There are some folk who don't see the gem inside my rough exterior who might consider me a hot head. To which I say a hearty "bite me". But let this opinion be a caution that within this blog may lurk items of a venting nature or perhaps those which might be considered a rant. So be it. Proceed with caution. You have been warned.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Poke in the Eye

"I can't help you any longer with refractory corrections." This statement from my opthamologist was my abrupt introduction to the world of cataract surgery. Not a huge surprise in that I'd been warned that cataracts were growing somewhere the depths of wherever the Dr. looked when she turned that blindingly bright light into my eyes. Within minutes while I was still processing the information I had an appointment scheduled with an eye surgeon. There wasn't much concern about cost as my wife and I had embraced the philosophy of getting things repaired while we still had employer related health insurance. Having had several minor surgeries in the past and an introduction to some excellent pain killers - Hello Vicodin!! - I wasn't terribly concerned about discomfort but the prospect of having someone carving around in my eyes gave me some wakeful moments in the middle of the night.

At the surgical office I was shown an informative little film about cataracts and how they were treated. Evidently not created with a desire to allay anticipatory apprehension, this video demonstrated how an instrument is poked into the eye to suck out the natural lens and insert a synthetic replacement. (Does this description make your skin crawl? It does mine even now after the fact.) Then my eyes were filled with a variety of drops and I settled in to wait to see the surgeon. Some time later I was ushered into the little room for more waiting.

Sidebar - Waiting: As with any medical procedure the entire experience is peppered with numerous periods of waiting in a variety of locales descriptions of which, in an effort to convey some actual information, I will henceforth omit. Suffice it to say that between each and every procedure there is always a wait. But of course if you have had an opportunity to visit anyone in the medical profession recently you already know this. Why recipients of some of the most prolonged and expensive university educations available to man cannot figure out how to budget their time is beyond me. The only other profession that comes close to this inability to coordinate appointments with activities are cable TV installers and at least they let you know that they will "be there between 12 and 4" which naturally means 3:59.

But I digress. Next I was examined by the surgeon and actually what did I expect? Here's a guy who makes his living by a variety of invasive procedures on eyeballs and he's not going to say "Hey, there's nothing wrong with your eyes, now get out of here you animal!" No, he confirmed the diagnosis although he admitted that he was unable to confirm the first stages of macular degeneration noted in the chart by the opthamologist. He didn't preface this by saying "I have some bad news and some good news." but it came across that way - a spoonful of sugar as it were. Now I am presented with a bewildering list of choices. Do I want a replacement lens that "kind of" corrects for both near and distance vision at a cost of an additional $750 per lens. No I have worn glasses all my life, I won't have a problem continuing. I opt for lenses that correct most for distance vision as that particular prescription has been the one to burden me with amazingly thick lenses in my glasses. Do I want to try to correct my astigmatism with a procedure done at the same time as cataract removal that consists of making incisions in my cornea to reshape my eyeball - shudder! - no thanks - I have worn glasses all my life, etc. The nurse then tells me they will order two prescriptions for eye drops - one antibiotic and one steroid as she hands me a sheaf of instructions about pre-surgery and post-surgery activities. (Only later do I find that the antibiotic eyedrops; supplied in a bottle that is the approximate size of a hazel nut; has no generic and my copay is seventy five dollars.)

Next stop scheduling. For the last two hours I have been told by way of introductory film, nurses etc. that they will do one eye and then the other "two to four weeks later". So while setting up the dates I'm told that I will have the surgeries one week apart. Errr, how much of the other information you gave me doesn't apply? But it seems that my surgeon will be out of town for month and to avoid two pre-surgical physicals we're going for a one week interval. Oh yeah, and I have to have a pre-surgical physical. Normally I would panic at this news since they want to do the first surgery in a week and it is harder to get in to see my primary care physician than it is to teach a duck to tap dance but since I have an appointment that very week that has been rescheduled three times already, my hopes are up. So what happens when I arrive home? There is a message waiting from my PPs office that they will need to reschedule AGAIN!. I call the office and ask why my health is so much less of a concern to them then whoever they have been rescheduling me for. They have no reasonable answer. I point out my frustration in trying to get in for an annual checkup for over six months and explain that in good faith I told the eye clinic that an appointment for a physical had already been scheduled. I then ask if they can make a referral to someone who CAN see me. And lo! With the prospect of an insured customer absconding to another doctor they suddenly can squeeze me in. Amazingly at the "squeezed in" appointment I am called on time and the Dr. sees me within minutes. I am given a clean bill of health and am deemed fit to face the first surgery the following Monday.

Next blog entry: Eye Surgery Processing

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ancient Cargo Cults

I was watching a TV series "Ancient Aliens" that springboards off the 40 year old series of books by Erich Van Daniken purporting that things like henges in Britain, the Nazca lines, huge earthworks at various locations around the world and other notable seeming inexplicable anachromisms can only be evidence that in prehistoric times extraterrestrial visitors assisted human beings in constructing these anomalies. The reasoning seems to be that without advanced technology which ancient humans did not possess, these constructions would have been impossible. I think this reasoning is a bunch of crap as it has been proven again and again that techniques available to ancient humans were completely adequate for the "seemingly impossible" tasks. Stones can be moved and raised using no more advanced technology than logs and levers. Thor Heyerdahl has proved that monumental stone works (Easter Island statues) can be made with stone tools. Designs so large they can only be observed from the air can be laid out and excuted by simply scaling small designs.

However, the more intriguing question around such sites would seem to be why ancient humans would expend the huge efforts over long periods of time required to build such monuments. Oddly, one possible answer to this question is, in my opinion, even better evidence for the possibility of alien vists in the distant past.

On certain islands in the pacific during World War II the US established air bases to supply troops thoughout the pacific with the necessities of war. When the War ended and the armed forces abandoned these island bases, the native tribes who had become used to the cast off technological and material goods that they were able to appropriate for their own use brought in by the aircraft, developed strange religious practices. These are known as "cargo cults" and one of their distinguishing characteristics is the attempt to duplicate the air fields, aircraft and other trappings of the air bases out of primitive materials such as stone, wood, and bamboo in hopes that the airplanes and strange uniformed beings would return and bring them materials wealth again.

It seems to me that what we see in the primitive "ancient alien" sites around the world are analogous to these cargo cults. Surely if primitive humans had alien help building these sites, they would not be the crude henges and earthworks we see now but technologically advanced sites typified by precision and advanced techniques. Instead these sites fit the cargo cult model much more closely. Once you imagine that these sites are actually attempts by the natives (our ancestors) to imitate the landing fields/structures used by the alien visitors, who have obliterated evidence of their presence and departed, in hopes of their return, it becomes much easier to understand their purpose, the great efforts expended on them and their crudity in spite of their scale.

Just sayin'

Monday, August 23, 2010

Head Cheese

An old tale of mine from days spent on IRC. It falls under the category of nostalgia. Read it or don't.

Amidst the fond remembrances of my youth there lie scattered here and there the occasional memory which might best be consigned to oblivion. But constant urging from friends and acquaintances not to let folklore of this nature perish convinces me to reluctantly preserve for posterity an eye witness account of the arcane ritual by which the substance head cheese is conjured. The author assumes no liability for the results of attempts to duplicate this process but urges you "DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME."

It would be in the crisp fall air of October at that time when thoughts of children turn to the donning of ghost and goblin gear and the winesap apple plucked right off the tree hurt your teeth and squirted you in the eye. During Indian Summer, that brief return of warm temperatures before the plunge into winter, the last summer activities would be put to rest. Yards would be raked, the garden shed would be put in order and closed for the season, and the last potatoes and onions would be dug and consigned to the cellar. And surely on one of those fine fall days, early in the afternoon the clank and clang of the huge cast iron kettle could be heard as it was wrestled atop the woodstove. At this sound little children would run for home, dogs would crawl under crumbling porches and strong men would hurriedly close open windows, for all knew that granny was preparing to make the dreaded head cheese!

No sooner had the stove been fired and stoked and the kettle brought to a boil than Grandpa would make his appearance. Fresh from hog butchering on the farm he would emerge from the decrepit old ford truck carrying a pair of hog's heads..or maybe three. These heads were in exactly the same condition as they were in life, with all their accessories excepting only their detachment from the majority of the hog. Notwithstanding the baleful stares still seen peering out from their rapidly cooling brows, Granny cheerfully seized the heads and hurled them into the kettle.

Now followed a period of time that drew onward into the late evening when the fire snapped and crackled in the stove, the water boiled merrily and was topped up from time to time and the aroma proceeding from the kettle became more and more indescribable. This fragrance was of such potency that it actually had WEIGHT, and would flow out from the kettle down the stove and onto the ground where it would propagate outward in an ever increasing radius until it gradually began to dissipate at a distance of some three blocks from the epicenter of the event, meanwhile crawling up back steps and seeking entrance to unprepared houses where unwary denizens could be heard to exclaim, " it headcheese time AGAIN??" Meanwhile Granny, without the protection of a gas mask, nay without so much as a moist dish towel to cover her nostrils would walk right up to the stove and stir the kettle time and again until all the soft parts of the heads (that's ALL the soft parts....yes even THOSE parts) fell off the skulls which she would then cast into the yard to the army of cats which had been gathering by the kitchen door all afternoon.

Hovering over the steaming kettle in the darkening evening like one of the three sisters in Macbeth, Granny would pass a sieve through the water and catch large undisintegrated pieces of hog physiognomy which she would drop onto the chopping block and gleefully reduce to appropriately bite sized bits with a meat cleaver. Once everything in the kettle (it doesn't do to think to long about everything in the kettle) was of the requisite homogeneous size, salt, pepper and vinegar would be added, the fire stoked up to full force and the evil stew would be rapidly reduced to a sludge-like consistency. During this final step the odor of the miasmic fog covering the neighborhood would reach such an intensity that any clothing or household linens inadvertently left on clotheslines would irrecoverably bond by some mysterious chemical reaction with the Eau du Swinehead and become fit for use only as bootwipers. Even indoors with the door closed, within three blocks of ground zero the eyes would itch and run and the sinuses would begin to drain.

The final act of the evening would be to pour the reduced contents of the kettle into large crocks held in readiness since the decimation of last year's batch sometime during the long nights of the previous winter. Granny and Grandpa would tip the huge kettle on its side and hope that most of its contents would find the crock waiting on the floor below. The batch would roll into its containers, steam would rise in prodigious quantities and Grandpa, who was not nearly so immune to the corrosive fumes as his spouse, would swear mighty oaths audible a block away.

The crocks, now brim full of their precious cargo would be wrestled down the stairs and into the fruit cellar to cool and solidify.

During the ensuing 48 hours, the fumes abated. The cats got over considerable intestinal distress. Dogs could be seen daring to cross Granny's back yard and those families living nearest to the scene of the manufacturing process began to think about actually consuming food again.

The end result? The mass left in the crocks would jell while cooling and become a grey amorphous semi-solid which could be sliced and eaten on bread with liberal quantities of mustard and horseradish. I have heard tell that headcheese is more toothsome than its nightmarish origins would lead you to believe but I am not able to confirm it, as it takes a stronger stomach than mine to even contemplate the consumption of this pig-face jello.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

National Paranoia Gone Wild

As my wife and I are preparing for our annual escape from the eternal battle with the weather in Iowa I've been recalling an incident that occurred on our vacation last year.

Early September in northern North Dakota and we are spending most of our time collapsed in our cabin recovering from Iowa toxicity. Casting about on the map for possible locations of interest I note that we are only 90 minutes from the International Peace Garden. This could be interesting and perhaps present some photo ops. So the next morning we load the two dachshunds and a picnic lunch in the car and head north.

We should have sensed an omen as we headed up US 281 into the hills locally known as the Turtle Mountains and the fog gets thicker and thicker. By the time we reach the entrance to the park it's a real pea souper and the temp is 58-60 degrees. There is the familiar park service brown sign on the side of the road directing us to the park entrance. We pay the $10.00 entry fee and receive a brochure. I proceed to the nearest parking lot and stop to read about the scenic delights awaiting us (that we have no hope of seeing through the fog). A brief glance at the first page and I say to the wife "Oh-oh, it looks like we may actually be in Canada." Having closely followed the panic of isolationism following 9/11 we know that in order to stop the flow of terrorists from Canada to the US (pause for derisive laughter), for the first time in either nation's history, a US passport is now necessary to return from Canada to the US. Canada, still retaining a modicum of common sense, lets Americans drive right in.

So after we huddle shivering in the cold fog over a picnic table eating our lunch and then drive around the park where everything worth looking at is totally obscured by fog we decide to leave. As we leave the entrance of the park I sense the proximity of an odious substance to a fan when I see that in order to proceed south I must pass through a check point. When I pull up to the booth housing the Federal Border Thug (FBT) in my car bearing Iowa plates the FBT asks "You from the states?" followed by "Got any identification?" After both my wife and I offer our Iowa driver's licenses, the FBT says "Got passports?" Of course we don't so we are ordered to pull our car into a building resembling a warehouse, the FBT retaining our IDs.

Second FBT approaches the car:

"Give me your keys, grab your dogs and get out of the car."

We are led into the holding area where another hapless couple is waiting on a bench holding hands and visibly frightened. My wife is ordered to hand over her purse and I am ordered to empty my pockets. All these items vanish behind the counter and then we are questioned.

"Do you have a job?"
"If you work in Iowa what are you doing in Canada?"
Duh! there's an International Peace Garden here. Ever hear of tourism?
"Did you meet anyone in the woods."
Are you kidding me? Yeah this older middle aged couple came to the International Peace Garden with their dachshunds to pick up some grenades and rocket launchers. We couldn't think of a better way to make the exchange than trying to pull this off without passports.

"Sit down."

Which we did. And now I begin to worry. The FBTs have my car keys, all my ID, my credit cards, my money and all my wife's similar objects.

Meanwhile other FBTs are in the warehouse searching our car. I begin to wonder if they are so anxious to stick aging hippies with something that they will plant evidence in my car.

But, thankfully, after 30 minutes of holding our terrified dogs while we sit on a bench, our belongings are returned and we are allowed to proceed on our way. As we are escorted out to our car I mention to the FBT that there is no sign of any kind indicating that entering the International Peace Garden (a name which has now assumed a certain irony) entails leaving the United States, much less that there will be grave consequences should you try to re-enter.

The FBT laconically replies "Yeah, we get a lot of that."

I'm not sure I can comment rationally on this level of stupidity, let alone waste of tax payer money as the facts speak eloquently for themselves. And I have to wonder about the collective IQ of congress (I don't have to wonder about the IQ of George W. Bush the architect of all this paranoia - his level of intelligence or lack of it has always been glaringly evident) who let thousands of undocumented aliens pour across the border with Mexico, but want to harass midwestern tourists trying to visit the International Peace Garden. As John Stossel would say "Give me a break".

Friday, July 30, 2010

Moderating Best Buy Suckage

Over the years I've picked up some techniques to deal with Best Buy. Of course their effectiveness depends on how badly you want the item at the Best Buy price, how dimwitted the help on duty at the time of your visit is, and how quickly you can think on your feet.

Some examples:

1). Go when the store is busy. This may seem contrary to common sense, because if you have to deal with customer service, you will have to stand in line for 30 minutes and if you DO make a purchase, you will have to stand at the single open checkout for at least that long. However, if the store is full, the effectiveness of making a scene escalates. Best Buy will screw you long and hard if they can do it in relative privacy, but if there are 20-30 witnesses to the screwing, they tend to want to settle things quickly.

2). When things go bad, be loud. Don't shout or use profanity (no matter how appropriate it may seem), just pretend that you are on stage and the people up in the balcony need to hear you. If you have followed rule 1, there will be many people around who will be interested in what you are saying. For instance, when you want to buy the loss-leader item with the attractive low price and find they actually have none in the store (this happens CONSTANTLY). Phrases such as "You are advertising this item but you aren't actually selling them?" or "Have you ever heard of 'bait and switch'?" or "The State's Attorney is going to hear about this." make employees squirm. Then demand to see a manager and repeat the conversation at an even higher sound level. When asked not to shout by an employee, inform them that you are not shouting, that you are hard of hearing and how dare they ridicule a handicapped person. This tactic alone has gotten me sale prices on comparable items when being baited and switched and gotten me refunds on merchandise said to be "non-refundable" (i.e. damaged software CDs)

3). When asked to buy a PSP, politely say no. If pushed reply (again in your stage voice). "There are hundreds of stories on the internet about how PSPs are a scam." Again, if there are many people about, you will hear no more about PSP.

4). Ask employees to sign statements. "Will you sign a statement to the effect that you won't give me the price displayed on the shelf?" This is effective for those sales that "ended yesterday". Of course the floor guy will refuse, but at the manager level, saying "If this is your policy, you shouldn't be ashamed to put it in writing." often works wonders. Again, the presence of bystanders is very helpful.

5). Be willing to leave your purchase at the check out and walk out the door. People at the local Best Buy know me. They also know that if left alone and treated fairly I can be a good customer. They also know that if there is a hint of scam, things will get uncomfortable. When my wife and I walk into the store, there is soon a manager watching me. This is good. I never do anything unlawful and I am happy to have a manager near when the odious substance comes into close proximity to the fan.

6). Be polite, yet persistent. Don't back off on the volume and keep insisting that they live up to what they promise. The goal is to make them want to get what is turning into a small spectacle settled.

These tactics have obviously been built up over years of experience of shoddy and shameful business practices by Best Buy. I could refuse to shop there, but I feel that it is effective when you really need something quickly to put their feet to the fire and make them actually live up to their advertising, provide refunds when appropriate, etc. It helps that my wife and I are middle aged and look respectable. They can try to tell kids that they can't come back to the store, but with folks that have been around long enough to know their legal rights, they don't try strong arm tactics. Yes, they suck intensely, but with me they do so at the cost of extreme discomfort and embarassment.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Personal Space

My office is on the ninth floor. I'm on the elevator an average of eight times a day. In the morning the bank of six elevators gets busy and the load at ground level can be up to twelve people per car. It's fascinating to watch these twelve continually adjust their positions in the car as the car stops at each floor and passengers depart. Similarly to the molecules of compressed gas in a container, as each passenger exits, the remaining passengers execute a little shuffle to insure that the space in the elevator is equally divided among the remaining molecules riders. (unlike molecules, they don't actually bounce off each other - it would be more entertaining if they did). In the evening the reverse occurs, as each rider enters, the people on the elevator shuffle to accommodate the incoming bodies.

There seems to be no demographic for this. Young and old, male and female, the equal distribution of elevator real estate must be maintained. This behavior seems to be somehow automatic. No one looks around as if surveying the amount of space and mentally calculating how much they are allowed. They all stare fixedly at the front of the car (another peculiar elevator behavior) and shuffle to their new positions as if remotely controlled.

Surely there is a study here for a graduate student in sociology or possibly anthropology. Was equal distribution of space important when we lived in caves? Is this a leftover behavior from lizards sharing a den?

Along with pressing the up, down, or floor buttons when they have clearly already been pressed this is another seemingly inexplicable elevator behavior. I find it oddly irritating. Sometimes I have the almost irresistible urge to scream "WAKE UP."

Just sayin'

Friday, April 2, 2010

Software and Scorpions II

Previously I said I wouldn’t beat up on Microsoft since rants berating it abound, but damn, it’s such an easy target. However, I won’t spend anymore time on Windows. Besides, it seems that right now Windows 7 actually turned out pretty well. Of course when everyone is happy and content with Windows 7, all service packs having tweaked the problems prematurely released, Microsoft will announce that it is discontinuing support and everyone will have to move to Windows XK452 or whatever the latest in version naming confusion happens to be.

So let’s move on. I think that we do have to take a look at Microsoft’s approach to actual applications since whatever sloppy and abusive practices that Microsoft gets away with are immediately adopted as acceptable by other major software manufacturers. The applications in Microsoft Office are prime examples. If you have a strangle hold on a suite of business software and are determined to release a new version every two to three years in order to hold people up for from $149 to $679 to stay current, wouldn’t you think that, in order to make the constant upgrading least painful for the user, you would make your software backward compatible? If you would think that then you would be wrong. Access, the notoriously “not trusted for business uses” database application in Office, is well known for upgrades breaking projects developed on previous versions. Even if the upgrade is compatible with previous projects, new versions frequently require relearning the user interface for even the simplest tasks. I work for a company that licenses thousands of copies of Office throughout the world and in fear of the dreaded discontinuation of support for previous versions, it regularly upgrades. Since the days of the first version of Word for Windows, Microsoft has built its Office applications with drop-down menus. Hundreds of thousands of users have learned to operate Word, the most widely used Office application, using these menus. So what does Microsoft do? In the release of Office 2007 menus disappeared to be replaced with the universally hated ribbon. To recall an episode of Seinfeld – “Who, Who does not wish to use thee reebbon?” I don’t!! We’ve had 2007 on the computers in our department, a department dedicated to document production, for over a year, and I still can’t locate some of the features of Word I use frequently without referring to the help. In this department, the adoption of Word 2007 has actually slowed down productivity. This is a prime example of Microsoft giving you things you don’t want or need. Word now contains so many options, many of which even a power user will never need, that finding what you need on a daily basis in the ribbon system has become an obstacle to efficiency. Is any of this constant upgrading, planned obsolescence, and corporate extortion necessary? Actually no. Open Office can do almost everything that a home user and most office users could ever need, including reading and writing Microsoft Office compatible documents at a cost of zero! That’s right, it’s free. When I need office applications at home what should I do, Pay $400+ for the version of MS Office I need or download a free copy of Open Office? Rhetorical question, it’s a no brainer.

If only Microsoft pursued these practices it would be bad enough, but since the largest software company in the world can get away with this, other software companies follow suit. For example, my employer uses a proprietary software package from another large company for absolutely business critical purposes. Upgrades to this product appear annually and entirely new versions appear at intervals. Due to the now common practice pioneered by Microsoft of releasing bug filled software to be repaired at a later date with service packs, a large part of my job consists of troubleshooting bugs in the software, devising work-arounds, engaging in constant haggling with product support and testing the next equally buggy version when it becomes available. While this provides job security for me, multiply me by the thousands of employees needed to do this for hundreds of software packages in hundreds of companies world wide and you have a staggering amount of money being spent on software baby-sitting that could easily be eliminated. It is as if ownership of an automobile entailed the hiring of a technician to always ride along with you to fix things when the car periodically stranded you at the side of the road.

Is there a solution? Sure there is. Don’t upgrade. “But they are going to discontinue support!” Let them. By the time a new version comes out everyone knows what bugs still exist and will never be fixed and how to work around them. It’s the same solution as that to the proliferation of unwanted expensive features on cars. Everyone drive their current car for an additional year. After a year of no car sales, the surviving auto companies would be knocking on front doors to sell safe, inexpensive cars with only the needed features. I don’t need a car that parks itself, and I shouldn’t have to pay for the R&D necessary to produce it. But I digress.

It’s easy to stop this kind of madness, just stop buying the product for a while. Geeks know this and operate their computers with free operating systems running free applications. Maybe the current economic situation will drive more users to solutions like this.

But I doubt it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Software and Scorpions - I

The scorpion implores the turtle to carry it across the river on its back. The turtle is reluctant because of the scorpion’s unsavory reputation. But after many promises from the scorpion the turtle relents and halfway across the river is stung by the scorpion. The scorpion’s answer to the turtle’s agonized queries as to why he was so betrayed “You knew I was a scorpion when you took me on.” This well known fable is an apt analogy to the world of software users (turtles) and software manufacturers (scorpions). Not only do we continue to take on the scorpions, we have helped the scorpions to evolve into more and more venomous varieties.

In 1986, after a flurry of early computers with high prices, limited software and obscure operating systems, the arrival of IBM’s XT/286 computer combined with MSDOS made personal/business computer use practical. In these early days, software manufacturers just scrambling to get off the ground had to convince consumers not only that their product performed a job, but that the consumer actually had a need for it. In this environment products like Lotus 123, WordPerfect, dBase and the like each performed one well defined task and did it well. Software had to run in 640K (K, people, not M) so code had to be small, efficient and optimized for speed. Computers running under MSDOS (or DRDOS or IBMDOS – competition kept companies on their toes) could perform but one task at a time so through MSDOS 6.0 the operating system was tweaked and optimized to squeeze every bit of efficiency out of the 286 processor, the 640K of program space and the new slow and expensive 20M hard drives (that’s M not G). But on the horizon loomed a new product, Microsoft Windows, that was about to change all that.

In May of 1990, after five years of versions that were buggy and added nothing to productivity, Microsoft introduced Windows 3.0. Having introduced Microsoft Office for Windows in January, Microsoft now had an operating system and office suite that had eye appeal, could run programs above the 640K barrier and could (sort of) multi-task. In a very real sense, everything that has happened since in the Windows world has been tweaking of the 1990 product. The long bug plagued history of Microsoft products has been so well documented that I won’t beat this horse myself except to note that Microsoft has now fallen into the business model of selling a product that no one expects to live up to advance billing until months, sometimes years, after the initial release when enough service packs have been supplied to make the product behave. It’s like buying a new car and being resigned to the fact that the seats, air conditioning and heater will be made available at some future date.

Since the first release of Windows 98 in May of 1998 we have known that Microsoft breeds scorpions yet we continue to buy them and continue to squawk when they sting us. Some light seems to have dawned recently when Windows Vista proved to be a premature release similar to Windows ME only this time people stayed away in droves waiting for until the less bug filled version arrived with Windows 7 (Does Microsoft deliberately avoid a naming convention for the versions of Windows just to confuse us?). Still Microsoft hauled in huge amounts of money for an operating system that was universally panned. Why do we do this? What makes us collectively plow billions of dollars into products we know and accept will be flawed? Got any ideas? I’ll pursue this and point out that Microsoft isn’t alone in the scorpion filled world of big software in the next edition.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blisterpack Clusterfreak

What in the name of Beelzebub is up with packaging? This morning as I nurse a nasty late winter cold I get into my desk drawer pharmacy and attempt to get two softgels of daytime cold medicine. For the next 10 minutes I fight the following battle: 1) attempt to tear on the perforation to separate the individually packaged two softgels from the card containing their compatriots. Fold back and forth, attempt to tear, repeat; 2) give up on the dysfunctional perforation and search my desk for a scissors – I know I have a pair, I’m sure I saw it somewhere before the presidential election; 3) OK I have the two objects of my quest separated on their individual little card topped by a blisterpack otherwise known Plastic Containment Device From Hell (PCDFH); 4) being careful not to puncture my fingers with the exposed edge of the PCDFH I now attempt to “peel at arrows”. Peel?! I scratch ineffectively at the corner of the card as the paper adhered to the PCDFH clings with the tenacity of a barnacle; 5) Paper at last removed in tiny shreds I now must “push product through foil”. The analogy to a barnacle becomes more apt as it takes both thumbs and some muttered cursing to collapse the shell of the PCDFH causing the foil to at last give up its prize. I can scarcely suppress a cry of triumph as I toss down the pills.

It seems that we have reached the point where any item smaller than a bread box needs to come from the factory in the hated PCDFH. (Sidebar: Is there such a thing as a bread box anymore? In my youth almost any guessing game would include the standard question “Is it bigger than a bread box?” The question even appeared regularly on TV panel shows. But I digress.) When and why did this PCDFH ubiquity happen?

I’m sure I don’t have to go into much detail on this. Who among us has not suffered an unkind cut rendered by the sharp edge of a partially torn PCDFH? Though some manufacturers attempt to ameliorate the terrors of opening such a device by using the technology of a snap-apart clamshell PCDFH, manufacturers of small tools and hardware generally found in large discount home improvement chains scoff at such wussification of the genre. Want to use your new (insert name of small tool or appliance here) right away when you get home? Not so fast. Better get your machete, small hatchet, bowie knife or bayonet out first. Should you attempt to extract your prize using your bare hands, small pen knife or box cutter you are going to shed some blood as the PCDFH uses all its defenses to keep you from your rightful plunder. In the category of “let’s create a need for something that shouldn’t be necessary at all" we now can purchase heavily bladed PCDFH opening devices created solely for that purpose. So long common sense, we hardly knew ye.

“But we need to (in the case of pills) make sure they are tamper proof.” You already have another DFH for this purpose, the child proof cap with inner seal. Yeah, if I have arthritis there will be some suffering involved but it won’t involve actually incising my epidermis. “But we need to prevent shoplifting”. That’s just so much bull output. A determined shoplifter is going to shoplift a small PCDFH as easily as a small unpackaged item. If you want to stop shoplifting then get on the phone to your legislators and ask them to stop coddling criminals. 30 days with free meals and lodging might not stop shoplifting but 30 days at hard backbreaking labor overseen by Strother Martin might. “But PCDFH allows the shopper to see fancy graphics, advertising hype, usage warnings and the like.” What a steaming pile! I know what a can opener is for; I can see your hype just as easily on a card if you staple or twist tie the product to it. Bottom line, packaging using the PCDFH is easier for robots to apply. To hell with that – people need jobs. I’ll pay 10 cents more for an item packaged by a human and save the petroleum it takes to make the PCDFH at the same time.

The inventor of the blisterpack needs to suffer the death of a thousand cuts. Inflicted, of course, by the torn edge of a PCDFH.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Do I Really Sound Like That?

Last Sunday afternoon the orchestra I am a member of gave a concert. The concert was one of our regular series but in this instance it was dedicated to the memory of a former conductor of the group recently deceased. We commissioned a new work for this concert in memory of this man, a tribute not lightly undertaken for a semi-amateur group that struggles mightily with the funds necessary to stage free concerts in order to make classical music more accessible to those whose financial circumstances don’t allow $50 tickets to hear the “pros”. So we had the composer in attendance at what was a world premier of a new work. The widow of the honored conductor flew in from the east coast to attend and many former orchestra members were in attendance as well. The orchestra more than rose to the occasion and rendered a memorable afternoon of music which was warmly appreciated by the audience.

Twenty minutes after the concert ended our current director took me aside to inform me that the student staff of the concert hall we rent from a local university had failed to record the concert. To those of us who help maintain a recorded archive of the history of the orchestra, who planned to provide the widow with a recording of the concert as a memento, and to the composer who rightly expected a recording of the first performance of her new work this was a disaster.

Last night as I began what will ultimately be a long and somewhat disappointing effort to produce some sort of acceptable recording from a fragmentary dress rehearsal recording made with a digital recorder’s built in mikes from an acoustically poor location on the main floor, I began to think about how unusual the performer’s experience is now compared to 90% of the history of Western music over the last one thousand years. It is only since 1877 that the recording of sounds has been possible and only since around 1930 with the development of the electronic microphone that recorded sounds have been more than a sketchy representation of what an actual performance sounds like. And there are still theoreticians who claim that the “fidelity” of modern recordings still require the brain to complete the analogy between what emanates from a speaker and what it heard at a live performance.

Reflecting on Saturday afternoon when my wife and I listened to the dress rehearsal recording of the second movement of Schumann’s “New England Triptych”, where we have slow exposed extended duets between oboe and bassoon, while mentally making notes about balance, reed strength, and other minutia I wondered how, for that 90+% of music history, performers knew how they sounded.

With the advent of recording technology that could be used in the home and small studios from the 1950s on, listening to recordings of oneself or one’s group has been a huge part of the process of a performer’s education and a valuable tool for conductors. Previous to this revolution, a large part of the job of one’s teacher would be to verbally try to mold the sound the performer produces to conformity with what recognized virtuoso class performers produce. The individual himself was, and still is, not able to accurately evaluate how his performance sounds to others. The phrase at the head of this essay “Do I really sound like that?” is almost universally uttered when one first hears one’s recorded voice and points out how sounds that we produce ourselves sound differently to listeners. For the players of wind instruments this may be more pronounced than keyboard or string performers. (Although I have heard a recording of myself on keyboards that I completely failed to recognize as my own performance.)

It makes me wonder about the “original instrument” school of performance. They want to sound like the original performance. How in the world do they evaluate their efforts? No one knows what the first performance of most of the classical library sounded like. Not even the performers. Beethoven never heard, even once, most of his later works and when he did have his hearing he would be extremely fortunate to hear a composition performed anywhere near adequately a single time. If you wanted to hear a new piece of music, either you found a live performance or you did without. Hearing a major work like Beethoven’s Ninth was a once in a lifetime event and far more people read reviews or heard hearsay than ever experienced the actual music. As a result, every town of any size whatsoever had an orchestra and maybe an opera house as well. Live music flourished everywhere. Quality had to be questionable in smaller towns, but there was no alternative. Now we can listen to music written hundreds of years ago whenever we want, we can compare performances of major works as rendered by dozens of major symphonies. We can hear almost immediate replays of our own performances due to the quality of consumer electronics. But live performances not so much and certainly at a premium price. For those who own a library of recorded music what would the cost be of attending a live performance of every selection owned?

In the last 30 years much has been made of the computer revolution because of its economic impact. But the impact to our leisure, hobby, entertainment and general enjoyment of life because of recording technology is incalculable.

Just sayin’

Thursday, March 4, 2010


So I'm moving my blog over from multiply since it requires people that want to read it to become members. People think this is bogus and it is. I'll move my infrequent entries gradually. Maybe this tactic will actually bring me some readers.