Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Writing: the Writers' Strike, e-Publishing, DRM and Amazon's Kindle

The Strike
As a faithful capitalist running dog, having to sympathize with the motivations and actions of a union is almost physically painful to me. So, gentle readers, please understand my position on the strike in that light.

I'm also a technologist, by profession and by avocation. One of the very few constants in my 37 years on the planet has been the rush of technological change: vinyl to eight-track to cassette to CD to MP3; typewriters to text editors to WYSIWYG word processors to HTML web page authoring to blogging; telephones to faxes to e-mail to IM to text messaging; movies to TV to VHS to DVD to streaming video; one gets the idea.

As someone who plans to make at least part of his living through novel advances and publishing royalties in the future, I've watched the Writers' Guild of America (WGA) strike with less than detached interest, and tried to do my homework as regards the players and issues involved.

To wit:

  • VHS. The WGA, through gross failures in negotiating, won (through the last writer's strike, the one that fatally wounded Moonlighting) royalties for its members of four 1988 pennies for each VHS tape sold of a writer's movie, accepting the line from studios that "we're unsure how this 'videotape' thing will perform--let us test the waters before we allow you a cut of this experimental thing that may never pan out." Also, VHS tapes were pretty expensive to produce.
  • DVD. The WGA in the '90s managed to score residuals on DVD sales of...the exact same four-pennies-per-disc back to the writer. The reasoning for this sad figure, unadjusted at all for the inflation of the intervening years? "We're unsure how this 'DVD' thing will perform--let us test the waters before we allow you a cut of this experimental thing that may never pan out." Oh, and DVDs cost almost nothing to produce when compared to VHS tapes.
  • Through the magic of Hollywood accounting, these four-penny units have only occasionally translated into actual money paid. Anecdotally, successful Hollywood writers can go for months or years without encountering another successful Hollywood writer who's actually seen a check for DVD residuals.
  • Internet streaming is, within 5 to 10 to 20 years, going to sweep the content industry as its dominant means of distribution. The song from the studios? "We're unsure how this 'Internet' thing will perform--let us test the waters before we allow you a cut of this experimental thing that may never pan out." This time, the deal included no percentage for the writer at all.

No percentage. None, as in when DVDs and high-definition discs go the way of VHS, and Internet download or streaming is all that remains after a movie's or TV show's initial run (presuming it even has one; studios and channel-based TV broadcast are starting to show signs of being in real trouble), the writer will get no compensation for his work. Zero.

The standard rebuttal when unions and union members whine about losing money or jobs to technological progress (I should know, I've used it) is, "Well, technology marches on! Find a way to adapt, to add value, retrain, move to another market segment. Suck it up!"

Sadly, this isn't a case where the jobs writers do are being outsourced, or automated, or somehow have become inherently less valuable. It's an industry collaborating (all six content producing corporations are operating through a single entity, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers [AMPTP]) to shut writers out of residual compensation for their work, because the work has the misfortune of being distributed via another medium.

Which brings me to e-books.

From Printed Pages per Minute to Downloaded Bits per Second
The paperback industry's days are numbered, according to Jerry Pournelle, a guy who's been writing SF, I think, for more years than I've been alive. His argument goes that the moment a ubiquitous device exists that allows for a comparable reading experience to that of paper, and is cheaper for publishers to use for distribution than dead-tree methods...

...There will come a time when everyone will be carrying an instrument on which one can read a book with about as good an experience as you would have reading a paperback. The instrument will be your telephone and telep0hone book [sic], as well as GPS locator, email access, video and still camera, notebook, and music delivery system. Nearly everyone will have one. Downloading a new book will be painless and cheap.

When that day comes, the paperback book market will implode. Paperback books will no longer be the "mass market" delivery system for entertainment books such as detective stories and science fiction. When that day comes, the entire financial compensation system for authors will change with it.

I own a Sony Reader e-book viewing device and I love it--it's got over 165 e-books on it now, both purchased and public domain. I've got 50 or so e-books on my Cingular 8125 cell phone, and I've carried e-books of one type or another on every PDA or smartphone I've used. I've read thousands of pages, probably hundreds of thousands, on electronic devices over the years. I love e-books.

Sadly, the conventional wisdom (espoused by Pournelle, too) is that only way that e-books (or any digital media) will continue to be reliable moneymakers for their creators and distributors is for them to be digitally locked down. This means digital rights management, or DRM.

Protection, Software and Litigation-Based
A few months back, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFFWA or SFWA) got into some lamentably hot water when they (quite correctly) served a takedown notice to, a site where people can post any e-text they choose, and which had accumulated an impressive library of pirated e-text versions of books written by authors whose interests were protected by SFWA.

The hot water fell when it came to light that some of the e-texts on the list SFWA posted for takedown were in fact not texts that SFWA was authorized to protect. One of the authors whose works appeared on that list is Cory Doctorow, who wants his work posted everywhere, all the time, for free, and has licensed it accordingly. Doctorow, a notorious loudmouth and pot-stirrer, lambasted SFWA for acting too zealously and precipitously, and the teapot-tempest spread like wildfire.

SFWA apologized, obviously, and wound up disbanding its ePiracy Committee, rendering its protected authors--at least temporarily--less so. In the end SFWA was merely guilty of acting clumsily while doing its job.

Oddly enough, the pirated e-texts on weren't illicitly distributed copies of unprotected e-books, for the most part: they were scans or transcriptions of paper books that were created by ordinary people with either flatbed scanners or lots of time (or lots of friends). It's common knowledge that within hours of the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, complete e-text copies of it were circulating, having been scanned and transcribed by networks of thousands of people, each of whom had only to type out and/or proofread a few lines.

So: even in cases where the only legitimate copies of a book are digitally protected, unprotected versions will surface if demand is high enough. I'd venture to say that most paper books with any sort of popularity are available online if one knows in which dark corners to look. So the cat is out of the bag--DRM is at best a holding action.

Contemplating the Shackles: DRM
Because of facts like the ones above I've come down, after much internal wrangling, on the anti-DRM side. Not in the "information wants to be free" info-hippie sense, but in the sense that I despise being treated by my duly-bought media as though I'm a thief. When I'm told by the people from whom I've purchased an e-book that I can read it on this device and not that device, or am treated to an unskippable FBI warning on every DVD, or am prevented from playing Apple iTunes Store media I've paid for on more than five "authorized" computers (happened the other day), and on and on, I feel like I'm being maltreated by the businesses I'm patronizing.

DRM also gives control over the use of content you've paid for to another party, which may change the terms, go out of business, or simply screw up, possibly rendering your content inaccessible. It's happened before: Google discontinued its Google Video service, and was in the process of making its customers' purchases unviewable when consumer outcry pressured Google to offer refunds. Major League Baseball changed its DRM provider, and actually did render its customers' paid-for content inaccessible, no recourse given.

Fortunately, the digital music industry seems to be seeing the light: the EMI label has authorized its titles to be bought without any DRM protection on iTunes and other online music stores, with promising results.

As regards e-books, the people I've seen who've made money by selling unprotected e-books so far seem to fall into categories like authors such as Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross who've already made a name for themselves, or organizations like the Baen Free Library and, which offer many unprotected, excellent titles for free or inexpensive download. The theory goes that unprotected e-books in effect serve as elaborate ads for the physical versions of the works involved, and the concept has historically been a mostly sound one: to one degree or another, a paper book will always have advantages over an electronic one.

This situation does raise the question, though: what if the paperback implosion Pournelle foresees above happens, and the only cheap books available are electronic ones? Either every silo-like store from Amazon to Sony and its reading device will need to have all books from all publishers available for download; or (as now and far more likely) some publishers' products will be available through some vendors and some others. Thus the balkanized e-book market will continue to hobble along until the ability to read books on more than one device will eventually win out, and unprotected e-books will eventually win the day.

That, or some licensable DRM protection standard will rise from nowhere and be adopted across many devices. Don't see it happening, though, if the music world and current reader world is any indication. All the e-book reader makers still want the whole pie (c'mon, all you publishers just sell exclusively through us!), even though it ain't gonna happen. Not even for Amazon.

You can always buy another copy, kid.
That's the solution proposed by all content producers in the digital age (as they try not to be seen rubbing their hands in glee): just buy another one! Never mind that one of the benefits of a medium being digital in the first place is perfect reproducibility. Leverage that benefit, for Pete's sake; don't expect us to pay again to re-download the the exact same bits!

There have been occasions in the past where re-buying a work was justifiable to me: the move from VHS to DVD caused me to re-buy several titles, because the DVD format was demonstrably superior for my purposes. Ditto records to cassettes, and cassettes to CDs. Value was added at each change of format.

What I refuse to do is pay for another copy of a work with no value added aside from the accident of the device it's chained to. Music files fail this above added-value test because they sound the same on both an iPod and a Zune. E-books fail the test because the text of Moby Dick will always be the same (or had damned well better be) from edition to edition, analog or digital. Now there may be some published forms of Moby Dick that do add value: lavish tomes with illustrations; leather-bound editions on creamy paper; signed copies by Melville(!). I'll pay extra for, or even re-buy those, but for the simple, elemental text? Nope.

Right now, most of the e-book reading devices on the market (Sony Reader, Kindle, etc.) will display some form of unprotected file: BBeB, Mobipocket, LIT, PDF, RTF, TXT. But if device makers decide to disable or simply not include that functionality on their devices, then we're stuck, and pay-per-device or even pay-per-read may even become the reality. Not for me, thanks.

My own Battle with DRM
I've learned over the years to be a bit cagey about the content I pay for. I always buy music that I'm likely to care about on CD, because it's unprotected and I can thus rip (convert) the high-quality master to whatever format I need for whatever player I choose to use. I've been one of Apple's iPod faithful for some time now, but if the third version of the Zune, or any other player catches my eye after my current iPod bites the dust, then I want the freedom to transfer my faves over to the new unit with as little hassle as possible, or at least without re-buying!

The e-book situation is similar. I was very lucky, for example, that the eReader e-books I'd bought when I was a Palm user were readable on my Windows Mobile device--if the company hadn't chosen to make a cross-platform reader application, then that money would have been lost, unless I had chosen to crack the DRM on those e-books--an illegal activity. As it is, I still can't read those books on my Sony Reader, because Sony hasn't made their device compatible with the eReader format.

In the same vein, I have a few titles that I've purchased from the Sony CONNECT e-book store, but except in rare circumstances I've stopped buying there, because Sony's DRM locks their books exclusively to Sony devices, meaning that if I decide to move to another device, my Sony-bought books can't make the trip. The Fictionwise e-book store, by comparison, has more titles, and offers them in both DRMed and unprotected formats. Not all books are available unprotected, but I try to stick with the ones that are, because I know they can be moved among devices.

This is my hedge against the paperback implosion, which I happen to agree with Pournelle will happen sometime in the next five to ten years. I also want to be vendor-proof: if Sony, or Mobipocket, or Amazon tank tomorrow or fifteen years from now I still want to be able to read all my e-books.

Sad, but true: if I'm to be said truly to own content I've paid for, then it needs to be free of digital shackles. I'm not going to share or trade these books; hell, all I want is to be able to read their text on whatever device I've decided will be my reader of choice.

Amazon's Kindle and the Changing Game
Speaking of which, the Kindle is a compelling device. Not because of its looks (it's pug-ugly to my eyes), but because it's the first device to combine an e-ink device with an online e-book store and wireless access. It's also got the ability to enter text for searching, annotating, and other activities that the Sony is unable to match. It will read unprotected Mobipocket and TXT files, too, so those would comprise the majority of the books I'd put on one.

Sadly, the Kindle's just as locked down DRM-wise as the Sony when it comes to purchased e-books. Given that the major feature it offers its its cellular-download capability, I'm not likely to get much out of it considering my anti-DRM stance. Bummer, eh? Unless someone breaks the Kindle's encryption and I choose to use their tool to break the law and strip my purchases' DRM.


Anyhow, my boss at work has ordered a Kindle, and will be bringing it into the office this week. I plan to do my own side-by-side comparison with my Sony, and if I like the device's user interface enough I may actually grab one, allowing Amy to inherit the Sony. Because the wireless functionality is DRM-only, though, I doubt Amazon will be getting much money from me.

Here's hoping the anti-DRM eye-opening occurring in the music world extends to the e-book world soon. Sadly, though, indicators aren't good: Amazon owns (having bought it a year or two ago) the Mobipocket e-book format, but the Kindle won't read protected Mobipocket files (only unencrypted ones). Amazon isn't offering to convert protected Mobipocket books to Kindle format, even those bought from Amazon itself.

Just buy another copy, kid.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

NaNoWriMo Goodness

Three days in, and 5,902 words written. At 1,667 words per day to reach 50,000 by the end of November, that puts me 901 words ahead.

Feels good, despite not having more than a character sketch, an interview and a few action scenes written--I want to keep my words counts high early in the month and start strong. The month's going to be busy (what November isn't?), and I want to have some buffer prepared in case writing time goes down the toilet come week three or whenever.

As for the story idea? Well, it's sort of Gothic Horror (complete with Byronic hero!) meets SF thriller. Sorta. We'll see how it hashes out. :-D


Monday, October 22, 2007

Let My Platform Go

Walt Mossberg, "Free my Phone"

I have been watching the progress of Apple's iPhone for some time. A good friend of mine has one, and aside from my difficulty with typing on its touchscreen keyboard (which would vanish with practice, no doubt), it's one of the sweetest pieces of hardware I've encountered. My buddy has said that the iPhone is one of the first devices actually to look like it's come from the 21st century. I agree.

The progression:

  • the incredibly hyped "JesusPhone" release
  • the far-too-soon-for-comfort $200 price cut to maximize the Christmas numbers
  • the $100-in-store-credit "apology" to early adopters for the precipitous price cut
  • the explosion of software unlocks that both freed phones from AT&T's network hegemony and allowed third-party applications to be loaded
  • the 1.1.1 firmware update that "bricked" many unlocked iPhones and blew away said apps
  • the re-unlocking of the phone by not-to-be-denied hackers
  • the decision by Apple to (finally) release an official software development kit (SDK)

I've also seen and seen reviewed some of the amazing third-party applications that have been cobbled together while the world waited for Apple to come to its senses.

Tipping Point
But it was the last bullet-point there, the SDK, that finally cemented my desire to buy an actual iPhone. Until Apple declared its intentions NOT to destroy the efforts of (or otherwise make life difficult for) anyone trying to develop for the iPhone, they prevented the well financed eBook reader makers, the custom-calendar makers, the e-mail-client makers, the RSS-feed-reader makers--all the myriad developers out there, most of whom have been salivating to port or develop their applications for the pretty little device--from ever taking the risk of adding value to Apple's new flagship product. Stupid, and shortsighted.

Until an SDK was announced, there was no way Apple was getting my money, no matter how sexy the device. And I'm sure I'm not alone: there's too much functionality on which I rely on my current smartphone that Apple either didn't implement, or implemented incompletely. Without third-party developers being allowed to develop fixes for or alternatives to these omissions, I wasn't going to spend good money to lose capabilities to which I'd grown so accustomed.

Why This Matters
I'm going to go with many of the prognosticators and pundits out there and declare the desktop computing world as having reached a plateau. There will always be a market for powerful workstation-class machines, but for the most part it's been saturated. The laptop computer market is still growing well, but in my assessment that's because most desktops are being replaced, and when you can get cheap, very capable lappies from Dell, Toshiba and Gateway for about what you probably paid for your dying desktop PC, why not get the smaller, sexier device?

The real growth is happening in mobile devices, finally. People (me included) have been preaching the gospel of "convergence" for years now, and at long last, hardware is beginning to make possible the holy grail of a phone-GPS-camera-browser-emailer-organizer-photo album-music player-book reader-calculator-otherwise generic miracle widget in the pocket, that will run for a day or several on a charge and talk to almost any wireless LAN or cell network. For a few hundred bucks.

In ten years (possibly five), my prognostication is that sales of thumb drives (small flash-memory devices that have replaced the floppy disk for "sneaker-net" file-carrying purposes) will begin to decline, because everyone will be carrying around several gigabytes of general-purpose, compute-enabled storage in their cell phone.

The iPhone, and especially its next generation with 3G speed and more storage capacity, is the current most complete realization of this dream, because the software doesn't suck. It's no use having all the capability in the hardware, if it takes a bull geek like me to keep the thing running, as my current Cingular 8125 [still] does. The iPhone's interface is so elegant, so "well, of course" obvious for most of the things it does, that people literally play with them in the stores and giggle with delight.

The hardware for these devices was coming all along: it took Apple to make them accessible to the ordinary person. The iPhone, simply, is a platform--the best one--upon which the next generation of mobile applications is already being built. Two minutes of play with Apple's Mobile Safari browser ought to be enough to convince anyone: this is how everything should work, and will work in the not-too-distant future.

(The unit is actually amazingly rugged, too: it's built to take real punishment. There are videos and testimonies out there of people doing horrible things [drops, slides over pavement, runnings-over with cars] to their iPhones that I wouldn't dare try with my 8125, and the iPhones not only working perfectly afterward, but showing barely a scratch.)

Fly in the Ointment
...All of which brings me to the reason I cited Mossberg's article at the top of this one. There are lots of reasons why the United States' cell network is one of the least impressive in the industrialized world, but foremost among them is the fact that cell service providers today get to treat their networks like Ma Bell did its own back before deregulation in the 1970s and '80s. They dictate what capabilities the devices on their networks have; what hardware features are crippled or half-enabled; they impose service contracts of such length as to be almost punitive to prevent customers voting with their feet. Did you know that we wouldn't even have our own answering machines (or their successors, voicemail boxes)--they had to be rented from AT&T itself; sound familiar?--without Ma Bell's rules having been first ignored by consumers, then brought to heel by antitrust legislation?

None of these are measures are illegal, by the way, and I'm not sure they should truly be illegal, in my opinion; but the fact remains that countries like Japan, and most of the nations of Europe, and dozens of others, have prevented situations like these either through regulation or trustbusting, and they have had 3G networks for nearly a decade, while we're barely getting them rolled out now. They've had excellent signal coverage, excellent 3G rollouts, the ability to switch from network to network, from phone to phone, from provider to provider. They've had reliability; cheap unlimited data plans; shoot, the Japanese have had TV on their phones since the late '90s, while Cingular/AT&T's best marketing campaign--since dropped for being less than completely truthful--advertised the fewest dropped calls! (Hey, we suck the least!)

Mossberg makes the point that our wired Internet situation is pretty much exactly as it should be (leaving out questions of broadband speed and availability, where we're also getting our booties kicked worldwide; it's still pretty good for all that): your ISP by and large can't and doesn't dictate what programs you run; what computers you buy; what sites you visit.

Cell carriers can dictate those things, and do.

(It's perfectly legal in the U.S., by the way, to unlock one's phone from its current carrier network. Sadly, it's also perfectly legal for the carrier to penalize you monetarily for doing so, or to implement software or hardware measures to make it extraordinarily difficult to do.)

Arguments can be made about the vast distances over which American cellcos have to extend service; the daunting costs of tending and extending service. To all of which I say pish-posh: if everyone could buy any cell phone and download any amount of data for a low, low price per month, the market for such data services would explode, and money to make the upgrades would be pouring into coffers.

The toll-road, "walled garden" approach of downloading only XYZ company's content on only XYZ devices, and then pay a penalty for using anything of ABC's, or even for using up too much time on XYZ's network, has been proven unintelligent and short-sighted. It didn't work for AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy or any of the others in the wired world; why should it be looked upon as an advantageous business model for the wireless?

The Exception that Proves the Rule
The iPhone is unique among cell phones because Steve Jobs demanded freedom from most of the constraints that cellcos impose on their device manufacturers. Verizon Wireless is said to have turned down the iPhone for precisely that reason. AT&T Wireless was willing to do the deal (possibly setting a business-model-endangering precedent); and so they got the device.

Not without hooks, though; much as AT&T entered into a Faustian deal, so did Apple. Apple has been aggressive in protecting the iPhone's carrier-lock-in to AT&T, both through software updates that relock or break unlocked phones, and through denying warranty service to customers who have run unlocking software. Whether this is catering to AT&T's wishes or Apple's is debatable (Apple's widely known to be receiving a percentage of AT&T iPhone subscription revenues, so both companies profit by keeping the unit carrier-locked), but it's an ugly note in what could have been a beautiful, unspoiled melody.

There's hope, though: all the hubbub around the iPhone's lockdown, in both the hardware and software realms, has attracted the attention of the gadget-buying public. Several class-action suits are pending as regards both the locking of the phone to AT&T's network and the lockout of third-party apps that still applies until Apple's SDK is released in February. It could be the iPhone's sheer awesomeness that heralds the downfall of carrier lock-in for good.

Well, maybe. It could happen.

My Plans
Luckily, I don't particularly care about the lock-in to AT&T: they're the only carrier in the area that has halfway-decent coverage at my house (this only makes AT&T the best of a bad lot, however; see above). As I mentioned, though, I was waiting for the SDK. An iPhone without third-party app support was one I wasn't ever going to spend money on. Yes, ever. But that's fixed, now. An iPhone is in my future.

I'm not getting one immediately, though: I want at least 16 GB of flash RAM and third-generation network speed, which will mean I can truly replace both my current Windows Mobile smartphone and my iPod. That will make the iPhone pretty well my ultimate device, but it'll also mean that I'll be waiting until sometime next year. Next summer, possibly, which will also mean that the third-party, well, party will have started in earnest, and that apps should be available by the dozens.

Can't wait.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In which the narrator wonders whether he's a prima donna

In recent months (specifically, since I got serious about attending the Dragon*Con Writer's Workshop last month), I have been organizing my computers and retooling my computer room into a writing study and office instead of a glorified server closet.

In this vein, I've rebuilt a secondhand Windows 98-vintage Compaq laptop (dubbed "Whitman") that I bought on the cheap from Hunter, spent some time revitalizing machines around the house, new and old, for writing: the Mac laptops (Tangy and Galactica) and my Mac Mini (Frost), and then came up with an effective set of methods for synchronizing them all through the use of a thumb drive.

For once, this isn't even procrastinating behavior! I've been brainstorming and organizing story ideas for use in next month's NaNoWriMo (not allowed to write any actual prose, though, until November 1), working on critiques of the manuscripts submitted by other members of the writing group that formed from the attendees of the Dragon*Con workshop, and continuing to read SF both new and old, and now trying to supplement my fiction diet with true classics, like the Iliad type of classics.

I have found, though, that I truly do love writing more when my tools are beautiful ones. When I hand-write, I use a Waterman Philéas fountain pen in a Moleskine or similar notebook; when I type, I increasingly want to use one of my Macs, and specifically using a truly wondrous bit of writer-oriented software called Scrivener.

I also am working hard to convert my office, as mentioned above, from a very technoid server room with fans a-whining into more of a study, a writing nook, a library. I'm not certain as yet what I want to do about the whining-fans thing (the house's computers have to go somewhere), but the environment in which I create has begun to become important to me, and optimizing the place where I do my thing does make sense: the more comfortable I am writing in a place, the more of it I'll do, and most likely the better I'll do it.

Excellent Article, and one of the things that got me on this writing-space kick: Writer's Rooms.


Monday, October 15, 2007

An Omnibus Post to Bring Everyone Up to Speed

Abject apologies for the dearth of posts lately. It was a full and trying summer, though the fall is looking much better.

Here's a partial list of all that's happened in our lives since last I blogged.

Death of Sebastian, our dog
Sebastian was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer called hemangiosarcoma that usually manifests first in the spleen, but spreads quickly to the rest of the body. The lesions/masses can grow so quickly that they deplete the body of iron, so the primary symptom Sebastian showed was acute anemia.

After the first occurrence of anemia (in June), we had the vet remove his spleen and put Sebastian on a plan of iron supplementation. This bought us another four or five weeks with him in good, jumping-around health.

We came home the night of July 6th after a night out to discover that Sebastian was unable to move well, and had obviously had a seizure during the day. Seizing typically means that the end is near, so we made him comfortable and prepared for the inevitable. Around eleven o'clock he began seizing regularly. The emergency clinic was far enough away that making the drive might take longer than Sebastian had, so we decided to keep him in familiar surroundings.

Sebastian died gasping, at about three on the morning of the 7th of July, after many seizures. It was fairly horrible to watch.

We buried him in an area of Amy's parents' property reserved for pet graves. It was raining--the first rain showers Birmingham had seen in nearly two months.

Acquisition of a new puppy: Shasta!
About two weeks after Sebastian's passing, Amy suggested that we go puppy shopping. Reese (our other dog) hadn't shown too many symptoms of grieving or pining, but he did seem confused, often, when Sebastian would ordinarily have popped in front of him on the way to the back yard, or sat next to him on the couch, and failed to. In short, Reese was coping well, but we didn't want him to become too used to being the only dog around the house. At over twelve years old, Reese is an old dog, and was becoming a bit set in his ways.

Amy and I had discussed another puppy, and I was definitely all in favor, though only two weeks seemed fairly short to grieve properly--the topic was still painful. Anyway, we went to the local humane society and visited with a few dogs, but we eventually settled on Shasta, a black lab/husky mix with white toes and a shock of white on her chest. She also has one pale blue and one brown eye--very striking. :-) Amy was particularly taken with her because she was more easygoing and loving than most of the puppies we "interviewed," without being too energetic or overly fearful.

Shasta is a wonderful dog: extremely intelligent, and quite affectionate. It took her a few weeks to sleep through the night reliably, and to be sufficiently housebroken not to require "puppy pads" or frequent towel changes in her crate.

She's also been good for Reese: he's a bit arthritic, but now that we've got him on glucosamine supplements he's able to tussle and play, and honestly I think he enjoys wrestling with Shasta more than he ever did when he was a puppy himself.

The plan for Amy to leave her job
Amy had been eager to leave her desk job for some time--the commute from our house in Alabaster to her office downtown was punishing. Several factors both financial and interpersonal came together to allow us to have her leave her job in mid-August, having given notice in mid-July.

This would have worked out better if the beginning of August through the middle of September hadn't become a constant march of expenses, repairs and travel needs. Of course, this came after spending some impressive money on the first heroic rescue of Sebastian from the effects of his cancer, and after the wedding and honeymoon expenses of the spring.

The air-conditioner breakdown
The summer of 2007 contained one of the longest streaks of 100-degree-Fahrenheit high temperatures in recorded history. It was also an extremely dry summer, in terms of rain, but with periods of high humidity, to make the heat interesting.

Naturally, once Amy came home, the house's air conditioning began to malfunction.

The condensation overflow pan under the refrigeration unit kept filling up, so the floater switch that kept the pan itself from overflowing kept tripping, meaning no chilling of the air. Temperatures in the house routinely reached 85 and higher. I rigged up a siphon system to drain the pan until we could afford repairs, but I wound up having to empty the pan about every other day. Very trying conditions for Amy, and our animals.

At long last we determined (with the help of my new brother-in-law Greg) that a pipe that normally allowed the condensation to drain had become clogged, and after flushing that pipe all has been well.

Breakdown of Gladys, the Mercury Mystique
Gladys, the Mercury Mystique, was bought with several known problems. Electrical issues--check. Leaky tires--check. "Moosing" hum that emanates from under the hood when the car's not yet warmed up--check.

In late August, though, Gladys's alternator died, taking her battery with it. I appear to be hard on car alternators--I seem to lose them at a disproportionate rate to the rest of the car-driving world.

The Mercury Mystique, however, seems purpose-built to cause alternator pain. Not only is the alternator located near the bottom of the engine (and exposed to the elements, making it more prone to failure than other placements would make it), it's located such that one actually has to remove the car's front axle and hoist the car's engine to replace or otherwise service the part. Thus a $160 part can require $500 or more in labor to replace.

Luckily, having family in town who's been in the area for generations enabled us to find an alternator-specialized place that would cut us a deal on the part (repairing it rather than replacing it) and the labor. We made out for hundreds less than we were originally quoted by a more conventional place.

After waiting for the following payday, we got the alternator repaired, and all has been well.

Breakdown of Betsy, the VW Beetle
...which was just in time for Amy's beetle to lose its battery, another $90 expense and bit of installation headache right on the weekend where she was going to drive out to Atlanta to join me at...

Dragon*Con was actually an enormous amount of fun, if getting Amy there was more grief than planned. We got to visit with my brother Matt and his wife Amy, hang out with throngs of our fellow geeks, and generally relax among the rampant absurdity.

I also got to attend a writing workshop taught by Ann Crispin (aka A.C. Crispin) as regards the craft of writing the science fiction novel. Very, very, very useful time had, there. And yes, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo this year. :-D

There was also a brief workshop, off in one of the rear rooms of the Hyatt, where there was an impromptu homebrewing discussion that cropped up...

Gentleman Meadmaker
One of the stars of the Dragon*Con homebrewing panel discussion was a quiet guy who had brought three bottles of mead (a beverage made by the fermentation of honey, and sometimes described as honey wine) to the con, and of course pulled the corks on them for the audience to sample. One of the samples Amy and I didn't quite care for, but one was sublime: exactly the sort of taste you'd expect from a fermentation of honey: sweet, alcoholic like a wine, aromatic like... well, like honey. :-)

About two weeks ago I dropped by Alabrew, my local homebrew supply store, grabbed 25 pounds of truly excellent Alabama orange-blossom honey and some suitable yeast and other sundries, and then went home and broke out the fermenting equipment.

Amy and I have two batches going: the first is a six-gallon batch of "traditional mead" that's just eighteen pounds of honey, water added to six total gallons, yeast nutrient and yeast. We didn't boil it, didn't filter it, didn't even heat the honey: we just sanitized the heck out of all equipment, dumped the honey, water and nutrient into the fermenting bucket, agitated with a stirrer that was driven by power drill, added the yeast and covered. The bubbler's still going at a pop every two seconds or so, weeks later. (Mead takes a good while longer than beer or wine to "ferment out," or exhaust the yeast.) Should begin to be drinkable at around six months, sometime close to St. Patrick's Day.

The second batch is much smaller (just one gallon), but also more elaborate. It's a melomel/metheglin-style mead (containing fruit and spices) called "Joe's Foolproof Ancient Orange, Clove and Cinnamon Mead," found here at It should be ready by Christmas, and Amy and I can't wait to try it--we scored whole nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and other spices from our local Whole Foods grocer, not to mention a decent bottle of Chaucer's Mead to sample while we set up the ferment.

Wedded Bliss
Amy and I are, despite the craziness of the summer, doing better than ever. People frequently say that the first year of marriage is the hardest to get through, and if this is the worst we ever see, then we're in good shape. Certainly it's been external problems that have caused the most commotion: coming home to my new wife has been the easiest part of this past summer by far. :-D

Well, I feel better
Whew! Lots of history to get through, but this covers the high (and low) points. I plan to do more blogging about issues great and small from now on (knowing that I had this huge thing to do made it easy to procrastinate on other posts I want to do), so keep an eye out!


[Edit: Wanted to make a note for precision's sake that the batches of mead were started on 9/30/07. Just for my own future reference.]

Monday, June 25, 2007

Six Years!

Flower Cupcake with candle and standBrain Squeezings turns six today!

I haven't marked too many of the anniversaries of the site's inception, but this year it seems appropriate. After all, one of the several reasons I started blogging in the first place was to help assuage the grief and pain attending dissolution of my first marriage. It, and the people who've read and commented along the way, have indeed helped me, beyond my wildest dreams of success. Amy, beloved wife of mine, I'm looking at you. :-D

Along the way I've made a few new friends; lost a few friends; done a fair amount of dating; learned a little about beer; got fired and hired; moved; held forth on subjects from parenthood to webcomics to technology to politics to wine; killed a pair of cars; and even, this blessed spring, managed to remarry, and this time it's going to stick.

(Yes, yes, I know there hasn't been an actual wedding post yet, but since getting back from the honeymoon there's been more than a little bit of drama to our lives, and it's only mostly been from the Altima's terminal wreck. More detail [and wedding photos!] to come.)

Leading the bloggèd life (even if Brain Squeezings's posting frequency has varied wildly with my mercurial need to opine before the world) has been a cleansing, eye-opening, educational experience, and an enriching one as well. I can't wait to see what the next six years of Squeezings will bring.

Thanks to all my readers, past and present, for hanging with me through whatever part of this journey you've hung through. I'm a happier, healthier person for having undertaken this little exercise, and it's largely because I've had great people out there reading, commenting and sharing the ride.

(Lifts a glass of Sangiovese)



Friday, June 08, 2007

The Mercury Mystique, Long May She Drive



Meet the new addition to the Miller family. A silver 1999 Mercury Mystique, acquired through a friend of my new parents-in-law. It's the little sister to the Mercury Sable/Ford Taurus: sturdy, reliable, but at nearly eight years old, rather lived-in. It came with a few quirks: no radio; only a valet key (unable to unlock the car's doors); some trim damage inside the car (and lots of dust and "age patina").

Still, for $2,500, not too shabby for being paid for. A trip to the local Mercury dealership, a locksmith, my local Circuit City and an inside-and-out car wash, and the car's looking presentable and behaving well.

It's also the V-6 "sport" version of the Mystique, which is surprisingly zippy, and since it's a late-'90s American car, it's still got enough heft that I'd feel safe in another crash. Amenities are good, too: power windows and locks, AM/FM/CD/iPod/Aux sound (now), air conditioning, sun roof.

It's also got some goofy faux-woodgrain panels on the dashboard. Since the steering wheel was looking fairly ratty (you know that beaten-up look that softer steering wheels get after a few years), I found one of those cheapo steering wheel covers at Wal-mart that was a great shade of black "leather" and an exactly matching hi-gloss faux woodgrain pattern. Stylin' now!

Anyway, I'm nearly entirely mended from my little brush with automotive disaster: aside from some remaining tenderness in the form of an upper-shin bruise and stiffness in my right shoulder and neck, I'm approaching 100%.

Coming this weekend: moving hijinks, as space for Amy's stuff is made among mine!


Thursday, May 17, 2007

What it Means to Be Blessed


That would appear to be that for the Altima. I am, miraculously, battered and bruised but okay. Nothing broken, no serious damage.

Friday night, after driving Amy home after a sushi dinner and a shopping trip to Bed, Bath and Beyond, I decided to head over to Lowe's to pick up a vent-shunt of some type for the air-conditioning register over our bed.

As I was driving on County Route 12 toward Route 119, I saw a police car coming toward me, but slewing in the light rain. He swung to his right, off the road, then his left, into my lane. We were each going about forty-five miles an hour, and brakes on the wet asphalt seemed to do little good, so the aggregate speed when we hit was nearly ninety.

The Altima gave its life, violently, to save mine.


Dramatic Tension
After coming to a stop, I inventoried all my body parts, found that everything still worked, resolved to move as little as possible until I was checked out, and proceeded to call Amy, though I was still hyperventilating mildly. The "key in ignition" four-beep pattern sounded, over and over. Around the airbag I could see that smoke and/or steam was wafting from the region of the engine.

While I was on the phone with Amy, the officer who'd cut me off, staggering a bit, came over to my car. I waved an "I'm OK" arm out the window, NASCAR-style, not realizing until later that I hadn't had to roll it down.

"You all right, buddy?"

"Yeah, I'm here and I can move okay."

"Okay, I've called an ambulance. They'll be here before too long."

I returned to my cell phone. Amy was immobile--her car was still at her old apartment, since we were going to reclaim it the next day (we'd planned to collect her cats and introduce them to my dogs), so she called her brother-in-law Greg, and said she'd meet me at the nearby hospital where we'd agreed I'd go.


An Attempt at Comedy
As I waited for the ambulance, another police car arrived and the new officer started asking me questions about my identification, a little belligerently, but as I explained that I had not been drinking, that this was my car, that I was a responsible citizen, employed here in Birmingham, and that I was in general not some random lowlife, he became a little more sympathetic to my position. In his line of work (I believe he was an Alabama state trooper) I'm sure he has to deal with a lot of shirkers and lowlifes, so I could understand a bit of his attitude, but I thought it was remarkable that he was being so gruff toward a guy who was possibly badly hurt, and going to need cutting out of his car.

Speaking of which, we had found by then that my driver's-side door wouldn't open. Nobody wanted to take the risk of moving me over the console in the middle of my front seat, so they began cutting the driver's-side door from the car's frame. A paramedic leaned into the passenger side, and covered me with a blanket as the guys pried and sawed at my door, to shield me from any glass or other debris that might have been flung at me as they worked. The phrase "negative LOC" was tossed around a few times, which I discovered meant that I hadn't lost consciousness during impact, as I'd mentioned to them earlier. Everyone agreed that "negative LOC" was a desirable thing.


The paramedic in the car with me was a good-natured type, and chatted with me as the door-cutters did their thing: recently married; yes, Jamaica was awesome; to which hospital I wanted to be taken; how he liked the GPS he had, and that he'd be careful to pull mine out of the car so as to keep it safe (we've still got it, but it turned out not to have survived the impact).

Eventually after much crunching, popping and grunting the door came off the car.

"All right, Mr. Miller, we're going to take you out of the car now. Do you hurt anywhere?"

I told them that the left side of my neck felt strained, and that I felt like I'd been punched in the chest. I also left like glass from the window might have worked its way into the left side of my pants' waistband, as I had a number of small, sharp pains there. Eventually these injuries would all be shown to have come from the lap belt, shoulder belt and air bag.

They put a neck collar on me, and smoothly worked me out of the car and onto a gurney. There was some brief debate about to which hospital I wanted to be taken, as the one closest to me (for which I'd expressed a preference) didn't have certain types of equipment, and for head-ons (I'd been in a head-on!) they typically liked to hedge their bets a bit more and take people farther into Birmingham.

I insisted on my first choice, mainly because I was pretty sure there wasn't anything too exotic wrong with me; I did mention, though, that I would defer to their expertise if they thought I seriously needed a longer drive.

At that point I was rolled into the back of the ambulance, and driven to the hospital (my first choice, as it happened). It was my first (and hopefully last) ride in an ambulance, and while the experience was actually pretty nifty, the circumstances could have been better. In order to check me out, they wound up cutting my shirt and pants off, and after that I was pretty shivery (not from shock, thankfully, but it had been an exciting evening, and the back of the ambulance was chilly).


Once I got to the hospital they took me to one of their trauma rooms, and after a series of palpations and checking-overs (and another description of the events of the collision, and taking-down of my information) I was told that I'd be getting a head-to-pelvis CAT scan in lieu of any X-rays. I was also given an IV, both because it's evidently standard operating procedure, and because I was eventually going to need some "contrasting agent" injected for one of the CAT scans. Let the record show that despite having given blood to the Red Cross several times, I'm not a fan of IVs.

At about this point Amy and Greg arrived, and we had some very welcome chat and additional goings-over of the events of the crash. I have to give Amy credit--I'm sure I looked like absolute hell, and she was steady and together through the whole thing.

Eventually the orderlies whisked me off for my CAT scans, which took the better part of 45 minutes, and then back to my little trauma room to await the results. To make a long story a little shorter, I was cleared of any serious trauma, and released. Amy and Greg had bought me new clothes to wear home, but it took a little doing and ginger handling to help me limp out of the place and get into Greg's SUV.

Since then, Amy's been a superb and patient nurse, and I've been recovering both faster and slower than I expected. Lots of stiffness, LOTS of very spectacular bruising, but you don't get to see pictures of that, because it's all in areas where my lap and shoulder belts hit me, and this is a family-friendly blog.

Finally, there have been two doctor's visits so far for precaution's sake, and an orthopedic visit scheduled for tomorrow to check on some persistent grief with my right shoulder (did I mention that I tensed against the steering wheel when I saw the hit coming?).

Fundamentally, though, I am whole and only lightly hurt. Similar crashes claim the lives of thousands a year. There have been many thanks offered to the Almighty over the course of this past week from the nascent Miller household.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Yes, Virginia, There is Such a Thing as Evil

This past Saturday I had my bachelor party--I, my brother, and three other friends started the afternoon by heading to an indoor pistol firing range and visiting rather convincing violence on myriad paper targets. I'd fired a .22 rifle in the Boy Scouts when I was 16 or so, but this was the first time I'd ever fired a handgun; it was a great thing, to demystify pistols--my rental was a 9mm Springfield XD. Load the magazine (no mean feat, when you've got a 15-round magazine with a stiff spring), chamber a round, aim, fire until the paper target's taken all the punishment you want to deal out or the magazine's empty, repeat. Just a tool, just a machine. Feeling the thing kick in my hand, hearing the ring of its report in the small building, seeing the targets punched time and again, instilled instant respect for the thing, the weapon.

In any case, great fun was had by all. Shoot, while prepping for the weekend I joined the NRA, something I've been meaning to do for years.

Then news broke on Monday regarding the shootings at Virginia Tech, and I figured that for decency's sake I should sit on the tale of our wild & wacky shooting hijinks at the pistol range. But after watching the (entirely appropriate) coverage of the grief and pain of the moment, I then was treated to the usual (entirely inappropriate) avalanche of "how could this happen?" hand-wringing stories and "who let this happen?" finger-pointing stories.

Blaming the SUV for the Accident
And, of course, there have been the usual calls for increased gun control: "when will it be enough?" "how many of our children must die before we admit to ourselves that the Second Amendment is a bad idea in the modern age?"

And, from Tripp, "We have established a system in which our children are sacrificed for our right to own a firearm...our supposed right to protect ourselves. We are willing, intentionally or not, to allow people to go to K-Mart or Dick's sporting goods and purchase handguns just like the ones that Cho Seung-Hui possessed."

Geez, where to start?

Just because the aphorism "guns don't kill people, people do" has become trite doesn't mean it's wrong. Cho was a disturbed person with violence on his mind and evil in his soul; he'd set fires in his dorm room, stalked women, written disturbing poems and plays, and of course there's the lovely little multimedia presentation he sent to NBC. This was someone who, deprived of firearms, might have set a bomb, lit another dorm fire, charged people brandishing an ice pick, or even laid in wait among the campus's bushes with a length of piano wire. Cho's murderous urge is the problem, not the fact that he had no prior convictions and thus was entirely legal to purchase firearms in Virginia.

Well, Cho's urge was at least half of the problem. You see, Virginia Tech recently managed (all the while thumbing its nose at the Second Amendment) to render itself a gun-free zone, granting itself the power to expel students and fire its staff for possessing any variety of firearm on campus.

I'm sure I'm not the first to come up with this phrase, but this amounts to trying to keep people safe by rendering them defenseless. Does anyone seriously think that the same degree of carnage would have resulted if even one of the professors or students had had a weapon to oppose the madman? Yes, there were armed guards on campus, but they obviously arrived too late to affect the outcome.

Can't We All Just Get Along?
Gun-control advocates seem to think that by making law-abiders (otherwise known as prey) give up their only real means of defense from law-breakers (aka predators), we'll all be safer.

"But, culture of guns! Assault weapons available over the counter at Wal-mart! Surely if guns were harder to get, we'd see less violence using them! It's simple math!"

Sorry, no. Countries enacting strong gun control laws (as in "everybody surrender your weapons under order of the government") almost without exception see increases in all varieties of violent crime, because A) criminals don't surrender their weapons, and B) the knowledge that nobody around them has a firearm with which to fight back emboldens the predators of the world. If I were greedy or desperate enough to try and burgle a house, would I choose one with a "proud gun-free home" sign on the lawn, or one with a "this house defended by Smith & Wesson" sticker on the window? There's probably a reason why I've seen several of the latter kind of decal, and had to make up the former.

Besides, my brother Matt lived in Kennesaw, Georgia for a time: a municipality in which every landowner must own a gun and ammo for it, by law. Interestingly enough, there's very, very little crime there. As one article I found put it, "most criminals don't have a death wish."

The Root of the Problem
Most criminals have no death wish, of course, but not all. Cho is that exception, the irrational actor, but at the same time, he was very methodical about certain aspects of his atrocity. He chained doors shut to keep his targets inside the building; he carried huge amounts of ammunition (none of those killed were hit fewer than three times, and there were another 30ish wounded); he bought his pistols some time apart, and took the time to write his little manifesto/screed.

While Cho may not have been sane, he was day-to-day capable. And as to his motivations and deeds, the only word that I can apply is evil. He was a man who hated deeply and consumingly, and channeled that hate into words and actions that ruined and ended lives, including his own.

I refuse to understand those who advocate defenselessness in the face of a world rife with the sort of evil that consumed Cho, even ones who advocate Christlike cheek-turning, which I take to be a condemnation of revenge more than a pacifist injunction. Proverbs 25:26 reads "Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked," and in my opinion failing to defend oneself or others from one bent on doing ill would be doing just that.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

So Close, and Yet So Far... Keep Trying, Abortion Lobby

"Diabetics cured by stem-cell treatment"

First off, let me say a hearty congratulations! to all those who appear to have had their Type 1 diabetes cured by this treatment, and who will be helped by this treatment as it is perfected and made suitable for application to the rest of the diabetic population.

Second, since the article only expresses this in a roundabout way ("stem cells drawn from [the patients'] own blood"), let me amplify: these were adult stem cells, and required the destruction of no human embryos.

The usefulness of embryonic stem cells (and thus justification for the idea that unborn babies might not only be disposable, thanks to Roe, but their flesh useful) is still awaiting any sort of proof.

Yet the authors of the article can't resist getting their digs in:
Previous studies have suggested that stem-cell therapies offer huge potential to treat a variety of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease. A study by British scientists in November also reported that stem-cell injections could repair organ damage in heart attack victims.

But research using the most versatile kind of stem cells — those acquired from human embryos — is currently opposed by powerful critics, including President Bush.
Those eeevil Republicans and their opposition to baby-killing. How dare they?


Friday, March 30, 2007

Quiz for a Friday

What Be Your Nerd Type?
Your Result: Gamer/Computer Nerd

You enjoy the visual stimulants of a video game, chatting on AIM, or reading online comics. Most of these types of nerds are considered dirty who lack hygeine, of course they always end up being the ones who make a crapload of money. And don't worry, that's just a stereotype; I'm not calling you dirty. ^_~

Literature Nerd
Drama Nerd
Science/Math Nerd
Social Nerd
Artistic Nerd
Anime Nerd
What Be Your Nerd Type?
Quizzes for MySpace

I consider my high Literature Nerd score to redeem, at least partially, my Gamer/Computer one. :-) And I hope Amy will attest to my cleanliness. ;-)

Hat tip to Tripp.


Friday, March 23, 2007

On the Prospect of Fred Thompson Running for President

The more I hear from and read about Fred Thompson, the more I appreciate him. He's a communicator, which would be a refreshing change from the current White House, and a conservative, which, well, would be another. As the new banner to the right of the page shows, I really, really think he should run.

One of the things I find fascinating about the idea of Thompson running, though, is that he really doesn't need to for personal reasons. In fact, there are several reasons why being elected President could actually be negatives for him: he makes excellent money acting; he's got a recently married wife (2002) and a very young child (three-and-a-half years old); he's already spent some time in public service; finally, he gets to conduct his life at the intensity and pace he chooses, to an extent that few of us ever do. By most measures of success, Fred Thompson should be deep in proverbial "fat & happy" territory.

So if Thompson gets himself elected President next year, he'll be condemning himself and his young daughter to miss between four and eight years of one another's lives. He'll take a heavy pay cut. He'll also be signing up for the most stressful job in the world. Finally, he doesn't have that career-politician air about him, implying that the pursuit of power isn't foremost in his mind. The move would thus be a significant personal sacrifice, in several ways.

For that reason I'm becoming convinced that if Thompson does run, he'll do it for almost purely ideological reasons. He's being coy and playing patty-cake with the decision for now (which is also very intelligent: by the time primary elections begin in February 2008 we're all going to be sick, sick, sick of the current crop of candidates), but most indicators show that the response from all over the Right has been overwhelmingly positive. Thompson even said as much in an interview with Laura Ingraham earlier this week.

Lots and lots of comparisons are beginning to be made between Thompson and another actor-turned-President, and while many of them are a bit breathless and ill-thought-out, the point is that Thompson doesn't have to run, and indeed has several good reasons to avoid running. There's a nobility in that, and an opportunity for a little ideological housecleaning among Republicans (read: butt-kicking of laggards and milquetoasts) that I find promising.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lorikeet, with Your Humble Blogospondent

Two weekends ago Amy and I had a blast visiting the Birmingham Zoo. I hadn't thought to bring along my better digital camera, but DontPanic managed to serve decently in the other cam's absence. A great time was had by all, and while over 85 pictures resulted from the trip, the seven I uploaded to Flickr were the cream of the crop in terms of subject matter and picture quality.

Click the ruggedly-handsome image above for the mini-gallery.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

On the 2008 Presidential Race

It is certainly passing strange that attention has become focused on the 2008 Presidential campaign so early (20 months early as of this writing, to be exact).

I am, of course, not without opinion on the matter, so I'll spout for a bit. ;-)

Rudy Giuliani
Rudy is America's Mayor, of course. One of the louder voices of reason and clearmindedness in the wake of September 11, he's also got a reputation as a fighter, and a guy who's not cowed by the press and its invidiousness toward all Republicans.

Rudy's willingness to actually combat his critics is a bonus for him, and in my opinion the reason he's enjoying the popularity he currently is: many Republicans are very, very (very) tired of the Bush white house's maddeningly passive attitude toward the hits they take from their "loyal opposition," both in Congress and from the press.

Sadly, as a Republican Rudy's an odd duck, and a caustic choice: pro-abortion, pro-gay-marriage, pro-gun-control, two divorces, estranged family members, and that's just the short list. He's attempted to mollify his critics by promising to pursue strict constructionist judicial appointments and to prosecute the Global War on Terror vigorously, and by appealing for privacy in personal matters, but this is a guy I and many GOPers would vote for as a vote against Hillary. Real nose-holding material.

John McCain
"Maverick." The Straight Talk Express. Campaign Finance "Reform." Sops to illegal immigrants in his home state. Gang of 14. "Torture" legislation that governed nothing of the sort and insulted our soldiers.

All the distinguished service, all the years in the Hanoi Hilton, and all the foreign-policy hawkery in the world won't wash the taste of betrayal out of GOPers' mouths that Maverick McCain has left over the years. Still better than Hillary, but he's been talking out of both sides of his mouth for too long. Very unlikely to win the nomination. Nose-holder extraordinaire.

Mitt Romney
Anyone who's had LDS proselytizers knock on their door knows that Mormons can tend toward the "creepy and a little weird" end of the spectrum--especially when someone brings up all that 19th-century polygamy business, and of course the underwear. I've known people from most faiths who spike my creep-o-meter, though, so for me that's a wash, and Mitt himself doesn't register on it anyway. Mormons actually represent some of the best family-values practitioners out there (Mitt's the only candidate so far who's still on his first wife, for example), so the LDS "factor" isn't one for me, though it may very well be for some.

My issue with Mitt is that he's got the potential to be a Republican Kerry--a flip-flopper. I know that he was governor of the People's Republic of Massachusetts, but that doesn't mean he gets a pass on his past abortion support, or other left-of-center positions that have seen a turnaround since he left office and began looking at a Presidential run. I need to know more, but for now he bothers me in that "voted against it before voting against it" way. Another nose-holder. Better Mitt than Hillary.

Newt Gingrich
Is Newt Gingrich Back?
Now we're getting interesting. :-) On the surface Newt has one of Rudy's weaknesses--the three-wives thing--but the times being what they are, finding an unblemished candidate on that front is becoming difficult.

At the very least, though, Newt has an established record of conservative legislation and voting. He's got good conservative ideas and ideals, knows Washington and its ins and outs, and has a rep for going on the attack when it's necessary. See Rudy, above, for our tiredness with passivity in the face of attack at the White House. Newt's the first candidate in this lineup that I'm anything like enthused to vote for, as opposed to simply being a way to keep Hillary out of the Big Chair. Now if only he'd actually run.

Fred Thompson
Lights, Camera ... Candidacy?
Please, Lord, please, may we be so lucky.

Okay, negatives first. One divorce in the 1980s from a wife he married when he was 17. Support for McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform, which he seems to regret, from the article "Lights, Camera ... Candidacy?" linked above:
Conceding that McCain-Feingold hasn't worked as intended, and is being riddled with new loopholes, he throws his hands open in exasperation. "I'm not prepared to go there yet, but I wonder if we shouldn't just take off the limits and have full disclosure with harsh penalties for not reporting everything on the Internet immediately."
Hell yes. On to the positives: Fred's pro-life, pro-second-amendment, pro-muscular-defense, pro-free-market, pro-conservative-in-general, and a strict constructionist. Other than wanting a more thorough repudiation of McCain-Feingold I have no serious policy issues with the man.

As a candidate, he's well-spoken, has a commanding physical and personal presence, is known as a straight shooter, and has a proven conservative track record in government. He's also well-known and well-liked thanks to his long tour on Law and Order, and has the distinction of having uttered the line, "Russians don't take a dump, son, without a plan" in the movie version of Hunt for Red October. Fantastic. Avuncular, even.

In case you can't tell, I really like Fred Thompson. Now if, like Newt, he'd only state for the record that he's running.


PS. Re: the divorce thing, as a divorcé myself, some might argue I have no business bringing the matter up, or thinking it important, but it's become a minor sub-issue around the Republican candidate race, so I figured it made sense to include it here. Shucks, Reagan was our first divorced President, and Clinton is still married to his first wife. Goes to show that it's not that simple a gauge. Newt and Rudy, though, also have well-known and documented affairs on their records, which is IMO a much simpler gauge, and a substantive black mark against both candidates.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Family-ful Weekend; Bachelorhood on the Wane

Had a great time with family and friends this weekend!

My brother Matt and his wife Amy made the trek to Birmingham this weekend so that Matt's Amy could attend my Amy's "bridal tea" (a wonderfully Southern take on the bridal shower), as thrown by a longtime friend of my soon-to-be-mother-in-law. In the interim, Matt and Amy stayed overnight with Amy's parents, and Matt dropped by my (soon to be our) house and we geeked out with the Xbox 360 and generally had an excellent afternoon.

After the major part of the tea was finished, Matt and I traveled to the tea's Location of Note to load up our cars with the gifts: the cargo areas, both of two smaller cars and of my newly-renosed Altima, were filled nearly to capacity by the beneficence of the tea's attendants!

Much fun was had by all, and my Amy took the opportunity afterward to reconfigure my/our bathroom and bedroom with some of the accoutrements. Shaving and showering were made as new this morning as a result... Negotiations as to the minutiae of bathroom layout will likely ensue, debating the merits of of formal and functional punctilia. ;-)

One of life's few constants is change, and my own life is rife with changes welcome and joyous. I am happy as I've seldom been.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mobility; Lent

Yesterday was of course Ash Wednesday, if you're the sort of person who celebrates it. For those not in the know, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent for many Christians.

It's customary during Lent to give up something you like to do, or would normally do, in order to remember Christ's sacrifice for us, and also to get into the purifying spirit of Lent, wherein we focus on our spiritual development and ask God and ourselves, "so how am I doing?"

We're not supposed to brag about or make much of our sacrifices (wouldn't want to be confused with scribes or Pharisees, who already have their reward, having sacrificed openly), but one of the things Amy and I are doing is abstaining from TV on weeknights. This has already precipitated a few very good third-order effects, like doing a lot more reading and journaling.

I've finally picked up Mere Christianity again, for example, and am enjoying another trip into C.S. Lewis's mind. I had forgotten that it was written as a palliative for the English as they were being bombed during the German Blitz in World War II. Intense.

What do you want in a mobile device?
Of course, being back in a "reading mode" has got me doing more of it on my smartphone, and in turn thinking about how DontPanic functions.

I'm still very much enjoying the Spb Mobile Shell interface, and have rearranged a lot of the program shortcuts in DontPanic's Start menu for easier, categorized access. I'm getting more out of the device than I have since buying it, and so I've begun putting some thought into how I use the little guy, and what more I might be able to get out of it, with a little effort.

The central question, I suppose, is: given a pocketable computing widget with a cell phone radio and data access, what are the things it's most useful to have it do?

Here are the things I use DontPanic for right now, in rough order of importance to me:
  • E-mail and text messaging
  • Telephony (phone calls and voice mail)
  • Calendar management and reminders/alarms
  • Address-book management
  • To-do list management
  • Calculator
  • Checkbook balancing (less frequently than I should)
  • Web access (from news to maps/directions to weather)
  • Note taking
  • Digital camera use
  • E-book reading (mainly Bible reading and lookups, but also some classics)
I don't currently use DontPanic for music storage or playback (too little space on the 1GB storage card I bought for it), or video media (same problem, only moreso, and it's underpowered for most video, to boot).

I also don't do as much writing or blogging on the beast as I might otherwise, which I think is a real shame. I like the unit's built-in keyboard well enough for short messages, but a Bluetooth (wireless) keyboard would help get around that issue.

I'd really like to be able to use DontPanic more effectively for things like online shopping. Sadly, most commerce sites (eBay, Amazon, etc.) work very badly--if at all--in Internet Explorer Mobile, and the few alternative browsers I've tried have provided very little improvement. Still, the last time I tried was a few months ago, so I should probably do so again.

[Edit, 8:30 PM - Looks like Opera Mini has solved most of its problems, making it my one-stop-shop now for Amazon, eBay, My Yahoo! and other heavily cookie-dependent and session-heavy sites. Huzzah! It's still a Java app targeted at Windows Mobile Smartphone Edition, though, which means it's wasteful of screen space and doesn't support soft-keys natively, but for online-commerce ability I'll put up with those!]

What do you, my readers, use your phones (smart or otherwise) for? What would you use a portable info-widget for, if it was arbitrarily well-connected to the internet, or capacious, or otherwise unlimited?


Friday, February 09, 2007

Deer Damage to the Altima

Deer Damage
Back on the 27th of last month I had the misfortune to hit a deer while driving to pick up my lovely fiancée Amy. It was dusk, and rainy, and I never even saw the poor animal until my hood was flipping up from the impact. I saw a brief flash of the deer's head--no antlers, so this time of year I think that means a doe--and then I couldn't see anything but the top of my flipped-up hood.

The impact was at around 45 mph, so I don't have much hope for the deer. I never saw it leave the scene, but it was nowhere to be found by the time police arrived to take my report. I was unhurt, though briefly freaked out. The airbag didn't even deploy.

Cracked radiator, replacement hood, broken hood hinges, paint matching, damaged airbag sensor, cracked air ducts... The list goes on. The bill for the repairs has so far come to just shy of $6,000--GEICO has been fantastic, as has the repair shop recommended to me by my soon-to-be-brother-in-law.

These are some pictures the adjuster took of the damage. I confirmed with GEICO that posting them was OK, so now everyone gets to see the results. Oddly, it doesn't look so bad; the headlights were even functional as I limped the car the mile back to my house.

Lord willin' and the creek don't rise, I'll have the car back by the end of next week. I'm driving a rented late-model Volkswagen Jetta in the interim, after trying and rejecting a PT Cruiser as entirely too small. Nice car! Decent pickup, and full of nice VW appointments.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Why I Will Always Love Steve Jobs's Apple, Inc. for Being a Disruptive Influence

Now this is what I'm talkin' about.

I rhapsodized about the goodness that is (will be) the Apple iPhone a few posts ago.

It looks as though one of the other third-order iPhone effects I've been hoping for is coming to light, too: pressure on other vendors to improve their products.

Viz.: I downloaded yesterday and installed Spb Mobile Shell, a blandly-named but important application for Windows Mobile 5 by Spb Software House, a development outfit whose offerings figure prominently in my daily smartphone use. Spb Mobile Shell is what will eventually be a replacement for the stylus-heavy Start Menu and its ugly sibling, the scroll-to-see-more-info, squint-to-see-the-tiny-text Programs application.

Compare these two screen shots:
The leftmost shot is the standard Windows Mobile "Today" screen, with a few plugins I've installed to show the information most people would want to see. It's actually pretty clean compared to some. Bear in mind that my Cingular 8125's touchscreen is only 57mm tall by 44mm wide (a little less than 2.5"x2).

The shot on the right is the new "Now" screen from Spb Mobile Shell. Much simpler and clearer, no? It eschews loads and loads of data for the stuff that is most important to show on a cell phone, and I can even hide the weather data or show the next upcoming calendar appointment if I choose. It also, by default, is the first thing you see when you turn your phone on.

Now, consider these two shots:
The benefit of the new approach is more subtle in this case. On the left you have the default Favorites (web bookmarks) view presented by Internet Explorer Mobile. Neat, orderly, clearly organized, but small, small, small, and requiring lots of scrolling and navigational effort to see more of the list. Heaven forbid you only have one hand free, or are working without your glasses, or what have you.

On the right you have the Favorites view as presented by Mobile Shell. Much less information, but each of the lines is big enough to be touched easily with a fingertip on a small screen. Also, take note of the white-on-green "Back" and "More" entries at the bottom of the screen. They're touch-sensitive areas, though small, but more importantly they represent actions that are mapped to "soft buttons" on the smartphone itself. There's actually a little physical button (mandated by the MS Smartphone spec) located beneath each word that, when pressed, triggers the action in question. So I can now go forward and back in the list of Favorites, quickly, using physical buttons I can find in the dark. Back on the touchscreen, touching a folder jumps me to a list of that folder's Favorites, and so forth. When I finally touch a Favorite, it opens Internet Explorer and I'm taken right to the web page in question. Also, I can get to the shell's Favorites list without having to open the browser first: I pick the Favorite I want, and then the browser opens. Much faster, and more efficient.

Basically, it's much quicker to use almost everything on the phone using the new shell: the touchscreen is useful, suddenly, without pulling out the device's stylus; buttons on the device become much more functional for navigation; it's possible to see what you're doing while holding the phone at arm's length; the list goes on and on.

Here are a few more examples:
The navigation scheme is becoming more clear now. From a denser, scrolling list with hierarchy expressed on the same screen, we move to sparser lists (more space for each item, making hitting areas with a thumb easier) that express list length and hierarchy through Back/More navigation rather than having to hit some far-off, small area on the screen (a scrollbar and/or tab, as above, or the "plus" to expand a tree as in the Favorites example) with a stylus.

Okay, last example, but easily my favorite.
On the left we have the "Start" menu, staple of Windows navigation everywhere. It's meant to serve as the first-stopoff point for launching frequently-used applications, and as a most-recently-used list of the same applications. Great in theory, lousy in practice, because the elements are small, again, and tedious to navigate, again. Even with the directional button-pad on the device, it's just too laborious to do quickly, or efficiently. Forget trying to pick from the menu with a fingertip. Ain't happening, or at least not correctly more than about 60% of the time. I've been using this unit for a while, and the touchscreen is exquisitely calibrated. I know whereof I speak.

On the right we have Mobile Shell's approach: the same three-by-three grid as before, with good jumping-in points for common smartphone activities. Finger-navigable, fast, clear, efficient.

Spb Mobile Shell is a simple little app, that does a few important things extremely well. I've only had it installed for about a day, now, and it's already changed the way I use my Cingular 8125. The individual parts of the Windows Mobile experience haven't been fixed or changed (I still hate the MMS message-composition app), but the navigation "glue" among them has been revolutionized.

I've even started using a few little apps that I knew were part of Windows Mobile (Notes instead of Word Mobile is the best example), because they're so much easier to get to through Mobile Shell that they're worth using.

Kudos to Spb for making it happen, even in SpbMS's current 1.0 state.

Demerits to Microsoft, Spb, and the entire smartphone universe for requiring the iPhone to debut before getting it done.


Friday, February 02, 2007

Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence...

Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of..
I can stop any time I want. Truly. :-)

Yep, I've acquired a tea habit. This scene depicts the lamentable state of the shelf above a part of my cube at work.

I'm still adjusting to the barky taste of rooibos herbal tea, though a nice Twinings Earl Grey, Tazo Zen Green or Irish Breakfast will always brighten my day.

It's probably at least partially psychosomatic, but I'm feeling more awake and more creative, and little things about my health have taken turns for the better (not that they were bad) since beginning to slurp down four 20-oz. cops a day instead of carbonated aspartame-water.

Plus, hot water is free around the office. I'm saving money over sodas, honest.

I do need to bear in mind the admonitions of Robert Frezza's character Raul Sanmartin as regards tea, however. I'm in the middle of a reread of Frezza's seminal A Small Colonial War of late, and when I run across the relevant quote I'll post it here.