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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Math Tutoring Update

It looks like I have my first pupil, starting tomorrow. It'll be Grade 7 Math that I'm tutoring on, which I've been reviewing the curriculum of to see what's covered nowadays. And we'll just see how it goes...

33's Too Young To Die

Andy Hallett, the actor who played green-faced Lorne on Angel for several seasons, died over the past weekend at the age of 33. Lorne was one of those characters who really grew on me over time, to the point where I was happy to see him join the regular cast in the latter half of the show's run. To this day, I don't know what the man really looked like under all that green make-up and horns.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Took A Vacation Day Today

While some might say that every day's like a vacation for me these days, I usually try to do at least a little bit of work-like activity during my weekdays. That might be writing, doing research, reading up on various Agile sites, or just reconnecting with people from my past... but today, I did none of that. I was feeling a little blah so I decided to just play games for most of the day.

And that's just the way it went.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

For Those Who Didn't Like The Movie Version


We could've gotten this!

(Thanks to Christian, among others, for pointing me toward this video.)

Feeling Superhuman

It's been almost a month and a half since I mentioned my "Game of 2008", Resistance 2. I'd actually taken the disc out of the PS/3 and put it away in its case, only to pull it back out late last week when a significant patch/upgrade was released for the game. There were a bunch of small enhancements and fixes provided, but by far the most interesting development - for me, anyway - was a new form of Coop play, called "Superhuman".

On this new difficulty setting, you and your team of up to 8 players go through all of the same maps as before, but things are considerably more challenging now. The enemies are tougher and more plentiful, you take more damage than usual, and when you die you don't automatically re-spawn after 30 seconds like you used to... instead, you're dead until a teammate comes by to revive you! All of that, taken together, has managed to reinvigorate my interest in the game. Vicki even commented this morning that it's actually more interesting to watch now, because there's much less of the carefree running through the levels that I'd been accustomed to previously... on "Superhuman", I have to take it much more slowly and play defensively. In fact, after roughly a dozen matches on this new setting, I've been part of more failing missions than successful ones, and have only gotten all the way through a level without dying just once! Those are both signs of a much tougher game!

Unlike the previous patch for Resistance 2, which was somewhat underwhelming, last Thursday's release was truly impressive.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bloggin' In The Dark

We're in the midst of Earth Hour right now, and so we've got all of our lights in the house off (a small enough sacrifice to make). We're not exactly "off the grid", though, as we've got the Villanova/Pittsburgh Elite 8 NCAA game on the TV and I'm obviously busy blogging away on the laptop.

Considering that most of the lights that we've turned off are of the low-watt, eco-friendly variety, I'm not sure we're really accomplishing all that much... but it's probably the thought that counts at times like this!

The Pool Update

After Tuesday's discovery of a lowered water level in the pool, I'd been awaiting an opportunity to get the winter cover off so that I could take a closer look. I originally measured the drop at around 8 inches, at a time when I'd been pumping a lot of water off the cover (as a result of an unusually large amount of snow over the winter). Yesterday, with the weather having warmed up quite a bit, I pumped off the last portion of the above-cover water, and then Vicki (when she got home from work) helped get the cover itself off. The water level was noticeably lower again, and I measured it early last night at 12 inches down.

Tonight, however, the water was still at that same mark, 24 hours later. There are a couple possible explanations that I can think of for why it would go down 4 inches in 3 days but then not drop at all over the next 24 hours:
  1. The location of the leak is now above the water line; or
  2. I was (unintentionally) pumping some of the below-cover water off while I was draining the stuff off of the cover.
I'm obviously hoping for # 2, as it would mean that there isn't actually any leak, just a semi-permeable winter blanket that allows water to move through it. # 2 is only a possibility in my mind because we bought a new cover last September, meaning that this is our first year using it. That, and the fact that the pool place we called on Tuesday mentioned that sometimes the winter covers "work" that way these days, gives me some faint hope at this point.

To find out for sure, I'll need to wait another day or two (hoping the water doesn't drop at all) and then add some water in to raise the level back up. If the problem is actually # 1, then it'll go back down once it's high enough to find the leak again. In any event, we should know more in the next few days.

Who Mocks The Watchmen?

If you aren't already keenly aware of just how significant the release of the Watchmen film was among the comic book community, then consider this: there were not one but two different Watchmen parody comics released within a couple weeks of each other, earlier this month! This, for a comic series that was originally published over 20 years ago!

The first such offering was Whatmen?! from IDW Publishing, written by Scott Lobdell, with artwork by Alejandro Figueroa. This one-shot is essentially a Mad-like treatment of the material, in which the basic plot of the original is retained (albeit significantly condensed) with silly variations (Dr Manhattan becomes Dr NYC, Nite Owl is called Hooty Owl, Rorschach is known as Nutsack, and The Comedian goes by the name of The Stand-Up, for example). There's the obligatory fart joke (Nutsuck relies on his own gases instead of an aerosol can to fan a flame while trying to escape the police) and numerous "objects substituted for Dr NYC's big blue penis" shots reminiscent of the opening of one of the Austin Power films (a very few of which were actually clever... in both cases!), just as you'd expect from a send-up that would appear in Mad Magazine. You also get a lot of self-referential moments, such as Dr NYC showing up unexpectedly to speed things along while winking at the audience and saying, "No time for subplots!"

It's the sort of thing that only works if you know the source material really well (like I, and thousands of other comic fans do) and even then... well, at least I smiled at a few of the better jokes. I didn't mind the comic, and I don't begrudge the 15 or 20 minutes that I spent reading it, but I'm no more likely to ever go back and re-read it than I am to hunt down those lost issues of Mad from my childhood.

A much less predictable and more enjoyable read was Rich Johnston and Simon Rohrmuller's Watchmensch one-shot from Brain Scan Studios. I've enjoyed Johnston's "Lying in the Gutters" weekly column for years, and he brings much of that same biting humour to this work.

Rather that simply re-treading the Watchmen story as Whatmen?! had done, Johnston chose instead to make the whole thing a metatextual treatment, much as Alan Moore had done in the first place (where Moore used the conventions of the comic genre as his palette). As such, it's a much denser read, requiring a lot more thinking than you'd ever expect to engage in with a straight-up satire.

Specifically, the plot of Watchmensch uses the expected band of characters (again, with parody names such as Krusty the Clown in place of the Comedian and Mr Broadway in the Dr Manhattan role) to provide humourous commentary on the well-publicized falling out between Alan Moore and DC Comics, as well as the less-than-commendable treatment of comic creators in general by the publishing business. As such, there's a lot going on within its black-and-white pages, as most of the events and dialogue resonate on a few different levels, including: the pre-requisite parody of Watchmen the comic series; jabs at the very notion of turning Watchmen into a 2.5-hour film; the history of Moore vs DC; and creators vs publishers going back to Siegel & Shuster signing away the rights to Superman. There's enough going on here that I actually could imagine that I might pick this comic up again in the future and want to give it another read, as I could imagine that I missed a few things along the way.

And one of the funniest lines that I've read in years shows up early on, set against the backdrop of the famous opening scene in which a cop is staring down at the street from a high-rise apartment: "Now the whole industry stands on the brink, staring down into legal limbo, all those spokesmen and public faces and Twitters... and all of a sudden no one can use the word 'Superboy'." I'll be damned if I didn't laugh out loud when I read that one!

I think the main difference between these two parodies is essentially the same distinction that so many of us see between Watchmen, the comic series and Watchmen, the film: one is subtle, layered, clever and ironic... and the other was produced by people who just doesn't operate on any of those levels.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Republicans: The Party Of No Substance

Yesterday's big news in the U.S. political circles was the Republican Party's unveiling of their alternative budget proposal, in response to President Obama's budget. To say that it's been ridiculed far and wide would be putting it mildly. The White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, mocked it during a press conference later in the day ("There's one more picture of a windmill than there is of a chart of numbers... there's exactly one picture of a windmill... it's interesting to have a budget that doesn't contain any numbers") and various news anchors have made hay out of the fact that, shockingly, the long-awaited and much ballyhooed alternative boils down to "reduce spending, cut taxes and shrink the deficit" with absolutely no details on how to possibly make any of that work any better than Bush's attempts did.

Of all the things I've read about it today, though, Ezra Klein had perhaps the best commentary of them all. Highlights include:

"It reads like what would happen if The Onion put together a budget. 'Area Man Releases Proposal for 2010 Federal Spending Priorities.'""

and

"But it does have this: 'Republicans will be on the side of quality versus mediocrity, affordability versus unsustainable debt, and freedom of care versus bureaucrats in control. And we will be on the side of patients, doctors, and the American people.' They are also in favor of good things rather than bad things, moving forward rather than going backwards, the hobbits rather than the orcs, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

And You Thought I Was Hard On The BSG Finale!

For an even less forgiving take than mine on how Battlestar Galactica wrapped up last week, you should really read Steven Grant's thoughts on it. It's a good ways down that page, but just keep looking for "BATTLESTAR GALACTICA fans have all likely..." in bold, red letters and you'll find it just fine. (Or you could read the stuff at the start of his column, which is all about DC Comics' plan to raise the price of their comics from $2.99 US to $3.99 US while adding about 8 pages of backup material to soften the blow, and how Steven doesn't think most fans will go for it. I haven't yet decided what I'll do, having already cut lots of Marvel Comics titles that did the same thing but minus the extra pages!)

I agree heartily with virtually everything that Mr Grant calls out about the BSG finale, and just wish that I could have said it all as well as he does.

One For The Whiz Kids

So, this week I've biked three times. On two of those three trips, my freshly-recharged iPod has run out of juice before I got home (therefore, after less than an hour of usage). On each of those occasions, when I got home I recharged the device fully, and then started it playing to see how long it would go before it ran dry. The first time, after it was still going an hour and a half later, I stopped the experiment and assumed that my sad biking experience earlier that day had just been a fluke. After it wimped out on me again today while biking home, though, I repeated the controlled, home version of the process... which is now halfway through its 3rd hour of continuous playing, with no signs of giving up the ghost yet.

So who has any ideas as to what the difference is between the two scenarios in question? In all cases, the iPod had been fully recharged not too much prior to me using it, although in the two bike examples I may have unplugged it a few hours before, whereas with my tests it's been just minutes before. Is that likely to be a significant difference? Also, the bike rides were both in very cold weather (close to freezing, although the iPod was inside a pocket and thus at least a little warmer than that) whereas my experiments have been at room temperature (22 C in our house). Does running in a cooler environment use up battery life more quickly? I can't think of any other differences, unless the somewhat jarring motion of being on a bicycle somehow affects it (which seems unlikely to me).

I may repeat the experiment tomorrow, but recharging it tonight and then running the test tomorrow (to see if the battery's losing strength during the time between charge and usage, even though the iPod isn't on). Can anyone suggest any other things to try, or provide insight into why this might be happening?

Update 1: I did just think of another, possibly significant difference in my scenarios, though it's purely unintentional. Since both of my experiments were done when I got home after the iPod had failed me, the battery had run out completely in those cases. The rest of the time I'm usually starting it charging when it - theoretically, at least - still has some charge left in it. Maybe that's the difference? Thoughts?

Update 2: It's still going, after 4 hours!! Where was that joie de vie when I needed it out of the stupid thing on the bike ride home today?!

Update 3: My repeat of the experiment the next day, with a longer waiting period after the recharge, yielded the same result: a little over 5 hours of running time. So I have no idea. We'll see what happens next time I bike somewhere.

How Walkable Is Your Neighbourhood?

The Freakonomics blog had a link to WalkScore, a site that evaluates and ranks the "walkability" of various U.S. cities. I noticed that I've personally toured six of the Top 10 by foot over the years, and would agree that each is fairly friendly to the pedestrian.

More interestingly, though, was that I discovered you can type any address in (including several Canadian ones that I tried) and see its walkability score, on a scale of 1 to 100. Not too surprisingly, Tammy's area in Toronto is considered a "walker's paradise" (which assessment I'd agree with, having strolled around there a few times) as was my former workplace.

Dollhouse Is Getting Better

We just watched last week's episode, in which the FBI Agent finally met Echo/Caroline (twice!) and a couple of interesting twists were perpetrated on us, neither of which I saw coming. That particular episode was billed as the first major mythology one in the series, and I think it lived up to that. I'd been getting more and more drawn into the proceedings with each successive installment, but there was one point in the latest chapter where I started to sour on it... right up until the creative team pulled the rug out from under my feet and made me love it all the more! I just hope it can stick around long enough to really get some steam up.

Wow, What A Find!

Thanks to a Twitter tweet from Neil Gaiman, I (and tens of thousands of others) saw this link this afternoon that contains scans of the legendary third issue of Alan Moore's aborted Big Numbers series. The original pages for the third issue were allegedly destroyed by the artist, Al Columbia, but the person who posted these scans (with Moore's blessing) bought photocopies of them off eBay earlier this year. [Update Apr 4/09: Based on further reading about these pages that I've since done, this work from the unpublished third issue may in fact have been done by Bill Sienkiewicz, with the still undiscovered fourth issue's artwork having been destroyed by Al Columbia. What a strange history that aborted series has!]

I haven't read them yet because... well, you don't just dive right in and imbibe in something that monumental on a lark... but I'm looking forward to enjoying them sometime in the next day or two. I've always been disappointed that Big Numbers never got finished, as the two issues published were incredibly interesting. Now at least I can see some of what was to have come next if only things had gone better.

Well, That's A Horse Of A Different Colour!

Spoilers for this week's episode of Lost follow! Stop reading now if you don't want to know what happened in "He's Our You"!

If we had had any concerns about whether Season Five, with all of its time-traveling adventures, was going to address the paradox question head on (and I certainly did!)... well, last night all of those worries were blown away, along with a 12 year old boy's future! (Of course, the island has been known to revive/repair people before, so I could be premature in my considerations about the fate of young Benjamin Linus.)

So... did Sayid just successfully change history in a very large way? After all, there are dozens, if not hundreds of Dharma followers who won't be purged with the help of a young-adult version of Ben if he's not around to offer that assistance. And of course, most of what happened to Flight 815's survivors was directed by an even older version of Mr Linus, who won't be around if he's killed as a pre-teen. In fact, since Sayid, at one point in the episode, refers to Benry as "a monster responsible for nothing short of genocide," our favourite Iraqi expatriate has essentially pulled off the classic time travel money shot: he's gone back in time and killed Hitler-as-a-boy! Now what's the world (or, in this case, the island) going to look like, as a result?

If nothing else, by next week (or so), we should have a much better idea of how the creative team behind Lost is planning to treat time travel. They've stopped skirting around the edges of it (at last!) and instead thrust it right out into the middle of the stage, for all to see... and talk about, for the next seven days!

One aspect of "He's Our You" last night was disappointing to me, and that was the fact that the bad blood between Sayid and Benry, that we'd previously seen evidence of without any explanation, seemed to have a pretty lame genesis. Sayid's pissed at him because Benry, the master manipulator, told him something about himself that he didn't want to face ("It's in your nature, it's what you are: you're a killer, Sayid")?! That's it?! Really? I guess I was expecting more, maybe something along the lines of Sayid figuring out that Benry was serving his own opaque agenda by getting Sayid to target men who weren't actually involved with Nadia's murder. What we got instead didn't seem to justify Sayid's antagonism toward him later, considering how tough Sayid is supposed to be and given that he knows Benry's a liar who twists words to suit his purpose.

On the flip side, I absolutely loved William Sanderson as the hands-off interrogator. He struck the perfect note in that role, and made some of Sayid's "confessions" all the wackier, considering how they were coerced!

And finally, those who follow "Doc" Jensen's Lost write-ups on Entertainment Weekly know that Lost's # 1 fanboy has had a theory for awhile that Season Four was some sort of twisted mirror image of Season Three, and that the same holds true for Seasons Five and Two. I've had my doubts about that idea, but last night's episode actually had me re-evaluating my stance on that. Why? Well, Sayid's flashback to the chicken-killing incident was eerily similar to what we learned about Eko's childhood early in Season Two, and of course the capture, imprisonment and interrogation of Sayid in "He's Our You" conjured up memories of Ben "Henry Gale" Linus in very much the same predicament later in that same sophomore season. Those could be coincidences or (worse) a sign of a writing staff recycling old ideas, but I'm now more inclined to think that Jensen's onto something and there's some sort of symmetry at work that actually means... well, I don't know! But it would be pretty cool if there was a reason behind it!

All in all, I thought last night's offering was better than the one the week before, and now I can't wait to see what next week brings!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Gotta Respect The Guy's Style

As far as resignation letters go, this one, by the (soon-to-be former) Executive Vice President of the AIG-Financial Products division, is pretty exceptional. The fact that he published it as an Op-Ed in the New York Times, as well as sending it to CEO Edward Liddy, gives it high marks to begin with. He also does a good job of delineating between those within that division who were responsible for the big losses (most of whom, he claims, "have left the company and have conspicuously escaped the public outrage") and the rest who were presumably behaving in a manner more consistent with a traditional insurance company. And in the letter itself, he publicly commits to donating all of the after-tax proceeds of his bonus to charitable organizations helping deal with the current crisis, which is a commendable action even if it was made largely involuntary by the developments of the past week.

It's good to hear another side of this AIG story. Now the folks with the pitchforks and torches just need to pick up Joseph Cassano, the former head of AIG-FP and the "brains" behind the credit default swap disaster there. I guess Cassano is somewhat ironically-named, since he seems to have run that operation like a gambling addict lost in a casino.

Biggish News In VideogameLand

At this week's Game Developers Conference, a new "cloud gaming" service called OnLive was unveiled. Basically, it's intended to make gaming consoles and those frequent PC upgrades a thing of the past by providing gaming services remotely. The idea is that you would actually run the games upon OnLive's high-end hardware (wherever they may keep it) and simply stream the video and audio to your computer directly, or to your TV screen by way of something called an OnLive microConsole (which feeds the AV inputs to the TV), all accomplished via your high-speed Internet connection. Input from you (keyboard, mouse and/or gamepad) would similarly travel to OnLive over the magic of the Internet, allowing you to control the game as you would locally.

It's definitely an interesting concept for those of us who tire of paying for new hardware every few years. But if you read the comments at the bottom of the article, you'll also get a sense of some of the less positive reactions to this news, including a lot of concerns around pricing models, performance capabilities when ISPs are tending to restrict network throughput more and more, and what a drag it would be to not be able to game at all if your Internet connection was down (or even just significantly sub-optimal). Proponents of the technology are already declaring console gaming to be dead as of the current generation, but personally I think that's very optimistic and extremely premature. A better viewpoint for the short term, I think, is that this new technology provides a new and potentially attractive option for those people who are more the casual gamers and really don't want to invest in hardware because they wouldn't use it enough to make it worthwhile.

Long term, though? Who knows!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Rolling Stone Perspective

A friend sent me this link to a Rolling Stone article on the financial crisis. Reading the 8-page write-up is certainly a depressing exercise, but it also looks very well-researched and so is probably not quite as "out there" as many of us would like to believe (for the sake of our future security, if for no other reason).

Make Your Donations Payable To...

As if getting water in the basement wasn't enough of a drag this Spring (and something that's apparently been happening quite a bit around these parts, from what I hear), it now looks like the pool liner has a leak in it. The water level under the winter blanket appears to be about 8 inches lower than it was when we closed the pool back in September. Last time that happened, we had to replace the liner at a cost of several thousands of dollars. If this is really the sort of thing that comes along twice every ten years (we've been in this house less than 11 years) then I'm going to have to re-think my stance on just how worthwhile it is to have a pool in the backyard.

Sigh.

"Hey, Paul Krugman"



This 100-second long ditty is actually pretty good and represents the feelings of a lot of people right now, I imagine.

(Via the Freakonomics blog.)

Monday, March 23, 2009

What The Other Grumpy Old Man Said

CNN's Jack Cafferty sums it up perfectly in an excerpt from his book! It's nice to know that I'm not the only crotchety old bastard who feels that parenting in the 21st century leaves a lot to be desired.

BSG Finale Leaves Too Many Questions Unanswered

Despite going out with a few impressive bangs, the series finale of Battlestar Galactica also did more than its fair share of whimpering. Spoilers ahead.

For me, the two best aspects of the finale were the battle between the two main camps (one composed of humans, human-looking Cylons, and traditional Cylons, while the other was the same minus the humans) and the definitive revelation that all of the events in the BSG series had taken place "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." There had been suspicions about that latter point throughout the history of both BSG TV series, but the writing staff delivered a very effective misdirection when they introduced a post-apocalyptic Earth (the original one, we now know) at the midpoint of the final season. I give them a lot of credit for pulling off that trick.

As for the big space confrontation, it was entertaining but also a bit confusing. Vicki pointed out that the human forces had painted red slashes across the front of the allied Centurion Cylon models, so as to make it easier to tell friend from foe, but then I kept seeing ones that didn't have the slash and yet were fighting for the good guys. Plus, at one point, the group that rescued Hera implied that they had "a plan" to get off the colony base ship which they didn't want Boomer to hear, and yet - as far as I could tell - that master stroke involved simply walking back to the Galactica (rammed, as it was, into the other ship) and then... jumping out of there, with no destination pre-programmed into the guidance system?! Yeah, nice plan, gang!

The more I thought about the episode after it was over, the more dissatisfied I became with how it all turned out. Among the items that weren't paid off for those fans who'd stuck with the show through a miniseries and four seasons:
  • Starbuck's "two body" situation was never explained, nor was the fact that she'd been seeing visions (and hearing music) ever since she was a child
  • we never really learned what plan the Cylons had had all along that apparently involved killing off 99.99% of the human population in an unprovoked display of genocide, despite it being referenced in dozens of episode openings
  • how was it that Caprica (# 6) and Gaius were still alive 150,000 years later?
  • with 38,000 "futurists" living among our primitive ancestors, how is that we still took so long to advance science and yet still ended up at virtually the same point as the original futurists (minus the jump technology)?
  • or, put another way: we're supposed to believe that these remnants of one human race ultimately met up with, and cross-bred with, another, unrelated strain of humanity, and 150,000 years later had somehow retained - or perhaps, reinvented - almost all of the same artifacts (right down to cigarettes and lighters), with the only major difference being that the 2nd incarnation decided not to chop off the corners of their papers?
  • while I thought that the explanation of the "opera house" dreams was kind of cool as it played out in the final episode , the more I pondered it, the less sense I could make of it based on how little meaning it actually held in the end (it was all undone by the Chief learning what Tori had done to Callie)
  • what does Hera being a Cylon/human hybrid mean to us, if she's our original ancestor? if we're all descended from her, how are we any different than the pure humans that we watched in the show?
I could go on and on, but that'll just piss Vicki off, who enjoyed the final half season of the show much more than I did.

I can't help but compare BSG to Babylon 5 - the benchmark for that sort of thing - and it came up quite short of that bar, in my estimation. Seeing the Cylon colony ship in the finale, looking so much like a B5 Shadow ship, reminded me of how it feels when a science fiction series promises big things early on and then delivers on them all. That was the B5 experience - and even a weak and watered down final season couldn't undo all the greatness of Seasons Three and Four because everything had been wrapped up by the time it arrived - whereas Battlestar Galactica under-delivered significantly on many of its promises. It could've been an outstanding series, but I think that in the end it was just a pretty good one. But then again, I'm notoriously hard on science fiction series!

What do the rest of the BSG fans out there think?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Great Finish To Round 2 Of March Madness

The 3 late games today, wrapping up the 2nd round of the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, were all terrific. Louisville (# 1 in their region, and ranked 1st overall) got all they could handle from # 9 Siena, including falling behind the underdogs by several points late in the game. They escaped the embarrassment of an early exit, but only just. Final score: Lou 79, Siena 72, but it was closer than that down the stretch.

Michigan State (# 2) versus USC (# 10) was incredible, with both teams looking like they belonged in the next round. It was tight right into the final minute, but the Spartans prevailed against the Trojans... wait, wasn't that battle thousands of years ago? Boy, I suck at history! Final score: MSU 74, USC 69

Another great finish involved # 3 Missouri against # 6 Marquette. Marquette pulled ahead late, and in fact at one point, the 3 underdogs in these games were all either tied or leading in the late stages of their contests! In the end, though, the favoured Mizz moved on to the next round. Final score: Miss 83, Marq 79.

When the 3rd round begins on Thursday, all of the teams ranked 1st, 2nd or 3rd in their region will be there. Two of the # 4 teams will join them, along with a # 5 (Purdue) and a # 12 (Arizona). That's one of the best looking Sweet Sixteen lineups I can remember, in terms of having a high percentage of the top teams taking part. While everyone enjoys a good upset, there's really nothing like watching the best of the best go head-to-head against each other on the tournament's 2nd weekend!

$234 Of Drug Store Shopping For $34

Vicki cashed in some points today at the drug store, taking advantage of a "Double Points Day" special that was going on over the weekend. That allowed us to get $200 of free stuff, almost all of which were things that we would've bought anyway. It's particularly handy, at times like this, that drug stores carry so much more than the traditional pharmacy fare. We picked up several items that I wouldn't have expected to find there a decade or two ago (like cereal, snacks and light bulbs) and that made pushing the total up over $200 a fairly easy task.

I've always loved saving money, but in the current economic climate it tickles me even more than normal!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Comedy In The Kitchen

Last night, in an attempt to give Vicki a break on the dinner-making front, I went well outside my comfort zone (i.e. into her kitchen). I took my best shot at having homemade chicken fingers ready for the oven by the time she got home from work. It was a good plan, with only one small glitch: the unlabeled bag of crumbs that I used, thinking that they were bread crumbs? Graham cracker crumbs!

Those were some (unintentionally and unnaturally) sweet-tasting chicken fingers! (I don't recommend that particular recipe variation, by the way.) You'd think I'd have learned by now to stay the Hell out of the kitchen!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Just When You Thought Bush Couldn't Look Any Worse

Thanks to economist Paul Krugman's blog, I saw this Washington Post article describing how various appointments to key positions in Iraq were made by the Bush Administration. Krugman brings it up in the context of how conservatives tend to use their own failures in government to prove that government doesn't work (talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!). It's something that's been happening more and more during the early days of Obama's presidency, with the response to Katrina and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being the most commonly-offered examples.

Reading the Post article, it's easy to see how the Iraq occupation has turned into the disaster that it has. It sounds like people were screened not for necessary skills or experience, but rather for loyalty to Bush/Cheney and idealogical leanings. Consider this section:

"A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance -- but had applied for a White House job -- was sent to reopen Baghdad's stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget, even though they didn't have a background in accounting."

Readers may sometimes wonder why I make such a big deal out of the fact that Obama is at least trying to find the best people for each position... well, wonder no more!

Just Saw My First "Bailout" Commercial

There certainly may have been others before this, but then again I don't normally watch the ads.

Today I happened to be slow in hitting the FastForward button during the buffered NCAA coverage and thus caught a commercial in which Domino Pizza's CEO Dave Brandon announces a "big taste bailout" special deal with the U.S. Capitol in the background. He plays to his audience by taking a pizza away from an older man, saying he's "not bailing out the fat cats on Wall St - sorry Mr Hedge Fund!" but rather "you hard-working people on Main St" as he hands it to a much younger John Q. Public.

Geez, not too suck-uppity, eh!? As a CEO, he should just count his lucky stars that no one took him out of the game for good while he was out in the open filming that little bit of nonsense!

I must say that my pick for "2008 Word of the Year" is still going strong in 2009!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Secret Of Colbert

I absolutely loved the following bit of insight into The Colbert Report, as provided by Neil Gaiman, over on his blog, after he appeared on the show earlier this week:

"Before the show, Stephen Colbert said hello, shook hands and told me what I am sure he tells every guest, that his character is an idiot, and to be passionate and make my points regardless."

That explains so much about why the various guests react the way they do on that program. They mostly laugh at Stephen's ridiculous comments, but the occasional guest will seem to become a bit indignant about them... as one does at times, even when one knows that one is dealing with an idiot! I still personally prefer The Daily Show to The Colbert Report, but the latter is growing on me, over time. And Jon Stewart does set a pretty freakin' high bar, after all!

I also learned from that same blog post that Colbert "spun off from The Daily Show"... I did not know that!

Wednesday Comics: Great Idea Or Stupid Stunt?

DC Comics just unveiled the weekly series to follow Trinity, which fans have been wondering about for months now. It's called Wednesday Comics (after the day of the week that new comics go on sale) and it features single-page strips for a whole slew of characters printed in a newspaper-like format (measuring 14" x 20", for cryin' out loud!). You can read all about it here if you're interested in more details. It sounds like 16 features, each 1 page long, running for 12 installments over 12 weeks. If I'm interpreting that right, then it's only 16 pages long (plus ads, potentially) which is pretty short... but of course, with the larger page size, it could be equivalent to a 32-page comic in terms of how much actual real estate is involved (especially if the strips are designed to take advantage of the bigger area).

I give DC a lot of credit for experimenting in this way, regardless of how it all works out in the end. There's a certain strange irony to one print format in danger of obsolescence deciding to mimic another one that's clearly in its death throes, but nevertheless... At 12 issues, I'm more likely to try it and potentially even stick with it than I would be with another 52-issue run like Countdown or Trinity (the former of which I should have given up on, the latter of which I did). Of course, if they price it too aggressively then I still might not bite. $2.99 might be reasonable if it looks intelligently laid out; $3.99 or more probably makes it a "pass" for me.

Storing a comic series that's printed in newspaper format offers its own challenges, but I'm not going too far down that path just yet. [Update Mar 20/09: Something I read today seemed to imply that the issues will be comic-sized until you unfold them to the larger dimensions. If true, then the storage issue goes away.] I'm more interested in hearing what it'll cost, who will be working on which characters, and what it will look like. It's definitely provided a lot of comic fans their big "Huh?" moment for the month, though! And that's not a bad thing, in this case.

Enough With The Snow, Already!

As I type these words, it's snowing outside my window. I don't know that we'll get very much, or that it will stick around very long, but nevertheless: it's snowing!

Just one of the reasons why this development sucks so badly is that we've now had six consecutive months (Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb, Mar) in which we've gotten snow. It's not supposed to work that way! If it starts early (as it did this past autumn, with the white stuff arriving for good in early Nov) then it's supposed to finish early! That just doesn't seem to be happening this year...

A Sports Championship In Its Purest Form

In recent years, I've become increasingly interested in the NCAA March Madness tournament for Men's Basketball in the U.S. I don't really follow the NCAA results throughout the season, but once the tournament-of-64 starts, both Vicki and I tend to become big fans.

One of the reasons for that, I think, is the format that they use. It's 64 teams, across 4 brackets. Each bracket has 16 teams in it, ranked 1st through 16th. In the 1st round (which starts in about 2 hours from right now), the following occurs in each bracket:
  • # 16 plays # 1
  • # 15 plays # 2
  • # 14 plays # 3
  • ...
  • # 9 plays # 8
I love the perfect symmetry of that setup. (Recently, the # 64 overall position is determined by having a pre-tournament match between the 64th and 65th placed teams, as a bit of a lead-in to the round-of-64 itself.)

Also, each game will have a winner and a loser (using short overtime periods, if needed), and each winner will advance, while each loser goes home. By the 2nd round, there will be 32 teams, and then 16 for the 3rd round, 8 for the 4th round, "the final 4" make it to the 5th round, and then two teams play for the championship in the Final (i.e. the 6th round). Computer geeks and fans of binary counting systems in general can't help but hail such a beautiful structure! Because of this arrangement, every single game matters. Although no # 16 team has ever beaten a top seed (and, therefore, no # 16 team has ever advanced to the 2nd round), there have been several instances of # 15 upsetting # 2. Imagine the shame of such a fate if your team was considered one of the best in the country and you didn't make it out of the 1st round!

Pretty much the only thing I don't like about the way the tournament is structured is that they don't re-arrange and re-assign the teams after each round. What I mean by that is that I wish they would take whatever teams survive, put them in order within their bracket (highest seed to lowest seed) and then determine the next round's matchups by pitting the top against the bottom, and so on. They don't do that, but instead set the matchups ahead of time (eg. the winner of the 1-vs-16 game will play the winner of the 8-vs-9 game, the winner of the 2-vs-15 game will play the winner of the 7-vs-10 game, and so on). Now, there are good reasons for that approach, including reducing travel for the (university) teams involved. But I also suspect that another contributing rationale is to facilitate the "March Madness Pools" that spring up all over, and as a non-gambler myself that doesn't carry a lot of weight with me! At any rate, I don't like the fact that a highly ranked team sometimes gets a tougher opponent (on paper, at least) than a lower ranked team gets, in the 2nd round. To see how this might happen, imagine that # 15 beat # 2 in the 1st round. Instead of then having to face # 1, that # 15 team will draw the winner of the 7-vs-10 game, while the # 3 team (assuming that it made it out of the 1st round) could end up playing # 11. In that scenario, # 1 got screwed (playing # 8, in comparison to # 3 drawing # 11) and # 15 got off easy. I'd prefer to see # 15 have to take on # 1 as that just seems more fair to me.

Anyway, it should be another interesting tournament. Looking at some stats this morning, I see that, over the 24 years in which they've had 64 contestants in the 1st round, the # 8 teams have actually lost more opening round games than the # 9 teams have (by a difference of about 8%)! # 12 is also not a terrible place to be, as fully 1/3 of those teams have managed to pull off what is really quite an impressive upset by beating their much higher-ranked opponents at the # 5 spot.

The "Try And..." Epidemic

In my never-ending quest to document every single human foible that gets under my skin, here's the latest...

While I realize that we often say things like, "I'll try and be there on time", what we're really saying is "I'll try to be there on time." In fact, the first version doesn't even convey the same meaning, if you actually parse it out. The "and be there on time" portion sounds like a commitment is being made, whereas the whole point of the statement is that there exists some doubt as to whether it'll actually happen (it's mostly about the "trying" part).

Now, hearing that sort of thing spoken (even coming from my own lips), is no big deal to me. Who doesn't adopt all kinds of weird slang and examples of laziness in the immediacy of verbal communication, after all? But when I see it in writing, it's disappointing... especially so when I see it in places where I'd expect them to know better. Take this recent entry on the White House Blog, for example:

"A reminder about why we are here to try and undo some of the fiscal mess that we are in."

Setting aside the fact that the sentence isn't a complete thought (it sort of works because it further elaborates on a point from the previous sentence), why in the world would someone in the Office of Public Liaison write up a press release and include the words "try and undo"? Is the education system in the U.S. really that bad? What kind of message does that provide to the people reading those words? I expect better from someone in Obama's administration, personally.

(If you page down at that White House link, by the way, you'll see a picture of a woman named "Buffy." I kid you not!)

More Half-Life 2 Fun!



About a month ago, I posted some thoughts about a Half-Life 2 video that had caught my eye. Well, here's another one (spotted thanks to N4G) that's apparently part of a wider Half Life 2 viral campaign (you can read a bit more about it here). I love the crap out of stuff like this, and I hope some of the readers of this blog do, too!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Guess A Lot Of People Saw Only Sunny Days

As I read more and more about the economy these days, one pattern that I see, over and over in many of the sad tales that are being told, is the "nothing but blue sky" outlook that seemed to enthrall a lot of people. In Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity by Michael Lewis, there's example after example of individuals who were riding high in one way or another and then had their lives turned upside down when the wave finally crashed. As just one example out of many, there's the real estate agent in Florida who made $800,000 in one incredibly good year, but who is now virtually destitute. As his income had gone up, over several years, he just kept increasing his standard of living at an even faster pace. What kind of dementia possesses people that can cause them to think that just because things are going well now that they'll continue to do so forever? From the sounds of it, many of these folks changed their lifestyles to not just use up their newfound fortunes, but actually to exceed them (under the assumption that their income would grow by another 25% - 50% in each future year, I guess).

If I learned nothing else from growing up poor, it's this: Good times rarely last! We had a few years in my childhood where my mother had re-married and my new step-father had a good career as a self-employed electrician. For several years we actually went places during school vacation, had relatively new vehicles to ride around in, and didn't have to worry about where the next meal was going to come from (the kitchen cupboards were always full!). But even that luxurious period ran its course, and by the time I hit Grade 6 it was just my mother and I living in a 2-bedroom apartment and having all the old concerns to deal with once again. I was personally glad to be rid of the cranky old ass, but the financial downside was considerable.

Because of those experiences, I'm predisposed to expect the worst, even when fortunes are flying high. After all, you never know when the next rainy day is going to be, nor how long the downpour's going to last. So is the main reason that more people don't live within their means as simple as: they've never gone through an extended stretch of bad times? Or is there something in our nature that makes some people just naturally optimistic? There are certainly a lot of truly heart-breaking stories out there in the world right now, but I have little or no sympathy for that portion of the population who "had it all" and only now are realizing that they actually pissed it all away.

Whatever Happened To The American Dream?

If nothing else, the events of the last several months have accomplished one thing: they've revealed to the general public (including your Humble Blogger) just how screwed up the world of finance really is.

Until recently, most of us have been able to go about our daily lives under the delusion that banks and insurance companies are tight with their money, careful to the point of absurdity about what chances they'll take, and about as exciting as a sink full of dishwater. The fact that technology companies, in the late 90s, were burning through venture capital at alarming rates - paying for SuperBowl ads, hosting huge and extravagant parties, establishing eye-popping perks for their executives (and, sometimes, employees) - wasn't a big shock to too many people, when it all came out in the days following the Tech Bust. But learning that members of the staid, conservative financial industry were acting like drunken, Vegas tourists with their 35-to-1 debt-to-asset leverages? That they were lending money to anyone with a pulse? That they were creating innovative new vehicles for bundling up those debts and selling them off to any sucker who'd buy them? Geez! What stereotype is going to fall next? Computer geeks are suddenly considered "hotties" by the rest of the planet?!

I have no idea at this point whether anything good will come of all this. I'd like to believe that we've all now learned our lesson, and that the next decade will be marked by hard work, sound investing principles and a commitment to selflessness, instead of selfishness. But I kind of doubt it. For all the damage done by the shenanigans leading up to Bailout Madness 2008/09, there was still a sizable minority of that work force who received (and continue to receive) kings' ransoms for their twisted efforts. What that probably means is that the future will simply hold more of the same: more individuals looking for an angle, searching for the best way to game the system, itching to make "money for nothing" and get their "chicks for free." That seems to be what drives the machine anymore, which is really sad for the rest of us who still believe in an honest day's pay for an honest day's work.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hmmmmm

Some days I seem to have a lot to say (see: yesterday's posts) and other days...

... not so much!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wealth Re-Distribution

Ever since the late stages of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, conservatives of all shapes and sizes have worked tirelessly to tar him with the label of "socialist" and to suggest that he's secretly in favour of wealth re-distribution. This tactic has, in addition to further boosting sales of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, worked to stir up all kinds of fears in the American public. To which I say: What the Hell do you think has been going on up 'til now? Wealth's been getting re-distributed at an alarming rate for at least the past decade. It's just all been going the other way!

One symptom of the re-distribution is the widening of the gap between the upper and lower income classes in the U.S. as well as the shrinking of the middle class. That sort of thing speaks volumes about where the money has been going, and here's a clue: it ain't been trickling down!

Next, consider the large volumes of money that disappeared out of millions of Americans' 401(k) plans over the past six months. None of that cash actually evaporated, as much as it may have seemed that way to the account holders. Instead, it went to the executives of the corporations, investment banks, legal firms and other entities that made out like bandits with their multi-million dollar bonus plans of every variety imaginable (including my favourite: the practice of giving incredibly generous payouts to CEOs of failing organizations in order to get them out of there!). In general, it went to the people who Jon Stewart called out last week as being on the inside track of the "other kind of market" that exists alongside the long-term, simplistic view that the rest of us have always held: invest your money wisely, leave it there for years, reap a reasonable return over time and retire on it. While we've been doing that, blissfully ignorant of the real game, a small portion of the population has been lined up at the trough, gorging themselves on huge salaries, perks and bonuses every chance they get. Now that's wealth re-distribution!

In fact, I'd hazard a guess that more money is currently in the hands of fewer people than ever before, in America (and elsewhere). When President Obama says he plans to increase taxes (by letting Bush's tax cuts expire) on families that make more than $250,000, he's talking about a very small percentage of the country. But those at the very top of the pyramid are richer than ever, and the rest of us are all proportionately poorer. If Obama's plan is to reverse that trend, even in the smallest way, then why in the world would the lower 95% of the population do anything but celebrate? Why would Republicans intoning "wealth re-distribution" sound bites be anything other than a long-overdue, welcome breath of fresh air to those who've been pushed further and further down in order to provide bigger and bigger payouts to the few at the top? That's what I don't get. When are people going to wise up and realize that wealth has been getting re-distributed for ages, and so maybe it's time to send a little bit of it in the opposite direction for a change?

Obama On Leno This Thursday

(Get your mind out of the gutter!)

Before handing his gig over to Conan O'Brien sometime later this year, Jay Leno will make history: on Thursday of this week, the first ever late night talk show appearance by a sitting president will occur on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno as Barack Obama is scheduled to show up and discuss his thoughts on the Watchmen movie and how it differed from the comic series. Or possibly the economy.

Although, given Obama's self-proclaimed love of Conan the Barbarian comic books, you'd think he'd have waited until The Tonight Show had changed hosts so that he could do the interview with TV's famous Conan...

Some Watchmen Background

I had one commenter to this earlier Watchmen post request that I provide more details on what facets of the Watchmen comic series made it so great, and another ask about whether the "superheroes" in it actually do anything... well, heroic!

I can't really even imagine taking on that first challenge (although others have tried) but the question about the lack of heroism in the story is quite an interesting one. And maybe in tackling the one, I'll incidentally give at least an inkling of the other.

My take on the comic series has always been that writer Alan Moore set out to provide, in excruciating detail, what he thought "superheroes in the real world" might be like. One of the first things he did toward that end was to do away with many of the by-then standard conventions that allow superhero comic books to work. For example: most comic readers, once they reach a certain age, begin to ask, "What would I really do if I got superpowers?" Rarely is the answer, "I'd fight crime and never abuse my responsibility!" (Instead, we imagine using X-Ray Vision to see inside the girls' change room, or being able to read minds so that we could get perfect scores on all of our tests.) And yet, that nobility-of-intention is exactly what we have to accept about Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and the rest. It's a suspension of disbelief that's necessary if you're to buy into the concept of the genre itself.

Not so in Watchmen, though. Moore didn't supply idealized versions of humanity in the various costumes, but rather very ordinary folks. Some are in it for the kicks, some just because they like to beat the crap out of other people, and some because they felt like they had no choice (eg. Laurie giving in to her mother's ambitions for her, much like an offspring being pressured by a parent into pursuing a career in ballet or dentistry). Only Dr Manhattan has any superpowers whatsoever, and therefore his arrival on the scene eventually kills the costumed adventurer "gig" for most of them. But up until that point, it's just a cross section of human foibles under the masks, like you'd expect to get if real people decided to join that fraternity.

Therefore, while a few of the guys and gals in tights do some good, it's generally a very mixed bag in that regard. The Comedian is almost completely amoral, as you can probably tell even from his actions in the film version. Rorschach is at the other end of the spectrum, to the point where his skewed and somewhat super-charged morality overides any sense of balance or compassion in his assessments of those around him. Everyone else is somewhere in between those two extremes. The fact that Dr Manhattan thoughtlessly tosses Janey Slater aside as she gets older (while he remains unchanging in that regard) shows that, even as he increasingly loses touch with humanity, he's still imprinted with some of the failings that afflict us all. Ozymandias does what he does in the story for the noblest of reasons, however misguided they may be. Nite Owl's a good, honourable man, but is also unwilling to fight the good fight once it becomes too difficult. In other words, they're all just people.

When you look at the characters in Watchmen in that light, then you see that it's not your typical superhero drama, despite the familiar trappings of costumes, fist fights and gadgets. And that's a huge part of the appeal of the comic series, which has never been out of print in over 20 years now (there are probably no other 12-issue comic series that you could say that of). The events in Watchmen fly in the face of expectations, as well as being layered in a way that even many novelists will never achieve in their work. What we got in the film version was a reasonably good, well-intentioned slice of that genius... but to really experience and appreciate Watchmen, you need to read the original. Even there, though, you won't find many "heroes" doing the usual "heroic stuff" that we've all grown accustomed to reading about in comic book form.

Why The Jon Stewart Vs Jim Cramer "Event" Was Important

It's tempting to write off last week's furiously-hyped confrontation between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer as just another publicity stunt or a simple grab for ratings. What I think some of the viewers of that segment of The Daily Show are missing, though, is that those two gentlemen actually held a vitally relevant conversation that's been going on in offices, bars and households across North America over the past several months. They did it without yelling at each other, without falling back into the easy comfort of "talking points" (as so often happens on news programs), and with just enough humour thrown in to make it entertaining without diluting their various points. Yes, Cramer walked into the ring and capitulated almost fully from the opening bell, but he also provided at least a few of the arguments that we can expect CEOs and other enablers of the credit boom/bust to use in their defense.

Between that "TV event" (which had more substance than we normally get on the Tube) and the rising tsunami of anger over the AIG bonus payout (especially in light of a vast amount of the reward money flowing into the business unit responsible for the credit disaster), there's a feeling right now reminiscent of fictional Howard Beale's "Mad as hell" speech in the film, Network. What I sense isn't the usual resignation that goes along with these indignities - yeah, it all sucks, but what are you gonna do? - but rather an expectation that something has to be done about it this time. Whether that's actually borne out or not, it's too early to say. I don't know that we'll truly see any improvements in how the business world is held accountable in the future, but - if nothing else - at least there's a huge appetite for it at the moment and the right sort of person in the White House to make it a strong possibility. And if enough of the Jon Stewarts out there make sufficient noise about it, maybe... just maybe... change really will come to America!

Thanks to AgileBoy, I can provide links to the uncut clips from The Daily Show for Canadian readers: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. There's a lot more content there than made it onto the edited version that aired on Thursday night. So you should really check it out.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The New Face Of Terror

Edward Liddy, the Chairman of AIG... also known as the man behind the latest ransom demand being made against the U.S.

The Power Of Overreaction In Action

Thanks to Neil Gaiman on Twitter, I learned of this development in the United States: thanks to a law passed last year in reaction to the lead-based Chinese toy scare, used book sellers and thrift stores are no longer allowed to sell childrens' books printed before 1985! Many of them, in fact, are throwing out their entire stock of such items, rather than risk fines of up to $100,000 or time in jail. If that seems inconceivable (or like something out of Fahrenheit 451), then I encourage you to go read the article and try not to let your jaw hit the floor as you do so.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Off To A Second Viewing Of Watchmen Today

The current plan is for the three of us (including visiting Tammy) to take in a matinee showing of Watchmen today. Both Vicki and I want to see it again, and Tammy's looking forward to her first viewing.

So now we'll see how it holds up on a second pass.

Full Plate, Or Spinning Plates?

One of the strategies of the American conservative groups lately - whether that be members of the rapidly-unraveling Republican party, or right-leaning media outlets like Fox News - has been to stir up fears that President Obama is trying to take on too much. If this were coming from people who might actually be concerned for his well-being or the welfare of their country, as opposed to the segment of the population whose defacto leader has repeatedly stated publicly that he "wants Obama to fail", then a reasonable person might have to give it some credence. However, it's pretty clear when you look at the contexts in which this latest protest meme has been raised that all it really represents is an attempt to slow Obama down as he works tirelessly to undo all of the damage George W. Bush caused to the U.S. over the past eight years. Conservatives don't think the President should be "adding to his already full plate" by re-empowering Science in general and stem cell research specifically. Really? How shocking! They're visibly and vocally apprehensive that Obama may be overloading himself by making noises about looking at carbon cap-and-trade initiatives to fight Climate Change. Wow! Who could have guessed that Republicans would react that way?

One of the saddest aspects of all this is that it once again showcases the hypocrisy that's epidemic within the party that had no problem with the last Commander-in-Chief starting up two wars at the same time as he systematically rolled back civil liberties and the advance of Science. Somehow they didn't have a problem with any of that happening simultaneously, even as it became increasingly apparent that Bush was largely incompetent at whatever tasks he undertook.

And maybe that's a contributing factor here. Eight years of sheer incompetence in the White House has probably left many Americans with the impression that their President really can't do very many things at once. Hence the "full plate" argument may actually resonate with more people than you'd expect. What's missing in that perspective, though, is the difference that competence and effective delegation make in a leader. George W. Bush had suffered on both fronts, including the fact that many of his critics viewed him as the delegate, taking his marching orders from Dick Cheney in his "undisclosed location" somewhere. Wherever tasks were handed down from Bush (or from Bush-via-Cheney), they were almost always dished off to some crony of the President's who'd been given a position based on favour-currying or political ideology. That's an excellent recipe for toadyism but not a very good one for success. As the results showed.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has consistently attempted to put the best person for the job into each position. He's certainly stumbled with some of his nominees (usually on income tax-related fronts) but in each case, the person's qualifications have seemed to be uppermost in the President's mind. His early anti-lobbyist provision demonstrated a clear break from the Bush approach of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse when it came to appointees. If he can get the right people into each role, then it goes from a full plate scenario to one of spinning plates.

A really good plate spinner can keep a lot of them going all at once, up on the ends of their little sticks, because he sets each in motion with a strong twist, and then moves on to the next one, only occasionally coming back to check on those already in motion (and sometimes to give them another bit of energy). Some will need more attention than others, but generally he can keep half a dozen or more going at the same time by carefully rationing out his time between them, according to need.

The best executives in companies work the same way. They hire excellent people below them, who in turn do the same thing again, and pretty soon you've got an organization with a hard-working, inspirational visionary at the top and a dedicated, energized group of people working with their leader to make that shared vision a reality. That's what I see when I watch and listen to Barack Obama lately. I don't see someone who's overwhelmed or at his wit's end, no matter how hard the conservatives try to paint that picture in everyone's minds. I see a man who knows what's needed to fix his sick country and is determined to get the best possible assistance in bringing his plan to fruition.

In this week's address, President Obama announces a couple of appointments related to food and drug safety in the U.S.. Will this cause a new chorus of "he should only be fixing the economy right now!" from the Right? Who knows, and who cares? It's just one more plate for him, and he's already starting it off with a good, strong twist.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Gradually Souring On Killzone 2 Multiplayer

Two weeks after receiving the game in the mail, I'm already starting to lose my affection for the online portion of Killzone 2. I've had too many bad experiences there, including such frustrations as:
  • running out of ammo and having to rely on the not-very-powerful pistol (although, at least it comes with infinite ammo!)
  • not being able to find a controller setting (including the X- and Y-axis sensitivities) that I can use without giving away countless "easy kills" to other players thanks to the controls working against me at the worst possible times
  • the annoyance of running out of ammo, getting critically wounded by an enemy, and then being revived by a Medic teammate, still with no ammo, only to immediately get hit again by the same enemy... result: 2 deaths for me with no real chance at scoring any kills!
  • no ability to default to "spawn me automatically, same place as last time" so that I don't have to press the same damn buttons every time I die (and for whatever reason, I often seem to have to press them multiple times, because the first action gets ignored)
  • not being able to access the various classes until I've leveled up significantly, which is probably going to keep me from even sticking with the game long enough to get there
Now, I'm still loving the Single Player Campaign, and I expect to finish it before putting the game away. But I'm very near to giving up on the multiplayer side of Killzone 2.

Fortunately, I've also started F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin on the 360 and like it a lot. So now at least I can get my variety of gameplay without having to work away at something that's just not proving to be very fun.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Great Quote From Obama

Reading over a very lengthy transcript of President Obama's remarks to the Business Roundtable in Washington today, I came across the following:

"Look, the budget document that we put forward is a 10-year document. We are, like any organization -- just like all of yours, we have to do long-term planning even as we're addressing short-term issues. If we don't do the long-term planning, then we end up having more short-term issues again and again and again and again."

In my long, mental list of what to look for in great leadership, "the ability to think strategically while beset by endless tactical challenges" is right up there. Too often I've worked with and for people who can only see the current or next crisis - because there are always so many of them - and who don't seem to realize that, if you never do anything except deal with the fires burning under your feet, there are always going to be more of them flaring up to replace the ones that you just put out. It's an endless cycle that I've observed playing out too many times in my career.

It's very encouraging indeed to learn that the most powerful leader in the world understands that dynamic and is doing everything he can to ensure that he doesn't fall victim to it.

Cramer Vs Not-Cramer

For those who don't know, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart has quite the feud going on right now with CNBC (in general) and Mad Money host Jim Cramer (in particular). It's been a lot of fun to watch, and it just keeps getting better!

It started last week when Stewart took the self-proclaimed "financial network" to task for mindlessly promoting the stock market in the days leading up to the meltdown, including the fact that they seem incapable of asking CEOs any of the hard questions. It was the trading floor rant of CNBC's Rick Santelli that initially set Stewart off (on March 4th). When Santelli referred to home owners as "losers" who should have known that the market was going to tank, Stewart responded by showcasing a series of CNBC clips in which representatives of the network assured the viewing audience that everything was fine, all of the beleaguered companies were actually healthier than people were letting on, and generally shilled for the CEOs with whom they were always getting cosy, while the stock market crashed around them. My favourite quote by Stewart during that segment: "Wow! If I'd only followed CNBC's advice, I'd have a million dollars today... provided I'd started with a hundred million dollars! How do they do it?"

Next, Stewart attacked Jim Cramer for his support of Bear Stearns, showing the Mad Money host promoting the company, and its stock, mere weeks before it went bankrupt. Cramer responded by going on various talk shows and claiming that he'd been taken out of context, and then Stewart provided even more examples, with even greater context.

All of this has been building up to tonight's episode of The Daily Show, on which Jim Cramer is now scheduled to appear. I can hardly wait!

For a good article by someone else who "gets" what CNBC does, check this out.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Did The Watchmen Movie Work?

I've already posted my initial review of the film over at The Studio Has A Few Notes. I gave it 3 and a half stars out of 4, which is certainly not a bad score by any means. But that was my reaction to it, coming at it from a very specific perspective: how much did it live up to my expectations, based on a fairly thorough familiarity with the original source material.

What about those who went into it cold? Did most walk out confused or disappointed (considering the hype that had built up around it over the past month)? Or did they have a hoot and want to go back and see it a second time?

I've read some reviews that suggest that the plot doesn't make a lot of sense, but that's hard for me to rationalize because I personally thought that, if anything, it was dumbed down for a movie audience. Let's see if I can recap it, at a high level, without drawing on anything that wasn't on the screen (or giving away any major spoilers):
  • The main story's set in 1985 on an Earth where Nixon's still president and the U.S. won the Vietnam War thanks to a superpowered blue guy named Dr Manhattan who vapourized the Viet Cong just by pointing at them
  • Because the U.S. has Dr Manhattan and the Soviet Union doesn't, the USSR is building up a huge cache of nuclear weapons and rattling their sabres by invading Afghanistan (causing fears to mount that World War III is imminent)
  • Somebody's apparently killing masked vigilantes, even ones that had been forced into retirement because of a law passed in 1977 banning them from operating
  • The aforementioned Dr Manhattan leaves Earth in a huff after allegations are made that he unwittingly gave those closest to him cancer
  • The only remaining vigilante operating outside the law, Rorschach, tries to investigate the murder of another hero (The Comedian) but in the process gets framed for a crime he didn't commit and sent to prison (where many of the convicts hate him because he put them there)
  • Two retired heroes, Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre (each the second to bear those names), decide to come out of retirement, bust Rorschach out of the stir, and determine who's doing the killing before they're knocked off themselves
  • The climax brings all of those pieces together, along with a few more, and reveals who was doing the killing, why, and how
I don't know... that doesn't really read like an enigma wrapped in a puzzle to me. But then again, some people complained that Pulp Fiction and Memento were impenetrable to them, in terms of plot, and I thought each was relatively easy to follow. Watchmen certainly isn't as accessible as, say, a typical action flick.

Another complaint I've heard is that there are too many characters, and too many flashbacks. That one I can see somewhat. In the comic series, Moore and Gibbons were generally pretty careful about how they introduced new cast members, typically providing either a bridging (existing) character as the reader's entryway or through the use of (unclunky) expository dialogue. Movements through time were often accomplished by tricks like repeating the same shot of a particular face over two panels, but with the backdrop changing from one to the next. That's something that you can do quite economically in a comic format (for the cost of two panels on pages that typically had nine of them) but I'm not sure from my single viewing whether it was carried forward into the movie. I do remember following the timeline quite easily, even back in 1986, but then again: with a comic, you can flip back to earlier pages quite easily, whereas you don't have that VCR-like capability as a theatre audience member. Perhaps, like some of the best films, repeated viewings are really required to slide every single piece into place in your head, but was it really that difficult the first time through to follow what was going on well enough to avoid getting lost? I'm the wrong one to judge.

Finally, there's been great concern in the comic blogosphere that Watchmen demands a thorough familiarity with the genre in order to understand, on account of it being essentially a deconstruction of that artform. On this one, I have to call, "Bullshit!" As with the comic itself, there are various degrees of entertainment and satisfaction that can be derived from the work, and not everyone's going to come away with all of them (or even most of them). That's true of lots of great works of art, though. I can appreciate the Mona Lisa as a layman of the fine arts (and I have, each time I've seen it) but I do so even without the advantage of seeing it through the eyes of someone more attuned to that sort of thing. In the same way, I think there's a straight-forward story involving men and women in tights that anyone with a pulse should be able to enjoy in Watchmen. If you don't get many of its subtler visual references because you're never read a Golden Age or Silver Age comic, that's OK; if you don't recognize Rorschach as a commentary on the thin line between various forms of mental illness that many of the Batman-like superheroes have always walked, you don't have to; and if Dr Manhattan seems like just a weird bald guy with a blue dong who's got some amazing powers, you still picked up enough to "get" it. Sure, there's lots more going on than that, but so what? To some people, Romeo & Juliet's just a play about a couple of mixed up teenagers. There's nothing wrong with that. As long as it tells you a story and you get something out of it, you got your money's worth.

Having said all that, I'd most definitely love to hear from some of the readers of this blog - especially those who've never read the comic - as to how the film played for them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Just 8% Shy Of 50

Having reached the lofty age of 46 today (that's only 8.25 in dog years!!), I have to say that there continues to be no upside to getting older.

I did, however, score a new video game today (F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin), a new bike lock, some BBQ utensils and a new (old) comic from the Silver Age of comics. OK, so maybe at least birthday's still have some upside! The rest of it's all a Ponzi scheme, with each of us getting lower and lower on the pyramid every year.

The Numbers Don't Lie

If you like looking at numbers (as I do), and you're morbidly fascinated by the current economic crisis (as I am), then you'll really enjoy this article that examines actual data around the housing bubble-and-bust that kicked off the mess that President Obama has inherited. The data is sourced predominantly from the U.S. Federal Reserve, so it's not like the columnist is just making the numbers up.

Particularly interesting to me was the Housing Index chart (below), which shows 20 big U.S. cities and how their housing prices changed from the start of 2000 through 2003, 2006 and 2008. Each city's original entry for Jan-00 is benchmarked at 1.0, representing the value of a $100,000 house at that time:



Imagine having bought a home in Phoenix in the summer of 2006, paying $460,000 for it only to have it now be worth $240,000. Or having paid off a million dollar home in San Diego that now might bring in $600,000, if you're lucky. (Also note how cities like Cleveland and Dallas experienced almost no change in their real estate values over that 9-year period.)

The entire article's worth a read, as it provides a whole lot of background and context, and destroys some of the more common myths. Four key points are highlighted near the end:

"1. The mortgage problem has reached a magnitude that dwarfs the amounts of money spent elsewhere in the government sector. Dismissing the bailout as a "big government program" misses the point, given the amounts at stake in terms of global financial stability.

2. The mortgage problem extends far beyond subprime borrowers. Many prime borrowers now have negative equity in their homes.

3. The subprime problem reached a critical mass between 2003 and 2006, when the Republicans controlled the White House and Congress and did nothing. If you suggest that both parties are comparably deserving of blame, you are ignoring the salient data. [The well is also poisoned by the Swiftboating of prominent Democrats, such as Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, who fought hard to address the issue in the face of Republican footdragging.]

4. The rise in subprime lending from 2003 onward was not driven by government policies designed to make home ownership more affordable to low-income Americans or to stop redlining by banks. It was driven by innovative mortgage products, such as interest-only or negative amortization loans, and by the rise in the market for private label mortgage securities. Most subprime mortgages were not used for new home purchases."

Bold Predictions You Can Bank On

One week from today, on St. Patrick's Day, the U.S. President will be referred to in various news outlets, as "Barack O'Bama".

You read it here first...

Vicki's The One Wearing The Pants In This Household

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Vicki had landed a two-week "kick the tires" contract to do some Business Analysis work with a local company. To the surprise of no one in this house, she did well enough that they've signed her up for work right through to the end of September.

We learned about that last Friday, which was also the day that I closed off two different avenues of potential employment for myself. I had two phone calls, each of which was intended to be the first tentative steps toward possibly getting some contract work if I was a good fit, and vice versa. You read that right: two calls, on the same day, after not having anything of that sort happen over the past seven months!

Anyway, both were for out-of-town positions, and neither was really what I'm looking for at the moment. The prospect of a commute would be OK in the service of a really interesting assignment; doing a contract that wasn't all that appealing at some local office could be acceptable for awhile. But combining the two downsides just didn't seem to have enough upside for me. Therefore I recused myself in each case, in the process ensuring that I'd extend my current unemployment streak even further.

Was that the right thing to do? I really don't know at this point. I suppose only time, the job market, and the faltering stock market that keeps eating our RRSPs will tell in the long run!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Books I'm Currently Reading (March 2009 Edition)

Two months ago, I listed the six (yes, 6!) books that I was reading at the time. I've since finished all of them, including the pesky Kim Stanley Robinson novel that I'd gotten stuck in, and also knocked off Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things, a collection of short stories and poems by Mr G.

My reading list is smaller at the moment, but still multi-faceted:

You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathem Lethem - Yet another Lethem novel, but why the heck not when he keeps refusing to let me down? This one is a little hard to gauge early on but so far I'm enjoying it. Lucinda, one of the main characters, works in a Complaint Call Centre that isn't actually affiliated with any organization, nor does it limit in any way what its callers can complain about... which is kind of intriguing!

Panic by Michael Lewis - This is a bit of an odd duck, as it's on a topic that I'm presently very interested in (financial meltdowns) but has a format that's not really all that engaging. Basically it's a collection of published articles related to various American economic downturns of the past, with some of them being... very dry, shall we say. I'm only about 10% of the way in so far, and the jury's out as to whether or not I'll finish it.

Succeeding with Agile by Mike Cohn - Mike has put some of the chapters of his next book out in draft form online and asked for feedback. I'm doing my part to spot typos and suggest alternative wordings, but I'm also learning a thing or two in the process.

As well, I finished re-reading Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons just in time to go see the film version last weekend. It was the best thing I've read since... well, the last time I cracked open its covers, probably!

The Latest Eddie Campbell Page

I mentioned that I got a new Eddie Campbell page of original artwork from his wonderful Black Diamond Detective Agency book yesterday as a wedding anniversary present from Vicki, and now here it is, in all its colourful glory!

(On the off-chance that you'd like to own a page yourself, they're available from The Beguiling, a Toronto comic store. You can even order them online and have them mailed to you, if you're not planning to be in Toronto anytime soon. They're all quite beautiful!)

Thanks once again to my lovely wife for the gift... oh, and for putting up with me for eighteen years now, and counting!

A President Who Actually Encourages Science?!

After 8 years of Flat Earth-like ignorance and willful stupidity emanating from the White House, this sort of thing can almost take your breath away. Wow! If post-19th century thinking like this isn't curtailed, pretty soon Americans will stop believing that HIV is just God's punishment for homosexuality, that all of our natural resources are boundless, and that the planet is only six thousand years old. And then what the Hell will the Conservatives ever campaign on?

Feeling All Twittery

I'm labeling this an experiment, much like I did when I embarked into blogging for the first time...

I just finished creating a Twitter account (using kimota94, of course) and invited a few suckers -- I mean, friends to follow along. I'll also be adding some people to my own list of... followees?... to see if there's really any value in being quite that plugged in to whatever they're doing, moment to moment.

Going in, I'd say that "tweeting" is probably redundant for me, considering how much I blog. But we'll see. I guess if it's so absorbing that members of the U.S. Congress would rather do it than pay attention to a speech by their President, there must be something to it.

Or maybe they're all just idiots.