Sunday, November 10, 2013

Why I Hate Neil Pasricha

Ask anybody who knows me and they'll tell you; I'm a nice guy.  I have no enemies.  I give people the benefit of the doubt, almost to a fault, and I tend to assume the best about everybody.  So why should I hate Neil Pasricha; a man whom I've never met and who has certainly never bothered, inconvenienced, negatively affected, or even thought about me in any way?  I'll tell you why.  The Book of Awesome, that's why!

Some time ago, I was minding my own business, shopping for groceries, and I found myself in the section of the grocery store where they keep the books, magazines and greeting cards.  Not looking for anything in particular, I was just browsing the various covers and titles when suddenly this black, hard-cover book entitled The Book Of AWESOME in rainbow-colored lettering caught my attention.  I quickly scanned the write-up on the back cover and the inner cover jacket and discovered that this is apparently a book that celebrates the myriad of small, simple pleasures that we encounter almost every day but that most of us don't even notice; the smell of fresh baked goods, peeling that thin, transparent, protective cover off new electronic equipment such as a cell phone or a TV remote, pushing in the little bubbles that are supposed to identify what's inside those soft drink cups that you get from fast food places but which never seem to be pushed in ... stuff like that.  The idea of the book appealed to me because I love things which accentuate the positive; goodness knows we hear enough negativity day after day, so I bought a copy.

You have to like the style and format of the book.  Each "chapter", if you could call it that, begins with a title that celebrates some little pleasure, like putting on a warm pair of undies fresh from the dryer, or waking up and realizing it's Saturday, or remembering what movie "that guy" is from.  Then there's a short write-up explaining why the author, Neil Pasricha, thinks that the thing in question is so great (it's not always self-evident, such as the chapter about your colon), and it always ends with a single word; AWESOME! 

Most of the chapters are pretty short, often just a page or less.  The shortest I've encountered was entitled "When you push the button for the elevator and it's already there".  This chapter was exactly two words long:



The reason why I put quotes around the word "chapter" before is because the book itself was inspired by a blog, also by Neil Pasricha, called, so each "chapter" is really more of a "post", actually.  According to Wikipedia, the blog was born on June 20, 2008; just about 4 months before I started this blog.  In that time, has pulled in ... well, just a few more visitors than The Halmanator.  And it lead to not just one, but two book deals!  Yes, there is now a second book called The Book Of (Even More) Awesome. My daughter, who apparently delights in rubbing her father's nose in his inadequacies, made a point of getting me the second book last Father's Day.  I think the accompanying card said something like "You're okay too, for an unimportant nobody" (Okay,  it didn't actually say that, but I'm sure it was there between the lines!) 

The Book of Awesome was a New York Times bestseller and was the number one international best seller for over 140 weeks and was translated into Dutch, Korean, German, French and Portuguese (what, not Swahili???)  Nobody ever offered me a book deal!  Harrumph!

And that's why I hate Neil Pasricha; because he has accomplished what I can only dream of accomplishing, and he probably never even had any such ambitions.  Heck, he probably started the whole thing just as a lark.  The only thing worse than people who realize your own wildest ambitions are those who do it without even trying!  He`s like the Mozart to my Salieri!  Every time I either read The Book Of Awesome or visit I get a severe case of "Warumistmirsoetwasnichteingefallen".  That's a German word (that I just made up), something along the lines of "Schadenfreude", except it means "Why didn't I think of that???"

I've toyed with the idea of maybe cashing in by spoofing Pasricha's work.  I could start a blog of my own called  Every day I could write about something that sucks.  How about this:

When you're tying your shoes and you`re already late and your shoelace busts



Eh???  Eh???  Maybe it could catch on!  Maybe I could write a book of my own called The Book Of BOGUS.

Nah, it wouldn`t work.  See, the reason why Pasricha's blog caught on so big is precisely because it's so positive.  It gently opens an umbrella over the reader to shield them from the torrent of negativity that seems to rain down upon us from the commercial media every single day and it urges us to take pleasure in the little things.  It's precisely the kind of light-hearted, "feel good" writing to which The Halmanator aspires, only with money and success attached to it. 

And I have to admire the writing style too.  Pasricha comes across as one of those easy-going, down-to-earth, "I'm okay, you're okay" kind of guys. When writing about those drink cup lids, he explains that "we..." (meaning he and his sister, when they were kids) "...thought there was a big Garbage Survey at the end of the day and every customer had to punch their button to send in feedback.  We figured some poor sap stuck his arm shoulder-deep in that bag of lettuce scraps drenched in Big Mac sauce, hollow ice cream cone bottoms, and greasy French fry containers and pulled out all the cup lids.  We imagined he arranged them in tipsy, drippy piles and counted how many sold that day, adding the results up on a clipboard and calling them into the head office so they knew how many batches to make for tomorrow.

You see what I mean?  That paragraph right there probably brought a bigger smile to your face than anything I've written in this post so far, didn't it?  DIDN'T IT???  You probably even chuckled knowingly, didn't you?

But, all kidding aside, I don't really hate you Neil.  Actually, I think you're kind of...

AWESOME! (c) (R) (tm)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Hands Off Bruce Willis!

This is Bruce Willis...

...and this is Bruce Willis...

...and so is this...

Bruce Willis is one of those fundamental constants in life that we guys can depend upon.  He's tough.  He's macho.  He's cool.  He's witty.  He's like Sylvester Stallone with the ability to enunciate.  When the boss has been riding your ass all day, when the wife has booked your weekend looking at paint swatches and visiting with her parents, when the kids insist you take them on a road trip to the local Chuck E. Cheese's, when you're feeling more emasculated than Michael Keaton as Mr. Mom, you can always count on a Bruce Willis flick to man you back up with an invigorating shot of testosterone.  "Yippee-ki-yay, motherf....!"

So what on God's green earth is this abomination???

Imagine my dismay upon finding this affront to manhood in a DVD bargain bin recently!  Bruce Willis in a chick flick?  Really?  Is nothing sacred anymore?

Let's get something straight, ladies, Bruce Willis is off-limits!  He belongs to us guys!  We don't mess with your chick flick favourites.  You don't see titles like Fists of Fury starring Kate Hudson.  You'll never see Drew Barrymore in a car chase, steering with one hand while firing a 9mm Glock out the window with the other.  Anne Hathaway doesn't dress up in black tights and lay out bad ass thugs with roundhouse kicks...   oh, wait...

Okay, so Hathaway was Catwoman and Bruce Willis did a chick flick.  Let's call it even.  But from here on, ladies, HANDS OFF BRUCE WILLIS!

And, yes, I realize that Michelle Pfeiffer also played Catwoman, but she doesn't count.  She still did "girl" stuff like sew her own costume and use her whip as a jump rope for crying out loud!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Bargoon!

Graphic borrowed from the Illegally Blonde
blog, because I can't draw this well
Like many people, I occasionally "Google" myself, just to see what's out there about me or what people or things might exist that are completely unrelated to me but happen to share my name, or a similar name.  But I don't just "Google" my real name.  I also sometimes "Google" the word "Halmanator".  Of course, this invariably leads to lots of links right back to this blog, but sometimes it also shows me interesting references. 

That's how I learned that there's another Halmanator out there who has nothing whatsoever to do with me or this blog.  I've also been flattered to occasionally find other web pages and blogs that reference or link to this blog.  One, for example, provided a link to my post about courtroom sketch artists along with a comment that they had often wondered why courtrooms use sketch artists as opposed to photographers, and that my post provided a fresh and unusual take on the subject.  Well, as I commented in my inaugural post, fresh and unusual takes is what this blog is all about.

A recent "Google" on the word "Halmanator" turned up a reference to this blog that somewhat amused me.  It lead me to a site called URLmetrics, which apparently catalogues web sites, compiles statistics about them and attaches a dollar value to them.

According to URLmetrics, this blog is ranked number 8,268,383* in the United States (WOO-HOO!!!  I'm in the top ten million!)  Less than 300 people per month visit or view this blog (but you're definitely a part of an intellectually enlightened minority, my friend). 

What amused me most, though, is that URLmetrics values this blog at $569.13*.  Doing a little math, this blog currently consists of 160 posts (including this one).  569.13 ÷ 160 = $3.56 so each and every post is worth exactly $3.56 and ... here's the cool part ... you get to read each and every one of them absolutely for free!  And, as I have categorically stated before, there never have been, nor will there ever be, any ads on this blog.  My purpose is to entertain and enlighten, not to shill.  It's just a little service that I selflessly provide, because that's just the kind of community-minded guy I am.

* At the time that I viewed the site.  Remember that these are stats, and therefore prone to change.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Early Mornings and Empty Rooms

I'm a morning person.  The early morning is my favorite time of the day.  It has to do with the quiet.  I get a feeling of peacefulness when most of the world (at least in my immediate vicinity) is still asleep and those who, like myself, are awake, are walking their dogs or puttering about in their gardens or enjoying a quiet cup of coffee on their patios.  Or heading to work.  I should qualify this by explaining that I especially enjoy weekend and holiday mornings.  Weekday mornings, by their nature, are busier and noisier as most of us our in our cars, tackling the morning commute as we head to the office or the factory or the restaurant or the store, which tends to negate the tranquility factor.

In my early teens, I delivered the morning paper, so I'd be out there from about 6 am until 7 or 7:30 (my route covered a fairly large area), leaving the morning paper for people to peruse as they sipped their coffee.  Being so early, it was still quiet, even on weekdays, and I enjoyed it, so much so that I would get up early on weekends, even after I had moved on from newspaper delivery, and ride my bicycle through the empty streets of the surrounding neighborhoods.  Gliding by the rows of quiet houses with their darkened windows and their still-slumbering occupants gave me a quiet pleasure and, if I'm honest, a slight thrill of smug superiority.  Those poor sleepyheads were missing the best part of the day and didn't even realize it.

I also have a thing for empty rooms; especially ones that are normally bustling and full of people.  When I need to put in extra time at the office, I prefer to go in early rather than stay late.  This is partially because I have more energy at the start of the day rather than at the end, being a morning person, but also because I take a certain pleasure in opening the place up, turning on the lights, putting on a pot of coffee and settling in for some quiet, uninterrupted "focus" time with no phones ringing and no-one around to distract me.  Sometimes, before flipping that light switch, I take a moment just to relish the dim corridors and offices with their occasional barred patterns of alternating light and shadow thrown across the floors and onto the walls by streams of early morning sunlight filtering in through the blinds of the windows on the eastern wall of the building.

By the same token, I enjoy the sight of empty malls and parking lots on those universal holidays that apply to almost everyone, like Christmas and Easter.  I think it's good that people take a break from work, shopping and general commerce every once in a while and just chill out at home.  I silently lament for those hotel and restaurant workers who are required to work even on holidays such as these.  I realize that it's not practical, but wouldn't it be wonderful if we could just shut everything down for a day or two every so often?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Just Canada

On June 10, 1968, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau gave a speech in which he made the following declaration:

"No one in the society should be entitled to superfluous or luxury goods until the essentials of life are made available to everyone ... Thanks to (Canada's) abundant natural wealth and to the techniques of the industrial era, it no longer seems necessary to trample on one another in the scramble for riches."

Then he went on to expound upon how he felt that a "Just Society", which shares its wealth and its opportunities equally, should operate.

"The Just Society will be one in which all of our people will have the means and the motivation to participate. The Just Society will be one in which personal and political freedom will be more securely ensured than it has ever been in the past. The Just Society will be one in which the rights of
minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities. The Just Society will one in which those regions and groups which have not fully shared in the country’s affluence will be given a better opportunity. The Just Society will be one where such urban problems as housing and pollution will be attacked through the application of new knowledge and new techniques. The Just Society will be one in which our Indian and Inuit population will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future and more meaningful equality of opportunity. The Just Society will be a united Canada, united because all of its citizens will be actively involved in the development of a country where equality of opportunity is ensured and individuals are permitted to fulfill themselves in the fashion they judge best…

…On the never-ending road to perfect justice we will, in other words, succeed in creating the most humane and compassionate society possible."

I hate to be a Negative Nellie but on this, Canada`s 146th birthday, I fear that, if Mr. Trudeau could see what the country that he lead for 15 years has become today, a mere 13 years after his death, he would turn in his grave.   The present Conservative government has arguably done much to regress Canada, and move it farther away from being the Just Society that Trudeau envisioned.  Let's compare some of the highlights from Mr. Trudeau's vision to today's realities.

"No one in the society should be entitled to superfluous or luxury goods until the essentials of life are made available to everyone."  Proponents of free market capitalism, like the Stephen Harper government, propose that, if they cater to the interest of big business, the wealth generated by that business will "trickle down" to the citizenry in the form of jobs, wages and benefits.  Sadly, this has not been proven in practice.  For over 3 decades, Canada's wealthiest families have been getting wealthier, while the quality of life for the middle class and the poverty-stricken has stagnated or even deteriorated.  And the problem has only worsened since the 2008/2009 financial crisis which was itself triggered by the greed of corporate America.  Thousands are homeless and have to rely on food bank hampers to survive, while the richest among us enjoy extravagant luxuries undreamed of by most.  According to a UNICEF report, Canada ranked only 17th out of 29 of the world's wealthiest nations in combating child poverty and promoting general well-being for children.

"The Just Society will be one in which all of our people will have the means and the motivation to participate."  Voting is, arguably, the most basic and fundamental means of participating for the average citizen.  It is now a matter of record that thousands of would-be voters, most of whom had expressed their intention not to support the Conservative party during pre-election interviews and polls, were misdirected by automated "robocalls" which falsely told them that their polling stations had been changed.  As a result, these people went to the wrong locations to vote and, in many cases, missed their chance to cast their ballots as a result.

One would think that a responsible government, upon learning that this sort of election fraud had been perpetrated, would do everything within its power to find out who had perpetrated the fraud, bring them to justice and put in place measures to ensure that such a thing could not happen again.  Not the Harper government, however.  At first, they attempted to casually dismiss the entire issue, suggesting that the calls were isolated and affected only one or two communities.  When it became evident, upon further investigation, that the problem was much larger and more wide-spread than the Conservatives would have the population believe and six individuals who had received misleading calls went to court asking that the election results in their ridings be overturned as a result, the Harper government and its lawyers employed every tactic at their disposal to block the proceedings and discredit the complainants.

Thanks to funding and support from a non-profit citizens advocacy group known as the Council of Canadians, the case was finally heard in court.  Although the judge who heard the case found no conclusive evidence that any member of the Conservative party was involved in the robocall scandal, he did state the entire affair "strikes at the integrity of the electoral process" and noted that whoever did orchestrate the calls must have "had access to a database of voter information maintained by a political party", the Conservative party of Canada.  So thousands of voters who had indicated that they would not vote Conservative were duped out of casting their ballots by someone who had access to the Conservative party`s voter information database.  Draw your own conclusions.

Incredibly, the Conservative party see these findings as some sort of vindication and, as a result seven Conservative MPs are now seeking $355,000 from the complainants who brought the case to court to cover their legal costs.  Far from encouraging and assisting these citizens in exercising their right to participate in the democratic process, the Harper government has done everything in its power to impede and to undermine them at every turn.

"The Just Society will be one in which personal and political freedom will be more securely ensured than it has ever been in the past."  Although the Harper government seems unwilling to spend any time or money investigating attacks on its citizens' democratic right to vote, it was happy to commit an extra two billion dollars over five years to build and expand prisons so that more people could be thrown in jail, even as statistics showed that the crime rate across the country is falling.  Further, they have imposed draconian minimum sentences for relatively minor offenses such as possession of marijuana and they have proposed legislation to keep those found not criminally responsible for violent crimes due to reasons of mental defect locked up in prisons as opposed to detaining them in institutions where their mental health problems can be more effectively addressed, despite objections from psychiatrists and other mental health experts.  As for citizens abroad, the Conservatives have shown a consistent indifference to the pleas of Canadians who have been imprisoned in foreign countries, the Omar Khadr case being the most high-profile example of this.

"The Just Society will be one in which the rights of minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities."    The Harper government introduced Bill C-31 which targets refugee claimants, giving the Immigration Minister the power to imprison them, deny them the ability to reunite with family members and strip them of secure legal status.  Refugees have also been made ineligible for receiving basic health care benefits.  Harper's Conservatives also scrapped the Court Challenges Program, which granted legal and financial assistance to minority groups who wanted to challenge government actions that violated their constitutional rights.  Canadian minorities have found the Conservative government to be completely unsympathetic to their needs and concerns.

"The Just Society will be one in which our Indian and Inuit population will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future and more meaningful equality of opportunity".  The Harper government abandoned the 2006 Kelowna Accord which included programs to address aboriginal issues including health, addiction, and youth suicide, among others.  Their C-45 omnibus bill circumvented the Indian Act which was created to protect aboriginal rights, as well as weakening environmental controls, especially with regard to industrial access to waterways.  This lead to the creation of the Idle No More movement.

Under Stephen Harper, Canada has abandoned any pretence at environmental stewardship.  She has focused on punishing, rather than rehabilitating those convicted of breaking the law.  She has closed her doors to refugees seeking asylum and respite from other, less prosperous and/or democratic  countries, and denied basic health care to those who have already taken refuge inside of her borders.  Her government, contrary to its original promise of increased  openness and transparency, has become the most secretive, clandestine government in Canada`s history, hiding policy changes that affect every single Canadian inside of massive "omnibus" budgets, making deals and passing bills with minimal consultation with either Canadian citizens or even Parliament, and gutting institutions like Statistics Canada, so that Canadians find it harder than ever to understand what kind of quality of life they enjoy and how that quality of life compares with those of other nations.  When uncomfortable questions were asked, they prorogued Parliament, shutting down any further discussion.  When Canadians' democratic right to vote was undermined, they first dismissed the issue, then tried to obstruct those who would investigate what happened and, finally, punished ordinary citizens who came forward in defence of their rights.

Canadians spent 141 years building a society that was world renowned for its tolerance, fairness, compassion, generosity, environmental responsibility and commitment to peace.  In just six years, Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have eroded many of the rights and freedoms that Canadians hold dear and soiled Canada`s reputation and status on the international stage.  I can only cling to my belief that Stephen Harper and his Conservatives do not, in fact, represent the majority of Canadians and to the hope that, come the next federal election, my fellow citizens will take back their country and set her back on the path to once again becoming a Just Society.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Undo Button

Anyone who works with computers with any regularity these days is likely familiar with the ubiquitous "Undo" button.  It's a button, usually found somewhere on the tool bar of whatever application that you're working with, that reverses or "undoes" the last action.  Often, for the benefet of those of us who really tend to "leap before we look", as it were, you can click the button repeatedly, thereby undoing the last several actions.  Sometimes the button actually sports the word "Undo" but, more commonly of late, it's adorned by a simple graphic that looks like a bent arrow, pointing to the left (which, since we in the Western world tend to read from left to right, generally implies going backward.  I wonder whether Arabic word processor users ever mistake it as meaning "tab").

The idea dates back to the mid 1970's, when a research report with the riveting title of Behavioral Issues in the Use of Interactive Systems, written by Lance A. Miller and John C. Thomas of IBM (who else?) noted that "it would be quite useful to permit users to 'take back' at least the immediately preceding command". 

Implementing an "Undo" button isn't necessarily as simple as one might think.  You have to be able to restore things to the state that they were in just before the undesired action was executed.  If that involves restoring a deleted paragraph in a document, no major issue.  However, I'd be really surprised if the Pentagon computers that control the launch and guidance of nuclear-tipped ICBMs featured "Undo" buttons, though I must admit I'd feel a whole lot safer knowing that they did.

If I was to write a research report entitled Behavioral Issues in the Process of Everyday Living, (and believe me, I'm planning no such thing!) I would be inclined to add a similar note; "it would be quite useful to permit people to 'take back' at least the immediately preceding action or comment."

Who among us hasn't wished, at one time or another, that they could reverse a disastrously ill-advised action or comment as though it had never happened?  Drinking and driving, hurting a close friend or loved one with an uncaring remark, voting for George W. Bush or Stephen Harper, getting a "Mohawk", swinging a golf ball retriever around "Darth Maul" style in front of a video recording device ... all of these could be neatly taken back as though they'd never happened, and their consequences erased.

Politics would become a lot more interesting. Elected politicians would have an incentive to actually keep their election promises knowing that, if they didn't, their constituents might just "undo" them out of office.

Of course, the real power of the "Undo" button goes beyond simply fixing mistakes.  When working with computers, the "Undo" button gives us the boldness to try things that we might not otherwise risk, safe in the knowledge that, if it all goes south, it can quickly be reversed.  By encouraging us to take risks, the "Undo" button helps us to be more creative.

Imagine if life were like that.  Afraid to quit your safe, predictable but hum-drum job as a life insurance salesman so that you can pursue that life-long dream of squid jigging?  Go for it!  If you later find that wrestling with ink-spewing molluscs on a rain-pelted squid boat day after day inexplicably isn't as appealing as it at first seemed, just hit that "Undo" and, before you can say "I'm just too cranky without my silk hanky" you'll be back in your comfy little office with your tentacle-free actuarial tables, and you'll have a whole new appreciation for your formerly "crappy" job to boot.

Unfortunately, for reasons of His own, the Great Programmer has not seen fit to outfit our lives with the safety net of an "Undo" feature.  Maybe He lacked the cosmic RAM to store the state of things before making changes, but I doubt that's the reason. 

Some computer game developers refuse to allow the player to save their progress any time they want to.  Saving your game before venturing down that dungeon corridor with nothing but a +1 short sword with which to protect yourself, and then restoring your save point after you end up getting nostril raped by Foozle for your trouble, has the same effect as the "Undo" button.  However, some game developers intentionally prevent you from doing this because they feel that taking the risk factor out of the game ultimately makes it less fun.  Perhaps the Designer of the Game of Life likewise felt that a life without risk wouldn't be as rewarding and that taking the occasional chance is good for us. 

Whatever the reason, we must forge onward without the benefit of a reassuring "Undo" button on the toolbars of our lives,  meaning that we must ponder the possible consequences of our choices before acting on them, and pray that the program doesn't unexpectedly hang.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

All My Movies

My profile tells you that I have a "sizable" DVD (and now also blu-ray) collection, "most of which I've legally purchased".  How sizable is "sizable"?  Large enough that I don't actually know exactly how many titles I own.  I can tell you, however, that I'm using a movie cataloging program called All My Movies to gradually catalogue my collection.  So far, I've catalogued just over 300 movies, and that's probably roughly half the collection.

As you can imagine, cataloging all those movies takes some time and patience.  All My Movies (AMM) makes the task easier by automatically pulling in most of the information from internet web sites such as but, of course, I have to get all anal about it and manually tinker with each entry; the screen shots aren't right or the synopsis needs re-wording and there are several bits of info missing that can't be gleaned from the internet such as where, in my vast collection, the movie is actually stored (in case I want to, you know, watch it sometime). 

Most tedious of all, although AMM does download the cast list for each title, it has a feature that allows me to further download bios, often with thumbnail pictures, of every actor in the cast list.  AMM doesn't automatically pull in this extra info because the program's authors probably assumed, quite sensibly, that nobody could possibly be anal enough to want all that extraneous info.  So, if you want an actor's bio, you need to click on his or her name, which brings up a pop-up that allows you to pull it in, again from on-line sources.  This is still fairly easy, but one does have to do this for each individual name in the cast list and, of course, I do so.

These cast lists often include not just the major stars but every single actor that appears in the film, including minor characters and extras such as "man on bus" or "hotel doorman".  Not even I'm fussy enough to want the full bios of every walk-on character, so I have a rule.  Any actor that shows up in at least two or more titles in my collection gets their bio downloaded.  One-offs do not.  AMM makes this easy by showing me all the titles in my collection in which each actor appears in the same pop-up dialogue that allows me to download their bio.

"Gee, that sounds tedious!" you're probably thinking (along with "Buddy, you really need a life!")  Right on both counts.  One personal trait that I've long recognized in myself is that I have an astonishingly high tolerance for tedium when I'm fully engaged with any project, professional or personal.  I'll doggedly work at the most mundane tasks for hours on end, gradually whittling away at them.  Sometimes, I must admit, I actually enjoy "turning off" my brain (appearances to the contrary, it is active most of the time) and working on some rote task.  This is probably a side effect of having a job that requires mental calisthenics most of the time.

Getting back to the movie collection, I made reference to storage earlier.  Needless to say, all those movies have to go somewhere.  Many of them line a sort of bookshelf in our living room but, with all those titles, this has the effect of making our living room look like a video store, which is fine by me but not so hot with my wife.

Some years ago, I stumbled upon a really neat movie storage solution.  It's an album, of sorts, made by a company called Allsop.  Allsop offers a variety of CD and DVD storage solutions but my favorite is one which they apparently don't make anymore known as the "Faux Leather DVD Album".  It's basically a box with wood-grain sides and a faux leather cover and spine.  At a glance, it looks like a large, bound book.  Open it up and it contains 20 cloth "pages" with transparent vinyl sleeves.  There are two disc-sized sleeves on the back side of each "page", allowing for two discs to be stored, and a large, full-page sleeve on the front side for inserting the movie's cover artwork.  Allsop says that each album can store up to 40 movies, which is true (20 pages times 2 disc sleeves each equals 40) but I insist on including the cover artwork for each title, and each page has only one cover artwork sleeve so, for me, each album really holds only 20 titles.  I insert the cover artwork on the front side and the disc into one of the reverse side sleeves, leaving the second disc sleeve empty, although it does come in handy for those two-disc titles. 

It's the allowance for cover artwork, and the overall book-like appearance that I particularly like about these DVD albums.  Line up five or six of them on a shelf somewhere and your decor changes from "Blockbuster Video" to "Library" or "Study". 



Open up an album and you can browse through the titles, enjoying the cover artwork at your leisure.  After all, this is a collection and, as with all collections, presentation is important.

In case you're wondering where I get the cover artwork, I scan scan the DVD jewel case cover with a document scanner, then print the scanned image on glossy paper at the appropriate size and trim it.  I do not destroy the original jewel case or its cover artwork.  Those, I store in big cardboard boxes in my basement and I bring them out if I'm taking the movie with me somewhere or loaning it to someone.  Incidentally, AMM keeps track of who has borrowed your movies, when, and for how long.

There is only one major flaw in the design of Allsop's Faux Leather DVD Album.  The "pages" are glued to the inside of the spine and can't be removed.  Why is this a problem?  Because I also insist on storing my movies in alphabetical order.  Well, I mean, how would I ever find anything if I just inserted them in whatever order I got them?  That means that, If I buy The Avengers, which begins with "A", I have to shuffle all the movies in each album by one page in order to make room for the new title in the appropriate slot.  That means pulling each movie out of its page and inserting it into the next one, starting from the last title and working my way forward until I get to the appropriate spot.  It would have been SO much easier if the pages of these DVD albums had been ring-bound and removable!  But then, I suspect that the good people at Allsop never expected that anybody would buy quite as many of their faux leather DVD albums as I have.  How many is that?  Well, I have twenty of them.  That's twenty albums times twenty titles apiece, giving me space for 400 movies, and I'm not sure if that's enough!  They're not all full yet.  I'm currently working on Volume 16.  But then, I still have lots of movies in their jewel cases waiting to be filed.

So, to summarize, when I picked up a new title, here's what I do:

  • Add it to the AMM catalogue, pulling in the bios for all the cast members and tinkering with still shots, the synopsis, etc.
  • Scan, print and trim the cover artwork
  • Shuffle all the movies in each of my DVD albums one page to the right, starting from the last one and working forward until I've finally freed up a slot for the new title in the appropriate spot
  • File the empty jewel case in the basement, where it also has to be inserted alphabetically so that I can find it quickly if needed.

By the time all the movies in my collection have been catalogued and filed, I'll have repeated the above process at least 400 times. 

And you wonder why I don't have time to blog more often...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Deoxyribonucleic Archives

One is tempted to laugh, or at least to smile wryly, when one hears about the infamous shortsighted quotation which proclaimed that "everything that can be invented has been invented".  The statement was made long before rocket ships, computers or the Internet, to name just a few of the marvelous inventions that could never have been imagined when the comment was first made, and which have since come to fruition.  For that reason, I never make the mistake of making the same assumption.  In fact, I like to think that nothing surprises me anymore.  But even I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow and utter an astonished "Wow!" when I learned that scientists are now working on technology to use DNA for data storage.

The concept was proven by a couple of geneticists by the name of Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney who work for the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI); an organization which spends a lot of time mapping out genomes.  Now a single genome consists of the total genetic contents in one set of chromosomes.  For those of you who, like myself, slept through your high school biology classes, a single chromosome stores genetic material in a strand of DNA, the basic building block of all life.  A single strand of DNA stores a lot of information, so mapping out any sort of genome takes a lot of storage; so much so that the good people at EBI were seeing their data storage costs growing prohibitively.

Then, one day, Goldman and Birney were knocking back a few at the local pub, when they started talking about their data storage dilemma.  Most guys, when they go to the local pub, talk about sports or cars or that hot little number in Purchasing, but not EBI geneticists!  Oh no!  They talk about how to store their genome data.  And they wonder why they can't get a date on a Saturday night.  But I digress.

So Goldman and Birney found themselves reasoning thusly: They needed a lot of storage to map their genomes because DNA contains a lot of data.  So, if DNA stores a lot of data, why not use it to store their data?  It's a sort of "Chicken vs. Egg" scenario and it's the kind of imaginative leap that simply cannot be made without the help of alcohol.

So Goldman and Birney started working out a way of constructing artificial DNA that could be used to store information, and they succeeded.  Because DNA is what biologists call "really, really, really small", if you'll excuse the "techno gab", every film and TV program ever made could be stored in high definition in just a single cup of DNA.  It also requires no electrical power to maintain, can be easily transferred from place to place and will last for eons, as anyone who has seen Jurassic Park, in which dinosaur DNA was successfully extracted from fossilized mosquitos, can attest.

Of course, there are some downsides.  Currently, the storage and retrieval rate is very slow.  It took Goldman and Birney two weeks to store and retrieve five files, including a partial recording of Martin Luthor King's "I Have A Dream" speech (broken up into 4 files) and a PDF document,  which  makes its performance roughly comparable to that of a standard personal computer running Microsoft's Vista operating system.  However, with a few refinements, Goldman and Birney assure us that they should eventually be able to bring down the time required to store and retrieve the same amount of data to just a single day, making the performance comparable to that of a standard personal computer running Windows 7.  Besides the slow data transfer, the cost of DNA storage is still relatively high, and there's always the danger that somebody might accidentally drink your entire movie collection (because it fits into a cup, remember?)

I would imagine that the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) would have some special concerns about this new technology.  Recall that the other unique property of DNA, besides storing a lot of information, is that it's self-replicating.  Imagine downloading music or movies that automatically start making copies of themselves!  We could wind up with porn that makes more porn!  Or, since DNA sometimes makes imperfect or altered copies of itself (known as "mutations"), we may finally have an explanation for what happened to the original Star Wars trilogy.

Since DNA is, after all, the basic building block of life, there's also the danger that our data could evolve into some horrible living mutation of the original data.  The complete works of William Shakespeare could mutate into a rampaging monster, spewing "harks" and "forsooths" as it devours every Stephen King novel ever written and, possibly, Stephen King himself.

The scientists working on this technology assure us that there's no way that  artificial DNA used to store data could ever become a life form.  I'll bet Dr. Frankenstein made the same reassurances as he stitched together his corpse parts.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Boot Falls Silent

"Stompin' Tom" Connors, a bona fide Canadian icon, has passed away.  This will likely mean very little to most people outside of Canada.  However millions of Canadians who grew up hearing his folksy, uniquely Canadian songs have lost one of their favorite ambassadors.

Connors was an unlikely legend; a foster child who ventured out onto Canada's highways and byways on his own at the tender age of 14.  Legend has it that he found himself in a bar one evening, just a nickel short of the price of a beer.  As he had his guitar with him, the bartender offered to give him a beer in exchange for playing a song for the patrons.  Connors agreed, and that one song grew into a 13-month contract to entertain at the establishment.

First and foremost, Connors was a staunch Canadian patriot who loved his country as much as he did his music and who sang about the everyman and the things that make Canada, Canada; from Bud the spud from the bright red mud (Prince Edward Island potatoes) to Lester the Lobster (again from P.E.I.) to nickel miners letting their hair down on a Sudbury Saturday Night and, of course, the Good Old Hockey Game.

I recently attended a local OHL game between the Kitchener Rangers and the Owen Sound Attack.  Near the end of the third period, the arena speakers blasted Stompin' Tom's "Hockey Song".  As they did so, I heard a young girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old, directly behind me, happily singing along at the top of her voice:

OH!  The good old hockey GAAAAME!
It's the BEST game you can NAAAAME!
And the best game you can NAAAAME!
Is the good old hockey GAME!  OH!.....

I can offer no better evidence of Stompin' Tom's wide appeal to everyday Canadians from all walks of life than the sound of that girl, young enough to be his great-granddaughter, belting out his seminal song with a huge smile, revelling in all that's best about being Canadian.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Outsource This!

One of the harsh realities of our modern, globally connected society is that organizations no longer have to restrict themselves to hiring locally.  Many jobs, especially in the technology, communications and marketing sectors, are "outsourced" to developing countries, where salaries are lower and labor regulations are often less stringent than they are in North America.  The result: North American workers must compete for jobs with workers in places like India, China or Korea.

Individuals and unions try to combat this trend through protests, government lobbying and demanding job security clauses in their negotiated contracts.  These tactics meet with varying degrees of success but, on the whole, outsourcing appears to be becoming more and more prevalent.  Standard strategies seem too often tried and too seldom true.  The Halmanator has long been a staunch supporter of out-of-the-box thinking, which is why I applaud the nameless hero who followed the old adage, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em".

An article originally posted in the Verizon Business Security Blog, later published by "The Globe and Mail" and, finally, brought to The Halmanator's attention by alert reader George Ninos, tells the story of "Bob" (whose name has been changed to spare him having to shake the hands of 80% of western workers), an employee of an "American Infrastructure company" whose name has not been published to spare them being publicly revealed as the putzes that they are. 

"Bob" was a computer programmer.  Being a computer programmer myself, I can state with some authority that the best programmers share certain characteristics.
  • They are extremely analytical
  • They have excellent diagnostic and problem solving skills
  • They have excellent technical and mathematical skills
  • They are lazy S.O.B.s
You may find that last one to be dubious, but it`s true!  A lazy programmer is a good programmer, because he will devise all kinds of creative and elegant solutions for getting the computer to do as much of the actual "work" as possible, leaving nothing for the "users" but to click the "Go" button.  This is why mouse-based computing and, consequently, the Apple MacIntosh and Microsoft Windows, became so popular and quickly replaced the old command line interface.  Actually typing "Go" and pressing the Enter key was too much work for most users.  But I digress, as always.

Getting back to "Bob", he is described as "...inoffensive and quiet.  Someone you wouldn't look at twice in an elevator"; another important computer programmer attribute.  In fact, he was such a good programmer that the organization for which he worked paid him over $250,000 a year, a salary that's well above average for computer programmers and almost rivals that of an apprentice plumber.  We know, from the Globe and Mail article, that "Bob" had all four of the aforementioned qualifications in spades.  His performance reviews were invariably positive, being laced with adjectives such as "conscientious", "reliable" and "keyboard god".  His programs were clean, well-documented and error free.  And he did absolutely no work whatsoever for at least six months; probably much longer.

You see, "Bob" had decided to use outsourcing to his advantage.  "If corporations can do it, why can't I?" he reasoned (there's that analytical mind at work, folks).  So he hired a developer from northern China to write his programs for him, a service for which he paid $50,000 a year, which still left "Bob" over $200,000 in the black (and there's that keen grasp of mathematics).  If`"Bob" had any accounting knowledge whatsoever, he likely claimed the $50,000 as a business expense on his income tax as well. 

So what did "Bob" himself do at the office each day besides dent a seat cushion?  Well, he did what countless office workers all over North America do; he surfed the web, updated his Facebook page and browsed a disturbing quantity of cat videos (although The Halmanator suspects that "The Globe and Mail" may have made the editorial decision to substitute the word "cat" for "pussy").  The only difference between "Bob" and your average office worker is that:

a) He spent a lot more time doing these things than most office workers
b) He was much better paid for it

And this, my friends, adds the last of those vitally important programmer qualifications to "Bob's" impressive résumé. 

Sadly, Bob's little deception was discovered when an internal computer systems security audit revealed that someone had been logging into the system daily from China using "Bob's" User ID and password and, well, one thing led to another.  Of course, "Bob" was immediately dismissed for "violating company policy".  Which specific company policies "Bob" violated aren't specified but The Halmanator is pretty sure that they had something to do with not making your bosses look like a bunch of idiots.

You may think The Halmanator is out of line for condoning "Bob's" fraudulent activities.  Well, let's examine that for a moment.  Obviously, I don't know the details of "Bob's" employment contract, but we can safely assume that it boiled down to something like this; "Bob" agrees to provide the company with reliable computer software to run their business, in exchange for which the company pays "Bob" approximately $250,000 a year.  From where I'm sitting, "Bob" made good on his side of the bargain.  He did nothing to harm the company.  By all accounts, they were happy with the quality of the work that he provided.  I'm pretty sure that they were just sore at discovering that they could have gotten the same productivity for about 1/5 the amount that they were paying "Bob". 

Also, since "Bob" was considered the company's best programmer, we can conclude that the anonymous Chinese programmer did better work than any of the other programmers in that company's employ who, while they may not have been paid quite as much as "Bob", were most likely paid more than $50,000 per year.  And that, my friends, is why China will own America before this century is out.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The End Of The Smartphone

I recently stumbled upon a headline on-line that proclaimed "The End of the Smartphone Era Is Coming".  This immediately caught my interest, because smartphones are a pet peeve of mine.  I think we've become far too engrossed by them. 

Seems that no matter where you go these days, and no matter what you do, you're surrounded by people whose noses are buried in their smartphones.  A world full of people, and none of them are actually "there".  When poet Hughes Mearns wrote:

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away...

...I`m sure he was talking about a guy with a smartphone, which was pretty forward-thinking of him considering that he wrote those lines in 1899, when smartphones were still in the very early stages of development.  How has a communications device managed to become such a barrier to communication? 

In case you're wondering about my hypocrisy level, I'll say for the record that I don't own a smartphone.  I have a cell phone, and even that doesn't follow me around everywhere.  It stays in my car in case I need assistance while on the road, or in case I come across a fellow motorist who needs assistance and doesn't happen to have a phone of their own (which is practically unheard of these days) or in case my wife needs me to pick up something from the grocery store, or perhaps pick up dinner, on my way home from work (which is heard of practically every other day these days). 

So I was eager to learn more about anything that might finally break this obsession with smartphones and get people actually talking to each other again.  You can imagine my disappointment when I read the prediction that, if smartphones are indeed to become less ubiquitous, it will only be when they're replaced by some other, even more grotesque, distraction, such as computerized eyeglasses.

Seems both Google and Microsoft are working on eyeglasses whose lenses are augmented with computer displays that will have the ability to overlay information on top of whatever you're looking at, sort of like the "Heads Up Displays" or HUDs used by fighter pilots.  For instance, you might be watching a hockey game, and your glasses could display a little computerized tag next to each of the players, showing their names, plus/minus ratings, annual salaries and favourite brand of underarm deodorant, because you just know that the marketers are going to harness this as just another medium through which to constantly bombard people with non-stop advertising pitches.

I have to admit, I can imagine some interesting uses for this type of technology.  When mingling at boring cocktail parties, the glasses could use facial recognition technology to superimpose names over everybody in the room, eliminating the possible embarrassment of being cornered by people to whom we've previously been introduced, but whose names we proceeded to forget almost before they left our peripheral field of vision.  "Bob!" we could say, as we warmly extended our hand for the obligatory greeting, "Bob Finster!  It's great to see you again!"  This could even be augmented with a small database of key factoids about the person such as their age, where and when we met them, and personal interests, allowing us to impress them by continuing with "It's been, what, three months?  I remember you from our encounter at the clinic.  How's that hemorrhoidal swelling of yours?  Any better?"

Maybe those of us who, when verbally insulted or otherwise mistreated, lack the ability to quickly think up clever responses could be presented with a list of witty, snappy comebacks from which to choose, Terminator style.

I can see potential problems too.  Just as smartphones have a way of causing people to stand right in front of you without actually talking to you, these computerized glasses could allow them to stare right at you without actually seeing you.  And if these glasses are really going to replace smartphones, then they have to enable you to talk to people remotely, but how would you hear what's being said, and could any built-in microphone pick up your voice when it`s situated no-where near your mouth?  I suppose the glasses could communicate with one of those bluetooth earpieces.  Then again, that gives rise to another potential problem...