Monday, February 28, 2005

My Blog's Appearance

One thing I'm sure the three two regular readers out there have no doubt noticed is that I keep tweaking the appearance of this site. It's because I started with a template that blogger provided -- if you click on the "next blog" link in the top right corner of the page, and scroll through some other blogs, you'll see that a large number of blogs look very similar. The template I selected wasn't bad, but it wasn't quite right either.

So now I'm messing with the code despite knowing nothing about coding a webpage (in the past I've used Netscape Composer or some such program). I'm enjoying the trial-and-error component, though I wish I was doing a bit more learning beyond simple substitution & insertions of color codes & gifs. Still, it'll come, and maybe one day folks will visit my blog just to see what's different about how it looks (hmm, I wonder if I can archive past site appearance in addition to past posts?).

Whither the Weather

Big snow storm forecasted for today (6-10 inches), supposed to begin in the middle of the night -- the sort of storm that can shut down this region of weather wimps and give me a day off. I woke up early, like a kid at Christmas, to check whether we were shut down, but I knew the answer before I made it to my computer -- there was salt aplenty on my street, but no sign that any snow had fallen whatsoever.

Ultimately it did snow, and sleet, and accumulations are now forecast for 3-6 inches. So I worked today, and that's not a bad thing. It's what I had planned to do before someone informed me of the threatening storm. I just wish my hopes hadn't gotten up so much.

No work tomorrow -- jury duty instead (unless, of course, it's cancelled due to the weather). This'll be my second time serving. Last time I got selected for a trial, and after the trial I was dismissed -- turned out I was an alternate, so I missed out on deliberations. It wasn't really an interesting trial -- guy was very guilty, and everyone knew it, but because of mandatory minimum sentencing, there was no reason for pleading out the case. I can't say I really wanted to be a juror, but if I had to sit, the least they could have done was let me participate in deliberations -- sort of like watching a meal be prepared but having to go home before it's served. Hopefully tomorrow I won't get picked, but if I do it's not as an alternate.

Sunday, February 27, 2005


I want that our world can put people into space, but I don't want us to actually go out there yet. Humanity needs a parent (or two) who can say, "You're not allowed to go outside until you clean up the mess you've made on your own planet."

Friday, February 25, 2005

Digital Camera Purchase, Part 2

Kathy likes the idea of getting two cameras a whole bunch -- the little one for her, and the larger one for me. So I guess that's what we'll probably do (I'm betting she'll get this one).

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Digital Camera Purchase

On our trip to Costa Rica, I dropped my digital camera. It still works, but now you have to press extra hard to take a picture. And of course, pressing extra hard increases the likelihood that I'll jerk the camera and produce a blurry shot. So, given that defect, and that my camera is over three years old (the model came out 4 1/2 years ago), I thought it might be a good opportunity to find a better camera.

In using my current camera, I had gotten some ideas on what I'd like to find in a new camera -- I wanted more than 3MPs, to allow for some cropping here and there without significantly hurting the photo quality, and I wanted more than 3x zoom, because I'm sick of taking a photo of wildlife or a distant landmark that a 3x zoom can't capture adequately. I also wouldn't mind a smaller camera, because the smaller it is, the more likely I am to have it with me (and it's less likely I can drop it if it can fit comfortably in a pocket). But seeing all the possibilities out there, I'm feeling overwhelmed by the choices.
  • There's a tiny camera for $225 that's just as powerful as the one I have (3x zoom, 3.2MPs), provides great photos, and has a high-quality movie feature (Canon PowerShot SD200 Digital ELPH). A 4MP version is another $90 (the SD300), and the 5MP is due out next month for ~$400 (the SD400).
    • If I'm ok with lower quality movies, a smaller viewscreen, and slightly larger size, less expensive older versions are out there (the 4MP S410).
    • Similarly, there are a number of cameras, significantly smaller than my current one but not quite as small as the Digital Elphs, that have similar features and quality.
  • There's a camera the size of my current one that is being phased out (already almost 2 years old since originally released!) that's 5MP with a 4x zoom, gives great photos (but mediocre movies), and with rebates is less than $200 (Nikon CoolPix 5400).
  • There's a camera that's a bit larger than my current one, about to come out for ~$500, that's 5MP, with a 12x zoom, image stabilizer (to overcome shaky hands), and an adequate movie mode (Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5).

And these are just examples -- I've spent hours upon hours reviewing specs for dozens of cameras (the site I've been using the most is Digital Camera Resource). I want high image quality, but that still leaves plenty of options, with all sorts of different combinations among zoom, MPs, price, and size, as well as features that have less, but still some, value to me (e.g., the movie mode and screen size). And the manufacturers keep on churning out newer models, with new features (such as the image stabilization). Even disregarding price, there's no such thing as the perfect camera -- the best option will still be outclassed by a similar model in at least one of the categories.

At this point, I'm at a loss as to what to buy. I'm even considering buying 2 cameras, one tiny one and a larger one with more features. Anyone have any suggestions?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Postman

'Twas a good weekend for reading, and I read all of David Brin's The Postman on Sunday. This book was made into what is considered a mediocre (at best) movie by Kevin Costner (though I haven't seen it), but I understood the story behind the movie to be a good one. The story's setting is basic sci-fi -- post-nuclear America, a loner (Gordon) in need of a jacket comes across an old mail truck, complete with skeleton of a postman. He grabs the jacket from the dead man, and takes the sack with him along with a few letters to read. From there, it's only a matter of time before the enclaves he visits start believing in the entity behind the mailman, the vanished U.S. government. And Gordon, because it's convenient, continues the lie, even expands upon it, until there's no turning back. He becomes the reluctant hero, and the constant introspection he engages in makes it obvious why an action movie based on the book was a flop.

So did I like it? In truth, I didn't think much of it -- perhaps it's showing its age (20 years), but for a supposedly thought-provoking book, it seemed cliched and derivative. The bad guys were almost cartoonish, and their basic principle (the strongest should lead, with additional verbiage) was silly. It might have helped if Brin showed any sign in taking their belief seriously, but it was evident that he did not. On this issue, it came across as a morality play rather than anything that could make someone older than 13 think.

An area where he commanded some originality (at least for me) lay in the role of "active" feminism. For some unexplained reason, the communities had reverted back to more traditional gender roles. In one community, however, one woman took advantage of particularly troubled times to spread her own brand of post-apocalyptic feminism -- not that women should be equal, but that they should be the judge (and, as appropriate, executioner) of men, even their own sons, to prevent bad men from ever being in a position to seize power.

Probably the best idea carried forth was the book's defense of lying in certain circumstances. Gordon isn't the only teller of a big lie, and in the other instance, he elects to keep the lie going, because like his fictitious U.S. Government, it gives people something to believe in in (what he believes to be) an otherwise hopeless world. The concept troubles me, as it makes one wonder whether and how leaders of every government stand behind their own big lies because they believe it's for the best.

I rate it 5/10.

Monday, February 21, 2005

A Thread of Grace

I finished reading Mary Doria Russell's latest book (A Thread of Grace) this weekend, and I generally enjoyed it. Unlike her first two books, The Sparrow and Children of God, this one is historical fiction. Set in Italy in the later part of World War II, the book gives a fictionalized account of what actually happened -- many ordinary Italians hid Jewish refugees from all over Europe from the Nazis once the Germans had taken over their country. The story is loosely centered around 3-4 people, but weaves its tale from the perspective of many characters (refugees, partisans, German soldiers, a German defector doctor, priests, nuns, regular Italians, Jewish Italians, children) -- with so many diverse viewpoints, it was no surprise to discover that the story was more about the setting than the people, even though the characters were pretty well drawn out.

Russell also continued her religious philosophizing, something she did in her earlier books. The setting lent itself to this activity, and I wouldn't be surprised if her evident interest in the subject is one of the reasons Russell chose this setting for her latest book.

The book had minor flaws -- for example, some of the characters that were introduced had plotlines left unresolved. Warning -- somewhat spoiler material continues for rest of paragraph. The biggest flaw for me, however, was that most of the Jewish refugees (in addition to most of the non-refugees) in the book were killed. No doubt many perished, but if the point was to tell a story of heroism among everyday people that led to success over a powerful enemy, one would think the story would have had a few more people survive to demonstrate that "success." Given the paucity of survivors among the book's characters, one is instead left with a sense of noble albeit largely unsuccessful effort.

Given the quality of Russell's first two books, I had high expectations for this one. I have to say that the way the book finished left those expectations largely unmet. I rate it 7/10.

A Good Weekend

Just got back from a weekend in the Shenandoah Valley with Kathy. We rented a rather isolated dog-friendly cabin, and other than a few hikes, stayed put for most of the time (well, there was the hot tub in the back that we used some as well). It was good to get away, it was beautiful, we read, had fires, hung with the dogs, and all-in-all, relaxed. So often we travel to see others, or to do things -- it was nice just to "be." I used to do such vacations at the Outer Banks, but the past couple of years we haven't gone due to weddings, and this year's week there with my family should be nice, but not as relaxing. This served as a reminder that it's worth taking such trips, and that even a long weekend can be rewarding.

Happy Presidents' Day!

p.s. Here's a follow-up link on Bush's social security private savings accounts:

Thursday, February 17, 2005

I Hate Preseason!

Still have over 6 weeks until DC United's season opener, even though they've been training for three weeks already! Fortunately they're in the CONCACAF Cup (a tournament for top clubs in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean), so they play a couple of games for that in March. I feel sorry for the fans of clubs that don't have a meaningful game until April 2.

United still intends to add a couple of players to the team over the next few weeks, even though it gets dangerously close to the CONCACAF games (March 9 & 16) -- in the offseason the team lost a couple of top players, in particular their captain, and have made no significant additions. I feel good about the team, but I also feel that we sat still while a lot of teams in the league made significant improvements.

It's weird -- in both soccer and baseball, my team won the championship, and yet, rather than still savoring those championships just a few months after their respective seasons ended, I'm already chomping at the bit ready for the next year to get under way (much more eager for soccer than baseball -- baseball is for boxscores and rotisserie, soccer is for watching).

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The NHL (No Hockey League)

Last May, while on vacation with my family, I watched the Stanley Cup Finals with my brother and father. They were both Lightning fans, and I cheered along with them. I was a bit torn rooting for a Florida team against a Canadian one, Canada being the heart of hockey and Florida being a place where you can't even play hockey outdoors in the winter. But only a bit. So we watched together, a rare occurrence given our locations across the country, the infrequency with which we're together, and our different sporting interests. And it was entertaining. The announcers talked about the upcoming labor dispute, but it was background. They said there was a good chance for a lockout, but that was in the future -- we were enjoying the present, and there wasn't much we could have done about it anyhow.

Well, the future is now, and this season hockey officially is limited to the minor leagues and colleges (go Big Red!). The Lightning remain defending champions for another year, though who knows if any of the winning players will be defending their title. The owners must be happy -- they've fractured the unity of the players, and, according to their mantra, they're losing less money than if they'd played the season under the existing labor agreement. Never mind that the players agreed to major pay cuts that would have reduced the loss and possibly even given them a gain. Never mind that the owners were the ones that caused the problem in the first place with their profligate spending -- they decided that as a group they couldn't control their spending, and consequently, the players would have to bail them out. Never mind that the casual fan is likely lost for a decade, and some probably won't return.

Interest in hockey had been growing, slowly, but growing nonetheless. Now it will fall back among the lesser sports (it was already a distant 4th among the team sports -- the average sports fan doesn't even care that it's gone). Will it ever rise again?

Monday, February 14, 2005

Fiscal Irresponsibility

The Republican Party for years prided itself as being the party of fiscal responsibility, compared with the "Tax-and-Spend" Democrats. But the Bush Administration has demonstrated no regard for a rational spending plan. What it has done is repeatedly misrepresent how much something costs by making its proposals not take full effect until years down the road. His tax cuts were the first policy of his that did this, by not eliminating the estate tax until 2009. Then came Bush's Medicare plan -- the misrepresentation of the full cost wasn't revealed until shortly after the vote, and subsequently it's turned out that even that figure was an understatement. And of course, for the past couple of years, including this one, Bush has presented a "budget" that ignores the billions of costs for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- it took less than a week for him to submit a supplemental request for $82 billion to pay for those expenses.

And now comes Bush's proposal for private Social Security accounts, where Bush claims it will only cost $750 billion over the next few years, ignoring the trillions that will follow when the plan is fully implemented (2011). Bush has proposed cutting a number of social programs, which, regardless my opposition to some of his choices of cuts, would at least go a small way toward paying for all his bold plans. It's common wisdom that only a handful of these programs have a chance of being eliminated. Shouldn't he say to his fellow Republicans, who hold majorities in both the Senate and House "Either/or" -- either cut spending on other things, or I can't implement my policy goals? Where is the outrage among conservatives to insist, cut first before you spend? Bush claims he doesn't want to leave younger Americans without Social Security -- why doesn't he care if younger Americans inherit a national debt that can't be paid off?

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Saddest Music in the World

We saw this movie on DVD this weekend and both enjoyed it, despite its overwhelming strangeness. Basic premise: Winnipeg beer baroness during a winter in the Great Depression offers a prize to whatever country (represented by individuals) has the saddest music in the world. From all over the world they come, but really, there are three competitors -- a father (Canada), and his sons who have moved to other countries (U.S. and Serbia).

The tale is told in fits and starts, and some things that would occupy significant chunks in other movies, are covered in 30 seconds here. The past is revealed gradually and cleverly. There is the great irony of celebration for sad music (the competition is set with an audience of beer-guzzling, cheering Canadians, and victory in each round is signified by the winners sliding into a giant vat of beer). And then there is the absurdity associated with the legs -- the beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini) has no legs, the result of an accident and a botched operation; eventually she receives new beer-filled glass legs, which she enjoys to no end.

Definitely worth a look if you're in the mood for something different.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Death of a Playwright

Last night Arthur Miller died. He wrote some amazing stuff that's been seared in my memory. For all that people moan about school curriculum, whoever put his plays in mine should be commended. The two Miller plays that stay with me to this day are The Crucible and Death of a Salesman.

In 9th grade, The Crucible was my second lesson on politcal allegory, following Animal Farm from the year before. The Crucible used the Salem witchtrials to mock the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the McCarthyism that had gripped the country, and which ultimately came after Miller for his views. The timing of its release (1953, while the country was fully in the grip of McCarthyism) foretold of its lack of success. But in truth, it's not Miller's best stuff, as he went about his allegory in a rather heavy-handed manner (In a note to the play, Miller wrote, "A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence."). Nevertheless, the heavy-handedness was a perfect way to educate 9th graders on political allegory, and at the time, I thought it brilliant to draw such parallels. To this day, I make the connection between the two events whenever either of them come up.

Miller was at his best when he explored the human condition, something he did repeatedly. All My Sons and On the Waterfront are two magnificent plays in this regard, but his tour de force on the subject was certainly Death of a Salesman.

I might have read Death of a Salesman in 12th grade, and I've been fortunate to see it performed since. Willy is the the modern common man as a Greek tragic figure, who cannot face losing his job, and imparts the wrong lessons to his sons, Biff and Happy. Willy may be the title character, but I've usually thought about the play more in terms of Willy's sons, perhaps because I'm not a father. Biff and Happy want to live the American Dream, but with Willy's misguidance, they don't know how to reach it, not even when the answer is right in front of them (in the form of the boys' childhood neighbor, the boy that did succeed through hard work). Miller's attention to the boys and their relationship with their father is a brilliant look at misplaced American values, every bit as significant today as when it was opened (1949), perhaps moreso. With all the "lessons" one can find in modern society, I wonder whether there are millions of Biffs and Happys out there.

So tonight I raise a glass, and toast the memory of Arthur Miller. And maybe in the not-too-distant future, I'll get his autobiography, Timebends, a book that's been on my "to read" list since it came out in 1987, and finally examine the man behind the plays.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Am I One of Them?

One of my favorite bumper stickers is "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student." It's not that I condone violence. Quite simply, it's because it's a response to the "My Child is an Honor Roll Student at ____" bumper stickers that always bug me. I have no problem with parental pride -- what gets me is that the pride should be directed at friends and family members, not anyone who happens to be behind them on the road. I am a stranger, and there's no more reason to tell me that your child is on the honor roll than there is for me to rap on your window when we're at a stop light and tell you that my dog aced obedience school.

This willingness to share personal details with complete strangers has become part of our society, with all the talk shows (Jerry Springer, etc.), and the Real Worlds, and even the Reality shows. I dislike all such programming, but given how popular these shows are, maybe I'm the one that's out of touch with the norm, though the presence of the "Beat Up" bumper stickers suggests that perhaps I am not alone.

But now here, I find myself sharing my thoughts with the world at large. I tell myself that these comments are directed at my friends and family, the people I told about my blog. But at the same time, I know better -- one of my posts received a comment from a stranger (I still don't know how he stumbled across my blog, perhaps I'll learn as I get more comfortable with these things). But, I respond as the conflict in my head grows louder, he wasn't the intended recipient -- he's akin to someone reading someone else's mail. Bah -- if you want to keep it private, use real mail, even e-mail -- you know that blogs are read by strangers. I'm not bragging to anyone, I'm just saying what I'm thinking. Sure you are -- you're thinking that your thoughts are worthy of being read by others.

And that voice is right, else why would I have a blog?

Is that such a big deal? Have I started a descent down a "slippery slope," one where I too will succumb to reality programming? Or worse, will I soon attempt to get on one of those shows? Or is it just that I'm a hypocrite in that even though I don't want to know about others, I want them to know about me?

Answering the questions of the previous paragraph, no, no, no, and maybe.

As for the question before them -- I guess I have to expect that strangers will stumble across my blog, and if they find it entertaining, cool. That being said, my writing here is for my friends and family (a.k.a., you). I share my thoughts with you in this forum, just as I hope that you (not the strangers) will share yours with me in the forum of your choosing. I could e-mail you, but this is more what I'd be telling you if you happened to be in the room with me. Hopefully these posts are a little more significant than whatever pops into my head and that I tell Kathy while I'm getting ready for work (sometimes she really wishes I wasn't a morning person) -- by taking the time to type them in and edit them, I seem to be eliminating some of the lesser ideas. So I guess that's what I'm trying to accomplish here -- please don't hesitate to tell me if I'm failing.

The New Blue Devils

Making the cross-sport college-pro comparison...

Duke is a dynasty -- they've been at or near the top of college basketball, with the exception of one year, for as long as Mike Krzyzewski has been their coach. How have they done it?

Coach K has recruited numerous All-Americans, which puts him in select company in the college basketball world -- fewer than 25 teams are able to lure All-Americans with any consistency. That being said, however, very few of the Duke players have ever done anything great in the NBA (had not injuries derailed much of his career, Grant Hill could be considered in the great category, but he might be the only one) -- many of his top players have been relative flops (Danny Ferry, anyone?). In other words, they're good players, but they're not the elite, and Duke has been successful even though they've lacked the top talent in the game. Duke wins because of the coach and his system, because the players believe in the coach and his system, and because the players sublimate their egos (at least, as much as college-aged BMOCs can do so) for the good of the team.

This seems to be the blueprint that the New England Patriots are following, and why they may someday be a dynasty.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Social Security

I have no idea why I'm so interested in the subject of Social Security, but I seem to have been fixated on it ever since I read about it the day after the State of the Union. Bottom line is that I don't get what Bush is doing in two regards:
  1. He raises the whole specter of a failing Social Security system (whether it really is failing is a discussion for a different day), and in response, comes up with a plan that doesn't even pretend to address its long-term viability. Instead, he proposes a plan that would create trillions of dollars in costs in addition to any plan to save Social Security. And then he punts as to how Social Security should be saved, refusing to take a position except that he would oppose any increse in the payroll tax; and
  2. He's not trying to drum up support for a plan, he's trying to drum up support for a concept. In other words, he's asking for commitment when he hasn't laid out the details. If he's so sure that his plan is the right one, then he better have the details already calculated -- so where are they?
Amazingly enough, I'm undecided on whether creating private accounts for part of social security is a good idea or not. In theory it might be a good idea, but as I suggest above, I'm not about to support a plan until I see some of the details. I do admit that I like one of his plan's elements that has been made public -- modeling private accounts after the Thrift Savings Plan is not just as a way to prevent big risk taking that could really hurt someone's retirement, but it's also as a way of keeping the administrative costs down (much to the chagrin of some of the Wall Street folks who were expecting a big cash-in as a result of private accounts -- the sick thing is that I read that the Wall Street folks are hoping to change this as any legislation on the subject moves forward, but hopefully such a blatant money grab would be thwarted).

Monday, February 07, 2005

William Randolph Hearst

Just finished reading a book on William Randolph Hearst (The Chief by David Nasaw). I have so many thoughts about this man and history. He can lay claim to being one of the most influential/significant people of the first half of the 20th century -- he built a media empire that spanned the country, greatly influenced politics for decades (across the spectrum), was probably the most significant anti-Communist prior to McCarthy, was a great collector of antiquities, and built an incredible estate (San Simeon) -- yet most people my age or younger know almost nothing about him (excepting perhaps those whose parents trekked them out to visit San Simeon). To the extent they do, it's from having seen Citizen Kane, a movie based on Hearst's life. While the movie has a number of parallels to the public Hearst, the book suggests that the internal machinations of Hearst, that is, the real focus of the movie, is essentially fictitious.

But I guess the point of my post is that it seems amazing to me that history has already largely forgotten this man. History is of wars, and of presidents/prime ministers/kings/despots, and occasionally of the arts (though the latter is taught in different classes). Why is everyone else forgotten?

Super Bowl -- Dynasty?

So the day after the Patriots won the Super Bowl, the question that seems to be on people's minds is whether the Patriots have created a dynasty. To me this question is absurd. The Patriots are a great team, and deserve accolades for what they have accomplished. To win back-to-back titles in this era of parity, let alone three in four years, speaks volumes about the players, the coaches, and the management of the team. The team is greater than the sum of its parts, and its success seems due to the mentality of the team and the genius of the coaching staff. Whether the team will win next year depends on how well they replace their departing coordinators, Weis and Crennel, and whether other teams take advantage of their greater talent (the Patriots were not the more talented team on the field last night).

They have won their Super Bowls, appreciate (or despise) what they have accomplished, and recognize that they may indeed repeat. But don't call them a dynasty unless and until they rule the roost for more than two years. It's hard to count the "three-in-four-years" thing when the team didn't just not win the Super Bowl after it won once, it didn't even make the playoffs. Show me a team that wins consistently (and by consistent, I mean at least five years) before you call them a dynasty. Let's see them make the playoffs each of the next three years and win at least one more Super Bowl, and then I'll think in terms of dynasty.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

2004 -- New Music Drought

2004, the music year that wasn't? I bought some albums that came out last year, but none of them stand out to me. I still have last year's best of list on my website, largely because I can't think of even ten albums that are worthy of being included on this year's list. Where is 2004's "Chutes Too Narrow" or "Electric Version"? "I" (Magnetic Fields) and "Drag It Up" (Old 97s) were good, but pale when compared to earlier works by them. "Everyone is Here" (Finn Brothers) was solid, but nothing special.

I did discover new (to me) artists in 2004 -- "More Adventurous" (Rilo Kiley) deserves mention on my best of the year list, as it was quite a good album. "Heroes to Zeros" (Beta Band) was an enjoyable one as well. But my favorite discoveries in 2004 were of albums that had come out in 2003. In particular, "Reconstruction Site" (Weakerthans) struck me as brilliant, and "It Still Moves" (My Morning Jacket) truly moved me. Hopefully, in the next couple of months I'll stumble across an album from 2004 that will do the same for me. I have hopes for "Funeral" (Arcade Fire), but I've yet to get the album.

In the meantime, I'm stuck with a good album, Wilco's "A Ghost is Born," as my favorite album of last year. I truly like the album, but it's the Regent. Will 2004 have a King or Queen?