Alana started reading the rules. I let the other guys in our RPG group look over the book. Jimmy liked it so much he ordered the game himself. When we decided to replace our Hârn game, Jimmy suggested Nobilis.

After one and a bit sessions, only Jimmy still had a strong desire to play.

I'm not sure what happened. I'm still not sure why it didn't gel in my own mind. I first realized there was a problem when I was reading the rules and I was having a hard time coming up with a scenario. Usually when I read a game I get a number of ideas for scenarios, or at least one very strong idea. That didn't happen here. I had a couple of vague ideas, but nothing concrete, and nothing very clever. I stitched the scenario together, but there was something odd about it.

I have a hard time figuring out exactly what was odd. When I create scenarios for other games, I see the world as "gritty", it has texture. Walls are made of stone, the ground is dirt or grass, the sky is cloudy. It all seems "real". It's hard to explain. With Nobilis, everything was antiseptic, like the entire world was made of chrome and white plastic. Maybe the black and white art in the book, and the book's almost monochrome cover contributed to this feeling. It had the artificial feel of the last couple of scenes at the end of 2001: A Space Odyessey.

I wasn't the only one having trouble getting into the game. Jason wasn't crazy about it to begin with, but thought he'd give it a shot, and he did a good job. Alana was interested when the game began, but she had trouble getting into her character. I think she ran into the same thing I did, but because she was playing and not running the game she hit the wall at a later point in time.

Instead of Nobilis, our next game is going to be All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a zombie game by Eden Studios, using their Unisystem game system (the same one they use in their Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel and Army of Darkness roleplaying games). I'm still working on the scenario, still coming up with the background information. However, I have a couple of scenes in mind, and a strong idea for an initial scenario. And, in my mind, there is a lot of "texture" (mostly stone and wood grain, if you must know), a lot of details. This is a good sign.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The death of polling?

'Tis the season for polls, here in the U.S., what with the mid-term elections coming up in a couple of weeks. The other day there I received a poll by e-mail asking my political views. I snicker every time they ask me, as I can't vote. I used to get lots of stuff from the Republicans, but that was when I belonged to the Military Book Club. Ironically, Alana is registered as a Republican and she never got anything. Ironic, because she's mostly against the Republicans these days and she can vote, so she is someone they should be writing to.

A couple of months ago we got a letter in the mail saying that Nielson — the TV ratings people — wanted us to be a Nielson family. I was excited about it. I figure that my TV viewing would probably flag as an anomaly, but hey, I liked the idea of having my opinions matter (and my favourite shows receiving a slight ratings boost). And then I got to the kicker: they were going to phone us to finalize the deal. Phone us on our home phone.

One problem: we no longer have a home phone.

You see, back in January, 1995 we decided to get a broadband internet connection. When we ran the numbers, the cheapest option was to have our telephone disconnected and get internet through our cable TV company. Everyone pretty much phoned us on our cell phones anyway, so this wasn't a huge deal. So, we had the home phone disconnected.

The Nielson ratings thing got me thinking about the efficacy of phone polls. A small, but significant and growing, segment of the population are disconnecting their land lines and sticking entirely with cell phones. These people are dropping out of the population, poll wise.

Polling is based on a random selection of the population. Actually, many polls are not exactly random. Polling companies spend a lot of time breaking down regions by demographics. When they poll they are usually asking the opinions of a specific geographic areas with specific demographics. Within that group, the people polled are selected randomly.

Therein lies the problem. The national no-call list stops companies from calling folk at home (or, at least that's the idea). This doesn't apply to political polling. Hey, why would politicians limit their intelligence gathering efforts? However, no one can poll people on their cell phones. The reason is simple: in North America you pay a flat fee for unlimited telephone access on land lines, but you pay by the minute for cell phone calls. Even if you have a plan with minutes, you are still paying for a set number of minutes. So, since it costs you, the cell phone owner, for your time, polling is not allowed. What's more, there isn't (yet!) a central list of cell phone numbers freely (or cheaply) available to telemarketers.

(This immediately brings up the question: how do they do telephone polling in Europe and the rest of the world where even land lines don't have flat rates? I think, in Britain anyway, that the recipient's time is not charged, it is the caller that pays. When phoning a cell phone from a land line in North America, the opposite is true.)

It's likely that the people disconnecting their land lines are not randomly spread across the political and economic landscape. If that's the case, the people left over with land lines are no longer a representative sample. Thus, the phone polls are less accurate.

Funny enough, you still see the same margins of error quoted in poll results: typically somewhere around 3% to 5% error, valid 19 times out of 20. You don't see much difference, probably indicating that there aren't a lot of people — as yet — who haven't dropped their land lines. Or, the polling companies are lazy and simply assume that the old rules are still in effect.

My theory is that we've passed the point of maximum accuracy in telephone polls. I also include Nielson on this, as they require a land line (they generate phone numbers randomly, skipping cell phone numbers). From here on, telephone polls will become progressively less accurate. If this is the case, what will replace them?

That's a good question. A number of companies are doing internet polling. Internet polls are not accurate because they are not random. Now, there are errors in telephone polling. There are demographic groups that simply don't respond to polls the same way as others. On the internet it's even worse. Unsolicited e-mails are likely to get caught in spam filters. If an e-mail does get through, it requires the recipient to choose to take part in the poll. This skews the results, as people with a deep desire to get their opinion across will be more likely to take place. In short, internet polls are anything but accurate. (This doesn't stop television news from quoting internet polls, even after they add a disclaimer.)

There's probably another way around it. It should be technlogically possible to credit time spent on particular calls and charge the person doing the calling, but it would also require legislative changes. It also increases the cost of polling, so you'd probably see fewer objective polls. The polls you would see would be those commissioned by political parties, and probably after they massaged the data.

For now, our family is out of the opinion loop. That's probably just as well: two adults, one child, one of the adults is a legal alien, and with liberal leanings in a distinctly conservative congressional district... we're not exactly a traditional nuclear family. If anything, not polling us probably decreases polling error.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Living in the CD player, October, 2006.

I should have majored in history.

I just spent the better part of the evening writing a blog entry. It started off talking about the man who is so far favoured to replace Tony Blair as the British prime minister, and it ended up being this huge essay on Scottish nationalism. I still need to do more work on it, and more research. How this happened is completely beyond me! It just did. Anyway, I'll finish it and post it on November 30, St. Andrew's Day.

For now, I'll just mention two CDs we bought recently that are living in our CD players.

We Don't Need to Whisper by Angels and Airwaves is a melodic, layered album by guitarist/singer Tom DeLonge of blink-182 and Box Car Racer, guitarist David Kennedy of Box Car Racer and Hazen Street, ex-Distillers bassist Ryan Sinn, and the drummer for Offspring, Atom Willard. Although it is considered Alternative it is a very sublime album. The lyrics are top notch. The musicianship is excellent. I quite enjoy it, though there isn't anything on it quite yet that grabs me as a single. If there's any real problem with the album it is that the vocals are very similar from song to song. I need to listen to it in the house, as opposed to the car. I'm pretty sure it's the closest thing you'll find to a concept album these days.

Thanks to Wikipedia, you can find information about Angels and Airwaves at:

Eyes Open is the latest album by the Northern Irish/Scottish group Snow Patrol. I was a bit surprised to see that they'd been playing since 1994, though only since 1998 under the name Snow Patrol. This is one of those cases where it takes 10 years to become an overnight success. There album is polished, and the songs are very catchy. There are easily six songs that are single worthy (only "Chasing Cars" and "Hands Open" have made it to U.S. radio, while two others have made it in the UK). I liked it the first few times I'd heard it, but now the album has really caught hold of me.

They are compared to Coldplay in the press. My favourite review, from Amazon.com, says, "Snow Patrol are frequently compared to Coldplay in the press, which seems strange as they write far better songs and do not appear to be quite so self-hating, nor as rich." I have to agree. Coldplay's X&Y was overrated, with one really good song. Eyes Open, by contrast, is solid throughout. So, forget about Coldplay. Get Snow Patrol.

Snow Patrol info can be found on Wikipedia:

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Canadian troops fighting... marijuana (and it's not what you think!)

This entry comes courtesy of Alana (thanks babe!).

It seems that Canadian troops have something else they have to worry about in Afghanistan: marijuana. It's not a substance abuse problem, though. It is forests of marijuana with plants 10 feet high.

It turns out that the plants absorb energy quite well, so the Taliban are using them to hide from thermal imaging. Right now they are so full of water that the resist burning, from white phosphorous and from diesel. At one point they did manage to burn some outlying plants, but some troops downwind suffered... "ill effects".

The whole story is here:

The Lancet Iraqi deaths study

My friend Jason sent me a copy of The Lancet study about the Iraqi deaths. You can read the whole text yourself at thelancet.com. The whole text is here:

The web address of the study is:

So, John, that answers your question of whether or not it is easily accessible! I haven't seen the study in local book stores; I'd imagine I could find a copy at ULM.

One thing I wasn't sure from yesterday's reporting was whether the 655,000 figure was total deaths since after the war or additional deaths caused by the war. I thought it might have been total, but according to the report they clearly state that the number is 655,000 more Iraqi deaths due to the war.

Here are some important excerpts:

"A sample size of 12000 was calculated to be adequate to identify a doubling of an estimated pre-invasion crude mortality rate of 5·0 per 1000 people per year with 95% confidence and a power of 80%, and was chosen to balance the need for robust data with the level of risk acceptable to field teams."

"Separation of combatant from non-combatant deaths during interviews was not attempted, since such information would probably be concealed by household informants, and to ask about this could put interviewers at risk."

"At the conclusion of household interviews where deaths were reported, surveyors requested to see a copy of any death certificate and its presence was recorded. Where differences between the household account and the cause mentioned on the certificate existed, further discussions were sometimes needed to establish the primary cause of death."

"Of the 629 deaths reported, 547 (87%) were in the post-invasion period (March, 2003, to June, 2006) compared with 82 (13%) in the pre-invasion period (January, 2002, to March, 2003; table 2). Most deaths (n=485; 77%) were in males, and this was true for both periods, but more pronounced in the pre-invasion period (57 of 82 deaths pre-invasion vs 428 of 547 deaths post-invasion). The male-to-female ratio of post-invasion deaths was 3·4 for all deaths, and 9·8 for violent deaths (all deaths: 144 female, 485 male; violent death: 28 female, 274 male). In general, deaths by age group followed the expected J-shaped demographic curve; however, by contrast, most deaths in males were in the middle age groups (figure 1)."

"Of the 302 violent deaths, 274 (91%) were of men, and within this group, deaths concentrated in the 15–29 and 30–44 year old age groups (figure 1). Most violent deaths were due to gunshots (56%); air strikes, car bombs, and other explosions/ordnance each accounted for 13–14% of violent deaths. The number of deaths from gunshots increased consistently over the post-invasion period, and a sharp increase in deaths from car bombs was noted in 2006."

"The male-to-female ratio of non-violent deaths was 1·8 (211 male vs 116 female deaths; p<0·0001). 17% of non-violent deaths occurred in those aged under 15 years, 32% in 15–59 year olds, and 52% in those over 60 years. Non-violent deaths by time, age, and cause are described in table 2. Cardiovascular conditions were the main cause of non-violent death and accounted for 37% of non-violent deaths over the entire study period. Other notable sources of non-violent mortality included cancer (14%), chronic illnesses (13%), infant deaths (12%), accidents (11%), and old age (8%). Causes of non-violent deaths were much the same both pre-invasion and post-invasion (p=0·290)."

There's a discussion of the way they did this survey versus "passive surveillance methods". They point out that except for the war in Bosnia passive surveillance has never found more than 20% of the deaths during a conflict. In Guatemala, the number was 50% during periods of low violence but 5% in periods of high violence.

This is important. If the Pentagon is getting a figure around 30,000, and Iraq Body Count is around 44,000 to 49,000 through passive means, historically you would expect these numbers to be far too low.

"Deaths were not classified as being due to coalition forces if households had any uncertainty about the responsible party; consequently, the number of deaths and the proportion of violent deaths attributable to coalition forces could be conservative estimates." I will point out here that in spite of the privacy used in taking the survey, families angry that the coallition was there in the first place might blame the coallition for the deaths even if it was unwarranted. Later in the report, the authors admit this could be a problem.

The section on bias and error is important. There are a few reasons they may have under reported deaths. One is the possibility of migration bringing people into an area that was previously peaceful. The demographic data uses was two years old. I suspect this could be a big factor in why the rates were so high. For instance, if you interviewed people in Baghdad and interviewed people in a quiet village away from Baghdad, if the quiet village had people there who moved from violent Baghdad they would skew the sample. They had a 92% corroboration rate (meaning they could corroborate 92% of the deaths). Child deaths could be under reported. Also, they had to throw out three clusters due to errors; those three areas are not in the survey, thus they, too, could be under reported.

Here is one of the last statements: "At the conclusion of our 2004 study we urged that an independent body assess the excess mortality that we saw in Iraq. This has not happened. We continue to believe that an independent international body to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions and other humanitarian standards in conflict is urgently needed. With reliable data, those voices that speak out for civilians trapped in conflict might be able to lessen the tragic human cost of future wars."

There is a trend of escalating violence in this study that, regardless of what opponents think of the methodolgy, supports the contention that violence is increasing in Iraq. I think John said it very well in his comment on my piece yesterday, that the number of actual deaths is probably somewhere below this survey's number but greater than that listed by the administration. Unless an international body is allowed into Iraq to do a more in depth study, one where the lives of the surveyers are not in as much risk, no one will know for sure.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Iraqi civilian deaths: 655,000?

Oh, you know this is going to be controversial...

The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health did a study of the mortality rate among Iraqi civilians since 2003, comparing those figures to the mortality rate before the war. The idea was to determine how many people had died as a direct and indirect result of the war.

Up until now, civilian casualties have been measured by body count. The official number by the Bush administration is around 30,000 deaths. Other independant surveys put it at 44–49,000. The John Hopkins study puts the number of deaths since the war began at 655,000, or about 500 per day.

I found the news item here:

The study surveyed 1,850 families from 47 areas around the country, comprising some 12,800 people. They asked them about members of their families who had died. 629 family members had died since 2002. Of those, 87% had died since the war began. When you divide the 540-odd deaths by the 12,800 people over the time period investigated, you get a mortality rate or 13.3 people per 1,000. The mortality rate before the war was 5.5 per 1,000. Multiply the rate across the entire population of 25 million and you get 655,000.

Note: I take exception to the first line of the BBC article, which suggests that 655,000 people died as a direct result of the war. The mortality rate before the war would have resulted in a number of deaths in the 270,000 range for the same time period, so the comment that, "An estimated 655,000 Iraqis have died since 2003 who might still be alive but for the US-led invasion" is just flat wrong. The right number would be 385,000.

The reason for checking mortality rates is to uncover deaths due to things like disease, accidents, and preventable medical conditions that occurred due to a break down in the Iraqi infrastructure. However, according to the survey 601,000 of the estimated deaths — again, if the numbers bear out across the rest of the country — are due to violence.

When I see numbers like this, I immediately wonder about the methodology used. The researchers have suggested that they may be under counting deaths, because entire families could have been wiped out with no one to speak for them, and infant deaths could be under reported.

That having been said, how many of the deaths listed were for family members who were party of the insurgency, and thus not counted by the Pentagon among "civilian" deaths. The team said 80% of the family members had death certificates. Could any have been faked? Then there's the clusters they used for the survey: where were they, how were they derived, and how do they map to the Iraqi population as a whole? How do they map to the level of violence in an area? If there were 655,000 deaths, has anyone found physical evidence by researching grave sites? (This may be difficult, given the level of violence inflicted on Western civilian researchers over there.) The number of deaths directly attributed to violence seems awfully high (that's not to say it is in error, just that it sends up a flag).

The White House have come out against the study, saying the methodology has been "discredited". A similar study back in 2004 was said to be "discredited" by the White House when it stated 100,000 civilians had died since the war at that point. I'm not exactly sure how they can say this current study is discredited when the study isn't published until tomorrow, in the British medical journal Lancet. I would have hoped they'd at least wait until they saw the information before they said it was "discredited". And I'd like to see their reasoning why it is discredited, instead of just a flippant remark. I hope their is some coverage of this online, because I'd really like to see how it clears the peer review process.

This will be hotly debated. When the WMD dust had settled, the administration fell back on three key reasons for fighting in Iraq: Iraq had connections to Al Quaida, the U.S. is safer from terrorists due to the war in Iraq, and the people of Iraq are better off with Saddam Hussein deposed. The first statement was shot down when the 9/11 Commission's report was released, and the Commission's conclusion was reiterated last month. The second point was also shot down last month. If these numbers hold, then it could be argued that the people of Iraq are demonstrably worse off due to the invasion, killing the final justification for going to war.

The president's response was interesting. When asked about the report, he said this:
No, I don’t consider it a credible report, neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials. I do know that a lot of innocent people have died and it troubles me and grieves me. And I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they’re willing to — you know, that there’s a level of violence that they tolerate.

Missing from the President's remarks are the fact that — according to the associated press — some 890,000 Iraqis have moved to Jordan, Iran, and Syria due to the violence, and another 300,000 have fled to other parts of Iraq. According to a poll result obtained by the Washington Post, 71% of Iraqis want the U.S. out of Iraq. That doesn't sound like they are tolerating the violence to me.

Lost in this story will be any real analysis of the numbers. The administration and pro-conservative groups will stick with the "official" number of 30,000. Anti-administration and pro-liberal groups will stick with the distorted message that "655,000 Iraqis have died due to the war". I hope to find see an analysis at some point, but I'm not holding my breath.

Neat stuff!

A couple of items I tripped across.

Item 1: Wil Wheaton is the actor best known for his roles in Stand By Me and, of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation (or, as it was called by some derisive folks at the time, the Wesley Crusher Power Hour).

Wil Wheaton has posted a couple of entries to the TV Squad blog. Yesterday he wrote up a review/plot synopsis for the "The Last Outpost" episode of ST:TNG, season 1. The review/synopsis is very funny. Besides the self-deprecating tone he takes about his character and the implications that he didn't particularly like some of the writers, the review/synopsis is really quite funny. At times it hits Dave Barry levels of silliness. It's really worth checking out, even if you didn't like the TV show (maybe especially if you didn't like the TV show).

"The Last Outpost" review is here:
. This is the episode that introduced the Ferengi.

Wheaton also did a review of "The Naked Now", considered by some to be the worst ST:TNG episode ever written. Since Wheaton's Wesley Crusher character is at the centre of it, his comments are particularly apt. It was posted back in September, and is found here:

Item 2: New York magazine has an article about and an interview with Stephen Colbert. As I consider myself a member of the Colbert Nation, I thought I'd pass it along. I really liked the quiz where you have to decide if the comment came from Stephen Colbert or Ann Coulter.

The full article is here:

Item 3: If you've ever wanted a true type font of your own handwriting, this article over at Lifehacker explains how to do it. All you'll need is a printer, paper, a pen and/or image editing program, and US$9. (Michael, you so have to do this!)

The article is here:

Monday, October 09, 2006

The utlimate RPG table

I came across this courtesy of RPG.Net. Someone created what may very well be the ultimate roleplaying game table. It has a large surface for miniatures. It has individual nooks for the players, complete with cork board for pinning handouts and a recess for rolling dice. It has a system for sending messages to individual players via metal balls. It has lighting, both overhead and backlight. It has a spot for a computer. It even has coasters!

We usually just laze around the living room when we play. I haven't been able to convice the group to play at a table, though until recently our small dining room table had horrible seats. I think I could convince them if we had this table.

You can see the table at http://www.agyris.net/v3/ugt/default.asp. Click on the thumbnail pictures and then navigate through the pictures. Some of the pics are awful, but by the time you get through the first 10 or so you'll have a good idea of how the table works.

They will eventually post plans...

Local connection to the Foley mess

I haven't blogged in a while. The cable went out on Thursday, and for some reason I was incredibly tired for most of the weekend. I thought of writing this on Thursday, when it was more relevant. Instead, I'm writing this on the day North Korea tests a nuclear bomb. Let's see, congressman sending inappropriate e-mails to underage pages, unstable regime with nukes... I guess we'll see which one the media is still talking about next week.

The first page mentioned in the Foley scandal is from Monroe. The local congressman, Rodney Alexander, was the one who heard about Foley's e-mails to the page. He informed Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert's staff. They informed Rep. John Shimkus, chairman of the House Page Board. According to Alana, Alexander's office fielded 100 calls from the media on Thursday. Alexander is the only politician in this scandal looking the least bit positive. When he found out about the initial e-mails he contacted the page's parents. The parents decided not to pursue the matter, though no one knew about the instant messages at that point.

I'm of two minds on Representative Alexander. I think he did the right thing in this case. The page's parents said he was "above reproach". When we were waiting to hear about my application to the USCIS for a visa, his staff did some checking into response times for us. That was back in 2003. In 2004 Alexander filed for re-election as a Democrat two days before the deadline. Minutes before the deadline, he refiled as a Republican. Apparently he was not happy with John Kerry being chosen as the Democrat's presidential candidate, and he had openly supported Bush. In Louisiana multiple candidates for the same party usually run, as Louisiana has a system of run off elections. The local Republican candidate was peeved at Alexander jumping ship. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers released a letter he had written to them slamming Republican policy as anti-labour. State and federal Democrats were incensed by him. He eventually had to give back money he had collected as a Democrat, and a Louisiana judge reopened filing and had him re-file. He got away with it, though, as he was re-elected. Since re-election his voting record has taken a sharp right turn. There are still those in this district that detest the way he switched parties. This recent scandal, though, shows him in a good light and probably guarantees his re-election next month.

Other politicians don't look so smurfy. There's Hastert, of course, and the question of whether or not he knew of the scandal. According to the Wikipedia article on the scandal, he dropped the ball and probably should resign. At the same time, the more strident Democrats look like they are grabbing onto this mess because they don't have a policy of their own.

A couple of Republicans have gone so far as to blame the Democrats! One (I forget who he was) implied that Foley was a Republican in name only, pointing out that his voting record wasn't as conservative as it could be. Woah! Sorry, foul! The Republicans were happy to point to Foley as a gay congressman in order to seem "enclusive". They don't get to make him look like a Democrat now that he's done something wrong. Hastert blamed the Democrats for informing the media about the scandal. He said, "Democrats have ... put this thing forward to try to block us" and "there are some people that try to tear [Republicans] down. We are the insulation to protect this country, and if they get to me it looks like they could affect our election as well." Then there's Katherine Harris of the 2000 election fame. She went as far as to suggest Republicans knew nothing of the scandal, that it was the Democrats who knew and didn't say anything. "The media would be quite disingenuous, trying to make it a partisan issue. If anything, the Republicans didn't know about these issues, and we're going to be very anxious to see who in the media or on the other side of the aisle knew about it and kept this from the public interest, because our children were at stake." I wonder what colour the sky is in her world...

Sean Hannity on FOX was quite amusing in his take on the scandal. (Note: I only saw Hannity via The Daily Show; I didn't want anyone to think I actually watch FOX News.) He pointed out that a Democrat was the subject of a scandal involving sex with a page. This happened in 1983. I'm not sure if he was trying to suggest Democrats "started it" or if he was just trying to deflect attention. He then pointed out that Clinton had sex with a 19 year old intern, implying it was just about as bad. Except, Monica was 22 (or possibly 23) and not 19. Beside being 6 (or 7) years older than the page, she was an adult and legally able to consent.

This should not be about politics. It should be about a single man's immoral — perhaps criminal — acts. The Republicans should have taken the allegations seriously and investigated, and sanctioned, Foley. And it should have been done out in the open. Unfortunately, they didn't do that and Foley preyed on underage teens. I doubt the Republicans have learned their lesson, as they are circling the wagons and blaming the Democrats. Sadly, I don't for a moment think the Democrats would have handled it any different...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

New on the tube

The new TV season is upon us, and some TV executives are getting a little antsy. Seems that the first week of the season was less than stellar, and the new shows aren't really catching on. Part of the problem is the staggered start the networks have been using for a few years. Part of the problem is that there is more to do than watch TV. Part of the problem is that a number of new shows are just so-so.

I thought I'd throw out some mini-reviews of the new shows I've seen. I admit I haven't seen any new sitcoms. In fact, the only live-action sitcom I watch with any regularity is My Name Is Earl, which can be quite hilarious. (The Office, on after Earl, is uneven and if I tune to CBS after Earl I can catch the fun bits of Survivor.) 30 Rock starts next week; I think I'll give that a watch. Other sitcoms don't seem to be on when I'm willing to watch TV.

I should mention that I spend a lot of time with the TV on, but I don't spend a lot of time actually paying attention to it. I spend more time surfing RPG.net or working on my web page at night than I do watching TV. I usually have it on in the background. For some reason I find the sound of the TV on less "empty" than, say, turning on the stereo. I should turn on the stereo more often, though...

Anyway, here are the shows I have seen:

Vanished – Fox, Monday

Premise: A senator's wife is apparently kidnapped. Two FBI agents and a TV reporter investigate, uncovering a web of secrets. Think 24 meets Missing, with a dash of CSI.

This show is so bad that I couldn't watch more than 20 minutes of it. The characters are incredibly cliched. The main FBI guy is haunted by a child killed in front of him. The TV reporter is so focused on her career that she interrupts sex (with her cameraman) to head out on the story. Oh, and she's obnoxious, too, bringing up the dead kid the first time she sees the FBI agent. The agent arrives at the scene of the wife's disappearance. He learns a suspect touched a chair, but instead of having the crime lab guys fingerprint it he does it himself. Yeah, that's going to look good when the suspect goes to trial (what am I saying, you know the suspect will end up dying by the end). There were other ludicrous, or just plain obvious, scenes and the dialogue was horrid. I didn't even make it to the 30 minute mark.

Heroes – NBC, Monday; airs again Thursdays(?) on SciFi

Premise: Several average folk start displaying super heroic powers. At the same time, a professor investigating these occurrences is murdered, and a shadowy bad guy is keeping tabs on these new "heroes". Meanwhile, there have been several murders where the victims seem to have been frozen in place and had the top of their skulls cut off and their brains removed. If that's wasn't bad enough, it looks like New York is toast in a month...

This is my favourite new show. Hey, I'm a sucker for superhero stories. The premise of this show is also close to that of the roleplaying game Wild Talents (which won't be mailed out until December 18, grr!). It's different, and quirky, and tensely written. It isn't hitting CSI ratings numbers, but it is in the top 25, which is a good start, I suppose, for something this unconventional.

I like the characters. There's a high school cheerleader who is invincible, a pair of brothers — one of whom is running for public office — who can fly, an artist with the ability to paint things that happen in the future, a police officer with telepathy, and a Japanese salaryman with the ability to warp space-time. Another superheroic character is a woman with some sort of alter ego she witnesses in a mirror, an alter ego that she can't control. There's also the professor's son who may have no special abilities but who is involved in the unravelling of the mystery.

This is NBC's attempt to capture the Lost audience. I hope it lasts! They have a lot of support for it. I haven't checked it out, but they are posting a comic book on the NBC web site each week after the episode airs.

I see that Emerson, the maker of the In-Sink-Erator garbage disposer, is suing NBC because of a scene in the pilot episode. The invincible girl puts her hand in one, messing up her fingers, which pop back to normal a couple of seconds later. Apparently the suit is arguing that the scene hurts their product's reputation, but they are really suing over the use of their trademark.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – Monday, NBC

Premise: The behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Friday night variety/comedy show that is roughly based on Saturday Night Live.

The show is by Aaron Sorkin, the man behind The West Wing. It stars Matthew Perry (from Friends) and Bradley Whitford (of The West Wing) as a writer/producer team. Also in the show are a whole bunch of character actors you've seen before.

Overall the show's dialogue is well written, and the acting is top notch. It's getting a whole raft of great reviews. So why does the show seem so flat to me? And not just me, as it shed 4.5 million viewers from the first to the second week (the premiere episode had 13.4 million viewers). It's hard to do a drama about comedy. The show is also very preachy, following the lead of The West Wing. It is trying to be balanced, but you can see that it's more left-leaning than right-leaning, which makes it's pro-right bits seem forced. Also, the skits from the TV show they are producing are way too long. Okay, sure, introducing the new writing team with a Gilbert and Sullivan parody was a neat idea, but did we have to see most of the entire skit? It went on, and on... much like one of those SNL bits where you think, "Yeah, the first minute was funny, but I get it now! Move on!" You can tell the writers are thinking, "Gosh, we are so clever!" Uh, no you're not.

I probably wouldn't watch this at all if it didn't come on right after Heroes.

Jericho – Wednesday, CBS

Premise: The prodigal son returns to the small Kansas town of Jericho. Soon after arriving, some sort of nuclear catastrophe happens over the horizon, with a mushroom cloud blooming over what they assume is Denver. In the second episode it is believed that Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Diego are also gone. The town must now survive whatever has just happened, and at the same time figure out what happened. Skeet Ulrich is the prodigal son, and Gerald McRaney is his father, the mayor.

This is another show that's not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. I missed the first episode, so my impression is from the second episode. The characters seemed a bit two-dimensional. The episode was chock full of the type of "ticking-bomb" plot devices that TV loves. The town had to get everyone into shelters before radioactive fallout — arriving in a storm. Inside that, there isn't enough room at one of the shelters, so they have to get everyone to a nearby salt mine (and blow up the entrance, to protect the folks inside of course). A pair of escaped convicts posing as cops are found out by a local girl, who manages to get to their cruiser and call for help. She's seen dialing up the channels of the radio from 1 to 8, with 8 being the channel on the faux cop's walkie-talkie. Instead of adding to the suspense, they simply sucked the suspense dry... and ended the issue with a typical TV cliche.

The plot elements are like junk food: empty calories in the form of action sequences. For instance, the folks in the mine, are they there simply to give the characters another ticking-bomb plot tonight (i.e. dig them out before they suffocate), or are they going to discover something in the mine? My guess is that it's all action.

Alana wants me to run a post-apocalypse roleplaying game at some point. For this reason I'm interested in Jericho. Unfortunately, unless the writing improves I'm not sure I'll stick around. I'll have a better idea tonight. They were worried about fallout; let's see if they mention radiation getting into the ground water and contaminating everything, or if it will all just "wash away".

Shark – Thursday, CBS

Premise: Sebastian Stark is a top-notch criminal defence attorney (James Woods) who gets a killer off the hook, only to have the killer strike again. Guilt drives Stark to "do the right thing" and become a prosecutor. He's now using his expertise playing for "the other side". Meanwhile, his teenaged daughter has decided to move in with him — leaving the divorced mother — because "he needs her". Jeri Ryan (from Star Trek: Voyager) is the D.A. who hates Stark and his methods, but is growing to respect him in spite of it.

The idea of a series based on personal redemption is interesting, and James Woods is fun to watch. Unfortunately, the show comes over as a blah attempt to turn House into a court room drama (complete with a gaggle of interns). The scenes with the daughter are touching, but obvious and drain the life out of the show. The tempo comes to a screeching halt every time the daughter shows up. There's a reason House doesn't spend much time on House's personal life, and when it does it's mostly from his perspective.

Court room shows are so prevalent that it's hard to imagine how they can surprise us with the court scenes. So far, they haven't. The supporting cast is kind of so-so, too. Woods is a manic tour de force, but the episodes are quite forgettable after the show is over. And, let's face it, Woods is no Hugh Laurie.

* * *

That's it, I think. I don't remember seeing any other new shows, so if I did that's telling in itself.

Tonight Lost, season 3 starts. We rented the last disc from Blockbuster on Monday (for free, with a coupon courtesy of Coke) so that Alana could catch up. Friday is the start of the new season of Battlestar Galactica on SciFi. I only saw two episodes of House this season, and I doubt I'll see any more until October 31 — they may be just repeats while Fox plays the baseball playoffs, and for this month it is on opposite Lost.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Photo gallery – Canadian troops in Afghanistan

Here's a link to a photo gallery over at the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) web site. It contains pictures of Canadian troops fighting in Afghanistan, along with a short commentary with each picture. The pictures are excellent.


Louisiana lynchings, 1878 – 1946

While doing some research for my Cause of the American Civil War essay, I came across a web site listing lynchings in Louisiana from 1878 to 1946. As disturbing as the list is, I thought I'd post it in case anyone else was interested. I'll let the list speak for itself.

It can be found here:

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Posted my Cause of the American Civil War essay

I finished my Cause of the American Civil War essay, or at least I finished it enough that I'm willing to inflict it on an unsuspecting public.

I will warn you now that the essay is fairly "mainstream". That is, I don't think tariffs were the cause of the war! I'm heavily influenced by James McPherson and others of his ilk. As such, it will rub some folks the wrong way. Actually, in part 4 I give a URL to a Columbia University site that describes the alternate theories.

The essay is found at http://www.hyperbear.com/acw/essays/acw-essays-cause.html.

All of my American Civil War essays are found at http://www.hyperbear.com/acw/acw-essays.html.

Now that this essay is over, I can turn my attention back to my Gettysburg campaign essay...

Back from Alexandria

Alana and I got back from Alexandria around 7 p.m. We were there all weekend visiting Alana's dad in hospital.

Her dad went in for surgery on his back a week ago last Friday. He had some deteriorating disks and other complications, so he needed to have his back reinforced. Alana went down for the surgery and came back afterward. The surgery went fine, but on Thursday we learned that he had problems breathing. A blood clot, probably from his leg, travelled to his lung. He was moved into the ICU on Thursday.

Alana and I drove down Friday morning after I finished a couple of things at work. We saw him in the ICU and he looked better than I expected. The next morning he was transferred to a room. He's on medicine to break down the blood clot. They found others in his leg, but they were all superficial. Apparently a clot travelling like this is fairly rare. The Physician's Assistant told us that it happens maybe once a year.

As for the surgery site, it's healing fine, probably aided by the antibiotics they gave him to ward off pneumonia.

So, we stayed the weekend, spelling Alana's step-mom and helping cheer up her dad. On our off time we spent far too much time buying Logan's Christmas presents.

The trip to the hospital did allow me to compare Canadian hospitals to American hospitals.

The ICU unit at Rapides Medical Center in Alexandria, LA is essentially the same as the ICU unit at Oshawa General Hospital in Ontario. In fact, from an operational stand point there isn't much difference in an American hospital and a Canadian hospital. The American hospitals I've been in, for the most part, look a little newer; a new lick of paint, new additions. However, the hospitals I've visited in Canada have all been around for a while.

The big differences are in the way the rooms are set up. In Rapides Medical Center it appears that all the rooms are private. Most private insurance will only pay for semi-private rooms, but hospitals seem to have decided to only offer private rooms. Since people are free to vote with their feet (and wallets) private rooms are a competitive advantage.

In Canada, most of the rooms hold between two and six patients, separated with curtains. There are private rooms. My dad was moved to a private room in his last stages of cancer. Also, if you have supplemental insurance in Canada it might cover a private room.

All the rooms in Rapides had televisions mounted up on the wall. They looked like 19" TVs, maybe 21s. They weren't particularly new, but they came with the room.

In Oshawa General, the television was a small set mounted on a swing arm that the patient could pull in front of him. Since the rooms were shared, the TVs were set up so that they were only really good for the patient. They came with earphones too. Canadian patients have to pay for cable TV access. This can be bought by the day or by the week. I remember the "cable guy" coming around to Dad's room. You also had to pay for a telephone.

I don't remember there being a shower in any of Oshawa General's private room toilets, but they may have had showers. I'll have to ask Mum about it.

Of course the biggest differences between Canadian and American hospitals is cost. When a Canadian is admitted to a Canadian hospital they have to pay for a television or telephone, but everything else is covered by your provincial health care. There's a $300 (per family?) fee per year, but that covers all your medical coverage. So, yes, you don't get the private room and you don't get the free TV, but everything else is covered. In the case of Alana's parents, they have a deductible to meet, and then there is something like 20% of the hospital stay that isn't covered by insurance. This can be covered by Medicare, as her dad is retired, but they have to apply for that.

I remember six years ago reading that Canada spent 8% of its GDP on healh care while the U.S. spent 12%. I'd believe it! A for profit system is supposed to bring down costs, but there is a huge level of bureaucracy in the U.S. that adds to the cost. The bureaucracy is mostly due to private health insurance companies — all of which do things a little bit differently — and the various state health care programs, and then the federal health care program. In Canada, the provinces run their own programs (with federal oversight). Insurance companies are only brought in for the "extras".

Both countries have problems with costs, and both countries are handling it in different ways. When Dad was sick back in 1998, the Conservative Party was in power in Ontario. The Conservatives were neo-conservatives: they pushed for tax breaks for the rich. Unlike the Republicans in Washington, the Conservatives in Ontario also cut spending. The biggest line item in a provincial budget is health care. The Conservatives slashed the health care budget by closing hospitals, chopping hospital budgets and freezing salaries for nurses, etc. The hospital closings were the most controversial. Dad was cared for pretty well, except when he was at the Princess Margaret cancer hospital in Toronto. To cut cost they closed Princess Margaret's kitchen. They had their meals prepared in nearby Toronto General. By the time the food got to the 17th floor, it was pretty much inedible. I understand the situtation has improved somewhat since the Liberal Party took over, but that it still isn't what it was in the early 1990s.

Here in the States the problem surrounds private health insurance costs. The increase is much higher than inflation. Alana and I, for instance, are worse off today than two years ago because of health insurance costs. Sure, my taxes are lower down here, but the difference is pretty much eaten up by the cost of private health insurance. The health coverage cost problem is slipping into hospitals. The number of people defaulting on hospital payments is up. People are skipping elective surgery because they either can't afford insurance or they have downgraded their insurance. This is a serious economic problem, and it will get worse when the next recession hits, particularly since the states will have to pick up the slack when people are out of work. This is a ticking time bomb that few in government want to deal with.

Enough of the observations. Alana's dad has another test tomorrow and then he should be going to rehab later this week. On Saturday we rode down in the elevator with his doctor, who said he had "turned a corner". We were pretty worried about him last week, but fortunately things are looking up, even if he has many more corners yet to turn.