Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another Way Political Rallies are Like Comic Con

I have gone on elsewhere on this blog about how the media depictions of Comic Con skewed heavily toward the minute percentage of folks in costume. Turns out it's not just the Comic Con. At the Obama rally, near the entry door, a guy with a camera was collecting video bites of people saying what, specifically, they like about Obama. Having had 2 hours with nothing to do but try to fight off hypothermia, I had made a reasonably detailed survey of the people surrounding us in line. We had a group of 3 middle aged African American women, a pair of Swiss tourists with their American host, two white suburban-type two-kid families, and a flock of college students. Most of us were dressed for the weather (or slightly, regrettably below the weather), with heavy coats and winter hats over sweaters and slacks.

So who does the guy manning the video camera pull out to give a video bite? Points to everyone who guessed "The boisterous college kid with The Blues Brothers wardrobe." Who needs the opinion of any of the sea of normal folks in scarves and mittens when you've got a guy in a dark suit and fedora?

Political Musing, Addendum to Part II

The line inching its way around a complete city block attracted petition mongers like flies to a meadow muffin. One of the ones being circulated was something in favor of universal single-payer health insurance. While that system may have several arguments going in its favor, the continuation of Emp. Peng.'s livelihood is not one of them. The signature gatherer had obviously been briefed on responses to typical objections to the proposed system. "I sell health insurance policies for a living. Universal single-payer health insurance effectively puts me out of a job" was not one her briefers anticipated. After an entertaining back-and-forth (my favorite part of which was her assertion that "it's the president of your company who is making all the money" to which my frostbitten brain couldn't stop my mouth from blurting out, "he is the president of his company!"), Emp. Peng. finally, as firmly and diplomatically as possible, suggested that maybe we weren't the right audience for her, and she gave up.

I'll be right there in line to say that our current system of paying for health care is in need of some fairly drastic improvements. However, one aspect I have never seen addressed by any of the reform proposals is that the flip side of a bloated bureaucracy is that it provides jobs.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Political Musing, Part II

We waited two hours in penguin-friendly temperatures, working our way through a line that snaked completely around the block and almost back to the building entrance again, to get in to the Barack Obama rally. The line three times longer than the event you are in line for is similar to Comic-Con, but Comic-Con has costumed babes and heat, two things in short supply in Akron in February. T-shirt vendors and petition mongers plied the line, although I think the smart money would have been on a Barack-accino concession. By the time we got (back) to the entrance, I would have sat through a presentation for Mosquito Acres Timeshares and Free-Range Gator Ranch if that was what it took to get out of the cold. I might have even welcomed the kind of hot air I'm used to getting when politicians speak (when you can't feel your face, heat is heat).

We got neither. He cracked jokes. He detailed his policies. He inspired. Those are three things I am not accustomed to politicians doing at all, let alone all at once. I've laughed at politicians plenty, but this is the first time I've laughed with one.

As Teal'c says in the pilot episode of Stargate SG-1, "Many have said that. You are the first I believe could do it." We hear the message of change every 4 years. He is the first I believe could do it.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Analog Technology To The Rescue

In Antarctica, it is late summer, but here, it is tax season, and we here at the Rookery ran into a little quandary. Emp. Peng. owned stock in a company that got bought out in 2007, so the new owners bought back all the stock as part of the purchase agreement. On the bright side, we got most of the credit card debt paid off. On the slightly dimmer side, the buyback triggered a lovely little thing called Capital Gains, but no one seemed to have records of the stock's purchase price 12 years ago. That is a rather vital bit of information when trying to calculate how much the capital gains were and thus how much capital gains tax we would be hit with.

We are of the internet generation, and we are accustomed to being one Google search away from anything and everything we might ever want to know, and a lot we would prefer not to know. There are plenty of orifices on the internet, but we found a hole. No one seemed to have information on what this particular stock was selling for on January 30, 1996. Now, there are plenty of places where one can look up historical price quotes on stocks, but none of them had information on this now-defunct stock. One site promised to be able to find stock prices for any stock, defunct or not, but they wanted $15 per lookup. Emp. Peng. even tried going the offline route and calling the corporate investor relations, but since the corporation was bought out and the investor relations folks were for the new corporate owners, they were somewhat less than helpful. We spent the better part of a week trying to hunt down a single elusive tidbit of information in this digital age.

Tip o' the beak to SuperDad, who, when alerted to our plight, suggested that we just look it up in the Wall Street Journal at our local public library's newspaper archives. After a week of mining the internet, we found the pertinent information in roughly a minute and a half in analog format. We probably could have shaved at least a minute and 20 seconds off that time if either one of us could have remembered how the blazes to work a microfiche reader. I am still fighting the urge to kick myself.

In a delicious bit of timing, our analog salvation comes 4 days after the cell phone companies started turning off their analog phone networks. The coincidence would have been even more tasty had the company whose buyout triggered this whole fiasco been one of those cell phone companies. It is a cell phone carrier, but won't be starting to cut off its analog network for another 5 weeks.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Political Musing

Emp. Peng. and I are planning to cross another thing off our "To Do Before I Die" lists: attend a political rally. Barack Obama is going to be in Akron, about an hour from us, on Saturday afternoon, and we're going to try to get in to the event. It should be interesting. I've never been in the same room as a presidential candidate before, and it will be interesting to see if Obama is as good in person as he is on video clips. I find Obama's speechifying to be quite compelling, to the point that I find myself trying very hard not to be enthralled. As a rule, I find it important to keep one's wits about oneself when listening to politicians. Committing to a political candidate while drunk on charisma is just not a good idea.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Third Time's the iCharm?

About a year ago, Emp. Peng.'s laptop, an Apple Powerbook G4, started having an odd issue whereby the battery seemed to disregard charge levels between about 85% and 2%. As soon as it ran into the low 80 percents, the battery monitor dropped down to nothing and the computer went into Lack of Power Freak Out Mode, which consists mainly of shutting down in the middle of whatever it happened to be doing. Once attached to an AC power source, it shot straight back up to whatever level it had plummeted from. Needless to say, this was an untenable situation, which Apple suggested could be remedied by a new battery. This did sort of solve the problem for about a year. It will become important later that the new battery, although it is completely compatible with the laptop, is not an Apple-branded part.

A couple of weeks ago, the problem resurfaced in earnest, just days before the extended warranty was to run out. Phone tech support--including several types of resets that were obviously configured on paper without regard to human finger configuration--was somewhat less than effective, so we were instructed to take the computer to the nearest Apple Store for attention from their Genius Bar. We live in the armpit of Ohio, and the "nearest" Apple Store is an hour's drive away, but still, we went. This is the laptop, after all.

The alleged Genius (more of a smart-ass), took one look at the non-Apple-Brand battery and refused to entertain the notion that the problem could have originated from anywhere other than a third party power source, even after he was repeatedly informed that the reason the Powerbook had a third party battery to begin with was that the problem had occurred with the Apple brand battery. For all the trouble--and, believe me, we've just gotten started--Mr. Smart Ass Genius is the only rotten spot in this whole apple barrel. Mr. SAG determined that the only solution was for us to purchase another new battery for the laptop, and if the problem persisted (thus proving what we already knew, that it wasn't the battery), we could return the new battery and then he could look further to see what else could be causing our issue. The fact that the Apple Store was out of stock on the appropriate battery was only the first of our reservations about this approach. Gas prices being what they are, schlepping an hour each way to the Apple Store many more times, and we would be better off replacing the computer. We replaced the computer anyway, with a MacBook*. After all, however bad this was turning out with Apple, we had no indication that the situation would be better with another manufacturer. If the Powerbook ever got fixed, I would inherit it to replace my laptop, which I had run so far into the ground that the only reason it wasn't held together by duct tape was the outside chance that the duct tape would ignite from the heat the AC adapter socket was putting out. Instead, I had superglued the case.

To Apple's credit, when we called Tech Support again to say that the problem was not even close to satisfactorily addressed by Mr. SAG, they immediately went into Make Sure The Customer Is Happy Mode and sent a shipping box out for us to mail the computer in for repair. When one must send a computer back to Apple for repair, their standard procedure is to overnight the customer a box with a pre-printed shipping label and four different kinds of foam padding designed to cradle the computer like a bosom in a high-end brassiere. They also include the packing tape to seal the box up--the computer tech support equivalent of a mint on the pillow, to be sure, but it's dang convenient.

The laptop, now known as Generalissimo Francisco Franco since we kept getting reports that it was still dead and awaiting parts, turned out to have a bad logic board. I'm not techie enough to understand why that would cause the particular problem we were having, but Emp. Peng. was elated at the vindication of his hypothesis that it was not a battery issue. In short order, the Generalissimo was shipped back to us. By then, I had been completely laptopless for almost a week and couldn't wait to rip into my new hand-me-down computer. I pulled it out of its protective sleeve, booted it up for an inaugural email check, and discovered I had no internet.

The house still had access, so I called up tech support and explained to them that I was aware that the computer was now out of its extended warranty period, but it was under warranty when it was sent in, and it also had functional wireless internet capabilities then. Now, not so much, and I didn't think it was too much to ask that the computer be returned with something reasonably approximating the same specs it went in with. I also didn't think it was too much that the company that controls the iTunes catalog could have hold music that doesn't bite, but I kept that particular observation to myself.

There was also some confusion regarding half of the RAM being missing, but that turned out to be me having overlooked it in the packing box, where the Apple technicians had helpfully removed the third-party RAM Emp. Peng. had installed. The very helpful product specialist arranged for a second shipping box to be sent. This time, the problem was that the replacement logic board had a bad Airport Card, so the computer couldn't see that it had wireless capability.

Generalissimo Franco just returned to us yet again. Now it has a functional power system, working wireless internet, and a boatload of dead pixels around the top and left sides of the screen. Normally, computer manufacturers don't like to cover dead pixels on laptop monitors, but, as with the wireless issue, we sent it to them with working pixels, and it isn't too much to ask that it be returned in reasonably the same condition. Michael, another one of the Good Apples over in the ranks of Product Specialists, has arranged for a third shipping box to be overnighted to us, to send the computer back again.

If the turnaround time matches the previous two attempts, we should have another installment of What Else Can Go Wrong With This Blasted Computer in about a week. Stay iTuned.

*Note: I had originally indicated this was a MacBook Pro. I am typing this addendum on the aforementioned new laptop and can say with certainty it is a regular MacBook, not a Pro.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Schrodinger's Credit Score

In 1935, to demonstrate a potential issue with one of the more mind-boggling parts of quantum physics, Erwin Schrodinger introduced the world to Schrodinger's Cat. Since I don't want to be responsible for anyone having to clean up exploded brains out of a keyboard, I'll skip over the exact setup of the thought experiment that ends up with a cat that is simultaneously alive and dead. Here's a link if you want to have your head spin. There are many interpretations of what happens with the cat to reconcile the theoretical both-alive-and-deadness of the cat with humanity's experience, gained through several millennia of cat domestication, that a cat can be alive or dead, but not both. One of these interpretations is that observation makes the cat settle into a state of alive or dead, so that looking into the box effectively kills the cat 50% of the time.

Which brings me to our current effort to refinance the mortgage on The Rookery. I'm shopping around for the best terms right now, and a major factor in the relative non-suckiness of the terms of the new mortgage is our credit scores. FICO has those locked up in a box with Schrodinger's Cat, except that in Schrodinger's scenario, there is a 50% chance of the cat being just fine. In order for the mortgage lenders to access our credit scores, they have to make an inquiry; however, making an inquiry puts a minor ding against one of the elements that factors into what that score will be. In the department of non-reassurance, FICO's FAQs say, “If it does [drop], it probably won't drop by much...most credit scores are not affected by multiple inquiries from auto or mortgage lenders within a short period of time."

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Anyone for groundhog stew?

Phil saw his shadow this morning, so six more weeks of winter it is. Astronomically speaking, we were in for 6 weeks and 5 days more of this crap regardless of what the marmota had to say on the subject. A warming trend in the weather has put me in better humor about the whole depths of winter thing, so Phil has lucked out. Shadow or not, I don't think we'll have to see whether the magic elixir of groundhog immortality (see bullet point 4) also protects him against meat cleavers.

It's not all frivolous weather prognostication among the marmota, though. Most groundhogs are still hibernating, as a good groundhog ought to be, and a few of those hibernating woodchucks are working to benefit mammals as a whole, without having to rouse at the crack of dawn or dash our hopes for an early end to winter. Groundhogs in a Colorado research lab are helping the human researchers look at both the potential impacts of climate change and possible mechanisms to fight human obesity.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Recommended Penguin Reading

Slate has an article about the world's most popular claymation penguin.

the mischievous Plasticine bird quickly became one of those phenomena, like Nutella or the ban on the death penalty, that everyone in the world seemed to get but us Yanks.