Friday, March 31, 2006

Prescription for disaster

I caught a cold or something two weeks ago. It flared up two weeks ago today, and I was sneezing and drippy the following weekend. It settled into my chest and stayed there for a week. Late Tuesday it started to sneak into my throat.

I took Thursday off and went to the doctor. He prescribed some meds for me. I took the prescription to CVS pharmacy, a big drug store not far from hour apartment. I waited in the store for the prescription. After I got tired of reading the magazines, I wandered back to the prescription area. A girl in a lab coat pointed to me and said, "I have your prescription." I paid for the prescription, went up front and paid for some other items, and then went to get something to eat.

It never occurred to me to look carefully at the prescription package. In my defence, I was still feeling kind of fevery. Also, I looked at the prescription label for dosage instructions, but they were on the package inside the box. This distracted me enough that I only gave the label a cursory glance.

I took the first two pills with breakfast. I took another later on with what little I had for lunch. After Logan's baseball practice, just as we were about to have supper, I pulled out the meds again. Alana was curious as to what I was prescribed. She looked at the package and thought it was odd that I was prescribed a steroid. I thought it was weird, too, but I didn't even realize it was a steroid until I read the little insert that came with the package.

Now, the doctor didn't say I had an infection. He said my throat was red. I figured I had an infection from the symptoms. The package I picked up from the pharmacy had a series of six pills for day 1, five for day 2, four for day 3, etc. Alana recognized this as a typical steroid sequence; I thought it was some kind of antibiotic. The part that worried me was the section that said steroids could actually increase the chance for an infection. Why did my doctor prescribe this?

I then looked at the label and realized that the pharmacy had given me someone else's prescription!

Again, it was partly my own fault. As confusing as those prescription labels can be, I should have double-checked to make sure that I had the right prescription.

On the other hand, the girl that gave it to me should have double-checked that I was the person on the label. When I get prescriptions filled at Brookshires or Target they always look at the label and say your name, and they always ask you if you've taken the medicine before. They will go over any side effects with you, too. I just realized that I don't think CVS has ever done that for me...

I recognized the cashier from other visits to CVS. She usually works at the minilab at the front. It struck me as odd that she was now wearing a lab coat and giving people prescriptions. I thought maybe she was taking pharmacology at the local university. I'm now thinking she's just hired help that they shunt around to different areas when it gets busy.

I took the prescription back and spoke to the manager. When I gave him the package he laughed and said, "We wondered where that had gone!" His jovial manner changed when he saw that I had taken some of the pills by accident. He said he would have to report it. They refunded me the co-pay on the wrong prescription and waived my actual co-pay. There's supposed to be a gift card for $10 with my name on it at the pharmacy, too, but I'm in no rush to return to CVS.

I'm probably okay. The steroid probably didn't have any bad effects, though you can never be certain I suppose. It would have been far worse if Alana had taken the stuff. Steroids can mess with your blood sugar; Alana is diabetic. The pharmacist got kind of nervous when he realized I had taken the prescription. They could have been facing a lawsuit. They could have killed someone, too, if the prescription had been different. Apparently some CVS official is supposed to phone me about the incident, but no one has bothered to yet. I'm more than half expecting the pharmacist to "forget" to report it.

I don't think I'll be using CVS as my pharmacy in the future.

Edit: for the record, the CVS pharmacy where this happened was the one on highway 165 north in Monroe, Louisiana... just keeping you informed.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Delta Green write-up posted on HyperBear

A shorter than average Delta Green write-up was posted to HyperBear. Neither Jason nor I were feeling well on the game day, so the lethargic session was shorter than usual.

You can find the write-up at the Modern Day Delta Green write-ups page. The write-up is for session 2 of Winds of Change. The game was played on March 18, 2006.

Our next game is scheduled for April 1, 2006.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Synchronicity 1

Over the last few years I've noticed a number of instances of "synchronicity". From, I'm using the second definition of the word, defined as:
Coincidence of events that seem to be meaningfully related, conceived in Jungian theory as an explanatory principle on the same order as causality.

In my usage of the word I'm talking about something other than a mere coincidence. I'm talking about obscure coincidences.

For instance, I read the first page of an article in this month's Discover magazine when I was in Books-A-Million on Saturday. It was about a paleontologist who discovered soft tissues in Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils, which is a big deal since fossil preservation theory suggests that you don't find soft tissues in fossils greater than 100,000 years old. Last night I received an e-mail from the Strange Aeons mailing list (a mailing list for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game). The message dealt with human evolution. It asked, "I'd still like to know where language came into play. Would there be enough evidence in soft tissues to predict this? And do those tissues fossilize?"

I found it an odd coincidence that a couple of days after I read about soft tissues in fossils, someone asked about it.

Also on Saturday, there was a news item about an exhibit in New York of Dadaist art. Again, according to (and the program I was watching), Dada was:
A European artistic and literary movement (1916-1923) that flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values by producing works marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity.

I've seen Dadaist art in the past, and art based on it, but didn't know it by name.

Today I came across the following statement on the Risks Digest web page: "The damage done by well-intentioned (mis)features of MS Office is not limited to occasional dadafication of EU bureaucratese." This statement (and the made up word "dadafication") only makes sense if you knew what Dada is, which I didn't until Saturday.

Do I think there's anything mystical happening here? Heck, no! But I thought I'd record it anyway. If I come across other interesting occurrences of synchronicity I will mention them here.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

CPT criticized in media, in Britain and Canada at least

Earlier this week three "Christian aid workers", members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams held hostage by Iraqi insurgents, were rescued by a British led team that included the British SAS, U.S. troops, and (perhaps, as details are sketchy) members of Canada's elite JTF-2 special forces unit. The hostages — a Briton and two Canadians — had been held hostage for several months. A fourth hostage, American Tom Fox, was found shot to death earlier this month.

Yesterday's news reports said Norman Kember, the British captive, was heading home amidst allegations that the aid workers had not adequately thanked the soldiers who rescued them. Apparently Kember only thanked the soldiers after he returned to London and the word got out of the group's lack of gratitude. The Christian Peacemaker Teams give a different story, saying that the three thanked their rescuers "quickly".

(The web sites of most U.S. news outlets had headlines like CNN's, "Freed UK hostage thanks rescuers amid criticism". Fox's web site said, "Freed British Hostage Thanks Soldiers Who Saved Him", though Fox did mention the criticism. Just an interesting example of media manipulation: both stories said about the same thing, but Fox's headline puts an entirely different spin on it than CNN's.)

There is an interesting difference in the way the Canadian and British media are discussing this story and the way the American media is covering it. Nowhere on major U.S. news outlet web sites will you find criticism of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) organization and their motives. This criticism is being leveled in British and Canadian media.

This is the story from The Scotsman:
("Kember lives to ask 'was I foolhardy or rational?')

This is the story from The Toronto Star:
Activists' action poses dilemma

The CPT is an organization of Mennonites and Quakers whose stated mission is to act as human shields and negotiators. They go to conflict areas and stay at hospitals and other humanitarian locations in order to discourage attacks. They are not missionaries, as they feel this impedes their work. Instead, they act as intermediaries. They have worked as go-betweens in the occupied territories between Israel and Palestine, helping to bring middle-of-the-road Israelis and Palestinians together.

The CPT members were in Iraq ostensibly to record American prisoner abuses. They oppose U.S. troops in Iraq, though they say they have nothing against the individual soldiers. They are prepared to die for their cause and say they don't wish to be rescued. In particular, they don't want anyone to die in their rescue.

Criticism has been leveled at this group with regard to their "don't want to be rescued" stance. It's all fine and good for the aid workers to say that they don't want to be rescued, but what are Western governments to do when their loved ones plead with the governments to rescue them? Do they let them die, or do they rescue them? Letting them die would be a public relations mess, while rescuing them is a public relations boon — as seen this week — even if the rescue attempt puts the lives of soldiers and civilians at risk.

In London on Friday, Terry Waite — the man who was held hostage in Beirut from 1987 until 1991 said of the CPT, "Many say that's a risk we understand and are willing to take. The only problem with that is that, as you take that stance, you do involve other people in the situation, and that might be a problem. I applaud the motive but at this stage I question the tactic." Others have also pointed out that they are naive if they think they can make a difference in Iraq right now. Others suggest they shouldn't even be in Iraq during the current conflict. They can say they don't want to be rescued, but their capture will, inevitably, put someone's life at risk whether or not that was their intent.

The web sites of U.S. news outlets have not expressed any of this criticism against the CPT. They mention that British officials were unhappy with the group's apparent lack of gratitude, but they don't level criticism at the group's tactics. I find this interesting. I wonder what's at work here. You could put it down to "liberal bias", except that the U.S. outlets haven't mentioned the group's decidedly anti-war stance. Fox hasn't criticized them either, and they are openly biased to the right. The Toronto Star is biased toward the left and they ran an article criticizing the group (I used to work for The Star, from 1998 to 2001 as a business systems analyst.)

Do American media outlets simply feel that there isn't enough interest in this story to warrant a closer examination of the Christian group's motives? Or maybe they are too busy with other stories of "higher priority". We ate at CiCi's yesterday (a pizza buffet place). Fox News was on one of the TVs. The whole time we were there the station was concerned with the Tennessee minister who was apparently killed by his wife. CNN's big story was the immigrant protest against tougher immigration laws.

Or could it be that there's simply less criticism of Christian groups in American mass media?

At any rate, it is funny how these news companies will cover a single story until you are sick to death of hearing about it, while they leave other stories wanting for much needed analysis.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Southern Funeral

A week ago Wednesday I attended a funeral. The deceased was the father of one of my company's clients, a gentleman of some 89 years of age. I met him in late 2004 when I trained my first client site; he was the owner of the company then, but he transferred ownership to two of his sons last year. He was a very nice man, very friendly to me. While I was there, he fell and hurt himself. I saw how well he was thought of by the people of his company based on the worry they expressed at that time. He died of natural causes the weekend before the funeral.

Since moving to Louisiana I've been to one wedding (not including my own) and three funerals. I suppose the wedding-to-funeral ratio is a sign of my advancing years. Anyway, this funeral was a little different than the previous two: 1) I knew the deceased; 2) my wife did not know the deceased; 3) it was in a church and not a funeral home.

The service was only half an hour long, but it was the first of three that the family would have to sit through. There was a family-only service shortly afterward, and a short service at the grave. The gentleman was known to a lot of people in the community, which is why I think there was this public service.

I thought the service was too impersonal. There were three ministers, two Baptist and one Methodist. The first Baptist and the Methodist ministers seemed to know the gentleman personally. They gave short eulogies of no more than five minutes each. There were not a lot of personal anecdotes that didn't involve the ministers meeting the gentleman in their professional capacities. Still, some of the old man's personality did shine through their words.

The third minister was the fairly new pastor of the church and didn't appear to know the man very well. This was unfortunate as his sermon (not eulogy) lasted about 15 minutes. He only mentioned the deceased twice, and once was to say that the deceased would have agreed with everything the pastor was saying. The sermon was the traditional "he's gone to a better place, all believers are going there, isn't Jesus wonderful?" speech to reassure the bereaved. It was too impersonal and too evangelical, but not surprising for a Baptist minister.

During the service (we arrived at 9:20 for the 10:00 a.m. service to get seats) I had a lot of time to look over the church's stained glass windows. They were a little disturbing, but not in any kind of creepy way. They were colourful and competently done. They were from obvious bits of the New Testament. Above the pulpit was Christ being baptized by John the Baptist. What disturbed me was the way the artist rendered the "big names" in the pictures. The background folk were done sort of two dimensional in a style that fused the Bayeau tapestry with Nickelodeon. Christ, John the Baptist, and the other recognizable folk were drawn more realistically, like they were illustrated for an Alan Moore graphic novel (but more V for Vendetta than From Hell). They were sort of lifelike, so they clashed with the background characters, animals, buildings, etc. The disturbing part was Christ. Or, rather, Christ on the cross. The artist apparently believes in a buff Christ; he had quite the six-pack. I had this visual image of Jesus doing crunches before his Sermon on the Mount, which didn't sit well with the somber occasion. As I said, it was disturbing.

Whatever I might think of the funeral at least it was brief and respectful. I only noticed a couple of people in jeans, and they at least wore polo shirts (instead of t-shirts). No one wore a cowboy hat, in contrast to the previous two funerals (one in central Louisiana, and one in Texas). Most of the men at this one were in suits and ties (yours truly included).

It did reinforce one thing: I was thankful neither Alana nor I will have a funeral. We willed our bodies to the Louisiana State University medical department. (While some may see this as disturbing, I think of it as insurance. I like the idea that at least one or two additional people will be checking me for a pulse after someone says I've gone...)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The "L" Word

(I wrote this item almost exactly six months ago but never posted it. Since life has been busy these days, I thought I'd publish it on my blog today. Oh, and one reason life is busy: today is Alana's birthday!)

I received junk mail last spring from The National Review, an influential conservative magazine. I received this mail because I'm a member of the Military Book Club, and until 2004 I subscribed to Military History Quarterly (an excellent military history magazine I collected for 16 years). I'm not sure which of these sold my name to conservative mailing lists, probably both. At the height of the 2004 presidential race I was receiving conservative material at least once a week, something I found incredibly funny since I'm not a) conservative, b) American, or c) able to vote. My wife, who is a registered Republican, didn't receive any conservative material.

The mail from The National Review addressed me as "Intelligent American". The mail then went on to explain how "liberals" were on a campaign to eliminate "judgment", a fairly common conservative theme. The implied message was that I was "intelligent" because I was not a liberal.

As a Canadian, I find the whole "'liberal' as a dirty word" thing to be quite funny. Most American politicians try to avoid the "liberal" label, yet Canada has an entire political party — at the federal and provincial levels of government — known as the Liberals. The Liberals are considered the "left of centre" party. Canada has a truly socialist party that regularly wins seats in the House of Commons, the New Democratic Party (NDP). If you called a Canadian politician a "liberal", they'd be right to reply, "And your point is...?"

Canadians tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative, sometimes known as "having your cake and eating it, too." This is most obviously seen with regard to socialized medicine. British television ran a "greatest Briton" program, where people got to vote for the greatest Briton of all time (Sir Winston Churchill was selected). The Discovery Channel did the same thing for Americans (the winner was Ronald Reagan, beating out Abraham Lincoln; apparently Americans forgot about Iran-Contra). The CBC ran a similar program for Canadians. The "greatest Canadian" was Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan politician — the child of Scottish parents, I will add — who invented Canadian medicare. At the same time as Canadians demand universal health care, they also want the government to be fiscally responsible, a balancing act that more than one government has found hard to manage.

Most Canadians — based on the results of several federal elections — believe that "big government" can be more effective than the free market at managing certain programs. This goes against conservative "free market" thinking, where a free and competitive market is seen as the best method of keeping costs down. Canadians also tend to have more of a "live and let live" attitude, perhaps because Canada is a more secular society. Gay marriage is legal Canada, and those opposing it are a (vocal) minority. Pierre Trudeau, as Justice Minister in the late 1960s, once famously said, "The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation." This is a belief that most Canadians accept.

(Canada recently voted in the Conservative party, which are threatening to repeal gay marriage. Some right-wing political pundits in the U.S. have pointed to this as a shift to the right for Canada. Actually, the federal Liberal party was mired in a corruption scandal. The election was not a vote for the Conservatives but a vote against the Liberals, who had been in power for far too long.)

Americans, on the other hand, tend to be more conservative, displaying their Puritan roots. I laugh when Republicans characterize Democrats as "liberals", since most Democrats would be considered right of centre by Canadian standards. I'm not sure when "liberal" became such a dirty word in American politics (probably as a result of fallout from Vietnam), but it never ceases to amuse me that Democrats have let it become a dirty word. I'm firmly convinced that Arianna Huffington was right on the mark when she said, on Bill Maher's HBO show on April 8, 2005 that the Democrats are "spineless weasels".

The National Review junk mail illustrated something I found quite disturbing (again, as a Canadian). In American politics it doesn't seem to be enough to say, "I disagree with the other side's policies". It appears that you also have to denigrate the other side, and insult it. It's as though people feel they can't just have an opinion, but they must justify it, too. Since their opinion is often just that, an opinion, the only way to justify it is to attack the other side. The other side's opinion is wrong because they are stupid, immoral, corrupt, or otherwise unworthy of consideration. I noticed this not just on television and online, but in the company where I work. Political discussions in my workplace (all of them pro-conservative/anti-Democrat, with the exception of one or two Libertarians) almost always included insults against the opposing side. It wasn't enough for someone to say they disagreed with a particular politician, they also had to explain why that politician was stupid/immoral/corrupt/untrustworthy, and thus that politicians point of view had no credibility whatsoever.

I could write off some of this as the ravings of the paranoid (someone I work with is convinced that Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco, was directly involved in a conspiracy involving the plane crash that took her husband's life), except that it is so widespread. I was at a client's site the day before the presidential election, and I could hear anti-Kerry insults — not a debate against his policies, mind you, but insults — throughout the day.

I find ad hominem attacks disturbing. It hampers free speech. If you raise your voice in dissension, you run the risk of being publicly tarred-and-feathered. I will point out that this is not limited to conservatives; plenty of liberals do the same thing. I just mention conservatives because there are precious few liberals in northeast Louisiana. If there are any where I work, they are keeping very quiet (and probably for good reason).

Canadian politics can get this dirty too, but it's not as pervasive as American politics. I have a theory about this:

1) The Canadian political system is radically different to the American system. Even in a national election, Canadians only vote for one person, the person representing their riding (equivalent to a congressional district). This is sort of equivalent to everyone voting for their member of Congress, with the house majority leader becoming president. As such, a workplace in large metropolitan areas in Canada often contains people from different ridings. They may debate the worthiness of a particular party getting into power, but they may vote based entirely on local issues or local personalities.

2) Canadians tend to flip-flop in their voting patterns. You do get staunch supporters of a single party, but the average Canadian is more likely to vote out an incumbent than the average American. It helps that there are several viable political parties in Canada. It's entirely likely that someone voting Liberal this time around voted Conservative last time, or vice versa. (Ironically, with three major parties — four for residents of Quebec — to choose from, Canadians still contend that they don't have enough choice.)

3) Canadian society is more secular than American society. There's always been less pressure to conform (the Canadian Cultural Mosaic versus the American Cultural Melting Pot), which has actually resulted in less polarization. Gay marriage does not spark the kind of debate in Canada as it does in the U.S. If a Canadian politician tries to tamper with health care, though, they will find it to be the "third rail" of Canadian politics, and likely to cause a very serious, and concerted, backlash against that politician (unless, apparently, that politician is from Alberta). This contrasts with American politics and its close link to religion. There is more fervor against gay marriage down here than there are clamors for universal health care. When middle-class Americans voted for George Bush in the last election they were voting because they were afraid of terrorists (someone in my office actually thought there would be a terrorist attack against the U.S. if Kerry won, while there wouldn't be if Bush won) and men kissing. Otherwise, they were voting against their own best interest economically.

At any rate, it's likely that I will continue to get conservative junk mail. Since I live in the largely conservative northeast Louisiana, and I'm on conservative mailing lists due to my interest in military history, I'm sure I won't receive any liberal campaign literature any time soon. That's just as well, as the Republicans are wasting money sending me mailings and, since I can't vote, the Democrats might as well not bother.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Vietnam Effect

If Americans have learned anything from Vietnam it is that you can't blame soldiers for the government's foreign policy mistakes. Soldiers are trained to obey orders. It's not the soldier's fault if the government gives them orders that are legal but unpopular.

During the Vietnam War, returning U.S. soldiers were treated with derision by some members of the public. This was totally unfair to the soldiers, who were the most negatively affected by the war.

The U.S. has grown through its experience in Vietnam. The Iraq War is growing in unpopularity: in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week 56% of Americans said that the U.S. is not making significant progress in Iraq, and 52% wanted the government to begin pulling troops back home. In spite of this, people still support the people in uniform. You see "Support Our Troops" stickers and magnets all over the place. The media representation of soldiers is very positive, even when they are critical of the administration's foreign policy.

There are soldiers, though, who are experiencing negative reactions from citizens simply because they participated in the Iraq War. Those soldiers are British soldiers.

According to The Scotsman, hostile public reaction to their service in Iraq has increased stress on returning soldiers. Now, the article is vague about exactly what kind of hostile reaction the soldiers are facing. It doesn't say if they are being spit on, or protested en masse (ala American troops during the Vietnam era). It does have some interesting words about the war from a British perspective, something we hardly ever see in the U.S. (In fact, we hardly see anything about the British participation in the war.)

Here's a quote from the article:
[Dr. Chris] Freeman, who has treated nearly 20 Scottish veterans at his Edinburgh clinic, said: "Gulf War Two has changed society's attitude to soldiers. It has become our Vietnam. There have been no heroes in this war. Two-thirds of this country didn't want [Iraq] to happen and that has a massive effect on the men who come home."

..."Servicemen know they have been involved in something deeply unpopular, which has spiralled out of control," he said. "That is another burden on them."
The article also said that more than 600 British servicemen have been wounded in Iraq, about triple the official figure of 230 from the British government.

This is an interesting article from a couple of directions. First, Britain has a much longer military history than the United States, yet it's only now that Britain is undergoing the Vietnam Effect (at least according to the media). I mean, this is a nation that went to war because a sea captain's ear was cut off by the Spanish (oversimplification of the start of the War of Jenkin's Ear, 1739 – 1748, which rolled into the War of the Austrian Succession). Second, the war is far less popular in Britain than you hear in the U.S. Sure, places like CNN will mention that the Iraq War was unpopular, but you don't hear words like "deeply unpopular" and "spiralled out of control". You'd think the liberal-biased media would make a huge deal of this...

Anyway, here's the full article (though I've already stolen quoted the important bits):

Sunday, March 12, 2006

New Delta Green write-up posted

A new Delta Green write-up, and it appeared less than a month since the previous write-up!

This write-up marks a turning point in the campaign. Along with big changes in the Delta Green organization, the members of M Cell find themselves involved in a dangerous mission with an old foe in the Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. A highlight of this adventure is Alana's portrayal of Agent MAYA, a native of New Orleans. Her character's attitude about leaving the city was not universal, but it was definitely authentic. You saw the same attitude in the aftermath of the storm, particularly among the folks in Mississippi. I heard a number of people say that they stayed because they made it through Hurricane Camille without a problem. Alana's character echoes that sentiment here.

That's not to say that Jimmy and Jason didn't do a wonderful job themselves. They did! Jason's previous character died about 4 or 5 sessions back. His new character is quite different from his old. The game feels much different with Agent MALCOLM in place of Agent MICHAEL, and that has to do with Jason's characterization of MALCOLM and Jimmy's and Alana's characters' reaction to him. I've seen other games where the same player could run two different characters and you wouldn't know the difference. This time out there was more interaction between Agent MAYA (Alana) and Agent MORGAN (Jimmy). This was good to see, as more recently the dynamic was between MORGAN and MALCOLM.

I hope the players are having as much fun with the game as I am.

Anyway, about the write-up... You can find the write-up at the Modern Day Delta Green write-ups page. The write-up is for session 1 of Winds of Change. The game was played on February 18, 2006.

Our next game is scheduled for March 18, 2006.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Windows Live Search released

Yesterday Microsoft released their "Google killer", Windows Live Search. MSN has a search facility, but this is supposed to be much better, giving Google-quality search results while adding some extra stuff. Microsoft hopes to become the search engine of choice, and — coincidentally — cash in on the advertising revenue from sponsored links.

I gave it Windows Live Search (found at a whirl.

When you get to the web site you are offered a "portal" page that you can configure to your own liking, adding a link to your Windows Live or Hotmail account, weather, news services, etc. Google allows you to do the same thing with Google's Personalized Home page. Microsoft's page looks better, more professional, with shaded boxes and neat controls that collapse and expand various sections. Google lets you do much of that, too, but not with the same coolness factor. Unfortunately, all those controls seem to come at a price. Microsoft's site was pretty busy this morning and it took forever to come up.

I didn't bother signing up for Windows Live Search, but I did add Monroe's weather. The controls kept appearing and disappearing, based on whether or not my mouse hovered over them. The icons were pretty small (older or less co-ordinated web surfers take note). I asked for "Monroe, LA" and it offered both "Monroe, LA" and "Marion, LA" as options. I took "Monroe, LA", which is what I originally typed. Twice I managed to open another window to the MSN weather site. Eventually I added the weather. The big icons took up over half the height of the screen. This was because it gave me both Monroe's and Start, Louisiana's weather even though Start wasn't an option. I managed to delete Start, but couldn't get it to show up again. By contrast, Google gives me the same information in half the height, though Google's icons aren't as nice. (Actually, Google only gives me two days of weather while Live gave me three.)

A note about the weather: neither site was particularly accurate. Google said the high today would be 73F, which I think Monroe hit this morning, and that it was currently 59. Live said the high would be 66, and it was currently 63. The Weather Channel put the current temperature at 69. I stuck my head outside and it felt more like 69. Google's site will eventually take you to The Weather Channel. If you have to be inaccurate, at least use up less space.

The point of Microsoft's site is searching, so I decided to do a couple of searches. Like Google, Live has a single search box. Type in something, click the cute little magnifying glass "search" icon (or hit Enter) and it will give you search results. I didn't see any ability to do advanced searches. Google has a link to advanced searches, plus a help page that explains their advanced, and mostly hidden, search language. You may not know it, but Google's search engine will take in a number of complicated parameters to make it easy to search for exactly what you want. Presumably you can do this on Live, too, but there is no help to tell you how.

I first typed in "Delta Green". The search results were close to that of Google, but not identical (which is actually a good thing; if they were identical there would be no reason for a new search engine). I was impressed with the results of the search. The relevance was similar to Google. My own web site,, came up a little bit sooner on the Live search than on Google, and my blog appeared much sooner on Live.

I did a second search, this one on "Allan Goodall". The search results were, again, similar. Live had my blog profile right above my web site, while Google put the blog further below my web site. Apparently the fact that my blog is on a major site put it higher on the search list. I'm not sure I like that, as it's actually less relevant than my own web site, but I could live with it.

The results weren't as impressive with Live when I entered "miniatures game scale". Miniature gamers are often looking for information on the scale of figures. Live put a dollhouse seller's web site as the first two results. The next two results were for the store. The next two were relevant, for The Miniatures Page, but again the site was duplicated. Google, by contrast, had a smattering of different game sites as their first results, including Dean Gundberg's Starship Combat News in first place (I used to play miniatures with Dean at GenCon).

The search results were good enough that Live could make a dent in Google's user base, except that Microsoft did what it's famous for: making something big, bloated, but slick looking at the expense of functionality.

Google's search results are displayed as a standard web page. You scroll down the page, you click on a link to go the next page, you click on a link or your Back button to go back a page.

Live, in comparison, looks much cleaner. The results pop up in a very nice looking Javascript frame. For some reason, though, Microsoft decided to use new controls for scrolling up and down in the frame. You click on a slider control to go up or down several results. You can click and hold the button down for the results to scroll up or down continuously. It is slick, but there's no reason to replace the vertical scroll bar. Worse, all the results appear in the frame. Google, by contrast, shows you a set amount on a single page (you can customize Google to show as few as 10 and as much as 100). If there are more results than you see on a page, Google supplies a link to other pages with more results. This means it is quicker to navigate through Google's links.

Say you find yourself at result number 80. In Google this could be on page 8 (if showing 10 items per page) or on the first page. If on page 8, you can use your Back button or the link at the bottom of the page to quickly return to the first item. If they are all on one page, you can quickly drag the slider to the top to take you back to the top of the page. You can't do this on Live. You have to use their slider control to drag you all the way up to the top. Since the slider control isn't the standard vertical scroll bar, you have to click on the up arrow and hold it to get to the top of the page. This is a pain, and it comes from Microsoft putting style ahead of substance.

Microsoft wrote Live for Internet Explorer. Firefox will open up a link in a new tab if you click the middle button (usually the scroll button) on a web link. This feature doesn't work on Evidently the Windows Live Search web designers don't use Firefox and disabled the middle button click. The lack of this feature alone is enough for me not to use Live.

There are a couple of neat things about Live. There's a control that lets you see from 2 to 6 lines of content on the found links by simply sliding it left or right. If it is slid all the way to the right, you get an option to do a search within the web site picked up on the link. For instance, if you do a search on "Allan Goodall" and find a link to, you can click on a control that will let you immediately search for additional data. To do this with Google you would have to do a brand new search with "" somewhere in it. Windows Live Search is easier in this regard.

If you type a search criteria into Google that you spelled wrong, Google will helpfully add a "did you mean..." link at the top. Windows Live Search doesn't have this feature. I've used it enough times that I would miss it if I used Live.

I don't think Windows Live Search will be the Google killer Microsoft hopes it will be. Google's genius was in stripping web searching to its simplest form, give relevant results, and add helpful features. Microsoft's site looks nicer, but it's another case of Microsoft's trend of style over substance.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Finished watching Firefly... *sniff*

Alana and I are feeling a little odd, sort of like we lost a friend. This weekend we watched the last three episodes of Firefly. and the movie Serenity. I know it's just a TV show, and I usually don't feel this way about TV, but there is a slight feeling of loss here.

For those who don't know, Firefly was a TV show created by Joss Whedon, who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Firefly was about the crew of a spaceship. Unlike the warships/exploration ships of Star Trek, the spaceship in question — the Serenity — was an obsolete cargo ship, and the crew were smugglers. The captain was Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, a sergeant on the losing side of the Unification War. Zoe Washburne was a corporal in his platoon, and together they formed the core of the Serenity's crew. Their pilot, "Wash", was Zoe's husband and an ace pilot. The ship's mechanic was a young woman named Kaylee who had a surprising affinity for machines. The crew was rounded out by Jayne Cobb (played by Adam Baldwin, in spite of the name), an untrustworthy — but not too bright — mercenary. Mal rented out one of the shuttles to Inara, a registered Companion (read geisha) who plied her trade from the shuttle while giving them access to people they wouldn't ordinarily give them the time of day. The ship had three passengers who became crew members: Shepherd Book, a man of the cloth with an interesting past (played brilliantly by Ron Glass of Barney Miller fame); Simon Tam, a doctor; River Tam, Simon's deranged sister. River had been experimented upon by the Alliance (the government that ruled the worlds), turning her into a telepath at the cost of her sanity. Simon rescued her, and the two were on the run.

Whedon created a wonderful universe. There were only something like 70 hospitable bodies where humans lived, and a lot of those were moons. There are no aliens in the Firefly 'verse (as known space was called). All of the conflict and horror came from humans. The scariest humans were the Reavers, who mutilated themselves and raided the outer worlds in horrible ways. Next were the Alliance, a monolithic big-brotherly government. The Serenity's crew were, essentially, Robin Hoods, robbing from the Alliance or the rich and giving to the poor (but usually for at least a small profit margin).

What attracted us to the show were the characters and the moral dilemmas brought on by the show's premise. In the first show to be aired, the crew takes on a job to rob a high-speed bullet train of a valuable cargo, only to discover that the cargo was medicine needed by the people in the settlement. If the crew returns the medicine they would have to deal with a dangerous crime lord. This set up the theme for the show.

It should be noted that the special effects are some of the best ever done for TV. G4, the game network, is running Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns. It's funny how old and cheap TNG looks compared to Firefly (the two are some 15 years apart), yet I'm betting Firefly had a fraction of the budget.

Firefly looks a lot like a western, which is intentional. The Browncoats (Mal's side in the Unification War) are essentially Confederates from the American Civil War. The Alliance is the Union. Many of the backwater worlds look like wild west towns. The weapons, although obviously advanced, look like western six-shooters. The core worlds, are more reminiscent of Blade Runner. Whedon patterned the fashion and social setting of the core world aristocracy on wealthy 19th century American families.

Firefly failed on television mostly because of meddling by the Fox Television network. Right from the word go they messed it up. They decided that the initial episode was too slow (it wasn't) and that they needed more action for the first episode. They ordered the second episode (the first 1 hour episode) to air first. This was the train robbery episode. You didn't get to know the characters or their motivations, which is a big problem with an ensemble cast. This episode looked more like a western than any other (well, except for the cattle rustler episode, I guess), which made the western motif look more like a parody than a homage. The two-hour episode, which set up the characters, didn't air for another month.

That train robbery episode was the only one I saw on TV when the show was broadcast in 2002. I thought it was interesting, but a little flat. I had too many questions and not enough interest in the characters. I set about religiously taping the show, but for some reason I never got around to watching the tapes. (To be fair, I was taping Angel, too, and never watched those, either.) I eventually stopped taping them about three quarters through the end of its run. The show was scrapped by the mid point of the season. Instead of 22 complete episodes, 11 were aired (including the two-hour initial episode) with a total of 14 complete. They didn't give the program chance to find an audience.

The show should have died right then and there. It didn't. Around mid-2003 I started hearing people on various internet groups say how good the show was and how they lamented its passing. The DVD was released at the end of August in 2003. It quickly shot to number one in Amazon's DVD sales ratings. Word of mouth kept the DVDs selling well for a year. Fan web sites appeared, and the fans started calling for more Firefly. According to a documentary on the Serenity disc, Joss Whedon started looking for a new home for the show right after it was cancelled. The cast members wished him well, but didn't expect anything to come of it.

The DVD sales are given as the reason for Firefly being resurrected as a movie. (To show you how ravenous some fans are about the show, the up-to-date sales rankings of the boxed DVD set on Amazon can be seen at . So far today it is ranked 12th.) Universal, and not Fox, bankrolled the film project. Pre-production began on Serenity in 2004, and the movie was released September 30, 2005.

The show can't seem to get any respect. I don't know why it was released in September, but that's a dry period for films. The marketing campaign seemed sort of muddled. Even though I knew the premise of the show, I wasn't sure what was happening in the film. Apparently it didn't attract too many people outside of hard core Firefly fans. The film had a production budget of $39 million (which is pretty miniscule these days) but only grossed about $25 million in North America. Worldwide gross brought it up to $38 million. I'm sure that DVD sales will make it profitable.

I don't think Serenity is all that accessible to non-fans. You had to see the series to truly appreciate what was happening. There wasn't as much character interaction in the film as there was in any given episode of the TV series. The character interactions that were there were watered-down versions of what we saw in the show. I suppose this is inevitable as they had to explain in a short time what took several hours to do on television. The sad parts of the film wouldn't hold emotional resonance for those whose first view of the 'verse was Serenity.

That having been said, Alana and I both thought Serenity was good. It wasn't a feature film so much as a completion for the series. You could see where Whedon was planning to take the series if Fox had let him. The 'verse was darker, and I thought it looked "better". It had less of a western and more of a sci-fi feel. The Operative, the villain of the film, shows Whedon's ability to create interesting, quirky characters that don't fall into cliche. I thought the big revelation at the end of the second act was well done, though the ending was perhaps a little pat. There are some sad parts, the power of which is testimony to Whedon's abilities to create a character (though I think the loss was more significant for those who watched the show).

Alana and I are both feeling sort of empty today, like having friends move away. I don't normally feel this way about a television series. Perhaps it is because most TV series last far too long, or perhaps its because most TV series don't have memorable characters. Alana compared Firefly's run to Everyone Loves Raymond. Neither of us can understand a world where Raymond lasts something like nine years on the same gag, while Firefly couldn't even complete a single season.

We picked up the Serenity roleplaying game a couple of weeks ago with a gift certificate Jason and Jimmy gave us to our local comic store. I would love to run a game of Serenity. Perhaps sometime in the future we can play the game and invent our own adventures in the 'verse, but we both know it won't be the same.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Bush deputy press secretary on spin cycle

This afternoon, Trent Duffy — President Bush's Deputy Press Secretary — was interviewed on CNN about a pre-Katrina tape that showed Bush was warned that the levees in New Orleans could be breached. In fact, the tape showed that National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield had deep concerns about it on August 28 and 29, 2005. Mayfield said, "I don't think anyone can tell you with confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that's obviously a very, very great concern." On September 1, Bush said, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff agreed with Bush's statement three days later.

In the CNN interview today, Duffy said that Bush "begged state and local officials" to begin mandatory evacuations. Yes, Bush "begged". Interestingly, according to the timeline on Wikipedia Bush phoned Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco on Sunday, August 28 to get her and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to order mandatory evacuations. That was the first time Bush brought it up. Nagin and Blanco already had a news conference scheduled and apparently they were already ordering the evacuation.

From Wikipedia (link):
9:30 am CDT (1430 UTC) - President Bush calls Governor Blanco, says he is "“very concerned about the storm'’s impact"”, and urges Blanco and Nagin to order a mandatory evacuation. The Mayor and the Governor had a press conference scheduled for 9:30 AM during which they announced the mandatory evacuation. It seems apparent that the phone call from President Bush did not cause them to call for a mandatory evacuation. "We're facing the storm most of us have feared," Nagin told an early-morning news conference, the governor at his side. Katrina was now a Category 5 hurricane, set to make landfall overnight. Minutes earlier, Blanco had been pulled out to take a call from the president, pressed into service by FEMA's Brown to urge a mandatory evacuation. Blanco told him that's just what the mayor would order.
The reference for the Wikipeida entry is here, at the Washington Post site.

So, Duffy said that Bush "begged" Blanco and Nagin to order mandatory evacuations, when evidently Bush brought it up at the same time that Blanco and Nagin were already going to do it. By saying "begged", Duffy makes it sound like Bush was calling for mandatory evacuations for hours or days before they were ordered, or had to push Nagin and Blanco into making the order, which isn't the case.

The White House has been emphasizing the part of the tape that puts Blanco and Nagin in a poor light. For instance, they are stressing a mid-day briefing on August 29 (the day the hurricane made landfall) where Blanco didn't know the levees were breached. The tape shows her saying, "We keep getting reports in some places that maybe water is coming over the levees. We heard a report unconfirmed. I think we have not breached the levee."

Of course the White House isn't mentioning the comments of U.S. Senator David Vitter made on Tuesday, August 30. Vitter said, ""I don't want to alarm everybody that, you know, New Orleans is filling up like a bowl. That's just not happening." This probably has something to do with Vitter being a Republican senator, while Blanco and Nagin are Democrats.

(Vitter's office is here in Monroe. The president of the company where I work suggested that folks vote for Vitter in the 2004 elections. Vitter's primary election ad dealt entirely with U.N. election observers present during U.S. elections, and how this was a bad thing. The ad showed fearful voters marching past soldiers, presumably U.N. soldiers, stationed outside of polling centres.)

So the Bush administration's spokespeople are on spin cycle. CNN being CNN they didn't hammer Duffy on his "begged" comment. Repeat after me, "liberal media bias", "liberal media bias"... feeling sleepy yet?