Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reading Is Fundamental

rif When I was a kid in Vacaville, California, we had a great library and we went there fairly often. I remember seeing bookmobile and RIF commercials on TV. I thought the idea of someone driving a bunch of books around like some kind of literary ice cream man was pretty cool. I asked my mom why we didn’t have one of those and she told me they were for poor kids in places like Oakland. Even at a tender age, I knew Oakland was a place we stayed away from, so that was that for books on wheels.

Other than reading for work – endless amounts of technical documentation, whitepapers, presentations and studies of trends, etc. – I probably read at least a book per month. Sometimes more. Usually history, economics, politics, science. Definitely skewed toward the social sciences. I am not above reading fiction, but since Tom Clancy ran his course I just haven’t really gotten into any. Once in awhile, I’ll dig up a classic - 1984, The Grapes of Wrath, The Good Earth, All Quiet on the Western Front – usually books I lifted from high school that I may or may not have read when they were assigned but that I kept for later.

Recently, I was reading Julia Keller’s commentary in the Chicago Tribune on Obama as a “literary president”. Other than just another note in the symphony of Obama adoration in the press and making me a little mad by taking the now obligatory pot-shot at Bush, it got me thinking about reading. (More on the pot-shot in a future post.)

The official literacy rate (as reported by the CIA World Fact Book) in the United States is 99%. But the definition used for “literacy” in that reporting (for all countries) is a very basic standard indeed – being able to read and write even a few hundred words in your native language at the age of 15.
There is an oft-quoted stat from ~2007 that 80% of Americans have not bought or read a book in the past year. This was a private study by The Jenkins Group, but I couldn’t lay my hands on the original study, so I’m going on the reporting of it in other sources – including a summary of various reading/publishing statistics compiled by Robyn Jackson.
Compounding the confusion is the conflict between various surveys. For example, a Census Bureau report in 2002 cited 43.2% of people reading books in the past year – which would put us quite a distance from that 80% number.
A 1993 study found that up to 23% of American adults had only the most basic level of literacy, with difficulty locating information in printed material such as books, newspapers and maps.

My first instinct when I think of these stats is, “How can this possibly be true?” I mean after all, everyone I know reads quite a bit. But then, I don’t know thousands of people and, like most people, the people I hang out with are pretty much like me – white, middle class or better, decently educated, reasonably smart. What’s more, I think there is a tradition (in fact, a doctrine) of Mormonism that encourages reading of not just church-related materials but wide ranging topics.

I’m not expecting people to spend their evenings reading the classics by they fire, but how do people get through life without reading? It would certainly explain how we as a country have gotten to a point where we know collectively nothing about history and can’t manage our own financial affairs. And what’s worse, people seem to have precious little curiosity about things.
If someone tells me it is warmer/colder now then it has been in 1000 years, and I don’t know what the Maunder Minimum or Medieval Warm Period are, then I’m likely to just accept that.
If someone tells me this is the worst economy in 50 years, and I don’t remember the Carter years or understand what made the Great Depression “great” then why should I doubt?
If I don’t know that Sting lifted the “plot” for Roxanne from Cyrano de Bergerac or numerous lyric lines from Shakespeare’s sonnets, then the guy seems like even more of a genius songwriter.

Holy crap people. Turn off America’s Next Top Model and The Bachelor and just read something. Anything. You can Tivo your favorite reality shows and watch them later.

In the end, I sincerely hope that 80% is not accurate. What’s the point of being literate if you choose not to read?

What’s the last book you read? How much reading do you do?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Furnace fixer dude

So when I came home from work, it seemed a little chilly in the house, but I was more focused on dinner. The Mrs was gone to a play practice so it was just me and the kids. While we were cleaning up dinner, I noticed the thermostat screen was blank.
Since it was getting time for the nearby Ace Hardware to close, I ran out, got a new thermostat and put it in. I felt pretty handy.
But then, the furnace still didn't work.

I got out all the books and found where it was flashing a trouble code but I couldn't fix it.

So I decided I needed to call for service. We didn't need it fixed tonight ($$$) but definitely needed it on Friday. I called around and left a couple messages, but then, lo and behold, one guy actually answered the phone in person.
Dirk himself answered the phone at Dirk's Heating. As he was taking my info, he started walking me through getting the furnace back on. ("tap on this", "paper clip these two wires together", etc.) He was really trying to get me working tonight even before he could come and do the real fix. I was incredibly impressed with this level of service.

If you are on the Eastside and need furnace help, by all means call:
Dirk's Heating
590 SE Andrews St, Issaquah, WA 98027
(425) 392-1937

Black Thursday @ MSFT

Well, today was the long awaited day at Microsoft. Bad results and first ever mass layoff info here.

So far, I only know one person who got the bad news today. Which is still terrible for someone you know, but it could have been worse.

Can't say I haven't done my share of worrying about this, but my group is one of the ones making money, so I have some reassurance in that.

I hate to complain when so many won't have a job at all, but I'm especially bummed about this from Steve Ballmer's email to the troops:

"We'll also reduce costs by eliminating merit increases for FY10 that would have
taken effect in September of this calendar year."
Honestly, I'm having a great year in my new job and I think it would have been a solid review for me. Now I'll still work toward that great result in terms of the review, but there won't be the cash and prizes to go along with that, which for me personally makes it hard to stay as enthusiastic about it as I had been.

Oh well. What can you do? At least they ripped the band-aid off quickly, and early in the day so the market could react through the day time.

Not to spread my plague of depression and negativity, but compared to past recessions and even the Great Depression (which this current downturn doesn't begin to approach), I really don't see a way out of it. This is not a Republican vs Democrat issue because the Republicans are screwing up too. You can't borrow and tax money and then spend it and say you are stimulating the economy. Since most of the billions are borrowed, we're arguably devaluing our currency at a double rate.

Aggressive tax cuts (for the people who are actually paying taxes) and real spending cuts would help, but the fact is we've got an aging boomer population with nothing really following them. This means we have a permanent glut of housing. Nothing will bring that back. And those same boomers have decided the government owes them care and cash forever just because they are successfully getting old. Clearly not a recipe for growth. still got a job?

Monday, January 19, 2009

HD - oh yeah - we got it

Our Dish HD Turbo 1000zx (or whatever) was installed today.

Cutting to the chase...Is it better?

Yeah, I guess. But it's just TV, so other than the fact that most channels now use of the full glorious 47" face of our Toshiba TV, it's still kinda lame if you ask me. Not quite sure what all the fuss is about.

The receiver is much better. The guide is better. The scrolling is better. The DVR hard drive is ginormous.

The installer was a complete, mouth-breathing moron. And there, dear friends, is the heart of the story.

First, he showed up and started asking where our "Comcast cable TV conduit box" was. Umm...we've lived in this house 10 years and it was built for us from mere sticks. We've never had Comcast. Any wiring dangling around the outside was put there by a Dish installer whose parole has probably been revoked by now. He seemed to think it was odd that we couldn't find this thing.

When my wife, who was supervising the first part of this operation, asked me about it, I had no idea what the heck he was talking about. By the time I raced home from work, she had the blueprints of the house spread out on the living room floor looking for this mystery box.

Turns out he was looking for something like this. More searching on the web would seem to indicate that this is not really a standard piece of equipment - Comcast or not.

Boy Tesla also had to ask my wife to lend him a screwdriver. That seems like something that someone whose job title is "installer" would have in his truck. Sigh.

OK, those of you who know me know that I don't like ladders. I always say that putting up my Christmas lights is one of the scariest things I do on purpose. As it turns out Jimmy Neutron here is also afraid of heights. He took one look at where the dish was going to be installed and said "Wow. That's high." No kidding dude. That's why I called someone else to do it.

Another weird thing is that he asked if we had an alarm system and he wanted to look for the distribution box in the master bedroom closet. It did concern us that maybe he was casing the joint. At least we know that if we secure our valuables with a screw or put them on the top shelf, there are probably safe from him.

I asked him a couple questions about the receiver, but that was a waste of time. I knew more about it from reading the blurb on the web than this guy did. And, with my 12 year old sitting on the couch, he demo'd the marvels of HD to me by turning to Jerry Springer during what looked like was going to be a particularly shocking revelation about what this wife found in her husband's cell phone.

By the time he left, I was beginning to wonder why I even own a TV.

I still think the guy installed some additional stuff on our roof (shown at left) that isn't on our plan. Oh well, maybe there is a special promotion on.

On the plus side, while he was here he did offer to sell us "rabbit ears" so we could get local channels without paying Dish for them. And an HDMI cable. I'm sure Dish would love his side businesses. Maybe if he didn't have a truck full of rabbit ears, he would have room for a screwdriver.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

This just in…

On the eve of his historic inauguration, President-Elect Obama announces his final cabinet appointments.


Nominees, clockwise from left to right: State, Defense, Interior, Energy, Leather and Justice.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Replacing working electronics

No matter the state of the economy, cool stuff continues to show up in stores and sooner or later hearts begin to yearn for something new and shiny. Normally, you'd want to wait until the old thing either breaks or stops working because of some change in technical standards or file formats or whatever.

But what do you do when you really would like the new thing and the old one just won't die? This must seem a ridiculous notion to those who lived through the real Great Depression and World War II and learned to "Use it all; wear it out; make it do; or go without." (And I'm talking here about the real depression, not the pretend one we have going on right now.)

Two things bring this to mind today. First of all, I have a Creative Zen Micro digital music player (I don't say MP3 because I work at Microsoft after all). I got it for free from work for doing something involving developer community that I don't really remember. I think the original one had a 5GB hard drive in it, but when I sent it in for warranty repair, they replaced it with the 6GB version. I really like it. It has a removable battery that lasts 12 hours and came with a spare. It plays nicely with Napster (where I buy most of my music) and Windows Media Player (where I listen to my music on the PC). On occasion, it has a tiny glitch when a song starts, but it is built like a tank. Like me, it has been to Taiwan, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, and all over the US - filling many a lonely traveling hour. Secretly though, I'd really like something newer. Not that I've seen one that I want more - not an iPod, not a Zune - I just want something that when I plop it onto the seat tray on the plane people don't look at it like they should take up a collection for me.
"Yes, for just $10 a month, you can help this middle-aged man get a cooler music device."

Attention music player makers - I don't want to watch movies and TV shows on a 2 inch screen. I don't need to see pictures on it either. I just want the battery to last a long time and I want it to use the music I already have. And if it isn't too much trouble, can we please let me change the battery? I swear - I'll buy a second battery. It's pure profit for you.

So, while I would like to get something new just to get something new, there just isn't a device out there that I'm jonesin' for. Someone please make one - just in case my Zen falls under a tire on the day you release it...just in case.

Second case in wife's cell phone.
Let me say first that we are trapped on T-Mobile like passengers on a plane that has sucked a bird into the engines. It isn't because of contracts, those are long over. Through an evil combination of great pricing, good coverage, and the fact that we now have four phones on T-Mobile, no one can match what they offer us.
My talented assistant got her phone years ago. It is a cute little Samsung flip. No camera. No MP3 ringtones. No nothing really. What it has going for it is that it is quite small, the edges are organically round, and the sound it makes when it opens is, as she describes it, "Like opening a little earring box."
Having been with T-Mobile since the earth cooled, she's entitled to upgrade her phone with a contract extension (and we aren't going anywhere). So I finally talked her into going to the T-Mo store and Car Toys to check out some new phones.

I tried to be enthusiastic so I could get something new to play with, but WHAT IS THE DEAL with T-Mobile? All their phones suck!
AT&T has nice phones. Verizon has some nice ones. Not so T-Mo.

The square and angular look is definitely "in" right now, which is lame.
The menus on the phones are all lame compared to this many years old Samsung.
And the quality of the phones according to CNET reviews (thank goodness for CNET) seems to be uniformly poor. We had settled toward a Sony-Ericsson TM506. It had a cute UI. It was square and pointy, but flat enough to carry it well. The camera is pretty good. Turns out it is just a crappy phone though. Grrrr... Luckily we didn't buy it on the spot before checking the reviews.

So long story short, no new toys at our house this week. So no help in stimulating the economy from us.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Starlet Lovelady and the case for "Name Revocation"

Subtitle: ...and I want my money back from all those 900 number calls

Sometimes a story is so profound it demands to be told (or, err, uh, copied from someone else who told it). This particular news story was about the flood damage in Concrete, WA. Not to be confused with Rockport, WA, or Marblemount, WA, or Something-Really-Hard-And-Barren-In-The-Sticks, WA.

Let me introduce you to Ms. Starlet Lovelady.

According to federal naming regulations (which I believe date from the Clinton era), with a name like that, she should look like this:

But in reality she looks like this:

Because of the flooding, Ms. Lovelady has had to give up her job at "Super Hot & Lonely Chat Line" (where her tag line was: "Call now, I'm bored toni...hey who the %^*! ate my Cheetos")

The Federal Bureau of Name Revocation has dispatched a team to Concrete by way of Sedro-Wooley to revoke Ms. Lovelady's name and give her a new one. The FBNR computers are still crunching as we speak, but things look good for "Maude Cheesebottom".

Monday, January 12, 2009

Goin' HD I really think so

Having owned a big HD TV for over a year now, we're finally actually making the jump to HD.
We're a long time (almost 10 years) Dish Network house. Some friends of ours recently got Dish's Turbo HD and it was totally drool-worthy. The bad news is that we have to have TWO dishes on top of our house. Apparently, on the east coast, you don't need a second dish for HD on Dish, but you do on the west coast. Supposedly this has to do with something about the configuration of the satellite constellation and a satellite they had to move a few years ago to make up for one that failed. Probably all made up. Stupid Newton anyway.

And it all ends up costing us like $5 more per month than we pay now - so not too shabby.

Anyhoo, we like Dish and they seem to do a good job of keeping prices down and delivering a good product. I think in the time we've had them our bill has gone from $40 to $52 and our channels have gone from 120 to 200 or something like that. And we love their DVR too.

Installation is next Monday. If tonight's viewing is any indication, by this time next week I'll be complaining that there is nothing to watch, but I'll be watching complete crap in full 1080p glory!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gather 'round the (game) board

Board games are kind of a strange thing. Supposedly, they bring people together for laughter and good times. At least that's what Hasbro would have us believe. However, I remember when my big brother was teaching me how to play Risk when I was 10 or 11 and I flipped the board in anger - at least once. I notice that Risk is NOT on the Hasbro Family Game Night web page.

When our kids were younger we used to play Chinese checkers quite a bit. For some reason, we bought - and continue to use a Chinese checkers board that is fairly thin metal with kind of a rim around it. Unfortunately, this has a side-effect that if someone pushes down on the board just so the board is now cocked and ready to fire. There is no way to get the round out of the chamber, once you heard the tell-tale "click-clunk" of that board when someone made a careless move. It was just a matter of time until, Perfection-like, the marbles all popped up - and then the fun ended and the kids had to go to bed.

In our family, games seem to go in waves. We've had phases for checkers, chess, Chinese checkers, Battleship, Pictionary, Encore, and Domination.

I'm not really a fan of Sorry. In fact, I once passed out while playing it during a family game night. Of course, I had pneumonia at the time, but I still blame Sorry.

Encore is a tedious game for Mormons to play - things will be going along fine with normal pop and other well known songs, but eventually, in desperation, someone starts belting out a Primary song. As with other arms races, this is countered with a Primary song from the opponent. And then long, tedious madness ensues.

Domination (also known as "Focus") was an old Hasbro game. Unlike most board games, which seem to live on forever in various repackagings, Domination seems genuinely gone. My wife liked the game as a child and has spoken of it often over the years. I finally found a very nice copy on eBay and it is really fun. I'm surprised it is gone and yet "Cootie" goes merrily along.

Jeremy Clarkson, of BBC's Top Gear and also a columnist for The Times of London, recently had a very apropos article about board games. Jeremy asserts that despite all the hand-wringing about video games, people actually seem much more driven to violence by board games. As Jeremy points out, if only Hitler had a Playstation, maybe real war would have been unnecessary.

Anyone who has ever suffered through a game of Axis and Allies can probably sympathize with the anger and frustration Hitler felt - moving all those little pieces around on the big command center map boards.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Why doesn't economic stimulus work?

"If people would say to me, 'Would you rather recover or be stimulated?' I think I'd rather be stimulated." - Rep. Barney Frank, Department of the Treasury Office of Thrift Supervision National Housing, December 8, 2008.

I've been thinking on this for a long time. Stimulating the economy in rough times clearly used to work. It worked somewhat in the Depression (although the tax cuts were quickly erased when Hoover tripled the tax rate to 63% in 1932) and it worked in the Reagan era, particularly in the 1982 recession. G.W. Bush has tried both direct checks and tax cuts and, with the exception on the cut in the tax on dividends and capital gains, they haven't done much. Let's look at this a little more.

Economist John Maynard Keynes proposed his approach to stimulating the economy by increasing demand through the injection of money at the "bottom". (called "Keynesian Economics" or "Keynesian Theory", in case you want to look smart at your next block party)

It seems that every politician of every stripe the world over accepts this theory, without paying much attention to the fact that it seems not to work. For people ambivalent to government spending at least, it seems like a sound idea. Why doesn't it work?

Here's my primary theory, and I'll follow that up with an alternate theory. Just in case.

In a factory economy, things were produced and consumed within the borders of a nation. Stimulating demand would give people money to buy those products, which translates into increased orders at the factories that provided employment.

In a post-industrial economy, where global tranportation systems and multinational trade agreements, more and more consumer products are imported. This means some of that stimulus money goes to "locals" - the guy at the TV store, the guy at the car dealership, etc.

This is a natural evolution of economies. I'm not arguing that we need to preserve the factory economy of old. But it does seem to indicate that pumping money into people's hands is just not going to have the intended effect. It simply create a double-speed money pump to move US wealth overseas. (by both selling bonds to get the money for the stimulus and from the money leaving the country)

Alternate theory
Most Americans live live's full of debt. You have people rolling in car loans and credit card debt into their mortgage refi - which means they are paying for the Taco Bell lunch from a couple months ago for 30 years! Insanity. So if they get a few extra dollars, they pay a bill with it. Paying old bills is better than NOT paying them, but it won't stimulate the economy. The extra money simply vaporizes immediately.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Despair and the case of the backstabbing, non-supportive, friends with beards whose initials are PG

I've long been a big of Despair, Inc. You've probably seen their stuff in an office or cubical near you.

Anyway, a "friend" of mine pointed out this shirt in honor of my new blog.

Ah yes, the Randomizer has such supportive friends!

And when I was checking out that shirt, this one really caught my eye. I may have to actually get this one...

BTW, I'm just kidding about the backstabbing, non-supportive part. It's all good fun. :-)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Discussion topic #1

"The United States has moved faster towards socialism in the past 90 days than in the previous 30 years." - David Keene, Interviewed in December 2008. Sorry, couldn't find an online source for this interview, but I have the paper copy.

Agree? Disagree?

Is it a good or bad thing? Does it even matter?

I found this article by Dick Morris (who I find an odious individual) about Bush introducing European Socialism to the US as his final "contribution". It's pretty good and sums up my feelings pretty well. I can't imagine what the left would have against Bush; he's given them their fondest dream.

Monday, January 5, 2009

You don't need to be good at it to enjoy it

There are two things you don't need to be good at to enjoy.

One of them is video games.

I feel like I spend a lot of time gaming. In truth, I probably don't really. My Puritan work ethic prevents long spells of any leisurely activity.

I might spend maybe two hours per week playing a game of some sort - under ordinary circumstances. Some weeks I play no games at all. Some weeks I might play Rock Band with the family for four hours in one evening.

And then we have the approximately 30 hours I spent over my Christmas vacation playing Advance Wars on my DS. When you've played a game so long you need to recharge the DS, you know you are doing some world-class time-wasting.

But even with all that, I really just suck at video games. I've sucked at video games since the Atari 2600 days - when my mom and I would get laughing so hard at making the Atari Basketball characters dance around we couldn't play the game. According to Alan Cooper, I should probably have given up, since I have not even attained Perpetual Intermediate status.
I am pretty sure the only games I've ever played to completion are:

  • Goldeneye 007 on the N64. Still one of the greatest and most playable shooters ever and one of the very few movie licensed games ever to not suck.

  • Freedom Fighters on Xbox 1. This is a seriously fun and interesting and OVERLOOKED game. Great story.

  • Ghost Recon 2 on Xbox 1. I admit I used a walkthrough for a couple levels though. I'm ashamed.

  • Ghost Recon 2: Summit Strike on Xbox 1. This shouldn't really count as another game.

  • Ghost Recon Advanced War Fighter on Xbox 360. This time it is south-of-the-border butt kicking time.

  • Ghost Recon Advanced War Fighter 2 on Xbox 360. I actually played GRAW2 before GRAW1. I got it for Christmas 07 and it is really short and I finished it and loved it, so I secretly bought GRAW1 used for $9 and played that over Christmas last year too. Shhhh.
I came very close to finishing Crimson Skies on Xbox 1. I still have the save point on the last mission. Every now and then I try to play it through.

In fact, as an oldster, there's something about the idea of "finishing" a game that sort of rubs me the wrong way. In my day (that's old timer talk), games just got harder and harder until you reached some generally theoretical maximum like the number of digits in the score or in the level number or something like that. My lovely and talented wife actually believes that when a game says "over 100 levels" there are really only like 10 levels and they make level 10 impossibly hard.

On the Xbox 360, the Achievements system really forces me to play through games a lot more than I would normally do because I want my overall GamerScore to get up there to a respectable level.

Now, I've heard that some people I work with actually pay their kids to get achievements on their account, but come on now.

I spent about an hour in Frogger in early December trying to escort 3 lady frogs to their homes in one level to get the achievment.

So, I'm not a Pinball Wizard. I buy a lot of games, but I don't necessarily play a lot of games. I'm sure from the standpoint of the people getting the royalties, this is just fine by them. :-)

I say it loud and proud - I suck at video games...and I still like to play them anyway!!! So dance on little Basketball on.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Air travel

What the heck is up with air travel these days?
Every plane is full - often with fat smelly men in sweat pants, like they came to the airport straight from the marathon. And yet NONE of these planes seem to get anywhere on time.
I don't know what the problem is, but I'm sure Obama will fix it.

We dropped off our oldest to go back to school today. My wife went in to help get them to the security line which turned out to be a good thing because their checked bag was 54 pounds - having picked up a few Christmas gifts since arriving. Turns out that checking a bag over 50 pounds - even 4 pounds over - costs $125!!!!! So they dug out some heavy stuff which we now need to mail. Since a second bag was only $25 more, we should have put all that stuff - along with the presents we need to mail anyway - into a second bag and checked it. Live and learn.

So that's the least of it. On the way home from school, the poor child was delayed on one flight and finally ended up spending the night at the San Francisco airport. OK. These things happen.
Then on the way back to school, they are delayed again. And looking at the airline website, they've changed the ticket to a different flight (an earlier flight which still hadn't left the ground) and also confirmed a reservation on an additional flight for the connecting leg in case the delay caused them to miss the original flight - so you had one person booked on four flights at all kinds of overlapping times.

Turns out, it all worked out and they got home relatively on time and without any grief.

But it got me thinking of a couple things:
I noticed that United has a new color scheme for their jets. Given the cost of repainting a jet and the economic conditions of United, what are they thinking? If my budget was tight, I'd decide to wait a while before I take the family car to Maaco. I couldn't find any definitive sources, but the ranges for paint jobs on airliners seems to be about $50,000 to $60,000 - that's EACH. Maybe they should use this coupon. While musing on this, I found this interesting writeup on the tradeoffs in polished versus painted aircraft finishes. Did you know the paint on a 737 weighs about 180 lbs? That's 126 lbs more than my child's suitcase. That means we could have just scraped off about a square foot of paint to compensate for the extra 4 pounds.

Has anyone noticed that the post 9/11 security changes all seem to be things that the airlines wanted anyway? Not the part about making the Burger King rejects into unionized federal employees, but the parts about not being able to go to the gate to wait for someone or to drop someone off, effectively limiting checked baggage in ways the airlines couldn't bring themselves to do on their own, etc. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they suddenly determine that food of any kind on the plane is a hazard. And now, viola, United will offer you their special fast security lane - where they try to drop your laptop less often - for only $25 more.

Finally, hey, I paid like $600 for this ticket - how about a WHOLE can of soda?!?!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Neat Stuff You Might Not Know About

After spending some quality time over the last couple months with various friends and family, I was surprised by some of the cool things people don't seem to know about:
1) Windows Home Server
This handy little box does a couple of things:
First and foremost, it automatically backs up all your PCs every day and restoring a whole PC or a single file that you overwrote or deleted is a total cinch. Way better than online backup services.
Second, it gives you a place to store all your digital photos, music, and documents and get at them from any PC in the house.
Third, you can access all this stuff remotely. Those backed up files? You can get at them from your work PC. Your family pictures? Get them from anywhere. It even gives you a nice friendly URL for the website that is running securely from your server.
I totally underestimated how useful and cool this would be until I had one of my own.
Sure you can buy one, like this HP unit, but you can also buy a copy of Home Server software and throw it on your old PC in the corner of the garage - which is what I did.
This all seems like a geeky thing, I know. But the truth is that it sets up in minutes, doesn't require you to buy pizza for that weird brother-in-law that runs Linux on his wristwatch and it will save you a lot of headaches - just from the automatic backups.

2) Xbox 360 Media Sharing
I'm really surprised at the number of smart people who own Xboxes and don't know about this.
If you turn on media sharing on your PC, you can then play your music and view your photos on your 360 right from your living room.
The experience is really good and polished. Set it up, you won't regret it.
Vista Instructions
XP Instructions
The only glitch I've seen is that you do need at least one account on your PC (guest account or similar) that doesn't have a password and can have read access to the music and photos.

3) Xbox Live Silver Memberships
With the New Xbox Experience that came out in November, there is suddenly a reason why everyone in your home wants an Xbox Live account - Avatars. And along with Avatars, friends and parties.
Of course, it is probably pretty unusual that more than one person in the house has an Xbox Live Gold account. I love Live, but at $50 a year, one will do for us thanks.
Enter the free Xbox Live Silver account.
Silver doesn't let you do online gaming, but you do get your avatar and friend list.

4) Brother HL-5250DN Laser Printer
We had a Panasonic laser printer - KXP-7100. Loved it. And we had years of trouble free use.
Most of all - it was auto-duplexing - meaning it printed on both sides of the paper.
Enter Vista.
When we moved to Vista, through no fault of Microsoft's, Panasonic chose not to put out a Vista driver for the 7100. They did for it's close business printer relative, but not the home version.
So we picked up the Brother for about $250 on sale. It is way fast. Has built in networking support (although we don't use that). And --- YES! --- duplexing. You use half the paper and it is just really cool besides.

5) Advance Wars: Days of Ruin for Nintendo DS
A couple years ago, I'd been considering getting a Playstation Portable. Then my kids got me a Nintendo DS Lite for Father's Day.
Outwardly gracious, I was secretly thinking "Man, I hope this isn't lame. Maybe I shouldn't open it so I can return it."
Those doubts quickly went by the wayside and I've invested many, many hours playing the DS on business trips, on the couch, and just about everywhere. Turns out the kids really do know what is fun!
My officemate turned me on to an earlier version of Advance Wars on the DS and I got it for Christmas and I've spent MANY hours on it already. I just can't put it down.
The writing for the story parts of the game is pretty lame, but forget all that.
It is a war game for the Nintendo DS!!! How cool is that?
I remember playing the old Strategic Simulations war games and really miss that genre. I never would have expected to see it on the DS.

6) Portrait Innovations Photography
OK guys...sooner or later, your wife is going to start bugging you that it has been too long since you got a family picture taken. Not the one you took with the self timer for the Christmas newsletter, a REAL family picture.
My sister-in-law told us about Portrait Innovations. She mentioned the quality of their work, that you get your pictures right away rather than waiting, and that they didn't give you the hard sell on buying more pictures than you could ever need. Somewhere in there, she mentioned it was cheap...and my ears are naturally tuned to that word.
So, since my oldest child was home from college for the holidays and she didn't have a driver's license when we got our last picture done, it was time to check it out.
They took a ton of great pictures for us to choose from and the photos were of the quality you'd expect from any portrait studio - they just did managed to print them in 15 minutes rather than 2 weeks.
We got their promo package for $10 (plus another sheet with a different pose we liked).

The Forgotten Man

I think one of the foremost problems in our country is the level of indifference and ignorance to history. When you don't understand history, every change in the wind can look like an unprecedented crisis.

Since "they got this depression on", I'm reading The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes.
The title comes from an 1883 essay of the same title by Yale professor and sociologist William Graham Sumner. Quoting:

"The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this:
A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C's interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man."

In other words, when things look bad for somebody, you can count on two other people getting together to solve it and stick someone else with the bill.

The book was originally published in 2007 and predating the sudden "crisis" of 2008 so there is no taint of foreknowledge. So it is amazing at the similarities not just in the events, but also in the political situation and the personalities of the people involved.

In particular, the comparisons between Hoover and Bush are very interesting. Both brought "firsts" to the presidency. Hoover was the first trained engineer and Bush the first MBA - which means both were men of their times. Both men carried ideologies that were heavily colored by deeply held religious beliefs. And both were Republicans who did not hold to Conservative principles.

I'll be sharing more on this book over the next several posts, but it in the meantime, consider that it is interesting that Ben Bernake, who, along with Henry Paulson, is in charge of central planning for the US economy right now, said in his remarks on Milton Friedman's 90th birthday regarding the Federal Reserve's role in making an ordinary recession in the late 20's into the Great Depression: "You're right. We did it. We're very sorry." Ummmm......

Ready... Fire... Aim...
We should all be a lot less worried about the US economy weathering down cycles than I am about the government stepping in to try to "fix" it.

I think it is curious that the financial crisis suddenly erupted six weeks before the Nov 2008 election and then it was necessary for a bunch of politicians to "solve" a complex situation years in the making over a long weekend with little to no input from actual economists - who clearly opposed it - saying basically - "We're not sure what the right answer is, but this is definitely NOT it."

First Post

Well, having survived the holidays, I was thinking about what new project I could start (because you can really never have enough projects going - right?) and I decided to finally hop aboard the blog train.