Friday, December 31, 2010

Your Plastic Maid Who's Fun To Be With

No, this isn't about an inflatable sex toy. It's about a robot. I'm paraphrasing Douglas Adams who wrote, in his seminal work, "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy",

"The Encyclopaedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. The marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as "Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Be With."

For Christmas, I got my wife (according to the late Mr. Adams) a "plastic pal who's fun to be with". Gee, now it sounds as though I got her a sex toy, doesn't it? Seriously, though, I got her a robotic floor cleaner, also known as a "Roomba". I suspect that this thing must actually have been created by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, because it sometimes really does seem endowed with their infamous GPP (Genuine People Personality) feature. Since Roomba's purpose is slanted more toward cleaning than friendship (it's hard to foster a meaningful relationship with a talking Frisbee®), it's more of a plastic "maid" than a plastic "pal", but it is still fun to be with (at least it is for lonely, friendless geeks like me).

Roomba has become popular enough that, by now, most people need no explanation as to what it is but, in case you do, Roomba is, as I said, a robotic floor cleaner. It's a plastic disc on wheels, approximately 12 inches in diameter and 3 inches high. It cleans all types of floors including hardwood, laminate, vinyl and also carpeted, even adjusting itself for pile height. It can be programmed to clean at specified times, up to seven times per week. When it does its stuff, so to speak, it cruises the floor, looking for dirt and navigating around obstacles, before returning to its base to recharge.

Roomba derives its name from the words "Room", which it navigates and cleans (at least the floor part) and "ba", which is a sound that sheep make. Hey, it makes sense - at least, to the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation1.

Before continuing, I should point out that Roomba, like most technological contraptions, comes in various models. Ours is a model 550, which is one of the newer 3rd Generation (3G) models. Features and behavior of other models may vary.

Roomba's cleaning tools include a vacuum, a rotating brush, a rotating squeegee wheel (you know, with the rubber fins as opposed to brushes) and a sideways-rotating brush for cleaning along walls or base molding. The vacuum isn't very powerful, somewhat comparable to that of a hand-held DustBuster ®, but it's augmented by the brushes, which act to loosen dirt from the floor and carpets and also to sweep it under Roomba, into the vacuum's suction range.

Watching Roomba navigate the floor is almost worth the price of admission in itself. It starts with a criss-cross pattern designed both for covering the maximum possible area in its search of dirt and also discovering walls and obstacles. When it hits an obstacle, or "sees" it with its infra-red (IR) sensor, it backs away, pivots, and heads off in a different direction. When it finds a wall, which I assume it recognizes as a straight-line obstacle that seems to go on in the same direction for a ways, it turns itself so that its side-rotating brush is facing the wall, and then runs along it in order to clean the floor perimeter. It "sees" when the floor suddenly disappears in front of it, and therefore will not go tumbling down the first set of stairs that it encounters. Most amusingly, its dirt sensor, aside from simply looking for dirt, also detects especially heavy concentrations of dirt. When such a concentration is detected, a little blue Filthometer2 light comes on, and Roomba spirals over the spot in two or three tight circles in order to give it a specially thorough scouring.

Roomba does take considerably longer to clean a floor than one would take doing it manually with a vacuum cleaner or mop, owing to its having to navigate the room and find all the dirt but, since it's relieving my wife and myself of that chore, it can take all the time it needs, especially if programmed to clean the floors during the day, when everyone is away at work and/or school. The only one whom it might annoy is the cat, and we don't much care what she thinks. Besides, as the video below demonstrates, the cat might not mind it as much as one might think either.

The above video also demonstrates one of the many ways in which you can "yank Roomba's chain" so to speak. I can just picture its robotic brain thinking "There's some cat hair on the floor. Got it! Better go back to check. Hey, I missed some! Got it that time. One more pass... D'OH! More cat hair? What gives???"

Roomba's instruction manual (yes, I actually do read those) recommends that it be confined to a single room, but it will do multiple rooms on the same floor if given free range. Of course, on its maiden voyage, I decided to really put it to the test and gave it free access to most of our main floor, including a carpeted living room, a vinyl kitchen floor and hardwood hallways and dining room. I kept it out of the bedrooms, or it would still be working. If it got into my daughter's room, it would probably disappear, never to be seen again.

Roomba admirably, navigated its way around table and chair legs (no, we didn't bother to do it the courtesy of putting the chairs up on the table) as well as other obstacles. A number of times, it temporarily got "trapped" between a myriad of legs, but it always eventually found its way back out again. It did tend to revisit areas where it had already been. I'm not sure whether it was simply double-checking for missed dirt, got disoriented, or simply liked certain areas for whatever reason. Only once did I ever see Roomba get so completely stuck that it needed help. That was when it blundered under our Christmas tree and got hopelessly tangled in the tree skirt. After four or five unsuccessful attempts to extricate itself, it finally emitted a plaintiff "Error! One left." (yes, Roomba talks too) and simply stopped. I'm still somewhat mystified at the meaning of "One left". One what? One more error? Was it warning me that if I let that happen one more time, it would go on robotic strike and stop cleaning our floors? (This is where the GPP feature comes into play!) My wife and I have agreed to leave Roomba off until after the Christmas tree is down, just to be safe.

One of these days, I intend to unleash both Roomba and my voice-command R2-D2 simultaneously, and let them "duke it out" for floor supremacy. Of course, Roomba is at something of a disadvantage, since it lacks Artoo's "electro-arm" for zapping its antagonists.

Roomba has a base to which it returns when its job is finished or when its battery is in need of recharging. The base plugs into a standard electrical outlet, of course, and emits an IR signal to help Roomba to find its way "home". Finding an appropriate place for the base was a little problematic for us. It needs to be in a fairly open, accessible area. If you wedge it into a cubbyhole somewhere, Roomba may have trouble docking with it, even if it does find it. Of course, it needs to be within reach of an available electrical socket. Finally, it needs to be placed against a wall or other heavy object, because it's very light. Without some sort of brace, Roomba tends to just push it away when it tries to dock.

Somehow, we had some trouble finding a spot that satisfied all of the above criteria. I also added an extra criterion of my own. I would have preferred the base to be in some inconspicuous spot, rather than having Roomba sitting out, as if on display. Unfortunately, "inconspicuous" and "easily accessible" seem to be mutually exclusive terms. At one point, I hit upon the "bright" idea of placing it under the couch. I figured that, at the designated time, Roomba could come out from under the couch, clean the floors, and then quietly disappear back underneath the couch, out of sight and out of mind. Aside from the fact that our couch has legs so short that Roomba didn't actually fit underneath it, the other problem with this idea is what happens if Roomba fails to dock properly for whatever reason. Its battery would eventually die and there it would sit, under the couch, gathering dust (but not in the intended manner), forcing someone to crawl under the couch to rescue it. Even if it unerringly found its dock every time, its dust bin, which is fairly small, needs regular emptying and its brushes need regular cleaning as well. Again, one would have to crawl under the couch in order to retrieve it for maintenance and cleaning. No, hiding Roomba under furniture is not recommended.

Should you be considering getting a Roomba for yourself, the final, and most important, question is, of course, "Does it work?" or, rather, "How well does it work?" My conclusion is this: Roomba is a good maintenance cleaner. It's designed to pick up light dirt before it develops into heavy dirt. Can you throw out your vacuum cleaner after getting a Roomba? No. You'll still want to clean your floors manually every so often, but those cleanings will be fewer and father-between, not to mention easier.

Here's a more serious video of Roomba in action:

1 There is no such organization as the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Roomba is produced and marketed by iRobot Corporation. But if they don't sue me for misappropriating the credit for their product to a fictional robotics company, I won't tell Arthur C. Clarke that they stole his book title for their company name.

2 Filthometer is not an official term used by the iRobot company that produces and markets Roomba. I made that up myself, but it does seem appropriate!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve 1968

In Austria, where I was born, Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, as it is in many European countries. Presents are opened on the evening of the 24th, friends and relatives visit each other and the festivities go on late into the night. Christmas morning is almost anti-climactic.

Even after immigrating to Canada in 1965, my family continued to observe the Austrian tradition of celebrating Christmas on the evening of the 24th. It made for some amusing cultural encounters, such as the time when one of the older neighborhood kids tried to shatter my youthful innocence by telling me that there was no Santa Claus. I, still being a Believer, refused to listen.

"Oh yeah?" challenged the boy, "Why do you think your parents make you go to bed early Christmas Eve?"

"They don't," I replied matter-of-factly. "In fact, we usually stay up late on Christmas Eve."

"You mean you're still up when the presents are placed under the tree?" asked the incredulous boy.

"Sure we are," I replied with a self-satisfied smile. My interrogator was at a loss for words.

In Austria, it's the "Christkind", or "Christ Child" that brings the presents. Santa Claus does not figure prominently, although St. Nicholas' historical significance is recognized earlier, on the 5th of December. However, my parents had reconciled the cultural discrepancy by explaining to me that, at Christmas time, St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, became the Christkind's helper. I didn't bother elaborating upon this to my elder acquaintance, because I had learned, by that time, that Canadian children didn't know about the Christkind, and I wasn't inclined to enter into the long explanations and elaborations that would be required to enlighten the poor fellow.

The other detail that I neglected to elaborate upon was that the Christkind, and his helper, Santa Claus, always appeared in our living room while my sister and I were shut out behind closed doors, with our mother. Early in the evening, just after supper, the door to the living room would be shut, and my mother would stay with us while my father waited in the living room to greet the Christkind. Unlike our uncouth Canadian neighbors, we Austrians were not so rude as to go to bed and leave the Christkind or Santa Claus or whatever benevolent visitor chose to enter our homes to simply deposit gifts and then leave, unwelcomed and unthanked. No, it was only right that father, the head of the household, should be there to welcome our guests, offer them the refreshments that we had set out, give them a full report regarding how good or bad we children had been since the previous Christmas, and then see them out again with the appropriate thanks. Just before leaving, the Christkind would ring a bell, signalling to my mother, my sister and myself that all was ready, and then would swiftly make his escape before we could enter the room to see him.

The Christkind brought everything; not just our presents, but even the Christmas tree! That's right. Believe it or not, every December 24, in the early evening, after dinner time, I would watch my father shut himself up in our plain, unadorned living room and, when that magical bell sounded, between one and two hours later, he would again open the door to reveal a fully-decorated tree with presents beneath it. In retrospect, I have to admire the man's fortitude. To set up and decorate a Christmas tree by himself, on the very eve of Christmas, with two impatient children waiting just behind the next door, it's a wonder that I don't recall hearing him curse at the Christkind and his helper.

One of the most memorable Christmas Eves of my childhood was December 24th, 1968. That was the evening that the astronauts of Apollo 8 accomplished the first manned lunar orbit, and it was the first time that a human being saw our Earth from the moon's perspective. I remember the broadcast appearing on our old black and white television as we celebrated Christmas that evening and dreaming, as only a six-year-old boy can, of what it must be like to fly to the moon in a rocket ship.

1968 was not a great year, for the most part. The war in Vietnam had reached its apex and American troops took heavy losses during the January Tet Offensive. The American public increasingly questioned the justification and ethics of that conflict. In April, Dr. Martin Luthor King was assassinated on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. In June, Senator Robert Kennedy was likewise assassinated.

None of that registered on my six-year-old radar. I knew nothing of Vietnam or Dr. Martin Luthor King or American politics. But I did know about rockets, and astronauts, and space, and I watched in wonder.

As the crew of Apollo 8 watched the distant Earth rise above the moon's horizon, the three astronauts, starting with Bill Anders, and followed by his crew-mates, Jim Lovell and, finally, Commander Frank Borman, read from the book of Genesis. The passage must have seemed appropriate to them. Borman ended the transmission with these words:

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with goodnight, good luck, Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you; all of you on the good Earth."

NASA later had to defend itself against a lawsuit launched by Madalayn Murray O'Hair, an atheist who took exception to the reading of biblical passages by the astronauts and who, in this blogger's opinion, completely missed the message behind the transmission. For the first time, men had literally removed themselves from all borders, cultures and beliefs and looked upon our home planet, and saw that we are one species, living together on one planet. From lunar orbit, no national boundaries were visible. No evidence of mankind itself was visible. All of our reasons for hating, fighting and killing suddenly faded from significance.

Our world today is, in many respects, similar to what it was in 1968. Once again, America is embroiled in not one, but two foreign wars. Once again, countless American soldiers have died as a result and, once again, people increasingly question the justification and the ethics behind these conflicts. The September, 2001 attack on New York's World Trade Center has seriously shaken America's self-assuredness. Fear and paranoia over terrorist threats, some real and some imagined, have caused a rift between Islamic and Christian cultures. International travel has been significantly hampered due to security concerns. Peoples' privacy and civil liberties have been eroded in the name of national security.

The world economy has been shaken by the 2008 Wall Street collapse. Joblessness and poverty are on the rise and entire nations stand at the threshold of bankruptcy. At the same time, the gap between the richest one percent and the rest of the world continues to widen.

We now face a new threat which has never before been seriously considered; the threat to the health of our world's climate and the natural systems that sustain us and give us life. We see increasing evidence that our habitat is changing for the worse, but we seem unable to mobilize ourselves to counter this trend. Some argue that we can't justify the expense involved, some insist that the responsibility falls on others, and some continue to deny that there is a problem at all.

Perhaps most dismaying, to me, was the news earlier this year that President Barack Obama has canceled any plans for Americans to revisit the moon in the foreseeable future. Obama's explanation is that the priority has been shifted to sending a manned mission to Mars, but this will not happen in the foreseeable future either, and many argue that the best way to reach Mars would have been by using the moon as a staging base.

As I celebrate Christmas 2010 with my family, on Christmas Eve, just as I always have, I turn on my television set and search for some message of hope, or words of encouragement. It would do me good, this Christmas, to hear any of my brothers and sisters, wishing all a happy holiday, regardless of culture or faith, and reminding us that we are all still one family living together on this good Earth.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Digital Physiognomy

Last March, I wrote about a program for removing unsightly power lines from digital photos which I'd downloaded from Today, GOTD offered another of their more unusual software titles; Digital Physiognomy.

Physiognomy refers to the profiling of a person's character based on their facial features. In other words, contrary to the old proverb, physiognomy proposes that one can, indeed, judge a book by its cover. This pseudo-science apparently originated in India and spread from there to Iran, Rome, France, my computer and, finally this blog.

The program profiles character based on facial features. You compose a portrait by selecting facial characteristics (forehead shape and width, eye shape, nose position, ear type, hair, etc.), much like a police sketch artist. You're also given the ability to load digital portraits for reference, and even overlay them with the sketch to check accuracy. When you're finished, you have a sketch which hopefully bears a reasonable resemblance to the subject. The program then analyses this sketch and spits out a character profile.

Being a sucker for all things novel (did you know that my Star Wars name is Halan Steiz, and my hobbit name is Mungo Dogwood of Shadydowns?) not to mention all things free, I couldn't resist downloading the program and putting it through its paces.

I decided to make myself the program's guinea pig because, after all, who knows me better than I? I felt that it would be a good litmus test of the program's accuracy. Here's the self-portrait sketch that I came up with:

To begin with, although this is the closest likeness I could wring out of the program, I can't honestly say that it looks like me. Although it does reflect my features in a very general sense, the caricature that adorns my Blogger profile is a much better likeness than this. Nevertheless, here's what Digital Physiognomy has to say about The Halmanator, given the above sketch, with my own comments interspersed:

  • Bright extrovert is characterized by outgoingness, activity, and the ability to make quick decisions. He/she is often too talkative.

Bright? I'll accept the compliment.

Extrovert, characterized by outgoingness? Not really. I've said before in this blog that I consider myself to lean toward introversion. However, I can be extroverted around those with whom I feel comfortable, and I can and often do act extroverted around those whom I don't know as well, if only to mask my inner insecurity.

Often too talkative: Guilty as charged, although my wife would challenge that.

  • Predilection to shyness. Suspiciousness is possible. Poor vigor and sluggishness.

Predilection to shyness? I thought you just said I'm an outgoing extrovert! Make up your mind!

Suspiciousness is possible: Actually, no. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, until they give me a reason not to.

Poor vigor and sluggishness: Again, didn't you just say in the previous bullet that I was characterized by "activity"? But, yes, I'm a sedentary individual who likes to sit around a lot, and I'm often slow to get moving, so I'll give you this one.

  • Irreparably pessimistic relation to life. The person feels doomed, often dissatisfied, hopeless and lonely.

Now, that's a little severe. I'm not that much of a downer! I will admit, though, that although life's been reasonably good to me, I secretly live in constant fear of seeing it all fall to pieces on me.

  • Predilection to disputes and adventures, aggressiveness and light-mindedness.

Disputes? Hardly! I pride myself on being one of the most conciliatory people you'd ever want to meet! In fact, if anything, I'm a bit of a doormat sometimes. I'm not terribly adventurous either, except when I go canoeing, I suppose.

Light-mindedness? I'll challenge that too. I spend a lot of time meditating and brooding over things. A "light-minded" individual would occupy themselves with shallow distractions (not that I don't do my share of that).

  • Egocentricity. This is usually an unripe person with low aesthetic concerns. Often has difficulty in making contacts.

I'll confess to a certain degree of egocentricity. I'm not sure what an "unripe" person is, but I don't mind being categorized as one. I've met a few "ripe" individuals in my time, and it wasn't pleasant.

Low aesthetic concerns: Well, looking around at the cluttered state of my attic office, I can hardly argue that point! I will say, however, that I can also be quite picky about how things are displayed or arranged. It just depends what mood you catch me in.

Often has difficulty in making contacts: True but, again, I thought you said I was an extrovert?

  • Frank attitude to the people. Skill to perceive others and receive criticism. Indulgent.

Oh, so we're finally saying something positive about me now, are we? Well thank you very much!

Frank attitude to the people: Yes, I'm pretty much a "What you see is what you get" sort of guy.

Skill to perceive others and receive criticism: I like to think of myself as a good judge of character, and I can take honest, constructive criticism. I'm probably my own harshest critic, and I revel in self-deprecating humor.

Indulgent: Yes but, once again, didn't you say, just before, that I have a "predilection to disputes"? I'm not indulgent enough to overlook direct contradiction, bucko!

  • Normal functionality. Patience. Predilection to study.

Normal functionality: Just a moment...

Whirrrr... click-click-click... BEEP! click-click-click... Ka-CHUNK!



Patience: Yes, but here's a funny thing. I can be infinitely patient and calm in the most difficult of circumstances, yet go to pieces and curse up a storm over some trifling inconvenience, such as having misplaced some unimportant item.

Predilection to study: This makes me sound like more of a scholar than I really am, but I am one of those people who actually reads the instructions. In fact, I learn a fair through reading, so I'll give this one the nod as well.

  • Fairness. Sometimes ruse, slyness. Usually executes his/her promises and is not capable of betrayal.

Fairness: I really like to think so.

Sometimes ruse, slyness: Only when it suits my purposes (nya-hah-ha!) But, seriously, I can be a frighteningly good liar if I want to.

Usually executes his/her promises: I'm old-fashioned enough to want my word to mean something.

Not capable of betrayal: I like the way you put that. I've never, to the best of my recollection, stabbed anybody in the back.

  • The capacity to generate ideas is possible.

I should hope that I have the occasional original thought. On the other hand, I've known many much more forward-thinking people than myself.

  • Self-confidence and self-control in complex situations. Also concerned about others' opinions.

Self-confidence: Not always, although I generally try to convince myself that I'm equal to most situations.

Self-control in complex situations: See? Didn't I say that before myself? Just don't let me misplace my screwdriver!

Concerned about others' opinions: Depends on what, I suppose. I'm very (perhaps overly) concerned about others' opinions of me. I do try to give others' views a fair hearing, even if I don't necessarily agree, and I accept that not everybody sees things as I do (which brings us back to "indulgent", I suppose).

  • Capability to influence the acts. Sometimes he/she is more exacting to themselves than others.

Capability to influence the acts: I don't consider myself a very influential person, but my daughter has proven me wrong about that. It's frightening how often I've seen myself mirrored in her, and not always for the good!

More exacting to (my)self than others: This is worded ambiguously. It could mean that I'm harder on myself than others are on me, or it could mean that I'm harder on myself than I am on others. Either is true.

  • Seldom makes jokes.

Now that's just wrong. So horribly, horribly wrong! You were doing so-so, but now you've blown yourself right out of the water!

  • Seldom will miss the chance. do what??? I really want to know!

  • Excessive sex adventures.

Once again, horribly, horribly wrong! (Unfortunately).

The program guessed, correctly, that my astrological sign is Libra and suggests that I'd make a good artist or actor.

And, look! It even came up with graphs of my most likely Myers-Briggs types. Seems it has me pegged as a likely ENTP (which, interestingly enough, was what one of my readers guessed as well). In fact, when I took the test, I came up INTP, which also came up fairly high on the probability list. Apparently, I'm nothing like an INFJ, though, which is how most authors appear to be characterized. So much for my fantasies about writing the Great North-American Blog, I guess.

The program comes with a gallery of famous (and infamous) faces, complete with profile analyses. According to the software, Adolf Hitler is hostile, clever and diligent, and would make a good military man. Before you say "Duh!" and assume that the authors simply made the profiles fit the personas, it also describes Adam Sandler as hostile, clever and honest, and says he would make a good scientist. Babe Ruth is a pessimist, diligent and volitional, and would make either a good worker or an "official" (though it doesn't specify official what). Bob Dylan is sanguine, an egoist and diligent, and would make a good physician or teacher.

One other interesting feature that the program offers is the ability to compare a sketch with others in the database in order to find faces with similar features. The people in the database whose features are apparently most similar to mine include:

Evita Perron (similar eyes and lips with an overall similarity of 35.5%)

Paul Lynde (similar nose and eyes with an overall similarity of 35.5%)

Gary Becker (similar lips and eyes, with an overall similarity of 34%)

Peter Lawford (similar lips and eyes, with an overall similarity of 32.5%)

Dick Cheney (similar lips and eyes, with an overall similarity of 32.4%)

The verdict? Well, I'm not exactly a convert to physiognomy just yet. Some of the points are accurate, some aren't, and some are just plain contradictory. A lot of them are generalizations that probably apply to just about everyone. Still, the program does make for an interesting conversation (or in this case, blog post) starter.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to have some excessive sex adventures.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How To Be A Rock Star

Ever had dreams of becoming a famous rock star, up there on the stage, guitar in hand, idolized by millions? Many of us have.

It takes a convergence of many important talents including musicianship, showmanship, music composition, poetry (lyrics) and, yes, even a certain amount of business sense (rock and roll is a business, after all). All of the most famous rock stars since rock and roll's early days have demonstrated the above talents in varying degrees but there is one secret that seems essential to success. One characteristic seems indispensable if you're going to make it in the "vicious game" that is rock and roll, as April Wine's Myles Goodwin so aptly put it. All of the rock legends that you see below had it. Can you guess what it is?

Billy Joel

Bob Dylan

George Thorogood

Jimi Hendrix

Mark Knopfler

Mick Jagger

Ringo Starr

Steve Tyler

That's right, it's a full set of large, meaty lips. I'm not completely sure why this is, but it probably has to do with the proper enunciation of the word "Baby".

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sour Limes

On October 26th, Lime Group was slapped with a court injunction to disable the file sharing and peer-to-peer networking functionality in its popular LimeWire file sharing software. The upshot of this, of course, is that the LimeWire software can no longer illegally download files (especially music and videos).

Horrors! You mean the free ride is over? The gravy train has left? No more free music? This is an outrage! The public has rights! It's undemocratic! It's unconstitutional!

The court injunction was, of course, driven primarily by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) who have seen file sharing services like LimeWire as a stone in their corporate shoe for several years now. Let's face it, if everybody downloads music without paying for it, the music industry must eventually collapse. If the music publishers and distributors make no money, they can't afford to pay the artists and performers, who then also make no money and can't afford to continue exercising their creativity (except, perhaps, in their spare time, outside of their day jobs and, even then, it would have to be strictly a labor of love).

The RIAA's web site claims that illegal downloading of music globally has caused economic losses of about $12.5 billion per year in lost earnings, lost jobs and lost tax revenues. I tend to look at this type of argument with some skepticism. What they're really saying is that, if every single song that was downloaded illegally in the past year had been paid for, the music industry, its artists and performers and the tax man would now be about $12.5 billion richer.

First of all, let's remember that this is just an estimate. Nobody can realistically say exactly how much music was illegally downloaded last year. Even granting that the estimate is reasonably accurate, those making the estimate appear to assume that those who downloaded music illegally would have downloaded that music even if they had to pay for it. This fails to consider that there is still the third option of simply not downloading at all. I suspect that the majority of the music that was illegally downloaded would not have been downloaded if there was no choice but to pay for it. Just because I'm willing to take something for free doesn't necessarily mean that I'm also willing to pay for it. That's a logical argument, not a legal or a moral one. It does, however, challenge the premise that the music industry should, by all rights, be $12.5 billion richer today than it was at this time last year.

I think that one of the main reasons why people download music illegally is because there's a perception that the music industry is full of mega-rich stars who don't need the money anyway, and so illegal downloading is seen as a victimless crime. Michael Jackson's estate alone is said to have made more that $275 million last year. Not bad, for a dead guy! This in spite of the fact that many people surely downloaded Jackson's music illegally. It's hard to sympathize with someone who cries that they only made $275 million when they really should have made, say, $500 million. In that context, it becomes understandable that many don't feel a great deal of guilt about not tossing another ten bucks into the huge money pot for their copy of "Thriller".

Of course, for every Michael Jackson out there, there are hundreds of lesser-known, struggling artists who can't yet afford to quit their day jobs. On the other hand, not many people download their music, because they're not as well-known. Ironically, this poorer class of artist is often happy to allow people to download and distribute their work for free in the interest of getting increased exposure.

Another rationalization that's sometimes used to defend music piracy is the argument that the music industry has already reaped the profits from the music that it offers and shouldn't be paid for it again. The music industry is notorious for re-releasing the same work multiple times under different packaging. Aside from "Greatest Hits" compilations, there are the "Extended" or "Deluxe" editions of albums, which are often simply the original albums re-packaged with an extra track or two included.

I'll pick on one of my personal favorite musicians in this regard. I've been a huge fan of Mike Oldfield's music since my college years. I've legally purchased most of his albums twice, first on vinyl and then again on CD. Of course, the digital CD format is of a higher quality than the old vinyl. It's reasonable to pay for the upgrade, although one could make the argument I shouldn't necessarily have had to pay full price the second time around. Why not offer me a discount for proof of purchase of the older vinyl pressing? Unfortunately, music industry marketers have never been known for this sort of forward thinking, which is largely why the digital revolution caught them so unawares. But I digress, as usual.

Even allowing that I was willing to pay a second time for CD versions of Oldfield's music, he has re-released and re-re-released his seminal work, "Tubular Bells" so many times now that it even makes me groan "Enough already Mike!" "Tubular Bells" was originally released on vinyl, both in stereo and quadraphonic formats. A re-mixed version with an out-take that had been dropped from the original release was included as part of a boxed set (appropriately entitled "Boxed") along with re-mixes of several of Oldfield's other previously-released albums. Of course, all of the above were eventually released on CD as well, and some even on DVD.

Then followed several sequels to the work including "Tubular Bells II", "Tubular Bells III" and even "The Orchestral Tubular Bells" but these, although variations on the original theme, were new recordings and therefore qualify as new material, rather than a simple re-packaging of previously released work. There was also "Tubular Bells 2003" which was a complete re-recording of the original work but at least it was a re-recording rather than just another re-mix or remastering.

In contrast, the 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition CD release, was the merely the original Tubular Bells, cleaned up and re-mastered and re-packaged yet again. Segments of the work have appeared on compilation albums such as "The Complete Mike Oldfield". In 2009, four physical variations and two digital variations were re-released in the U.K. and Ireland, and five physical variations were released in the U.S. and elsewhere. These include a new stereo mix, a 5.1 surround mix (entitled "The Deluxe Edition") and an "Ultimate Edition" which basically contains all of the previous editions plus extras. All of these are nothing more than re-mixed and remastered versions of the same work that Oldfield first recorded in 1973. I'd say he's milked his Tubular cow for all it's worth, and then some!

Incidentally, I was dismayed to discover that some of the CD releases of Oldfield's albums were missing material that had been included with their vinyl brethren. The CD version of "Crises" lacked the song "Mistake", which appeared on the vinyl album, and the CD version of "Incantations" seriously abridged one of the tracks, fading it up a good two or three minutes into the piece as compared to the vinyl version. Given that a compact disc is capable of storing more music than a 12-inch vinyl disc, I see no excuse for these omissions. In this regard, it might be argued that Oldfield or his publishers stole from me, and from all of his other fans that purchased the CD versions of those albums. So I put this question to you; if I were to find those missing tracks on LimeWire or some similar file sharing network (and, make no mistake, there are others), would I be justified in downloading them for free?

I'm not arguing in favor of illegal downloading of music. As I said, if everybody did so, the music industry would collapse. The RIAA is well within its rights in fighting music piracy. I'm merely pointing out why it's understandable that some people do illegally download music without feeling that they are committing any great wrong, and I question whether music piracy has really hurt the industry as badly as the RIAA would have us believe.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Great Programmer

In his blog, Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert, for those of you who have been holed up in a cave) has, on occasion, mused that we may be nothing more than an elaborate hologram or computer program created and run by some higher being. In one example he cites having had a vision, earlier in life, about becoming famous which, in a very real sense, he did. He postulates that he may, in fact, be nothing more than a holographic self-portrait of the higher being that actually created him.

I like Adams, but many of his theories evoke a decided "yeah, right!" from me. This one certainly did. Until I started watching nature shows.

Ever since I got a wide-screen, high-definition TV, I've really gotten into the BBC Earth documentaries such as "Planet Earth" and, most recently, "Life" (the version narrated by David Attenborough, not Opra Winfrey, thank-you-very-much!)

If you'll bear with my going off on a tangent for a moment, I can't resist noting that my dad, who enjoyed all kinds of nature shows, would have loved these documentaries, especially on high-definition display technology. It's a shame he didn't live to enjoy them.

Getting back on topic, these nature documentaries have reminded me of something for which I have no rational explanation, nor has anybody else as far as I know. More incredibly, extending Adams' theory that humans are nothing more than computer programs to include the animal world as well would provide as credible an explanation for this phenomenon as any other. The phenomenon? In a word, instinct.

"The Pocket Oxford Dictionary" (which happens to be the only dictionary that I have handy while writing this) defines instinct as the "Innate propensity, esp. in lower animals, to seemingly rational acts; innate impulse or behaviour; intuition". In other words, it's that "magical" gift that animals have for knowing what to do and how to do it, without actually having to learn it. All cats wash themselves regularly. Momma cat doesn't have to teach them this. It's an instinct.

That was a simple example. The Monarch butterfly provides us with a much more incredible one. Each fall, great swarms of Monarch butterflies fly from southern Canada, across the North American continent, over 3,100 miles, to converge in a small town in Michoagan, Mexico, where they mate. In the spring, their offspring migrates northward, back to Canada. Since the lifespan of a Monarch butterfly is only a few months, none of them ever make the trip more than once. Each makes a one-way trip, then spawns and dies. So how does each new generation know exactly where to go, or how to get there?

The male garibaldi (no relation to Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian political activist), an orange, tropical fish that looks like a goldfish, prepares a nest, entices the female to lay her eggs in it, and then fertilizes them and chases her off, since she's likely to eat the eggs if given the chance. How does the male know this? And why isn't he tempted to eat the eggs?

We call it instinct, but I can't help noticing that instinctive behavior of this sort is very similar to the behavior of a computer program that's been hard-coded to perform a given function. The computer isn't taught by other computers. It doesn't take it upon itself to search Google for instructions on how to open a window or play a video or send and receive e-mails. Some programmer has given it those instructions and, as a result, it simply knows. Electronic instinct.

Maybe Scott Adams' idea isn't so far-fetched after all. Maybe there is a Great Programmer, and the reality that we perceive is just His program, executing its routines. On a darker note, as I observe the world and I witness the on-going unrest in the middle east, the increasing economic disparity between the wealthy few and the proletariat masses, and man-made ecological disasters such as last summer's BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, I can't help but muse as to whether we share more in common with software bugs and computer viruses than we do with useful programs.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sucks To Be Right

In last week's post, I commented on my local mayoral candidates, speculating that one of them, who hadn't done much campaigning on the advice of his doctor, was liable to "keel over and die" within his first year in office, even if he did win. Well, thanks to alert reader "Tubes", I learned that he did just that - on the day of the election, no less! Damn, it sucks being right all the time!

My first reaction on learning this news was to feel like a bit of an jackass for denigrating the poor man just before his death. My second thought was ... "What the HECK is the guy doing running for mayor if he knows he's that sick???"

My third thought was realizing that, even if this candidate, who came in second by the way, had won the election, our incumbent mayor still would have re-taken the office when the winner died, assuming that he would have been the next runner-up.

So here's a man who had only two competitors for the mayor's office, neither of which provided serious competition, and only one of which could have actually ousted him for good. How badly would you have to suck to lose under those circumstances?

I hope he isn't patting himself on the back too hard.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Halmanator For Mayor

In a couple of days, most Ontario communities will be holding municipal elections. Municipal elections are notorious for producing the smallest voter turnouts. This is probably because many deem them to be of lesser importance than federal or provincial elections, since we're not voting for a Prime Minister nor even a Premier. It's just a bunch of city councillors, some school trustees and ... oh yes ... the mayor. Who cares, right?

In many ways, the people who prevail in municipal elections affect our daily lives much more directly than does either the Prime Minister or the provincial Premier, so we really should care. Our property taxes, leaf collection, snow removal, fire and police services and access to community services, not to mention the general quality of life in our home towns, are directly affected by the decisions made by these people. Still, I can't entirely fault those who fail to vote.

Unlike federal or provincial elections, where one votes for a party moreso than for an individual, municipal elections are very much contests between individuals. There are a lot of people running and, although the local newspapers and the internet try to provide coverage, most of us don't know all the candidates or their backgrounds and researching them takes a significant amount of time and energy. Thus, sadly, many either simply don't vote, or those who do simply vote for names that they recognize, which means that the same people keep getting elected over and over again, regardless of their suitability or lack thereof.

It becomes even worse when you live in a town like mine. I have a choice of three people when it comes to choosing our next mayor. One is the current incumbent, with whom I'm not particularly impressed and whom I would love to see replaced.

The second, according to an article in my local paper reviewing the three candidates, is a fifty-eight-year-old "former manager in the manufacturing sector who has worked as a consultant on local political issues and helped with a local business since closing his own home-renovating business more than a decade ago". Okay, so he has some practical business and management experience - that's good - but a spotty success record - not so good. He further promises to "re-evaluate the salaries of city employees when contract negotiations come up". Sounds good at first first blush, except that this could easily mean that he intends to freeze the salaries of city employees, some of whom actually earn their pay, while doing nothing about his own over-inflated salary or those of the city council members. He proposes to find the savings necessary to minimize municipal tax increases by possibly trimming back the number of community centres. That may sound like fiscal responsibility if you happen to agree that the city has too many community centres ... unless, of course, the one that you like to use happens to be one of those that gets shut down. Finally, the news article notes that this particular candidate "has not done much campaigning this election on the advice of his doctor". Great! So, even if I actually like him, he's liable to keel over and die on me within a year of taking office. Next!

The third candidate is a 46-year-old who is "currently on disability and has been receiving assistance through Ontario Works for the past several years" and apparently didn't even own a phone before deciding to run.

"I'm just a regular guy," he is quoted as saying. "Any person in this city could be mayor. I truly believe that and I think our mindset has been befuddled into thinking you have to have certain qualifications. That's not the case. It's all about your heart." Translation: I have no particular qualifications for the job, but please vote for me anyway. This candidate promised to freeze taxes and "only keep a portion of the mayor's annual salary." I guess he figures that even just a percentage of the mayoral salary has got to be an improvement over welfare, which is what "Ontario Works" is.

So I'm left with a choice between an incumbent whom I'd like to vote out, a business manager with a questionable track record who might not be long for this world, and a welfare bum. Given choices like these, it's easy to understand why so many don't see the point of voting. Maybe I should run for mayor next time around!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Wrong Decade

After typing out last week's post about Battling Tops, I turned to Google's image search, as I usually do, in search of an appropriate graphic with which to dress up the post. Whilst searching for pictures of the Battling Tops game, I came across pictures of several other games from the same period. One of these was the sixties version of Milton-Bradley's Battleship.

You've gotta love that! Dad and "Junior" getting in some quality male bonding time over a friendly game of Battleship, while mom and sister smile approvingly from the background as they do up the dishes like good wenches. Man, I was born in the wrong decade!

Incidentally, I've updated the Battling Tops post with a couple of embedded YouTube videos. One shows the original seventies TV commercial, and the second shows four grown men playing the game, and totally getting into it. I think the latter really captures the flavor of the game. Check it out!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Battling Tops

If you're part of the baby boomer generation (like me), you likely remember a host of games from the seventies by Milton-Bradley, Mattel and Ideal such as Battleship, Don't Spill the Beans, Ants in the Pants and Ker Plunk! These games tended to feature some kind of gimmick; a plastic case containing a grid full of ships and pegs, a large pot on a swivel that you filled with beans, a plastic pair of pants into which you flicked colorful plastic ants or a transparent plastic tube full of holes into which you stuck colourful straws, atop which you piled marbles and then proceeded to pull out the straws one-by-one trying not to drop any of the marbles. These "games" were essentially built around interesting toys and very much targeted at younger kids. One of the most memorable, for me, was a weird little game called Battling Tops by Ideal.

Battling Tops was a game for two to four players that featured a circular, slightly concave arena with four gates or corrals at the top, bottom and sides. Each gate or corral belonged to one of the players, who would wind a little plastic top into it using a string with a finger-loop at one end. A quick yank of the loop would unwind the string and send the player's top spinning out of its corral and into the arena, where all four tops would collide and bounce off each other. Eventually, of course, the tops would lose their momentum and fall over. The last top left spinning was declared the winner. Each top bore a sticker eblazoned with a funny moniker such as "Hurricane Hank", "Dizzy Dan" and "Twirling Tim".

This sort of game provided endless hours of entertainment to one as easily amused and as transfixed with spinning objects and buttons and gadgets as I. Once in a rare while a collision between two or more of the tops would pop one up into the air and right out of the arena (I recall the TV commercial for the game showing just such an occurrence). But I recall one incident in particular that was so bizarre that I wouldn't believe it myself if someone related the tale to me, yet I swear that I am absolutely not making this up (® and TM Dave Barry Enterprises, inc.)

One evening, while playing Battling Tops with my sister, my mom and my dad (yes, back in those days, families actually played games together sometimes) my hapless top did get knocked out of the arena, just as described above. Surprisingly, it landed upright on the table, outside of the arena, still spinning.

Amused, I decided to let it go and continued to watch it. As it shimmied slowly across the table, its base hit a seam (this was one of those extendable tables, you see) which caused it to pop up into the air, right back into the arena, where it landed, still spinning! The moment this happened, the other three tops, which were also still going, converged on the upstart survivor, as if to punish it for its audacity, mercilessly beating it to the ground. My top didn't win, but it sure did try!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Faith and Hope in Charity

I support a handful of charitable organizations. Each month, I try to make some room in the budget to support some worthy cause for the less fortunate and disadvantaged. I'm not all full of myself about it. I just feel an obligation to help out those less fortunate than myself, because there but for the grace of God, as they say. I should know. I've been there myself. I used to have a developmentally challenged son who was afflicted with cerebral palsy and, earlier this year, I got a taste of what it's like to lose my job and a sizable portion of my family's income. When shit happens, it sure is nice to come across somebody with a shovel.

I've noticed, though, that the more I give to charities, the more of their unsolicited mail fills my mailbox each week. That's because most charities have an irritating habit of sharing their mailing lists with other charities. It's like feeding seagulls at the beach. You start by tossing a few tidbits to one or two gulls and, before you know it, you're swarmed by a whole flock of them, some of which crap on your head.

I understand that the charities do this to make a few extra bucks. I also know that most charities provide an opt-out check box in itty-bitty little fine print on the reply form that you send back along with your cheque, that tells them not to share your contact information with others. I do suspect that at least some charities don't actually check whether their supporters have checked this checkbox when checking in the cheque, because I make a point of always checking it, yet I still get reams of stuff from charities that I've never heard of, and have never supported. Even if they do honor the opt-out check box, I still say "don't be punishing those who are good enough to support your cause by encouraging others to flood their mailboxes with junk". At most, there should be an opt-in box, asking donators to specifically give their permission to share their info, and that info should not be shared unless said box is checked.

My other bone of contention is the silly "gifts" that many charities send in hopes of encouraging people to support them. By "gifts", I mean the calendars, the note pads, the greeting cards and the return address stickers. Oh my gawd, the return address stickers! I have a whole freakin' drawer full of return address stickers! I'd better not move for the next ninety-two years!

The greeting cards are the next most common irritants, especially around Christmas time. In the past week, I received no less than four envelopes stuffed with Christmas cards from different charities. I didn't need them, even though a couple of sets were, admittedly, quite attractive, because I have two shoe boxes full of charity-provided greeting cards, most of them for Christmas, that I've collected over the years! I'm flattered that you think otherwise, but I'm sorry to have to admit that I just don't have that many friends! I'm covered until Christmas, 2061!

I shred all the stuff that I don't keep, partly because it has my name and address, etc. on it, and partly because it takes up less space in my waste basket after being shredded into tiny strips of paper, yet I completely filled an entire waste basket with just one week's worth of charity Christmas cards. I pity the trees that died in vain.

Some charities go completely over the top. I've received tote bags, pens, desk calendars and even an umbrella for cryin' out loud! I can't help but wonder how many of these packages these charities mail out and how much it costs them. Why don't they just keep their junk gifts and put the savings into their cause?

As it happens, at least one charity which writes me regularly must have heard this very question from others like me, because they've explained it. Quite simply, they say that it works. Sending out this crap seems to increase donations, and the extra money that it brings in more than offsets the money that they spend in sending it. In my case, at least, they sort of shot themselves and their peers in the foot by admitting that because I've since resolved to stop supporting any charity that inundates me with junk gifts, now that I know that rewarding the behavior only encourages more of it.

I don't mean to denigrate charities or to discourage my readers from supporting them. Charities rely on generous donations from their supporters, especially in economically challenged times like these. I personally intend to continue donating regularly to those charities that I support. But, if you're reading this and you happen to be in any way affiliated with any charity, please take this rant to heart, and point your superiors at this post. I support charities, not because I need calendars or address labels or greeting cards or umbrellas, but because I just want to give a little something back. I suspect and hope that others like me feel the same way. Don't alienate us by punishing us for helping out.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tub Door Installation Tips from Mr. Handyman

Yesterday, I hung a new set of tub doors in our bathroom. "Big deal," you're probably thinking. Well it is, considering that this is me we're talking about. I'm a man of many talents, but handyman skills are not among them. I'm much more comfortable with a mouse (the computer variety) in my hand as opposed to a hammer or a power drill. In fact, I've whacked my fingers with enough hammers in my day that I can safely say that I'm often decidedly uncomfortable with a hammer in my hand. This is in keeping with the natural order of things. I think that there are people who are good with tools, and people who are good with computers, but it's unnatural for anybody to be proficient with both. As someone once correctly observed, beware of programmers carrying screwdrivers!

To give you some idea of my degree of hardware competence (or lack thereof), I'll note that I bought one of those home handyman books full of "how-to's" for just about any home improvement or repair project that you can imagine. The chapter about hanging tub doors estimated that the job should take about two hours for a professional, three hours for someone who's "handy" and four hours for a novice. It took me the better part of four days; something like 20 hours all told.

In my own defence, there were certain factors that the book did not take into account. The first was the time needed to remove the old tub door. Why is it that D.I.Y. books always seem to assume that you're building a house from scratch and there's nothing old that first needs to be removed, scraped away, ripped out or otherwise mangled? They further assume that all materials, surfaces and tools are clean and new.

In my case, they score one out of three. My tools are, indeed, clean and new, because that's how rarely I use them. My caulking gun gleams pristinely, completely unmarred by any stain or dried caulk. I think the price sticker is still on it. Heck, up until a few weeks ago, it had never come anywhere near a tube of caulk and, when it finally lost its virginity, so to speak, it was only because somebody borrowed it (yes, my caulking gun sleeps around!) Yet, I've owned it for years, even though I never use it, because real men own caulking guns. Heaven forbid I should find myself sitting around enjoying a beer with the boys when the conversation turns to home improvement and I have to admit that I have no caulking gun! At that point, I may as well just don and apron, pick up a feather duster and start dancing around in a pink tutu!

Speaking of tools (and getting back on topic), here is a list of the tools that you'll need if you ever consider hanging tub doors (speaking from experience):
  • Level

  • Tape Measure

  • #2 HB Pencil

  • At least 15 erasers

  • Hacksaw

  • First aid kit with plenty of gauze

  • Miter box

  • Hammer

  • Electric drill

  • Cordless telephone with 911 on speed dial

  • Caulking gun

  • Caulk for caulking gun

  • Caulk remover

  • Screwdriver

  • Duct tape (this is of course, standard equipment for any D.I.Y. project)

  • Websters Dictionary of Expletives and Vulgarities (as is this)
To work out how much caulk and caulk remover you'll need to buy, use this formula:

Tubes of Caulk = ((Length of area to caulk in feet ÷ 10) x 0.2 litres x 3) ÷ Tube Volume

Tubes of Caulk Remover = ((Length of area to caulk ÷ 10) x 0.2 litres x 2) ÷ Tube Volume

I didn't think that taking down the old tub doors would take terribly long, because they seemed to be falling apart on their own, without any help from me. That's why I needed to hang new doors in the first place. One of the rollers had rusted through and broken off. I figured if I just blew on them hard, they would simply disintegrate into a pile of dust.

Not so! One of the first laws of home repair is that things tend to deteriorate only to the point of non-functionality, at which point what remains stubbornly refuses to be extricated. Like a senior public servant, my old tub doors had become functionally useless, yet nearly impossible to replace with something that works. The main problem was the base channel that guided the bottoms of the doors. It had been caulked to the top of the tub wall, apparently with some brand of mutant, super-grip caulk that binds to tub walls at the molecular level. I darn near broke my screwdriver trying to pry up the stubborn bit of metal, and I was only able to finally remove it by bending it into sections beyond all recognition. When I put it out on my curbside, it was immediately snapped up by a modern art collector who saw it as a representation of the juxtaposition of the urban philosophy over an existential zeitgeist.

The other reason that I took so much longer than the estimated time in my D.I.Y. book is because the book failed to factor in the time required to take down the first tub door that I purchased after having installed it, pack it back up, return it to the store and exchange it for another which actually works. The first tub door that I selected was the Tub Door from Hell, apparently designed by a twisted individual who takes some sort of perverse delight in watching do-it-yourselfers waste half a weekend trying to erect a sliding door which is never, ever going to work.

My first clue that I was about to fight a losing battle should have come when I opened the box after lugging it home, only to find that someone had apparently already tried to install this tub door and given up, as evidenced by the fact that there was dried caulk all over the frame. Now, most people, upon seeing this, would immediately pack the damaged goods back up and take them straight back to the store. But not I! Oh no! For one thing, I couldn't abide the thought of having to pack everything back up again, tape up the box and lug the unwieldy hulk all the way back to the store. For another, this particular door had been the only one like it in stock, so I knew that I couldn't exchange it for a similar, but unused, one. Since the dried caulk was on the underside of the frame pieces and the visible parts seemed more or less unmarred, I unwisely decided to simply scrape away the dried caulk as best I could and then go ahead a install it myself. Big mistake!

What I had failed to consider was that the previous purchaser of this particular set of tub doors probably returned it after unsuccessfully trying to install it for a reason. Oh, something along those lines of reasoning may, in fact, have vaguely entered my mind, but I, ever the optimist, immediately dismissed the thought, surmising that the previous purchaser was probably an incompetent noob who didn't have a clue what he was doing, and that I would surely prevail where he failed. In retrospect, the "incompetent noob's" name was probably Bob Vila, and even He could never have successfully installed these particular doors!

While installing the first set of doors, I encountered and worked around several problems, including missing pieces (such as the plastic wall anchors, which were probably still firmly lodged in the previous owner's bathroom wall but, no matter, I had a few leftover ones laying about) and a base channel that didn't really fit the top of my tub wall. Each of these obstacles I grappled with and overcame (amid much cursing and hair-pulling) but the death stroke, the "coup de grace", as it were, came when I finally had the frame installed (against all odds). I've heard it said that confidence is that feeling that you get just before understanding the full extent of the problem. I figured, at this point, that the worst was behind me. All that was left to do was to hang the doors in the frame. I carefully manoeuvered the first door into position, only to see it sit firmly on the base channel while its rollers hovered about a quarter inch above the top tracks. At this point I realized, to my horror, that the doors were too tall for the frame. I assure you that this was not due to any mistake on my part, given that I had not cut or modified the side brackets in any way. They were simply too short, right out of the box. It was then that I finally admitted defeat. Tears were shed, more expletives were spoken, and I dejectedly took down the frame, tried to clean the pieces up as best I could, packed everything back into the box, loaded it into the car and drove it back to the store.

On the bright side, the the nice lady at the customer service desk gave me no trouble about returning the goods, even though they had clearly been used. In fact, she didn't even open the box to inspect the merchandise. She cheerfully refunded my money, after which I'm sure that she just as cheerfully had one of the stock boys put the box right back into stock to await the next hapless customer.

The next set of doors that I chose were much more intelligently designed than the previous ones, and I was able to successfully install and hang them, but it still took me about five hours; an hour longer than my D.I.Y. book's "novice". Here's a picture of my handiwork.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I really need a shower!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Money Matters: Part 3

I recently speculated that we may someday witness the end of money, as electronic commerce seems to be increasingly replacing the exchange of physical cash. Within a week of that post, I read this news article announcing that Passport Canada has stopped accepting cash. The article, which features a photograph of Santa Claus trying to purchase a Canadian passport with a $50 bill, reports that Passport Canada has decided to stop accepting Canadian currency as payment for the passports which it issues. The agency apparently wants to reduce the risk of theft by preventing its employees from handling cash. Apparently, screening potential employees so that only honest ones are hired is too much trouble.

If I may digress for a moment, I would also like to point out here that this issue pretty much settles the on-going dispute over Arctic sovereignty between Canada, Russia and sundry less important nations. Everyone knows that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. If he wants to purchase a Canadian passport, he clearly considers himself a Canadian citizen, which makes the North Pole and surrounding territory Canadian soil (or ice, as it were).

Moving toward the other extreme, I came across an editorial article, still more recently, written by a young woman who prefers paying with cash over plastic (credit or debit) cards because it helps her to budget by making her more conscious of her dwindling savings. The author further notes that an increasing number of restaurants are apparently no longer accepting plastic cards because of the built-in transaction fees. It seems even the legendary Bob Dylan refused to allow promoters of a recent show that he gave in California to sell tickets, insisting that all tickets be purchased at the door and that "E-e-e-verybody must pay cash" (to paraphrase one of his better-known lyrical phrases). Of course, this policy does generate a slight risk of a repeat of the tragedy at the infamous 1979 Who concert during which several fans were trampled in the mad rush for seats but, hey, far be it from me to ask Bob Dylan to compromise his principles. Better men than I have tried and failed, I can assure you.

Finally, if that still wasn't "out there" enough, there's the curious story of Mark Boyle, "The Moneyless Man". As incredible as it may seem, Boyle has managed to live without earning or spending a red cent since 2008. He lives in a trailer that was given to him for free, he grows or barters for his food, he uses a solar shower and even makes his own paper. He's written a book about the experience and how he managed it, entitled "The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living" (a title with a delicious double-entendre - er, was that "Freakonomic" living, Mark?) According to Mark, he's never been happier and has no plans to return to a dependency on money. Now, I don't like to question another's motivations but Mark's surname, and his accent in the accompanying YouTube video, suggest that he's of Scottish descent, and we all know about the Scotts' notorious reputation for frugality!

But seriously, I feel nothing but admiration and awe for Boyle, a man who has proven that my idealistic fantasy of a moneyless world could be a reality if only there were more people like him.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Centennial Post

When I first began toying with the idea of starting my own blog, I shied away from it, primarily because I couldn't imagine what I would blog about. I was inspired to blog largely by my best friend, Mart, who had started his own(now defunct) blog before me. His blog was largely about his personal life and his family. I recall musing aloud to him in an e-mail once that, were I to start a blog like his, a typical post might read something like "Went to work again today. Nothing new or interesting happened. Went back home and spent the evening as usual." (Admittedly, this hypothetical post was conceived during one of my more sullen, cynical moments). How amazing that, having finally opted to actually try my hand at blogging, I find myself at my keyboard this evening, tapping out my centennial post!

Yes, Dear Reader, in the 22½ months since I started this blog, one hundred posts have sprung from the mind and the fingertips of The Halmanator. That's the equivalent of over a thousand Twitter tweets!

I've made a point of attaching labels to each and every post, right from the very first. You can see them at the bottom of this, and all my posts. Click on one of the labels, and you'll get a list of all the other posts to which that same label is attached. My initial reason for doing this was to give readers who enjoy any given post a quick and easy way of finding other posts on a similar topic or with similar moods or themes. I soon discovered a secondary benefit to doing this, however. tracks the number of posts with which each label is associated, and this makes for some fascinating statistics. Before proceeding, let me clarify that the stats which you are about to review do not include this post, as I've not yet attached any labels to it at the time of this writing.

The label which is far and away my most prolific, being attached to 65 of my 99 prior posts (just a smidgeon short of two out of every three) is "humor", and that is well. My primary intent in maintaining this blog has always been to amuse and to entertain, with an emphasis on "amuse". To steal a line from my favorite musician, Mike Oldfield, "It's something that makes you feel good, because there are enough things in the world that make you feel terrible." That, first and foremost, is what this is supposed to be.

My distant second place tag is "Personal" (41 posts). That's just under half. Like many people, I suppose I like to talk about myself. More to the point, I often like to connect personal references and observations with whatever it is that I'm writing about, in order to show my reader why the subject has meaning for me.

I have to admit that most of my regular readers are personal friends of mine and I like to think that, through this blog, some of them have perhaps gotten to know me better. When I write, my target audience, the reader whom I picture in my mind, if you will, is a stranger who doesn't know me at all. I have the odd (and sometimes unsettling) ability to conveniently forget, while I'm blogging, that my writing will be read by friends and family. Because of this, I've caught myself writing things that I wouldn't necessarily say to a close acquaintance, friend or family member. It's a round-about way of opening up. It may also be, in part, that I'm subconsciously emulating Mart's blog, which was pretty much 100% personal, to some degree.

In third place, we have "Editorial", connected to 33 posts; exactly one third of them. I really never meant for this blog to become a soap box. However, I have do have strong opinions on a number of subjects and I simply cannot stifle myself when I feel that something must be said, not that I suspect anybody really cares what The Halmanator thinks. Happily, I'm not well-known enough to seriously offend anyone.

Interestingly, fourth place is a tie between "Politics" and "Work" (15 posts each). "Politics" is strongly linked with "Editorial". Many of my editorial posts involve politics, and therefore carry both tags. The fact that "Work" figures fairly prominently probably has a lot to do with me having been laid off late last year. Losing one's job is never easy, and it was pretty much the first time that it had really happened to me, so I exorcised my demons through my writing. In this way, "Work" became tied in with many of my "Personal" posts.

In fifth place we have "Music" (10 posts). I'm a great lover of many different kinds of music. It relaxes me when I'm tired and lifts my spirits when I'm sad, worried or fearful. My wife and I like to spend between 30 and 60 minutes most evenings doing nothing other than reclining in our easy chairs and listening to music. It's not just background noise to us; we really listen, taking in each note, each lyric, each nuance. I suspect that not many people do this anymore. I think that more people should try it.

I won't dwell on the tags whose number of uses can be counted on the fingers of both hands (except for music, I suppose) other than to note that there are a large number of tags that appear only once. These tend to be very specific, such as "Bettman", for example. I mentioned Gary Bettman in exactly one post (Whoops! Make that two!) and I wouldn't give the man the satisfaction of wasting a lot of ink (or, in this case, bits) on him.

Having posted 100 times, I consider myself an experienced enough blogger to offer sage words of advice to any fledgling bloggers or to those who may be contemplating starting blogs of their own and have stumbled upon this post whilst still deciding on whether or not to take that Great Leap.

First of all, know your purpose. Whether your blog is to revolve around a theme or whether it is to be more random in nature, such as this blog, be clear about why you're blogging. To paraphrase a line from Oliver Stone's Talk Radio, "The world is listening; you'd better have something to say." Do not attempt to make an easy buck by festooning your blog with ads. It only annoys your readers and I'm convinced that the only people who actually draw a large enough readership to make any kind of money from people clicking ads on their blogs are celebrities. Scott Adams is one example, and even he admits that the income that he receives from internet ads on his blog is negligible (by his standards, anyway).

Have some idea of how frequently you intend to post. Will it be daily? Weekly? Monthly? At random intervals? Posting frequently can be difficult. It can be hard to keep thinking up new and interesting topics. While you may have a handful of ideas at the start, ask yourself how easy it will be to think of more once you've used them up. Ask yourself how much time you can realistically devote to blogging. It's not uncommon for me to spend between one and two hours composing a single post. (I proofread and re-word a lot). How frequently can you afford to spend that kind of time on your blog? On the other hand, if your posts are too infrequent, your readers may get tired of seeing nothing new and stop returning. If you review my previous posts, you'll find that I usually tend to post once a week. That works well for me.

Use a stat counter to track your visitors so that you have some idea who's reading your blog. I use, which is free as long as your blog is getting less than 250,000 hits per month and, if you're getting that many, you can probably afford to pay for the service. (Also, if you're getting that many, you may disregard my advice about not putting ads on your blog).

Don't get discouraged if you have few or even no readers at first. It will take time for people to find your blog and not everyone will enjoy it enough to keep returning regularly. After almost two years of blogging, I'm just a shade under the 250,000 monthly hits that would put me over's "pay" threshold (I get about ten to fifteen hits per day on average), but I also know that I have about ten regular readers, and some of them are people whose identifies I have yet to deduce. A few of them may quite possibly be people whom I don't even know. I like to think so.

If you're just starting out, a good way to get people visiting your blog is to spread the word among friends and family. Word of mouth is a wonderful thing. I have a tagline beneath my signature at the end of every e-mail that I send which advertises this blog. It serves as both an invitation to those who have never visited by blog, as well as a gentle reminder to those who have visited before but may not have checked back for a while. One of the things that tells me is how people are finding this blog (i.e. where they're coming from) and this has confirmed that several people have come here by clicking on the link in that tagline.

Finally, there are a number of widgets out there that you can attach to your blog and the posts therein which help people to spread the word if they like what they see. The "Share" button at the end of this and all of my posts is a good example of same.

I'd like to close by thanking my readers, once again, for sticking with me. If nobody were reading this blog, it would no longer exist by now. As every late-night radio announcer knows, everyone who talks likes to know that somebody is listening. If you like what you see here, or on any other blog or website, do the author a favor and spread the word. I also encourage you to post comments. Feedback is a powerful motivator, and a great way to say "I'm listening, and I'm interested in what you have to say."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Fountain

My local grocery store has a bargain bin full of cheapie DVD movies. It's one of my personal weaknesses. I simply cannot go to the grocery store on even so simple a mission as acquiring a loaf of bread and a bag of milk without being drawn, as if by some invisible, irresistible force, to the DVD bargain bin.

Being a "bargain bin" after all, most of the offerings therein tend to be of the variety that a regular video store couldn't give away, including such titles as "Old Yeller - The 'You Shot My Dog' Edition" and "Barrie the Barber - Uncut".

You can imagine that such stimulating titles as that tend to stay in the bargain bin for week after week after interminable week, so it's not as though I'm likely to find anything new from one visit to the next. I know this. My rational intellect explains this to me each and every visit. Yet my feet stubbornly insist on moving toward the DVD bin, almost of their own accord, because one never knows what bargain-priced gems one might uncover if one but digs deeply enough into the bowels of the collection. (Let me take this opportunity to assure my fellow shoppers that I do tend to make the DVD bin my last stop, as I'm not so thoughtless as to handle food intended for human consumption after immersing my hands in the ick of some of the titles to be found therein).

In my own defense, I have rescued a handful of palatable titles from the quagmire in my day, and have even uncovered the occasional, albeit rare, gem. It is most likely this that keeps me going back. Ever the optimist am I. Still, most of the titles that I've acquired in this manner are passable at best.

The store management, having apparently entered into a partnership with Satan, have deviously priced their bargain bin movies at $7.99 apiece, or two for $10.00. This means that, should I happen to stumble upon the occasional title that actually interests me, I invariably feel compelled to include a second selection, because it apparently makes more sense to me to shell out an extra five dollars for a title in which I have little or no interest than to pay an extra $2.99 for something that I actually want. It is in this manner that I came into possession of "The Fountain".

"The Fountain" (© Warner Brothers, 2006) directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) and starring Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman (X-Men) and Rachel Weisz (The Mummy), is not a movie that I particularly craved for my collection. I'd never even seen it before purchasing it, nor had I even so much as seen a trailer. I only purchased it as a "second" to bring down the price of something else that I actually wanted from $7.99 to $5.00. Still, the cover artwork and the short write-up on the back cover sounded mildly interesting, so I decided to take a chance. Here's how the writers of the jewel case copy sought to tantalize me (please feel free to read the following aloud in your very best "Don LaFontaine" voice):

"Yesterday, today, tomorrow. Past, present, future. Through time and space, one man embarks on a bold 1000-year odyssey to defeat humankind's most indomitable foe: Death.

Hugh Jackman plays that man, devoted to one woman (Rachel Weisz) and determined to protect her from forces that threaten her existence. His quest leads him to a Tree of Life ... and to an adventure into eternity."

Sounds fascinating, no? A "1000-year odyssey" certainly sounds epic! The reference to the "Tree of Life", combined with still shots of Hugh Jackman dressed up as a Spanish Conquistador conjured up images in my mind of Ponce de Leon and the mythical Fountain of Youth. Yes! That must be what the "Fountain" in the title refers to! The bit about "one man, devoted to one woman (being) determined to protect her from forces that threaten her existence" sounds disturbingly "chick-flicky" but, no matter, mayhap this might entice my better half to watch the movie with me.

Having since watched to movie, I'm reminded of a scene from "The Simpsons" in which Bart, Milhouse and Nelson" see "Naked Lunch", apparently mistaking it for an adult film, and emerge from the theatre some time later, looking very disappointed. Nelson quips "I can think of at least two things wrong with that title!". After viewing "The Fountain", I shared Nelson's sentiments. I'm not certain exactly what the titlical "Fountain" refers to, but I can state categorically that there is no fountain to be seen anywhere in the film. Not a one. Not even so much as a lawn sprinkler! Well, okay, there's a sort of pool of water with a tree growing out of one end of it, but it's not what I would call a "fountain" by the strictest definition of the word. This is just the first, and most obvious, indication that "The Fountain" is to be anything but straightforward. On the up-side, it's certainly no chick-flick either.

The movie begins, promisingly enough, with Hugh Jackman, as a Spanish conquistador, in an South American jungle with a band of his fellows, preparing to infiltrate an Aztec pyramid on a quest for ... we don't know what at this point, but it seems to have to do with a woman (perhaps a queen?) and a ring. Predictably, a trap is sprung and the hapless handful of Spanish soldiers find themselves surrounded by hordes of Aztec warriors. Equally predictably, Jackman's "stalwart" companions immediately turn tail and run, leaving him to face the horde alone. He, of course, puts up a valiant fight, taking out several warriors before being relatively quickly overcome. Somewhat formulaic so far, but good, solid "guy" fare nonetheless.

Rather than killing him immediately, as one might expect, the Aztecs prod him to climb the pyramid, which he of course does (no doubt thinking "Well why didn't you say so? That's what we were going to do anyway!") only to find an Aztec priest awaiting him at the top. The priest inserts a ceremonial dagger into Jackman's abdomen, crying "Death is the road to awe!" (why don't you try it yourself if you think its such a trip?) and then, just in case the dagger doesn't do the trick, swings a flaming sword, at his neck.

Jackman cries out (well who wouldn't?) except that, suddenly, he's no longer a conquistador. No, he suddenly finds himself as hairless as Patrick Stewart, sitting in a lotus position, floating amidst the stars inside of a giant glass bubble which appears to be racing toward a giant nebula and which contains a large tree. It is at this point that one begins to suspect that this movie may be better appreciated after ingesting your favorite mind-altering substance.

Approaching the tree, the monk-like Jackman reaches out to touch its trunk, which appears to be covered in fine hairs, not unlike the hairs found on human skin, which seem to stand up as if drawn toward his outstretched fingertips. He whispers something inaudible to the tree, then scrapes off a bit of its bark and eats it. Suddenly, a woman appears who looks remarkably like the one who sent him on his Aztec quest. He asks her what she's doing there. She beckons him to take a walk with her, and the scene changes again.

Now they're in a modern, 21st century home. Jackman now looks much more contemporary having regained a full head of hair (but not the conquistador's beard). He is a young doctor, we learn, and he is summoned to a lab where a Reese monkey is being prepped for brain surgery. The nature of the monkey's ailment is not made clear, but it is clear that his chances of survival are not good. A sudden flash of inspiration causes Dr. Jackman to inject the monkey with an extract from some exotic Guatemalan tree. Predictably, the monkey later makes a miraculous recovery.

I certainly don't want to give away any spoilers for those of you who may be intrigued enough to see the movie at this point so let me just summarize by saying that the rest of the movie continues to jump around between Spanish conquistador, 21st century and cosmic space bubble. Along the way we follow several seemingly disjointed yet strangely connected plot points involving a wedding ring, a dying star and an unfinished book. The only constants are Hugh Jackman, the woman (Rachel Weisz) and, of course, the ubiquitous tree. The overarching storyline involves the quest for immortality.

While I certainly wouldn't rank it among my top ten, or even top one hundred, favorite movies of all time, "The Fountain" is not what I'd call a bad movie; just a bewildering one. I suspect that another viewing or too may reveal subtleties that I missed the first time around. The fact that I'm willing to endure same in the interest of finding out if I'm right is probably the best testimonial I can give the work.