Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Local parsonage flies the Confederate battle flag during Black History Month

Alana sent me this link to an article in the Monroe News-Star:

A local parsonage has been flying the Confederate battle flag for most of this month, which just happens to be Black History Month. The pastor claims that the flag usually flies for a day or two at a time but has been too busy to bring down the flag.

As Alana points out, more interesting than the article itself are the comments left by local readers. They fall into three broad camps: "the flag is racist" camp, "the flag is about heritage" camp, and "the flag is protected free speech" camp. There are the inevitable comments about the flag issue being "political correctness", and the derogatory comments about the U.S. having a Black History Month.

I agree that the flying of the Confederate battle flag is free speech. Whether or not it should be condoned... Hmmm, that's a good question. The Constitution allows it to be flown. On the other hand, how would folks visiting the Jewish cemetery down the street from where I work feel about someone flying a swastika? I can't condone legislation banning the battle flag, but the argument that it's all about heritage doesn't fly with me, either.

I posted a reply on the forum site. It's buried on the third page, so I'll reprint it here.

The memories of hatred, bigotry and fear inspired by the Confederate battle flag come from the Reconstruction and afterwards. The battle flag was used by Klan members to drum up hatred-based support for discrimination. It was used as a rallying symbol by those who terrorized blacks to drive them out of a community or to silence them, or to put them "in their place". Regardless of what it meant during the war, post-Civil War it became a strong symbol of the anti-democratic bullying done by white supremacists.

There are plenty of Southerners who are justifiably proud of their ancestors' gallantry in the Civil War. Unfortunately, the symbol their ancestors fought under was usurped and desecrated in the Reconstruction era by white supremacists.

This is where the divide falls. On the one hand, the flag is a symbol of honor under which the ancestors of white Southerners fought. On the other hand, the flag is a symbol of terror and murder under which the ancestors of black Southerners suffered. The fault isn't "political correctness". The fault lies with those who chose to murder, terrorize, and hate while flying the battle flag. They tarnished it.

Flying the battle flag, in my opinion, is thoughtless and insensitive. It basically says, "My right to honor my ancestor with this symbol trumps your right to grieve for your ancestor who feared this symbol."

What's interesting is that there is already another symbol available for honoring Civil War ancestors: the Stars and Bars, the official flag of the Confederacy in 1861. (The battle flag is not the Stars and Bars.) This flag looks very much like the Stars and Stripes (which is why it was disused in battle), with a field of stars and three bars instead of 13 stripes. It is the flag that flies over the Confederate burial trenches at the Shiloh battlefield to this day, and it is the only flag symbolizing the Confederacy through the entire struggle.

You could argue that the Confederate battle flag was racist even during the war, as it symbolized a nation that codified slavery into its constitution. The same could be said of the Stars and Bars. You'd be right, but you'd then have to argue that the Stars and Stripes was a symbol of racism. The Union had slave states until the adoption of the 13th Amendment after the Civil War, and the United States had "Black Code" laws and slavery prior to the war, and "Jim Crow" laws after the war.

Interestingly enough, while the "heritage versus hate" argument continues in the forum, no one has bothered to comment on my post...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Health insurance follies

We're losing our current health insurance company. The Vantage Health Plan will no longer be available to state employees in this area. Actually, we're in the only region where this health plan is available to state employees. Not sure why, except that Vantage has a big presence in this area. Vantage is expensive, but it gives the best coverage for what you pay. Of course what we pay is too much, and we were potentially looking at having to drop one of us due to the expense, but at least it covered a lot without having to meet a huge deductible.

Alana was never able to get the scoop on why they pulled out. I've heard, alternately, that they decided not to put in an offer, and that they were not asked to put in an offer. Don't know which, if either, is true, just that as of July they will no longer cover us.

Alana told me today that as a replacement they'll be offering coverage by Humana. Humana is the option for the state employees in every other region. It's apparently cheaper than Vantage (though that's yet to be seen, as they will likely increase their rates this year) while offering similar coverage.

The point is, we're left at the whim of whatever insurance company Alana's employer chooses to go with. In this case we might actually be better off, though we're not counting on it.

What struck me was the juxtaposition of our situation and President Bush's radio address on the weekend. The president has decided that it's time he tackled health care. The problem he decided to focus on was the way health insurance was taxed. If you get health insurance through an employer, you can have the premiums deducted from your pay cheque as pre-tax. This means it comes off your taxable earnings, and you don't pay tax on it. According to Alana, this is also the case if you are self employed. If you are not self employed but have private health insurance (not through an employer) you don't get this benefit. The president sees this as an unfair imbalance, which on the face of it appears to be the case, and he wants to give tax credits for people with private insurance.

Digging deeper you realize that this is just another tax cut for the rich. Private health insurance in the U.S. is expensive. Prohibitively expensive. People in our economic frame can't afford private health insurance. It's why there are so many millions without health insurance: if your employer doesn't offer it, you can't afford it.

The only people who have private health insurance are retirees and the wealthy. Retirees on Medicaid Part-D don't have much of an income, so a tax credit doesn't do them much good. This credit is aimed at those wealthy few who can afford private insurance, the wealthy few who don't need a tax credit.

Is it unfair that Alana and I get a tax break while someone with private insurance does not? Sure it is. At the same time, it's not fair that I have less access to politicians than someone who is rich. It's unfair that a far smaller proportion of my income can be classed as disposable.

I question the wisdom of this initiative at a time when there's a huge budget deficit and so many millions of people are without any insurance at all. Of all the problems with health insurance in the U.S., this seemed the least important.

I guess there must be an election coming up sometime in the fairly near future...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscar night

We watched the Academy Awards show last night. I actually like watching the program, particularly when I can do some web surfing at the same time. It's one of those wonderful shows where only about 20% of it is actual content. This makes it perfect for surf viewing. (Yes, I just coined that phrase!)

As much as I love Jon Stewart, I have to say that Ellen DeGeneres was much better. I laughed out loud several times at her performance. (Not as much as I laughed tonight at Jon Stewart's self-deprecating humour on The Daily Show. I had tears streaming down my face at the line, "Once Peter O'Toole tastes panda, there's no stopping him.") They could have done without the dancers... or the songs. In particular, what the hell was that song Celine Dion was singing? I always thought that instead of running those stupid bits, they should actually run the animation short nominees. Or, later on in the show, they could actually run the Best Animated Short and Best Live Action Short (whatever the actual name for that award is). Hey, they could even run the best acceptance speeches from the technical Oscars!

I used to try to watch as many Oscar nominees for best film as I could. I hardly saw more than two or three, but I at least tried (often after the fact, like a month or two after the Oscars). This year I've only seen one, the winner for the best picture, The Departed. Alana got it for me on DVD as a Valentine's present. We watched it last Tuesday.

I really liked the film. Was it flawless? No. There was a point about half way through that it dragged a little. I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending. I've come to the conclusion that Matt Damon is going to be a wonderful actor when he's in his 50s but right now he's just a little too good looking. Mark Wahlberg is good looking, too, but he has a grittier look about him. It's hard to think of Matt Damon as a real person, sometimes.

This week's Entertainment Weekly had the Oscar picks of three members of the Academy. All three felt that The Departed would not win. They attacked the casting of the film. Personally, I liked the cast. I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was particularly good. I certainly felt for the character. And Jack Nicholson was, well, Jack Nicholson...

An indicator of a film's worth is how much it haunts me in the days after I've watched it. I still think about scenes from The Departed a week later. It reminds me a lot of when I saw Reservoir Dogs...

As you can tell, I enjoyed the film. I heartily recommend it.

I checked out the Best Picture nominations from the last couple of years.

From the 2003 Academy Awards the only two films I haven't seen are Master and Commander (which I own, albeit as a used DVD) and Mystic River. Both are on my list of movies to watch.

From 2004 I have The Aviator (again used; most of our DVDs the last couple of years have been "pre-owned) but haven't seen. I'd like to see Sideways. I haven't seen the others and they don't really grab me.

I'm not sure I want to see Crash, last year's winner. Or, rather, I'm not sure I want to pay to see it. I do have Good Night and Good Luck (used). I want to see Capote and Munich. I'm not sure about Brokeback Mountain, mainly because of the country theme. (Seriously.)

Strangely enough, I want to see all of this year's nominees. Babel was the one I wasn't sure about, but the reviews (even the negative ones) have me curious. I already wanted to see The Queen and Little Miss Sunshine. I would have gone to see Letters From Iwo Jima but it never played in Monroe!

(I almost bought Flags of Our Fathers, the sister movie to Letters. It wasn't on sale, though, and there were no extras. It was obvious that it was just thrown out to attract interest in Letters. I decided to wait to see if they sell them together in a boxed set later this year.)

Of the other big movies from this year I also want to watch Pan's Labyrinth and The Last King of Scotland.

I will, of course, post if I see any of these films. I'm sure this time next year I'll be mentioning how I haven't seen any of them... Okay, except for Letters From Iwo Jima. I will see that this year!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Me and my ADD

I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). You might have guessed if you noticed my infrequent postings. Oddly enough, the people who knew me in Canada doubted it. I often received comments like, "We're all like that sometimes."

My ADD hit home for me this weekend. Bear with me, the story starts like a non sequitur. I have a spaceship fighter combat game called Silent Death, released in the late 80s/early 90s. The most recent version is from the mid 90s. In 2000, someone came up with a version for Star Wars — with complete rules — printed in a magazine and now available as a PDF online. I have some old Micromachines Star Wars figures that I collected specifically for Silent Death before these rules were published. Last week I thought Logan would enjoy them. He loves Star Wars, after all. I thought they would make a good introduction to sci-fi spaceship miniature gaming. To that end, I started creating ship record sheets (data on the ships is written down on a "record sheet"). I had already started this process, so I finished it on Friday. Yesterday I copied the file from the laptop to the desktop computer for printing. Windows asked me if I wanted to overwrite the old file. The old file was on our previous desktop computer, and was moved to the new computer. The new file was dated February 23, 2007 at 10:19 p.m. The old file was dated February 23, 2002 at 8:14 pm.

Besides the weird coincidence of the files being almost exactly five years apart was the realization that I had started the project five years ago, and was only now getting around to finishing it. I just stopped and stared at the computer for what must have been a minute...

ADD is poorly understood by ordinary people. I've heard people say, "I must have ADD," when they forget to finish something. There's a widespread belief that it's not real, that it's just stress or an artifact of modern day life. It's also known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivivity Disorder, ADHD. ADD is ADHD without the hyperactivity. I was not hyperactive as a kid. I did take Ritalin, but as an adult. It didn't do much for me, though Dexedrine did.

I was diagnosed with ADD in the late 1990s, but I suspected it for a year or two before I had it diagnosed. I saw an article online and took an online test, and was shocked to find that I scored very high on the test.

ADD is an inability to focus on something that doesn't interest you, or something that falls out of interest. For me it's like a hole in my mind. I can see the hole, I can see the thing thing that does not interest me, but I can't focus on it. I know it's there because I can see the hole. One of the key components of ADD and ADHD is that it does not have adult onset: it's a brain chemical problem, and you have it from birth. The first real memory I have of knowing something was wrong was from grade 4. We were learning about the Wright brothers (a subject that interests me, and would normally interest me then). The teacher wrote a very boring essay on the chalkboard which we were expected to copy down. I remember exactly what I wrote of that essay. I wrote, "1903:". That was it. I didn't think about it again, until it was time for the test. I remember the horror of opening my notebook and seeing that single date... Needless to say, I failed the test and almost failed the subject.

(Aside: I credit this experience with my love of history. Mum made me go to the library and study Social Studies that summer. Not knowing what was on the curriculum, the poor, young librarian found me a book about Marco Polo. I was fascinated by it, though it turned out to not be anything I'd study in grade 5.)

When you have ADD you can't be interested in that something that does not interest you. It's a chemical thing. The brain of someone with ADD is not stimulated in the least by that which does not interest them. This causes problems at work and at school. What if you have a boring duty that you have to do? Well... that's where the problem comes in.

I mentioned to someone on a mailing list last year that I have ADD. They wrote back saying, "I have a learning disability, too." That angered me. I didn't think of myself as having a learning disability. Of course I do. When I look back at school I see a lacklustre student, particularly in high school and university. I went to college after university and performed very well, mostly because everything I took interested me while university was full of stuff that the school thought I needed to learn to be "well rounded". My marks at school should have been much better. With one exception, I got straight A's in computing at university and college.

It's that hole, you see. If you don't find it interesting you have trouble even focusing on it. I can be interested in something and then I start to lose interest. Something else comes up, and I shelve the other thing. It can escape my notice for a while, then it drops back in history as other things capture my attention. It doesn't help that I'm an obsessive personality. (And it's a bit unsettling having a psychologist tell you all this!)

Funny enough, when the pressure is on and the time limit comes down on me, that... interests me. Suddenly I can do what, up until then, I couldn't do. It's one reason I work well under pressure. It's also why I can't seem to get miniature painting projects done unless I have a convention game coming up, or someone who pops up and says, "I really want to play that game!"

Another benefit is my ability to multi-task. I can keep several things going at once. Odd as that might seem, but when multiple things interest me at once I can bounce from one to the other without much trouble.

A side effect of the ADD is an odd phenomenon when I get stuck wanting to do something but I can't decide what to do. It doesn't happen at work, just at home. I get torn between doing on of two things, but can't decide which. It's like a circuit breaker being thrown on and off, back and forth. I end up doing nothing as a result. I had that happen to me today. I haven't had it happen in a while. For some reason it hit today. I think it's the avoidance of this problem that causes me to have so many hobbies, or at least projects, on the go at once.

Medicine can help. Stimulants stimulate the brain, artificially creating the chemicals that should have been created naturally. Unfortunately, the types of medicines that do this are stimulants. Ritalin didn't do much, as I noted, but it apparently doesn't do much in adults anyway. Dexedrine can be addictive. It didn't affect me that way, and it did give me some measure of control, but I didn't like some of the side effects. I've yet to try Concerta. I keep meaning to talk to my doctor about it, but...

So, if you see that I haven't posted in a while you have an inkling why. If I seem fixated on certain things, and rarely mention others, you'll know why. And if this seems out of the blue, well, it's something I've been thinking about for a while and kept meaning to write in the blog. The timing of the game files yesterday made it appropriate. Why didn't I write about it yesterday? I was busy doing something else...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I be permanent!

It finally came!

My permanent green card arrived in the mail today! It was sort of anti-climactic, really. I was expecting to have to go to some government office to get it. I couldn't remember if I had to pick up the previous one personally. Now that I think about it, I believe it showed up in the mail.

So, how is this green card different from the last one? Well, beside costing over $300, it doesn't expire until Valentine's Day of 2017. (Alana said she thought it fitting that the card of someone she loved so much was issued on Valentine's Day. Awwwww!) If you get your U.S. green card through marriage, it's only good for two years. The immigrant is a Permanent Resident Alien (Conditional). From 90 days before it expires until it expires you have to apply to get the conditions taken off. (Basically they want to make sure you didn't just get married to work in the U.S.)

Now that the conditions are off, our immigration travails are over for 10 years. Before the card expires, in a decade, I'll have to apply to have the card extended. Assuming, of course, that I don't become a U.S. citizen. Right now I have to admit that I'm leaning away from going the citizenship route. Alana doesn't want me to lose my previous citizenships, so that we'll have a chance of emigrating to a country with health care for seniors when we retire. Now, I can keep my Canadian citizenship and become a U.S. citizen, but I'm already a dual citizen having been born in Scotland. Although it has expired, I have a European passport. If I became an American I'd probably have to renounce my British/Euro citizenship, which is something Alana does not want me to do.

There are other reasons to think twice about U.S. citizenship, including the fact that once you become a U.S. citizen the IRS owns your ass. They want you to pay income tax for the rest of your life (or until you renounce your American citizenship).

At any rate, the culmination of several year's effort and at least $1500 came to fruition today! I am now a Permanent Resident Alien (without conditions)!

As an aside, the picture on the card was the one they took in Jackson, MS back in October. In spite of sending picture after picture in to the government, they didn't use any on my green card. What they did use is hard to make out. Seriously, you'd be hard pressed to say for certain that the guy on the picture was me! At least they corrected an issue on the old card. In all the paperwork I sent in they asked my citizenship and where I was born. I always answered "Canadian" and "Scotland" (which the U.S. government always dutifully changed to "Great Britain"). My old card said "Country of Birth: Canada", which was wrong. This one actually has, "Country of Birth: Great Britain", which is correct. Glad to see that someone in the USCIS is on the ball!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Unintended consequences

Speaking of fossil fuels...

I see that the Law of Unintended Consequences is hitting hard with respect to bio-fuels. Biodiesel is a mixture of diesel oil and a biologically created fluid that is capable of being burned in a diesel engine. One of our clients sells B2, B5, B10, B20, B50, B99 and B100 biodiesel (the number represents the percentage of biological fluid, usually derived from vegetable oil or processed from soy beans, in the mixture; B2 is 2% soy, while B100 is 100% soy).

Biodiesel is touted as cleaner burning than diesel (which some have debated) and it's made from a renewable resource (which is not debatable).

There's a problem, though. Biodiesel has become successful enough that it's driven up the demand for soy products. As such, there's a new demand for soy bean fields. In Brazil, huge tracts of rain forest have been cleared to make way for soy fields to catch up on the demand.

The problem is that rain forests are dense with vegetation. Soy bean fields are nowhere near as dense with regard to vegetable biomass. The rain forest is much, much better at scrubbing the atmosphere of carbon dioxide than a soy bean field. There's a big fear, now, that because of this clearing of the rain forest to make way for biodiesel-fueled (pun intended) soy bean fields, the atmosphere will actually end up with more CO2 in it, not less!

There's also the problem of how many years you can plant a soy bean field in one place...

A better solution would be to figure out a way to convert rain forest biomass into a fuel, particularly from fast growing vines. Then growing and harvesting the rain forest might be a viable alternative. Instead, developing nations are pushing biodiesel and ethanol without considering what the consequences might be.

Hydrogen fuel would be the way to go, as it's clean and abundant, if it wasn't for the little problem of most of Earth's hydrogen being tied with oxygen in water. You can pass electricity through water to release the hydrogen, but that requires more energy than you can get out of a hydrogen atom short of fusing it (and no one has figured out how to make a working, self-sustaining, viable fusion reactor). The solution to this problem is more electricity... in the form of nuclear reactors.

Let's face it, there are no easy answers to the global warming and fuel scarcity problems. A fundamental law of the universe is "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch".

News, entertainment, or none of the above?

This is today's Candorville comic. I laughed out loud at it not just because it's funny, but because Alana and I were talking about this very thing over the weekend.

Click on the comic for a larger version. (In case you can't make it out, the fat guy has "Mainstream Media" written across his t-shirt):

Ironically, a little over an hour ago the local NBC affiliate used Anna Nicole Smith to introduce a story. They said something like, "Don't let the Anna Nicole Smith tragedy happen to you. Watch our segment on estate planning!" Okay, that was a paraphrase, but not by much. (Lord, but I hate the local TV stations here in Monroe...)

According to The Daily Show last week, CNN spent more time in one segment uninterrupted by commercials on Smith's death than on any story in recent years except 9/11.

Why is the death of this woman getting so much air play? Yes, it was a tragedy that she died so soon after her son, and that she left a baby behind... a now rather rich, custody-entangled baby. But other than having blond hair, big boobs (which she happily showed off in Playboy), marrying an old rich guy, and acting like a drunk prostitute on her own MTV (or was it VH1?) reality show, what did she ever do that was the least bit noteworthy?

Alana is disgusted that so much time was spent on the Smith case while Laura Edwards, a woman I trained last year, went missing without a peep on the national news. (Her body was later found. Apparently a suicide note was also uncovered.) What happened to Laura would be a much better story to cover, one that had the potential to help thousands of other people out there. Instead, a ditzy blond with a penchant for barbiturates is covered ad nauseum.

I can only assume that someone is watching all these half-witted talking heads, like Nancy Grace, go on and on about Smith's death. Otherwise they wouldn't bother pushing it. Forget the fact that the world would be much better off if the same time was spent debating global warming, fossil fuel replacements, or the continued state of decay in the Katrina-ravaged Gulf coast.

I see that a new horror channel will be starting up soon. I keep hoping that somewhere in the 500+ cable channel universe someone would actually do a news channel...

Final Delta Green write-up posted

The problem with not running a game on a regular basis is that there's not a lot of incentive to finish game write-ups. Last year we finished our last Delta Green game, and took a break from Delta Green and the Cthulhu Mythos to play some other roleplaying games. After an abortive attempt at Nobilis, we began playing Eden Studios' All Flesh Must Be Eaten zombie game, and are just about to start an Arc Dreams Wild Talents superhero game.

The Delta Green write-ups took a lot of my free time to write up, partly because of my use of a voice recorder for notes. I tended to be too thorough with my notes. Without the pressure of an upcoming session, and with the time pressure required to finish a write-up, there was always something else in life that took precedence. When February 2 rolled along and I realized we last played the Delta Green scenario five months ago, I knew I had left the scenario write-up for far too long. I made it my goal to finish the write-up before the six month mark.

The last session was the September 3 session. This completes the campaign set in hurricane ravaged New Orleans. It is also the last Delta Green scenario write-up, at least for now.

You can find these and other write-ups on the Modern Day Delta Green write-ups page.

Will we play Delta Green again? I talked to Alana about that, and she mentioned how she missed her Agent Maya character and the Delta Green campaign. For my part, I enjoyed Delta Green but after three years of running DG games, and about four years of running it in the late 90s, and 2000, I think I've explored most of what could be explored with regard to the Delta Green organization. Oh, there's plenty of stuff in the Cthulhu Mythos to play with. It's just that I'm tired of the limitations of the Delta Green organization (the shadow organization within the U.S. government). You can get a hint of this in the New Orleans campaign, particularly with regard to the beginning of the campaign and the changes I introduced. I was taking Delta Green in a different direction.

I'd like to explore those changes. I'd also like to try something different. There may be a way I can have both of these options. Eden Studios came out with Conspiracy X a few years ago. Last year they ported the game universe to their Unisystem game system, the same one used in All Flesh Must Be Eaten. Con X (as it's called) is definitely inspired by The X-Files (while Delta Green was created initially before The X-Files, and so it just happens to cover some of the same ground). In Con X you play members of a government agency investigating the supernatural. Unlike in Delta Green, Con X characters are sanctioned by the government, and thus have better access to resources. They are essentially the "good" contingent of Majestic-12, with a "bad" contingent to deal with, along with a number of other conflicting groups. From what I can see, the Con X antagonists are quite a bit different from each other. There are more entities in the Cthulhu Mythos, but aside from Hastur and the Mi-Go, the rest seem to be more of a variation on the same theme: interstellar evil things with human minions.

With the Mythos as an inspiration, I think Conspiracy X offers a broader range of antagonists than Delta Green. I may be wrong, but I'd like to find out.

Anyway, it will be a little while before I find out. We still have to finish the All Flesh Must Be Eaten campaign, and then I'll be back to the Cthulhu Mythos with a classic Call of Cthulhu game. We'll see what happens after that.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

My MP3 software

I didn't have much to do with MP3 files until Daniel got his MP3 player a year ago Christmas. Then I found that manipulating sound files wasn't what you would call easy. I started digging around big time when I received my own MP3 player last June. Since I've been doing a bunch of ripping and converting recently, I thought I'd post what I've found.

All of the software I mention in this post is freeware (and for Windows; sorry Mac owners!). I'm poor; I looked for software that didn't cost anything. There may be other professional programs that are "all in one" or easier to use (though that would be a surprise), but these are all freeware or donationware (the creator wants you to donate money, to them or a charity).

As I mentioned in a November post, you can do pretty much everything you want with an MP3 player using Microsoft's Windows Media Player. It's just not that friendly and it's not at all flexible. You can expect it to be inflexible if it's simple enough for 80 year old grandmas to use, but it's not. So, given that it's not all that friendly lets look at some other programs you need to manipulate MP3s.

Okay, first of all some legal stuff.

The legality of whether or not you can copy songs from a CD you bought and play them on your MP3 player is somewhat questionable in the United States. I've seen online information suggesting that it falls under "fair use" and is legal. The record companies, of course, want you to believe otherwise. To that end, they use various forms of DRM (digital rights management).

The iTunes store, for instance, encodes the files you download such that you can't simply convert them to .mp3 format for use in a non-iPod mp3 player. Instead, they want you to either a) buy an iPod, or b) burn the file on a CD. iTunes also only allows you to play their music on five different computers. Since there's no DRM built into regular CD players (as yet) you can cut a CD from your computer and play it in the car, or on your home stereo. You can then rip the song off the CD and convert it to an .mp3 format, and then you can load it into your non-iPod MP3 player.

So why not allow you to just dump it into .mp3 format to begin with? Because .mp3 format doesn't have DRM, and there's nothing stopping you from sending it to your friends, or sharing it over the Internet. Forget the fact that you can still do this by burning it onto a CD (presumably this loophole is being plugged later).

It's all moot because there are programs out there that will let you get around a lot of the DRM stuff, if you happen to look for them.

Besides, it's not even illegal in some jurisdictions. The U.S. has the most strict anti-copying laws in the world, largely because the recording companies have deep pockets and politicians living in those pockets. Canada, on the other hand, allows copying of music you purchased for your own personal use. This goes back to the 1990s when Canada started collecting royalties on each blank audio cassette purchased. The record companies were happy to get the money, and gleefully rubbed their palms at the idea that the Canadian government was helpfully clawing back money from all those people breaking copyright law (and those who were using cassettes for non-copyright infringing reasons; I think that amounted to five or six people). This turned out to be a deal with the devil, because since Canadians were paying royalties the government thought it only fair that copying music be legal! This is an oversimplification, but basically in Canada you can copy music you bought from your own personal CD to MP3 format for use on your MP3 player.

So, it's entirely up to you to find out if doing anything mentioned in this post is illegal in your jurisdiction. To paraphrase the old Rock and Roll Doctor skit, I don't condone copying, I just prescribe it...

Oh, and I'm not going to go and define all these formats. I'm not going to tell you the difference between MPEG-3 and MPEG-4. Go look it up in Wikipedia if you're interested. I'm only going to give practical info.

I will mention this: MP3 files can be stored at various quality levels. This is given as a number of bits per second. Basically, MP3s are digital sound files. The MP3 player can fill in the gaps if some information is missing. So, by lowering the number of bits per second used to create the sound file you can shrink the size of the file. Of course the more bits you lose the worse the music sounds. How much is acceptable is up to the individual. Spoken word files, such as books on tape/CD, can go to lower quality as it's only a human voice you're listening to.


Audiograbber should be the first piece of software you install. It is known as a "ripper". It allows you to grab individual tracks from your CD player. More than that, it also allows you to import audio files from a line-in source plugged into your computer's sound card.

Audiograbber lists the tracks on a CD and lets you save in two formats: Wave (.wav) or MP3 (.mp3). Wave files are "lossless", meaning that they sound as good as they did on the CD. They are also big. If you plan to copy a CD, or make a compilation CD, you'll want to rip the tracks in Wave format. If you want the tracks for your MP3 player, you'll want to save them in MP3 format to save space. Audiograbber lets you choose the quality of your MP3 files.

You can get Audiograbber here:


So you ripped a track for use on a compilation CD or on your MP3 player. Unfortunately, the song merges with the next track so you have this ugly cut at at the end of the song. It would be so nice if you could fade it out.

That's where Audacity comes in. Audacity lets you edit sound files. It can handle five or six formats, but the important ones are MP3 and Wave.

Fading in and fading out are the reasons I picked up the program. I've used it for a bunch of other things, too. A later program, Switch, caused some problems that I had to fix with Audacity. We also received a couple of free downloads for Sony's Connect online service. I downloaded a song for Alana to use as a ringtone on her phone. It was an older song, and when you elevated the sound to a level loud enough for a ringtone it hissed something awful. Audacity cleaned it up nicely.

Get Audacity here: I have version 1.26. I'm debating grabbing the beta version, too.


Both Audiograbber and Audacity need LAME. LAME stands for LAME Ain't an MP3 Encoder. In fact, it is an MP3 encoder. What's an MP3 encoder? It's the work horse of the two programs I've mentioned above: it takes the source file and strips bits from it (making it smaller) while still making it listenable.

Neither Audiograbber nor Audacity come with an MP3 encoder. This allows you to pick and choose encoders. You need one, so get LAME, install it into a directory, and point Audiograbber and Audacity to it. Don't worry about what it does, just get it.

You find it here:

MP3 Tag Tools

MP3 files don't just include the music. They have a bunch of "tags" with information about the music: name of the song/track, the artist, the album, track number, year, and even the musical genre. MP3 players can use most, if not all, of these tags, allowing you to pick and choose what music you are listening to on your player.

In the course of ripping songs or downloading songs, you're going to want to edit some of these tags. On my MP3 player I group songs together in "albums". For instance, I have over 20 Tragically Hip songs in a folder (album) on the MP3 player called "Tragically Hip Sampler". These songs all came from several CDs. I want them on a single "virtual album" on the MP3 player for those days when I feel like listening to The Tragically Hip's "greatest hits". I have a bunch of other songs that come from a host of albums. I've cherry picked songs, but I have them all on a virtual album called "Singles".

To put these songs into the virtual albums I had to edit the album tag on the MP3s. I also wanted to put the songs in a particular order, so I edited the track number tag. You can do this with Audiograbber, but if you forget or mess up, you need some way of fixing the problem without having to rip the songs again. To do this, I used MP3 Tag Tools ver. 1.2.

It's an odd little program with some idiosyncrasies. Basically, you have a list of tracks on your computer and a bunch of fields on the screen, one field per tag. If you check off the box beside a tag you can edit the tag. This is the important part: if you highlight a bunch of songs, write something in the tag field, and then click the Write Tag button, all those songs will have that tag set to what you just typed. So, changing some 200-odd songs to the album "Singles" is a breeze. Caveat: it's easy to overwrite a tag that you didn't want overwritten. As an example, if you accidentally leave the artist tag unchecked you may find you've attributed every one of your songs in your Singles "album" to The Smashing Pumpkins!

Download MP3 Tag Tools here:


There are a bunch of people who don't like Apple's iTunes store and its use of DRM. As I mentioned above, if you want to convert something you bought from iTunes to MP3 format you have to first burn it on a CD.

Apple iTunes songs are in .m4p format, a DRM protected MPEG-4 format. The ingenious QTFairUse program converts these to the unprotected .m4a MPEG-4 format. The way it does it is cool. It has the iTunes program play the music very quickly on your computer (though it doesn't bother throwing it to your sound card). iTunes has to decrypt the protected song to play it. As the song is decrypted, QTFairUse grabs it and saves it in the unencrypted .m4a format.

Once it's in .m4a format you just need to process it with another program to get it into MP3 format. At least it saves you money in burning CDs...

I discovered the program on this forum site, which includes download links:


I originally used Windows Media Player to rip songs off some CDs and put them on my MP3 player. One problem: the program stored them in .wma format, Windows own Media Player format. Microsoft claims that it's a superior format to MP3, but I disagree. I notice there is a slight difference in sound, but I couldn't say one was better than the other. They are just different. What's more, unless I'm missing something I can't change quality settings for .wma files. Worse, as far as I can tell you have limited tag editing ability for .wma files.

So, I wanted all my files in MP3 format. This is where Switch comes in. It allows you to convert from one file format to another. It can import a bunch of file formats and save them as one of a bunch of file formats. At the very least it allows you to import Wave files and export them as MP3. Audacity allows you to do that, too, but Switch is faster.

I did have a problem with the second to last version of the program. When I converted a bunch of files from .wma to .mp3, the program duplicated the first half a second of the song at the beginning. No big deal if the song faded in quietly, but for several songs the "bug" was annoying. I was able to perform surgery on the tracks using Audacity, though.

Other than converting Wave files to MP3, Switch is also used for converting .m4a files "recovered" from QTFairUse into Wave or MP3 format.

This progam, by an Australian outfit, is here:


iTunes isn't the only company with obnoxious DRM files. Sony's Connect download store, and it's SonicStage software, store files in protected .oma format. Sony will let you burn .oma songs to CDs as long as they didn't come from a CD or you didn't buy it from their site.

Enter HiMdRenderer, a program that first saw life with use in Sony Minidiscs. The program is pretty rough looking as far as the interface goes. However, it does the job, converting .oma files to Wave files.

The owner's web page is, itself, pretty rough: I couldn't figure out how to download it from there.

No matter, you can get download information here:

Or, download it directly:

CD Burners

I haven't mentioned any CD burners. That's because I use Roxio's RecordNow (formerly Sonic's RecordNow), which came with the laptop. I've also burned CDs using Media Player. I used to own Nero. It was a pretty extensive burning program, but the company isn't good at giving upgrade discounts (and, a few years ago when I bought it, I had to sick my credit card company after them because they charged my credit card twice and demanded I mail them documentation proving it). For any of the CDs I've wanted to burn, what came with the computer did me just fine.

RecordNow will let you rip songs from several CDs and burn them onto one CD. I find it easier to rip them manually with Audiograbber. That way I can rip songs over the course of a couple of days and then combine them into one CD later.

That should give you pretty much anything you need for MP3s. Remember: this is just a helpful service. I make no promises as to how well these programs work. My virus checker didn't complain when I downloaded the files, but that doesn't mean that one or more of then couldn't be infected by the time you download them.

* * *

I will point out one thing: I use Windows Media Player as my default media player. Musicmatch Jukebox came with the laptop and it wants to be the default player. The Musicmatch program has a long start up time. It insists on playing audio CDs all the time, too, which is a pain when you swap CDs when ripping songs. For simply playing music, Media Player has a small footprint and a short load time.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Galaxy Song

Someone at work sent this to me. It's a link to "The Galaxy Song", performed by Eric Idle in the movie Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

New Orleans in Lego

Someone at work sent these pictures around. I believe they are from Legoland in California. I don't know who took the pictures. These are pics of New Orleans... in Lego!

Click on the image for a larger version.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Hillary's waffling

It's been ages since I blogged. I've been spending a lot of time writing my Gettysburg essay for my web site. I'm up past about 20,000 words and I'm only now starting the description of the actual battle (though, in actuality, the battle is easier to describe than the political and military maneuvers before the battle).

While watching TV I saw that Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama are dealing with the decision to go to war in different ways. Obama has it easy: he wasn't a senator at the time and he came out against the war early on. Clinton has the most to explain, as she voted for the resolution to go to war.

When asked about the war, she says that she knew then what she knows now she wouldn't have voted for it. Several other Democratic presidential hopefuls have apologized for voting for the war. Clinton hasn't, though she's come close.

This, in my estimation, is stupid. The Democratic response appears to be, "The war in Iraq was a huge mistake, we shouldn't have gone over there at all." This doesn't play well to those who think the Democrats would be soft on terror.

What Hillary should say is pretty simple: "I voted for the war in Iraq, based on what I knew at the time. I believed the president when he said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and when he said there was a connection between Iraq and Al Quaida. I believe voting for the war under those conditions was correct. If I had known there were no weapons of mass destruction, there was no connection to Al Quaida, and that the administration would do a terrible job of occupying the country after the purely military phase, I would not have voted for the war."

Such a position would allow her to brush off criticisms of her vote, and in fact show that she's not afraid to go to war if teh situation warrants it. It would let her stand equal to Obama with an opposite opinion.

Instead, she's waffling. She's close to apologizing for the vote, which gives the edge to Obama. She effectively agrees with him, but has to admit that she didn't see the situation with the clarity he did. If she stands by her vote she could debate Obama, asking him some tough questions, like under what circumstances would he go to war?

In case I'm misunderstood, I have no real opinion about the ability of any of the Democratic candidates. Not only is it way to early to make any kind of opinion, but I don't get to vote anyway. If anything, I don't like any of the front runners from either party.

What I'm commenting on is the tendency of politicians to play it safe. It reminds me of Bob Dole and Al Gore. Both men are known in private to have a good sense of humour. Neither of them showed this on the campaign trail. Dole, in particular, surprised me. I remember him being on Letterman the night after he lost to Bill Clinton. He came across as human, warm, and funny. None of that came out during the campaign.

Expect to see Hillary Clinton apologize for her vote. It's the safest thing to do, so it's also the likeliest thing she'll do...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Kodak takes another stab at survival

So I was watching CNN Headline News at lunch today. They popped up with a story about Kodak trying something else to survive in the consumer imaging market. I had to chuckle at the story, not just because CNN made two mistakes about Kodak in their little 30 second story, but because of what I know of Kodak's relationship with digital imaging.

The second mistake CNN was pretty easy to make: the woman reading the story said that film photography was dead. Well, it may seem that way but it's not. It's just moribund. It will never die, though. What, you think it will? Nope. People are still make daguerreotypes for heaven's sake. You can still buy spool film. Some professionals still use film (landscape photographers are still fairly big into film). There are industrial applications that need it. The main reason is resolution. About the best resolution you can get in a professional camera is around the 20 megapixel range (which is the rating of film resolution in millions of pixels — dots — per picture). Good quality ISO 100 film has approximately 15,000 megapixels!

The first mistake was when they introduced the segment with the phrase, "Kodak is late to digital photography". This is so stupid a comment that it's obvious that no one at CNN bothered to phone Kodak to verify it. Kodak partnered with Nikon to produce one of the first professional digital cameras. More than ten years ago, Kodak had a Digital Imaging division. Kodak's been involved in digital imaging longer than most companies. It's just that they weren't very good at it.

For those who don't know, I worked at Kodak Canada until 1998.

Back in 1993 Kodak came out with the Photo CD format. It was pretty cool. You could get photographs scanned at very high resolution and put on a CD. The quality was/is great. You could play Photo CDs on special Photo CD players, allowing you to do the equivalent of slide shows.

Unfortunately, Photo CDs were never all that popular. The players were expensive. I got one cheaper than average because I worked there, but even still the player was running around C$300 at the time. It could play CDs, too, which was good. Mine died around 2000, and that wasn't with heavy use either. The player wasn't very user friendly, either. I remember writing an e-mail suggesting they include the equivalent of the TV/VCR button found on your VCR. Basically, if you wanted to hook up your Photo CD player to a TV with a cable box you had to either buy a switch box or swap out the player manually. Kodak thought this was okay. The Photo CD format was proprietary, and they didn't loosen control on it — so that you could write in the Photo CD format from your favourite piece of software — until everyone was using JPEGs for amateur and web pics and TIFs for professional pics.

Kodak was expensively — perhaps fatally — distracted from digital imaging in the early through mid 1990s due to the Advanced Photo System. They conducted focus groups to determine how to get people to take more photographs. They discovered some interesting issues. People wanted smaller cameras, cameras that could take panoramic photos (the panoramic disposable cameras were all the rage) and cameras where you could swap partially exposed films in and out. Most importantly, 5% of the time when people tried to load film the loading procedure failed, and in some 15% to 20% of the time something went wrong that the user had to correct. People wanted a camera that was easy to load.

Kodak and Fuji had each patented the other into a corner. They couldn't advance without stepping on the other's patents. So, they got together and came up with the Advanced Photo System. Instead of a roll of film, the film was in a canister. The film was pulled out of the canister by the camera and could be loaded back into it and even pulled out of the camera when partially exposed. It had a strip of clear magnetic media allowing it to record electronic information on top of the negative. Photos were stored in the same aspect ratio as HDTV, but you could also get photographs printed in standard photograph aspect ratio, or as a panoramic shot (which was a cheat; they just took a long horizontal slice of the picture and blew it up).

There were three problems with APS.

First, they didn't ask people if they would be willing to spend around C$200+ for the better features of APS in their camera, like the ability to swap out partially exposed rolls. They considered APS a "premium" system, and thus could command a premium price.

Second, they didn't ask people if they would be willing to give up some picture quality in order to have a small camera with a big (compared to the size of the camera) canister in it. The APS negative was 56% the size of a 35mm negative. The grain quality was better, but not that much better! This means that, at best, they had to zoom the negative about half again as big to get the same size picture. APS pictures were, therefore, grainy compared to 35mm pictures.

Grainy pictures were a big deal due to the third problem: the flash unit in Kodak's APS cameras sucked. I remember one of my co-workers buying an expensive APS camera and taking it to a wedding. She was very, very disappointed in the results.

APS cost Kodak around $1 billion in development (or perhaps that was the total spent by Kodak, Fuji and the consortium of camera developers). It would take many, many years to recoup the investment. Years Kodak didn't have.

This is a true story: when I was leaving Kodak in 1998 I asked a marketing manager I knew how long they thought they'd have until digital photography took over the consumer film market. I had a pretty good idea myself and was curious if Kodak was on the same page. The manager said, "Oh, we've got a long time. Fifteen to twenty years."

Yes, that's almost exactly what he said!

I blurted out, "No. You've got five years. Ten years, tops."

I'm kind of proud of that statement, because I was bang on. At the end of 2002, 2 megapixel cameras dropped below US$300. In 2003, it seemed everyone I knew had bought a digital point-and-shoot camera, including us. We bought our camera almost five years to the date that I had my discussion with the Kodak marketing manager. Ah, the irony...

Of course our camera is now nine years old, and I've outstripped its ability. It's a good camera (Canon Powershot A40) but after taking a picture a couple of years ago I found that the picture was let down a little by the small lens...

So, what was the announcement that prompted CNN to disparage a once mighty company? Kodak is announcing that they are going to produce a new line of inkjet printers. They are taking a different tack from other companies. Their printers are going to be a little big more expensive than the average inkjet printer, but they are going to have inexpensive ink. They are planning to sell ink at about half the cost of most other printers. $10 a cartridge (I'm assuming colour cartridge) was the price quoted, and a cost of about 10 cents per picture.

I'm not sure how this will fly. It may have worked five years ago, but are people really going to run out and get a new printer just because the ink is that much cheaper? Especially given that you can get professionally printed, and cut, prints for around 15 cents a picture?

I can't help but think that Kodak is, still, a day late and a dollar short. I'd like to see them succeed, but I can't help but think that Kodak is collapsing under the weight of its own obsolescence.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

No, I really am still alive!

I wasn't feeling well, so I took last Thursday off work. And Friday. The guys were down for gaming this weekend (didn't get any gaming done, but they did create characters for our Wild Talents game; such is the way with superhero character generation), and I was still kind of loopy on meds. As it is, I'm still coughing.

Watched the Super Bowl tonight. I was glad to see Chicago lose, after beating the Saints two weeks ago. Logan was enthralled, continuing his newly found love of football.

One thing did annoy me, as it always does. There's this insistence that the winner of the Super Bowl is the "World Champion". I'm sorry, but until there's an, oh, I don't know, "world championship tournament" you shouldn't be able to call yourselves "World Champions". Even though it's likely that the Super Bowl winner could beat the NFL Europe winner, it hasn't been confirmed. For that matter, no Super Bowl winner has played against a Grey Cup winner. The Canadian Football League plays uses different rules. A team optimized for the NFL would have a hard time winning in the CFL (it's been tried) or vice versa, so unless they actually played each other using some sort of amalgam of rules, you can't draw any conclusions.

For that matter, this was Super Bowl XLI (41 for the Roman Numeral deficient), while in November the 94th Grey Cup game was played. Given that the Canadian and American games are different, if the Super Bowl winners can call themselves "World Champions" (of American football), so could the Grey Cup winners (of Canadian football). If only one winner can be the "World Champion" at football, then I'd think the older cup would have precedence.

I'm only being slightly facetious.

By the way, can anyone confirm or deny the half time program for the 2007 Grey Cup? According to Wikipedia it's AC/DC, with someone recently adding Michael Jackson! Sinc the Grey Cup usually celebrates Canadian artists, I'd bet that this was someone being malicious. That having been said, the CFL have done some stupid things in the past, so it wouldn't completely shock me to find out it was true...