Thursday, July 31, 2008

RADIO: Get Out the Salami and Cheese, It's Over!

We are hours, not days, away from the end of the Chuck Swirsky era. I think I will miss him on the airwaves with The Fan 590 AM radio and on the Toronto Raptors basketball broadcasts. But some of his idiosyncrasies will not be missed.

The Swirsk, as immortalized on Saturday Night Live, is a force of nature. His eternal optimism and boosterism for his adapted city and country were refreshing, but wearing. If there was one thing that bugged me about Swirsky, it was that he wouldn't get mad at what he saw or heard, when it was shoddy and below par entertainment-wise. The lowest he would go, in the face of absolute horrid play, was to say, "Let's face it folks, tonight, the Raptors have not played well." He'd follow up by promising better for the next game.

In all honesty, as an employee of the club, he COULD NOT rip the club. But sometimes, as a listener, I wanted him to get as mad as I was at what was going on before our eyes. He couldn't meet me half-way.

On his radio show, he perpetually had to mention to interview subjects that he wasn't shining them on or buttering them up, and then would proceed to do so. He didn't ask tough questions. But, because of his Larry King-like interviewing style, and history in both Chicago and Detroit, he got a fair representation of athletes and coaches to come on his show. And truthfully, he really wasn't all that different from the rest of the hosts on The Fan. Even Bob McCown, is more lustre than bluster when it comes to interviewing people, not that he doesn't huff and puff pre- and post-interview about how tough he is. The difference is that McCown won't have jocks on to babble while Swirsky would.

Having detailed what I didn't like about Swirsky (missed bemoaning his second favourite phrase, 'Onions, baby, Onions!'), let me tell you he injected enthusiasm into Raptor broadcasts that was welcome. Like Joe Bowen, his inflections rose and fell with the game, allowing one to follow what was going on, even if you weren't paying sole attention to the TV screen. He ran an excellent broadcast with Jack Armstrong, entertaining and informative. You could tell they enjoyed working together. I've said my piece about his work with Leo Rautins, which I blame more on Rautins.

The radio show was worth listening to during the afternoons. He was never offensive and had a regular three interviews per hour after the opening hour's call-in show. He genuinely loved Toronto and Canada and that's always good to hear somebody from somewhere else say. I never, ever picked up the phone and called into the station to complain about him, which I HAVE done for other announcers at the station.

Swirsky leaves to return to the States, and to Chicago specifically, for family reasons. He's taking a paycut to return to the Chicago Bulls as their radio announcer. It's a mark of the man that not one person I've listened to or read, in print or on the web, has not respected his wish that those reasons be kept private. I'm going to respect that decision too, and not even speculate.

He wasn't perfect, but Swirsky will be missed. Reluctantly, it's time to "Get out the salami and cheese," one last time. Good-bye Chuck.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

SOFTWARE: The 411 on DNS

DNS, Domain Name Services, is/are very important to your computer. DNS is a translation service, turning into it's numerical twin, You will admit, that typing in is a WHOLE lot easier than typing in, and remembering, that string of four numbers. Especially when it's going to become six numbers in the not too distant future.

This whole computer equivalent to a telephone directory offers ease of use over all other considerations. It lets you enter easy-to-remember word codes (the name part), tells the system what you REALLY mean is the IP code (the number part) and does this about as transparently as possible. And when the folks at various web-sites change the place where their web-site is, they can just tell the DNS directories and the changeover is handled pretty smoothly, many times with no visible change to the customer (the YOU part). Doesn't even require a change-of-address/telephone card (the pain in the butt part).

It's the last part of the DNS system that prevents me from going hog-wild and just changing over all of my bookmarks from the to It WOULD be faster UNTIL a change, then it wouldn't work at all. I'm not willing to spend several minutes changing something to save a micro-second, especially if I might later end up spending an hour figuring out why google suddenly seems unavailable on my machine and nobody else's.

Still, I should point out to you that there are more than one DNS service out there. Your ISP has one. Rogers in my case. There are several commercial DNS outfits who maintain a DNS service that is refined and filtered of crud (thus quicker and safer). Depending on the outfit, it might filter out sex sites and gambling sites, for example. A company who doesn't want its workers looking for such sites on company time and hardware, can employ a commercial site to lock these sites down, as well as a bunch of other not-so-good sites.

There are also free DNS services available, including the very highly regarded OpenDNS site. Besides PROBABLY being faster than your ISP site, it's also got some other goodies that make it worth your time to consider moving to OpenDNS for your DNS needs. In fact, for the time being right now, it might be a VERY GOOD IDEA to switch. I know for SURE that OpenDNS has been protected against the most recent security vulnerability discovered in Windows. I'd LIKE to think Rogers has been jolly on the spot, but you never know ...

A recent article at ComputerWorld does a good job of outlining the issue AND showing a step-by-step how-to to fix the issue for sure in 30 seconds ... plus the time to reboot your computer. Take a look at it. You might find some small gains out of it and a little bit more piece of mind.

And yes, if you don't want to pass along the long link above, have them type in

NOTE: With all CW articles, the story can be removed or archived at any time. There is not guarantee the site above will work forever.

BOOKS: The Lost Fleet: Valiant - Jack Campbell

Things move slowly quickly in the universe inhabited by Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet series. Campbell's tales of interstellar war between the good guys from The Alliance and the bad guys from The Syndic Worlds are tales told at a snail's pace, setting up brief episodes of battle that pass all too quickly.

Valiant is the fourth book in the series, which has been engrossing throughout. Yet this one feels like the lesser of the books. It starts with the Second Battle of Lakota and manages to make the replay of the only skirmish the Alliance fleet's relatively lost since Black Jack Geary took over command of the armada, last for almost half the book's length. If you love turn-based battle simulations, then those 100 plus pages are going to entertain you and keep you guessing at how Geary will pull the Alliance's fat out of the fire. Even if you don't like simulation games, you'll enjoy the ride.

These battles, done as realistically as physics will allow in a universe with the conceit of interstellar flight through space, have been the focus of the series. No Star Wars-like battles with fast and faster spaceships dueling like World War II era airplanes. No, hours and days take place before battle can be joined. Then, the chance to score hits on the opponents lasts seconds, if that, before velocity shoots your ship past their's. It takes time (and pages) before you can curve around for another engagement. It all feels VERY 'real' in a way. All in all, this is military SF at a high level.

Then we get the second half of the book.

It's a 'character development' section of the series. After three books, the love/lust triangle between Geary, his ship's captain Tanya Desjani, and Senator Victoria Rhone, Co-President of the Callas Republic, takes half a book to get resolved. At least in terms of who's gong to end up with who. It's handled awfully awkwardly by a writer obviously much, much better versed in the ways of physics than writing bad romance material.

Interspersed with the girls-and-guy stuff, we get a move by the conspirators in the fleet to make one last gasp attempt to dethrone Geary. It's done through computer worms. Several waves of them. And it's all so unbelievable that the security guys aboard the command ship Dauntless can't track them, even though the team admits to knowing about many, many shadow-nets running through the fleet's main computer systems. At the same time, they've been able to detect how the aliens (secretly monitoring the fleet and having started the Alliance-Syndic war a century ago) have been piggy-backing on their computer systems. Unh-hunh.

Ultimately, I think the biggest issue Campbell has to face continuing this series is the unbelievability factor. The fleet sailors and marines think Geary has been a gift from the gods. His winning against all odds at Lakota has surely made it impossible for any but the stupidest to believe the fleet would back any coup attempt. It's not rational. They'd be better off letting him work his magic and get the lost fleet back to Alliance space, then assassinate him there.

With his need for character development behind him, I'm hoping Campbell focuses in on the remaining battles to get Dauntless and company home. Peace will ensue and then Geary and humanity can turn their attentions to the aliens that caused all of this grief, death and destruction during his 'extended' life-time. Let's say there's another two books to go in the Lost Fleet series. Then he can start Humanity's Hope.

In other words, Geary's romantic fulfillment is still a LOOOOOONG ways away!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

MISC: Look What They've Done to My Bottle, Ma

It might not be a song beloved by all, but I'm tellin' ya, I'm pretty peeved about the latest attempt to re-invent the ketchup bottle.

Back about two months or so, I went out and got my ketchup supply for the summer. Then, in a pleasant surprise, Casey Slack came over and donated a case of the new 1.25 litre bottles with the new format, allowing me to feel comfortable not going to Costco again until the ides of December will be upon me. All told, I think I had 30 bottles of the delicious red nectar on hand at the time, easily six month's supply.

Now, to be honest, I use a LOT of ketchup. I'm addicted to the stuff. Have been all of my live. My only defence is that I never put it on chocolate ice cream, which at least one member of my family can't claim. I even put ketchup on my canned tomato soup. My name is Gary and I am a Ketchup-holic.

Over the years I've had all kinds of ways of getting my ketchup. I even arranged to have my ketchup delivered directly from Heinz for a while, the only purveyor of the stuff that should be allowed to sell it. Nothing angers me more than to be served weak imitation stuff. It's insulting to the very notion of ketchup.

When ketchup' mode of delivery turned from glass to plastic, I have to admit I was pretty happy. I knew the tricks for extracting ketchup, which did NOT include hammering the bottom after opening it, hoping to start the red flow flowing. Course, I learned that by ending up wearing ketchup. Or worse, having my pops wearing it. It's funny after the fact, but he wasn't grinning at the time. A little judicious knifework and any slow-moving glass bottle of ketchup could be made to give up the goodness.

Then, along came plastic. The perfect taste in the perfect delivery system. What more could a connoisseur want? Well, some people had trouble getting the last little bit of ketchup out. It was exactly the SAME problem as with glass bottles. And easy to solve. Yet somehow, someone pandered for a flat top to allow for stable, easy inverting of the bottle. That would allow for the congregating of the last bit of ketchup in the head of the bottle.

Voila. Was born the flattop. A solution to a problem already solved. (HINT: Empty tall glass, near empty ketchup bottle inverted. Dunh!!?!?). And of course, the solution created a brand-new problem.

The laser-like accuracy of the squirt from the now-old plastic bottle was a thing of beauty. You could coat that hot dog or even do individual french fries. Need a little dot on the corner of that grilled sandwich? No problem.

But not with the flattop. The squirts is still small, but now you have a two-inch diameter shield blocking you from seeing the target unless you twist and contort yourself around to see just where the dribble is going. And yes, I have detected a minute change in ketchup formulation to make it slightly runnier. I detect a little more 'red water' pre-pour from these bottles.

However, it's not the reduced firing visibility that incenses me most about the new format bottles. It's that the bottles have been made slimmer to be more fridge-friendly. It even champions the cause of storing the ketchup in the refrigerator.


The very idea of ketchup being kept in the fridge to congeal to a stolid, heat-killing mass is an affront to civilization! Lumpy, cold ketchup on hot food? When will this nightmare end? If it is at ALL possible that you might actually have an opened ketchup bottle sitting around unconsumed long enough to spoil, BUY A SMALLER BOTTLE!

Or open it up, use the two squirts you bought it for, and then send it to me. Postage paid.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

BOOKS: Samurai Girl - Carrie Asai

I am totally, utterly confused about the Samurai Girl series (set mostly in contemporary Los Angeles) of young adult novels by Carrie Asai. First, the books are supposedly aimed at tween girls, which shocks me completely. Secondly, the first book in the series, The Book of the Sword, is a pretty decent action book that will probably make a decent TV series (There IS a Samurai Girl TV series on the way in September). And third, the next three books of the series fail to expand on the promising start, instead detailing the stupidest heroine since Pauline of the Perils of Pauline stepped aside.

By the way, I'm not kidding about it being aimed at tweens. First, the TV series is going to come from ABC Family. And secondly, from the page's description - "Grade 6 Up ... A step above the usual action/adventure series book, Sword is great for all audiences, but especially reluctant readers." It's a step above, no doubt. The rest of that excerpt is wrong.

Testing the waters to see if this would be something Angela would like, I discovered the debut book was more up A.J.'s alley. There was some girlie pining by the heroine, Heaven Kogo, for her sensei Hiro, but generally, the first book was action-oriented. Plus, the book was about a woman (young at 19, but still a woman) having your basic disastrous wedding. Or an attempt at one. She's marrying the odious Teddy Yukemura at the behest of her father. Just before the final "I do," the wedding is interrupted by a ninja or two. One kills the other, the victim being Heaven's brother Ohiko.

Instead of a Mafia Princess riff done Japanese style, we get a Heaven on the run from who knows what. Doesn't take her long to discover daddy dearest and Teddy and his family are all yakuza. Ohiko's dying words were for Heaven to seek out his friend Hiro. Heaven succeeds in short order, coming in contact with the man who will become her trainer in the ways of the Samurai.

Think a lot of 12-year girls are into this kind of story? Me neither, although a certain segment of the tween audience WILL read, understand and enjoy this book.

The remainder of the first book consists of Heaven training, occasionally fighting, sighing a lot over the unrequited passion she feels for Hiro, and trying to figure out what is going on. That mystery seems entertaining enough. Some people obviously want her dead. Others want her to return home and to continue the marriage. It's all properly mysterious and portends great fun in trying to figure who's who amongst the good and bad guys. Interspersed throughout the book are personal memos from the other characters in the story, allowing the reader to understand more of their motivations.

A big factor in wanting to continue the series was the top-notch packaging, by the Simon Pulse literary imprint. It's graphical representation makes it feel like something produced in the Orient, with marginal graphics on most pages. In fact, the marginalia greatly reduces the 215-page length to something you should be able to get through in about three hours. There are illustrations scattered throughout by Annabelle Verhoye that are evocative of Japanese woodblock art and are well-suited to the story. The last nice touch, the one that I truly think WOULD appeal to the tween girl, is a page of Samurai Girl temporary tattoos.

Good book, good package, bring on the rest of the series.

What a complete and utter disappointment the next three books are. The pining for Hiro becomes over-powering. Clearly overkill and filler. Studious editing would have cut down the books by 10 per cent without losing any substance. We get that Heaven has a big crush in Hiro. We even get Hiro wishes he could reciprocate. Even the interference by that needy witch Karen, Hiro's girlfriend, plays out over too many pages. Hammering away at it only makes the reader turn pages, waiting for the next fight.

The books follow Heaven's development as a Samurai, turning her into a literary version of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Instead of vamps, Heaven develops the ability to dispose of thugs (mostly of Japanese origin) and ninjas as if THEY were the ones just beginning their training. Sure she gets bruised a bit. And companions don't always fare well when around her. But boy, can she kick and punch with the best of them. Bet all those ninjas have remedial classes awaiting them when they go back to their dark master, whoever he or she might be. The ludicrous road-side battle with Heaven and Teddy fighting off ten ninjas dropped from a helicopter in the fourth book ... well that was a reading-stopper.

I just had to stop and think about the wasted day of my life reading about Heaven's life on the run. It started innocently and logically enough. She finds Hiro very quickly. Okay. But then, these two supposedly well-schooled people then STICK AROUND for the bad guys to continually find them and try to kidnap and/or murder them.

EVERY time when Heaven gets asked her name, she says, "Heaven!" EVERY TIME! Never Betsy, Katie or Mieko or whatever. And most times, she's free with identifying herself as Heaven Kogo. You know, the girl from the HEADLINES and who's picture has been on TV. She doesn't do much to change her appearance, other than putting on clean clothes. No change in style, no change in hair, doesn't even put on fake glasses. And when bad people find her, she does NOT RUN FOR THE HILLS! Stays put. And if that doesn't work, she'll head off for the local club, where club-hopping Teddy finds her about three-quarters of the time. And while at the club, Heaven drinks. Swears off drinking, and then drinks some more. She discovers that drinking really DOES inhibit her ability to do the martial arts stuff, so she drinks some more. It's Weekday After-School Special-level devotion to showing the evils of drinking.

Oh, and she also calls various family and Yakuza members and seems insistent on telling where she is. Then, she's surprised when the ninjas show up.

I hate the potential that was wasted from the first book. I just hope the TV series, which will probably be a marriage of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles with Buffy, will benefit from some thought put into the lead character. It's REALLY, REALLY hard to pull for such a stupid woman.

I've read four books in the series. A total of six are out, as of this writing. Those two books will have to eventually find their way to somebody else's bookshelf.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Books: The Spellman Files - Lisa Lutz

Reading Week (all 12 days of it) ends with a very pleasant surprise. Despite a rocky start, Lisa Lutz' The Spellman Files proved to be a very entertaining read.

Although the book details the wacky goings on of a completely dysfunctional family of PI's, the central viewpoint character is Isabel Spellman, described by one reviewer as the love child of Dirty Harry and Harriet the Spy, by another as part Bridget Jones, part Columbo. I just liked her for having an obsession with old Get Smart episodes.

Spellman's whole family, mom and dad, big bro David, Isabel and little sis Rae are all PI's. Even Uncle Ray does his turn for Spellman Investigations, which is run out of the family home, a stately manor in San Francisco. Unfortunately, all three kids are off-kilter to one degree or another. David's the perfect child, who left the family firm to go into a well-paying job as a lawyer and source for a lot of the family's cases. He rebels against being perfect in ways that are predictable, but restrained at the same time.

Isabel is a real bit of work. A wild child, Izzie spent most of her teen years barely evading juvie hall. Put to work as a twelve-year old, she developed a skewed view of the world, especially as it pertained to personal privacy. She wanted it, assumed nobody else did. Rae turns out to be just Isabel put on fast-forward, doing her first surveillance work for the firm at age eight.

I know farmers often get their kids working at an early age. To me, that's reasonable and healthy. For a family that works and lives together, and are in the spying game, this kind of early child labour should be deemed illegal. Funny, but illegal.

The book itself is told in non-linear fashion. In fact, the opening scene is not caught up with, until three quarters of the book has passed by. Just as an aside, the opening paragraph had me worried. (paraphrasing) Her boots make echoing sounds as she tries to evade those trying to track her. She then makes a mental note not to wear these shoes if there's going to be a pursuit.

What woman confuses boots and shoes in the same paragraph?

At any rate, the featured case of the book doesn't really get started until the book is almost half-done. The solution to that case is obvious a hundred pages from the finish line, but tortuously, the book continues to wind down as the family dynamic of the Spellmans blows up. Sounds depressing, and it is on a human level.

But this is a VERY funny book. Lutz throws everything against the wall, chapter after chapter. A lot of it sticks to the funny rib. A fair bit of it shows the effects of a first-time novel writer. For example, footnotes denoting Get Smart's KAOS stands for The International Organization of Evil is amusing the first time. Not so much the two or three times after that. The over-use of footnotes wears out its welcome too. But boy, does the palaver between Rae and Izzie ring true. I've seen two bright kids of differing ages go at each other just like the two girls do.

The book ends sadly in at least one respect. Rebounding from that tragedy, Lutz offers up a hope for the future (already written in the form of Curse of the Spellmans) and I intend to follow her up on that offer.

All told, I got through eight books in the 12 days, work commitments and a day of computer re-arranging stopping me from doing more reading. But it was a good reading week this summer. I've still got the Samurai Girl series by Carrie Asai, military SF series books by Jack Campbell and Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian and one of John Zakour's wacky SF books atop the reading pile. Then there's a new Artemis Fowl book by Eoin Colfer, all those Monk books by Lee Goldberg, ...

Really, Reading Week never ends, does it?

Friday, July 25, 2008

TV: Middling Bad News

I didn't hold out much hope that The MiddleMan would be anything more than a 13-and-out summer series. I liked it a lot, but thought pace and subject matter would doom the interesting little comic book conversion to short run memories.

Looks like I was wrong, and not in a good way.

The 13-and-out now looks like 12-and-out. And that's too bad. Cuz, in fact, the show has recovered to eliminate the one real roadblock, the staccato pace of verbiage delivery, and turned into an amusing campy sendup of comic books ... just like the printed version. It's become a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine.

Unfortunately, creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach announced over the last 24 hours that he and ABC Family have agreed that shortening the season by an episode was in everybody's best interests. Surrrrre, just like sticking the show at 10 pm was a good idea. Nope, the series is baked come summer's end.

There IS a promise of a boffo season-ender. That BETTER include lots of Mary Pat Gleason, who's been entertaining beyond all belief. She's sort of a hefty female robot version of snarky David Spade, without the desperateness of most of Spade's characters. Almost shed a tear this week when it looked like Gleason's Ida might have bit the electrical biscuit for a bit.

And let's be honest, if The MiddleMan IS going to bite the big one, then it should be made law that Natalie Morales, the exception to the rule that girls who wear glasses never get passes, HAS to appear in the outfit she wears in the opening credits for the WHOLE SHOW!

BOOKS: Valor's Trial - Tanya Huff

And so, the Confederation tetralogy of novels comes to an end. Or at least, Valor's Trial by Tanya Huff ends with Gunny Sergeant Torin Kerr no longer in the Marines and on the way to a happier place with beau Craig Ryder.

To me, this is another solid effort by the Canadian writer of other material such as the Vicky Nelson vampire books (Made into a TV series last year). It's a fitting end, with some plodding moments that made my enthusiasm for super-marine Kerr wain a bit.

The first chapter, some 28 pages of it, gets through the task of introducing Kerr and Ryder, getting Kerr TO the front-lines for the first time in the quartet of books, and having the war end for Kerr in a BIG BOOM! No, she doesn't end up in yet another hospital.

She ends up somewhere far, far away in an automated prison facility.

That certainly brings up issues. The Others, the usually unseen enemy, don't take prisoners. Although they seem to have taken exception for the legendary conqueror of the Silsviss and survivor of two encounters with the omnipotent Big Yellow (aka Little Grey). But it turns out she's not so exceptional. Others have been taken prisoner too. Some from before Kerr lost conscious in the BIG BOOM! And some are familiar faces from the first three books.

Unfortunately, for a prison without visible guards, conditions aren't all that good. A "Lord of the Flies" situation has developed where rank has given away to physical superiority. And the new 'colonel' of the prison gang is not a good man. Kerr promptly kills the NCO-turned-faux-colonel plus a bunch of henchmen, and restores proper military rank and file order, with her pointedly not at the top. Unfortunately, the new leader, an ineffectual Major, seems happy to stay put with his now less merriless band of inmates.

Kerr sets off to find an escape. She finds other prison groups of Marines and absorbs some old friends and new not-so-pals along the way. Her own merry band of wanna-escapees are sent on their way by the ruling officers, anxious to be rid of a rabble-rouser from their drone-like midsts.

At this point, the book slows down substantially. The next chapters detail slogging through tunnels and levels of the prison complex, like going through Castle Wolfenstein without benefit of guns or Nazis to shoot. It lasts seemingly forever and ends with a tussle, not a battle.

The tussle is between Kerr and one of the Others, an insectoid race first encountered back on Big Yellow. As quick as the tussle starts, it ends. The Others aren't just a single race, but one of several, just like the Confederation Marines. Quick as you can say deus ex machina (the ONE piece of functioning hardware the escaping Marines possess is a working translator), the enemies turn into frenemies, willing to work towards the common goal of escaping. The Others, hereafter to be referred to as The Primacy, have an adventuresome group of itchy escapees of their own. And they're willing to temporarily team-up to get out of the hell-hole.

Which they do. Into the fire. Literally.

The chapters detailing the continuing escape while the two groups slowly coalesce into one ratchet up the entertainment value a fair bit. Simultaneously, the next deus ex machina is unfolding, as Ryder and Presit, the not-beloved journalist, are more or less on the way to meeting up with Kerr. Not that they know so. Afterall, Kerr's categorically dead at this point. They are operating on Ryder's belief. It's all very Edgar Rice Burroughs-like.

Not surprisingly, everybody ends up where they have to be. The bad guys (hint: think yellow and grey) reveal themselves and their hand in the ongoing war between the Confederation and the Primacy. And the series grinds to a quite decent stopping point.

I applaud Huff for writing a coherent universe that makes sense out of a variety of alien life forms. Each of the various Confederation species seemed to have distinct attributes that contributed to the success of the Marine Corps, as well as liabilities that had to be conquered.

Well done!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

HARDWARE: Trackballs

I have written about trackballs before. They are better for me than mice, unless I've been really slaving away. In which case, I need to resort to using a backup mouse to stave off repetitive stress injury. Happens once or twice a year.

All together, I have four trackballs in current use. Two are Logitech TrackMan Wheel devices. You can find them around for about 30 bucks. They are small and use a thumb-manipulated ball to move the cursor. They have a wheel between the two buttons. One goes on the laptop computer, the other on my second desktop. That's the one I use to read documentation and do some background tasks. It has a 22-inch Dell monitor, running in portrait mode (1200x1600).

The TrackMan Wheel devices are small. Maybe too small. It makes for a great trackball for the laptop, easy to include in the paraphernalia that I shove in the laptop case. But the device feels a little flimsy and I have never really been happy with it on the desktop if I have to use it a lot. But it does have a scroll wheel, which is REAL IMPORTANT these days. And truly it takes up very little desktop real estate (I'm talking about the hardwood desktop, not the Windows desktop).

My bedroom computer is merely a web browsing, Pzizz-playing machine these days. It's an old computer, running Win2000 with not much else but Firefox, Pzizz and a connection to the rest of the network. Pzizz is a sleep aid program, and I use it for afternoon power naps. The trackball on this machine is an original Logitech TrackMan Marble. Of course, you can't buy it retail these days, although you CAN find it for about 30 bucks on eBay. It's huge, heavy and a joy to use. Big ball that can be moved around by fingers OR thumb. Lots of buttons ... but no scroll wheel. And in today's Firefox universe, that's a no-no! I'd use it for the doc-viewer machine in a heartbeat, if it had that scroll wheel.

It must be obvious I like Logitech devices. Even my emergency mouse is a Logitech device. But there's a surprise coming for the trackball I use on my main machine.

I use a Microsoft Trackball Explorer! Yep, a Microsoft product! How's THAT for Microsoft bashing. But here's the catch. Microsoft discontinued the product. Once again, you have to head for eBay! The once-40 buck product, now fetches 75-200 dollars!

It's not quite so heavy as the TrackMan, but it's got decent heft. The ball is a big one, manipulated by the fingers. It can right and left button click with the thumb, and has a very good scroll wheel between those two thumb buttons. It also has two rarely-used buttons under my ring and little fingers.

About the worst thing I can say about the Trackball Explorer is that the software for setting it up runs close to 50Megs in size. I find that ridiculous, but it isn't like the Logitech mouse drivers are all that skinny either.

All in all, I heartily recommend trackballs. I hope you get lucky on eBay.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

SOFTWARE: Let Me Add to THIS Rant

A site I check daily is Confessions of a Freeware Junkie. Maximillian doesn't post daily, just most days. He tries out new freeware and writes reviews. Mostly positive, allowing for readers like me to take advantage of his time spent reviewing to get good quality free software that does what it says it does.

Today, he went off on the freeware industry for the ubiquitous habit of installing specialized toolbars into your web browser. An option that is usually turned on by default. It's a good rant, with pictures and everything. He actually managed to load up his Internet Explorer with enough toolbars so that he couldn't see ANY web page at all! And he was still two short of seeing all the toolbars that were installed! (You can temporarily leave here and check his rant out. Come right back)

His rage is justified.

I run Firefox. So why would I want the Google Toolbar installed? Yet last night I was installing an update to IrfanView and had I NOT unchecked the box to install it, I would have had two different google search boxes on my screen. And Google Toolbar is one of the better toolbars out there. But it doesn't add a single thing to Firefox that isn't there or can be added without needing a space-taking toolbar.

MaxiMillian knows that the toolbar biz actually pays for a lot of today's freeware. Companies like Google pay to have the IrfanView's of the world include the installer as part of their free software installer, with the option to uncheck it available. That let's us continue to get good free software. How much Google pays the programmer of IrfanView is nobody's business, but it must be enough, since it, and a love of the project, has kept the programmer doing updates to the fabulous graphics viewer for years.

What MaxiMillian wants to know, is why the Google's of the world demand negative optioning? Why NOT let the programmer leave the box unchecked and ONLY have the the person installing make the decision to install it, rather than sleepily letting it install without thinking about it? Possibly, there should be an advertising page extolling the merits of the toolbar, with a big "CHECK HERE to install the latest and greatest software innovation since the discovery of the delete button!"

It's a question worth asking.

SPORTS: The Inflection Point

"Inflection Point" was a term made popular by Andy Grove, the Intel CEO. As he defined it, I believe, it's the point where things change so much, you can't go back. The Doctor Who series on TV did a show called "Turn Left" and it was about what would have happened if a character had turned right, rather than left at a crucial point in history.

For the Toronto Blue Jays, the inflection point that took a season of promise and sent it careening downhill was the day GM J.P. Ricciardi signed David Eckstein.

There were some immediate results of the decision, even before the season got started. To rationalize the five million bucks Ricciardi had to pay Eckstein, a sacrifice had to be made elsewhere to get back under the team's budgetary constraints. Left-fielder Reed Johnson was sacrificed in favor of Shannon Stewart to pull back two million dollars, approximately, of the five now being spent on Eckstein.

And in doing so, Ricciardi doubly crippled the spirit of the team in ways only a number-cruncher could.

First, Eckstein made a bench-warmer out of the immensely popular John McDonald. Eckstein wasn't anywhere near the fielder Johnny Mac was, but he'd hit in the .300 neighbourhood and would supply some power, which was 'some' more than the powerless McDonald. Stewart would probably be the equal of Johnson in the average department, if not a little bit better. Would be worse in power and a LOT worse in defence. But he would share the position with Matt Stairs and they would both be keeping a spot warm for either Adam Lind or Travis Snider, set to later join Vernon Wells and Alex Rios in the Blue Jay outfield of the future.

Well, that was the plan. But a decidedly unfunny thing happened on the way to happily ever after for Ricciardi. Turns out stabbing McDonald in the back and shipping the just-as-popular Johnson out of town deadened the spirit of a team already devoid of leadership. Eckstein, along with Scott Rolen, were supposed to have replacement spirit. But it's hard to 'show' your new teammates spirit when you are hurt (Rolen, and later Eckstein) and underperforming (both). Funny how so many National League players struggle mightily on coming to the American League, or coming back, as in Eckstein's case.

It's the under-performing that hurt the most for an offensively-challenged team that couldn't afford anybody, let alone most of the starters, to under-perform. When Clarence Gaston came on board, it was time to earn your playing time. And Eckstein didn't. Neither did Stewart, notoriously fragile over most of this decade. Trading Johnson for fear of his injured back, to emplace Stewart, could only happen in a vacuum of common sense. It looked good in Roto though. Stewart is odds-on to never, ever play for Gaston, having disappeared into the hinterlands of the Injured Reserve List. He might very well be in the Witness Protection program.

The Eckstein signing and it's subsequent failure, ended up with two immediate victims. McDonald, who has battled puny hitting stats all of his career, just crumpled even further. A .220-ish hitter all of his career, McDonald, in sporadic playing time, has now fallen below the Mendoza Line. And his fielding, despite showing its lustre on occasion, has not been up to his own standards. That was patently obvious during his start on the weekend. It's hard to keep your concentration and spirits up, when you know spot-starting, where once you were a regular, is your lot in life.

It IS possible the Eckstein will be shipped out of town and that Gaston will use McDonald more often. I guess he's played about twice as often since the managerial switch as before. Maybe he can up that to playing MOST of the games at short over Marco Scutaro. Before the Eckstein signing, it was going to be McDonald as the regular, with Scutaro getting games and late-innings pinch-hitting opportunities aplenty. It would have probably been a pretty good tandem.

Certainly, if McDonald has any more games like he had Tuesday night, the chance of McDonald getting back what he earned last year is a lot better. McDonald was smooth afield, took a walk, hit a sacrifice fly and slugged a bases-clearing double to lead a Blue Jay comeback victory. Sure, Lind had the game-winning homer and a four-hit night. But it was McDonald that showed for one night at least, that he was the best Blue Jay option at shortstop.

On the field and at the bat!

NOTE: Johnny Mac became a first-time dad the day after the all-star game. No matter what happens from here on in, 2008 will have been a great year.

BOOKS: Heart of Valor - Tanya Huff

The inscription inside the front cover of my copy of Heart of Valor by Tanya Huff asks, "What is it about you and women with big guns?"

Nothing. As it happens, women with guns figure prominently on the cover of this book (But NOT the next one) in the Confederation series by Canadian-resident Huff, as well as The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski. In the Huff book, featured hero Torin Kerr is a Marine who's a woman. But fundamentally, she could be a man. Just Huff's choice. And The Blonde doesn't spend much time with a gun or dressed to kill. So I deny the charge that I am obsessed with women and big guns.

That out of the way, let me tell you that Heart of Valor is another romp through an exceedingly well-plotted out universe. Huff, who's work I find hit and miss (HIT-The Blood series, aka Vicky Nelson booksl; MISSES-Everything else), surprised me with this military series. It's a style David Weber and John Ringo have mined successfully--the marooned squad of military grunts just trying to stay alive, under the stewardship of a charismatic leader.

Kerr makes for an interesting Marine. She's preternaturally right, as all sergeants are. She's staved off an alien horde (Valor's Choice) and fought an alien spaceship to a standoff (Better Part of Valor) in earlier books. This time, both storylines come into play as she accompanies a recuperating major and a squad of almost-Marines to the training world of Crucible. Twenty days of learning the ropes there, and the almost-Marines will be full-fledged Marines. And the Major, along with his personal physician, will see if he's ready to come back to war. He'd been injured badly and had a body regrown, almost completely.

Trying to avoid endless questioning about her first adventure against the horde-like Silsviss, Kerr jumps at the chance to get away from HQ and babysit the Major, a rare CO worth the rank. It'll be a cakewalk, just like the honor guard was on the Silsviss' home planet and the bodyguard detail for a bunch of scientists investigating the alien spaceship, dubbed Big Yellow, was. Surviving those 'cakewalks' had gotten her promoted from Staff Sergeant to Gunnery Sergeant.

Not shockingly, this one goes south in a hurry too. In fact, Big Yellow plays a part again, making life difficult. Compound that with an apparent attempt by the Others (the alien threat that forces the Confederation to have a Marine corps) and Kerr's lucky to escape with most of her team and her hide intact. Hey, there's a fourth book in the series up next, so it's no surprise Huff doesn't kill off her series star.

There's a B Plot in this book. Kerr's boyfriend Craig Ryder and obnoxious journalist Presit track down the story of the century. Based on guesses made by Kerr and substantiated to a degree by facts dug up by Ryder and Presit, it appears Humanity might have been manipulated by the leaders of the Confederation, the so-called Elder Races. How else would knowledge of the escape pod from Big Yellow be completely obliterated, except for Kerr, Craig and Presit? How indeed? The answer isn't as easy as Kerr initially thinks, although it will cause a spasm across the whole Confederation.

Things DO wrap up quite nicely for the upcoming Trial of Valor. I am looking forward to yet another Huff hit.

Monday, July 21, 2008

SPORTS: MLB Needs World-Wide Draft

Gord Ash, the best of the last two GMs of the Toronto Blue Jays, has been stumping for a world-wide draft for major league baseball. And he's right.

It's not like there isn't a desire on the part to cut down on the monied clubs' ability to throw huge sums at itinerant youngsters fresh off the sandlots of Latin America. The fact that it helps them maintain their advantage is hardly news. And it would be nice not to have to pay the Michal Inoa's of the world millions of dollars and hope it pays off six or seven or more years down the road, as Oakland just did recently. And lastly, it would be nice if those players arrived speaking English, well-nourished and understanding of MLB's steroids policy.

And it would also be nice if those kids weren't turning over 30 percent (or more) of their signing bonuses to the wolves in friend's clothing that 'find' them for various MLB clubs. Or have their bonuses skimmed by MLB personnel, as has been alleged to have happened at, at least two different organizations. Maybe more.

So, it's time to get serious about foreign talent.

Okay, the basics of the world-wide draft are simple. You must register to be drafted, wherever in the world you are. You can start registering on your 17th birthday and stay on the list until age 23. You can register any time until age 23. For players playing for a recognized country's major baseball league, (primarily Cuba and Japan), you can register at any age for a one-year stay on the registered list, assuming you have NO contractual requirements in that country. Recognized countries are those that participate in the World Baseball Championships. Going undrafted throughout the COMPLETE duration of the registration period results in the player becoming a free agent.

That out of the way, it's time to get the MLB hands dirty. MLB has to open academies in all prospect-producing countries. These academies effectively become schools. Education, with an emphasis on learning English, in non-English-speaking countries, has to become part of the day. Tutoring on the fine art of baseball also needs to be paired with eduction on health and nutrition. Teaching what can and cannot be done in the future, needs to be started young. Getting rid of the influence of the good and bad 'talent scouts' would be worth millions of dollars. Judging the talent in the academy for a couple of years would lessen the ability of some nasty piece of business stashing a kid for a particular club. By making academy participation mandatory for being drafted in ages 17 and 18, means a stashed kid stays penniless for two years. That would be hard to pull off.

Of course, there are ways to profit from teaching a potential great at an academy. You could con your way into a percentage of future earnings. The rule to stop that is that any agreement made by an academy member with somebody connected to the academy, while AT the academy, is illegal. Also, keeping a kids' potential hidden for a certain club means any employee of the academy is prevented from accepting a major league job for three years after leaving an academy position. And no academy employee will ever be granted status as an agent. Ever. If you leave the academy to come back to the States, then it's college ball, high school ball or the independent leagues. For three years. And you never, ever work for a percentage. Ever.

In places like the Dominican, Venezuela and Nicaragua, there are probably academies from all 30 major league teams. They have to be combined under the umbrella of MLB and made universally accessible for all clubs. The MLB teams will still send scouts. You might like the big power-hitting outfielder, while I prefer the lefty pitcher with the killer curve-ball. Seeing is believing. At least they'll be watching 17-year olds rather than looking a 14-year old and trying to project seven years into the future. If you are the A's, Rays or Jays, making that prediction is the difference between winning and losing two decades down the line. If you're the Yanks, Bosox or the Angels, you throw money at the kid, knowing you only have to get lucky once a decade to maintain your spot atop the standings. Afterall, you are buying ten kids for every one that makes it. It's only money.

This plan would raise the level of kids playing ball all over the world. I'm not just saying it would raise talent levels. It would also raise the standard of living for a lot of them. That cannot be a bad thing. It would help them with the upcoming struggle that moving far, far away will create for them. And, if nothing else, as hockey has proved, there is no corner of the world so remote as to produce unwatched talent. Heck, hockey scouts and baseball scouts are now sharing airplane trips to the remotest regions of Siberia, to scout talent.

The two main problems with this whole concept is paying for it and the balkiness of the Players' Association. Lay off imposing a salary cap for one more contract, and the PA will sell out their future members with no difficulty. Cap's coming, just not in this next contract. Paying for the scheme will not be an inconsequential problem. The big money clubs will fight tooth and nail against communal pay, since it will wipe out their talent pipeline advantage. Oddly, it will save them money. But power is never given up easily. Possibly a basic commitment for each club will be augmented by a pay for each selection made from the academies. A plan can be worked out.

And no, Japan will not be a problem, despite losing the current operation that allows for big posting fees from the rich teams in big cities. They'll be outlawed. And the Japanese will come up with another solution. The player they want to post can register, having become a free agent. It's up to them to bid enough for a multi-year contract with the player to have him turn away from the offer he's getting from the team that drafted him. Then, they can post him the next year. Seems good for the player financially. And being a free agent that one year, he might just spurn staying in Japan and come over right there and then.

All in all, the MLB entry draft can be made world-wide. Then, it will go further along the path towards leveling the talent that the draft was designed to do in the first place. With fewer ways around the draft, the big money clubs will be forced into better management, since throwing money at hordes of Latinos will no longer serve as cushion for mistakes.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

SOFTWARE: ZoneAlarm Gets Broken

If you are reading this, you are NOT having a problem with Microsoft Windows XP/2000 and ZoneAlarm. Otherwise, you might not have any connection to the internet whatsoever. But somebody you KNOW might be asking questions.

It all started with a phone call from my father on my birthday. "The internet isn't working. Mail too." I told him to wait awhile. Outages on Bell Sympatico are an accepted risk of using the telco's as your ISP. I remember when the telephone company demanded 99.9999 percent of up-time. Now I get the feeling they'd be happy at 94 percent pure. But I digress. About a half-hour later, Mrs. Slack from across the street called to tell me she was without internet and email too. I wasn't shocked. I told her to wait and give a try after supper. But then Bell should surely have the problem addressed. (By the way, Dad and Mrs. Slack had tried to get tech support and had given up, Dad after 17 minutes, Mrs. Slack after 30 minutes).

Dad tried at supper and failed. It was a short conversation since I had company (who were giving me gifts, the best kind of company!). Okay. It was time to go over and confirm the issue on Mrs. Slack's computer after the company left.

Turns out she wasn't on Bell. She was on Rogers cable internet. She had a modem that appeared dysfunctional. I unplugged it a couple of times, got the green powered lights, and then it slipped into standby amber mode. I called Rogers support. They told me to push the STANDBY button on the modem (It was a different model than MY Rogers modem). Oddly pushing the STANDBY button worked. I slunk back to my house, my computer expert status in tatters.

Dad called a while later and announced he'd fixed the problem. "Turned off Zone Alarm," he said accusingly. I, afterall, was the person who installed and insisted he use the product.

Which led to the investigation and discovery that the latest Windows update patches for July did Zone Alarm in. You can read about in the bulletin issued by Microsoft. Basically, if you are using Windows XP or Windows 2000, PLUS Zone Alarm, you need the latest ZA upgrade to fix the screw-up foisted on it by Microsoft. Disable ZA to get to the internet and download the file. It's a 46M download, so it'll take awhile. But running it directly upgrades ZA to be free of the latest Microsoft foulup.

I repeat. I KNOW YOU aren't plagued by this issue. But be best buddies with the uninitiated and help them get over their unconnectivity problem.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

BOOKS: Fearless Fourteen - Janet Evanovich

A Stephanie Plum novel where she doesn't destroy her car (or cars). Whodda thunk it?

Janet Evanovich's latest novel in the Plum series, Fearless Fourteen, might be the first in the series where her car stays intact throughout the whole book. It gets tagged by a graffiti artist early, but it's washed and ready to go by book's end. It's almost disappointing.

And that's the feeling overall that I got with the book. There's a missing nine million dollars from a ten-year old bank job that might or might not be in paramour Joe Morelli's basement, underneath a couple of inches of cement. There's the ongoing question of whether Lula and Tank are going to get hitched. And the unwelcomed intrusion by one-named Brenda, a sexagenarian singing star with a cougar complex adds goofy plot points, but not much in the way of plot development.

There IS an ending of sorts to at least one of the conundrums above. It IS an ending and comes naturally, something that Evanovich has failed at oocasionally since this series made it to the teens. A little left field, but not egregiously so. The plot thread from the other will likely disappear before the next book.

The Stephanie-Joe-Ranger triangle was a little refined this time out. Not sure if Stephanie spends a night other than at Joe's during the course of the book and that feels right. It IS time for Stephanie and Joe to do the wedding aisle march. It's not like it would overly affect her living arrangements. And it would inject some danger in the Ranger flirting.

As for Ms. Evanovich's plot points, I cringed when she decided to name the stalker Gary. That's personal. And making him a loon hurts. But what did I expect? And there's also the matter of her stating that unmarried men do not fall victim to the Sunday morning reading-room ritual. I'm here to tell you that even unmarried guys enjoy the peace and quiet of taking in the morning paper's import while our pants are around our ankles!

Now that I've scarred you for life with that visual, let me point out (for the second time this week), that minor Evanovich is still decent reading, with several chuckles.

It's good to laugh.

Friday, July 18, 2008

SPORTS: Ban Contract-Jumpers for Life

Here I go again, pulling on my robes of omniscience as czar of all things hockey. It's time to look at the Alexander Radulov situation and how it serves as a bellweather for the future.

Radulov wants to go home to play for more money in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League. It's hardly a new story, what with Canadians of all experience stripes signing overseas and then heading home ... sometimes before the ink is dry on their contracts. And sometimes before the contract's expiration date. So, I'm not ready to come down on Radulov like a ton of bricks.

That said, it's time for a new set of rules to handle the POSSIBILITY that this signing is more than a mere pinprick in the NHL's hockey talent lifeline. For starters, any player who plays with another league's team without WRITTEN permission, while under contract to the NHL team, is banned immediately and irrevocably forever from playing in the NHL. News of this rule should be publicized far and wide, in every minor hockey dressing room from Ottawa to Omsk. The day Radulov plays for Ufa, the NHL holds a press conference and declarers Radulov finished in the NHL. The NHL then calls conferences on every television station in Russia to re-broadcast that ruling. Have EVERY scout talk up the rule. Make Radulov the hockey version a modern-day Sisyphus, never ever getting to the top of that damned hill.

Secondarily, the NHL AND Hockey Canada have to jointly refuse to play in ANY competition that features a banned player playing. The IIHF is SUPPOSED to ban Radulov, but there has to be a little steel at their back to stiffen their spine. There is NO way that the IIHF CAN allow Radulov to play internationally this year (or any year), unless they believe in that cockamamie story about the signing occurring before the NHL-Russian 'agreement' not to poach went into effect. And the NHL and Hockey Canada have to play hardball with the Junior World Championships, which is an IIHF cash cow, coming to Canada every two years. If the IIHF won't back the ban on Radulov and any to follow, then Canada will withdraw from the World Championships and host an international series of exhibitions with the USA. Any argument that series won't draw as much as a World Junior? More profits, too.

That's it. Make the rule. Advertise the rule. Stand by it. Enforce it.

The benefits are immense. The rule has its underpinnings in organized crime. If you are consistently ruthless, the odds you have to actually enforce the rule becomes distinctly unlikely. If it does occur, then you wash your hands of the problem and don't waste time, effort and money pursuing legal recourses. If the NHL wants to help out by offering up an extra draft pick at the end of the round the contract-jumper was drafted in, I can live with it.

Certainly, some of the contract-jumpers won't be of Radulov's calibre. Backups to backups won't fear the international ban and will gladly go home to take Gazprom's millions to live closer to where ever they are from. No loss. And some potential stars WON'T make the first trip over, fearing being caught in a bad contract with no chance to come home to mommy and daddy. Again, no loss. They don't have the mental make-up to play in a foreign land. And make no mistake, it's tough for somebody to jump countries to pursue a job. I had issues with working in the U.S., and that's really only a lite version of Canada afterall. It takes mental fortitude to pick up and move a half-world away. We've all seen failures with talent. It's usually the inability to settle in that does them in.

There's a LOT of Russian money around, gas prices being what they are. There WILL be raiding parties and there will be deal-of-a-lifetime contracts offered up. Players WILL be enticed. As long as they know what awaits them for going back on their word, the NHL has done ALL that it can to try and keep them.

Anything else is just begging.

BOOKS: Vampirates, Demons of the Ocean - Justin Somper

Justin Somper hit on a great title for a series, Vampirates. How can it NOT be something worth reading? The first in the series, now some three books old, is Demons of the Ocean.

It's a Young Adult novel, aimed at early teens. It's set some five hundred years into the future, which seems a bit of a crutch for Somper, who writes it in mostly current dialect. He even includes references to the Heimlich maneuver and flapper dresses. Hard to do that if you set it five hundred years into the past. I'll give him a pass, since the story's not for me at my advanced age anyway.

It doesn't start off promisingly. Not all YA books do. J.K. Rowling and Eoin Colfer seem capable of enervating and elevating right from the start. But I had a bad experience in reading the first of the Lemony Snickett books in the Series of Unfortunate Events. That was an unpleasant little book reveling in the misery the children had. Never read another in the series and cannot for the life of me, explain the series' popularity.

Demons of the Ocean started the same way. The Tempest twins, Connor and Grace, are orphaned at the age of 14 and must choose between entering the local orphanage, a place of horrors, or getting adopted by the local banker, who's managed to finagle ownership of everything their late father had, including the Crescent Moon Bay lighthouse. They opt for a different solution, swiping the family boat and heading out onto the ocean, with not much beyond a memory of their father and a sea shanty both know backwards and forwards.

The shanty, oft repeated in the book, details the doings of Pirates and Vampirates on the high seas. It's just more unpleasantness. Not surprisingly, a storm brews up almost immediately. In the crashing aftermath of that storm, the twins are saved by two different ships, Connor to the pirate ship and Grace to the vampirate ship. I was close to calling it book closed. It felt all Snicketty.

But I persevered and was rewarded with a fairly entertaining read. I'd bet a lot of teenage boys would enjoy this book. The girls might not be so quick to pick this one up, or its sequels. Just a guess.

Told in basically alternating chapters, Connor and Grace become largely comfortable on their respective ships inside of a week. Connor's integration feels right and the action more or less flows. Grace's chapters come from a state of confusion. We, the reader, knows she's aboard the somewhat legendary vampirate ship. But, is she dead? Maybe she's a vampire now too? And if not, what about the enigmatic captain, who's visage is forever hidden away behind a mask?

Through it all, both twins believe, against the odds, that their other half yet lives. The sorrow I thought we were headed for, doesn't rear its depressing head. And things work out mostly at the end. A showdown of sorts between the two ships comes off rushed and a little bit of a letdown. And the included chapter of the next book hardly clears up the lack of major conflict. But there IS a feeling that the series is off in a good direction.

Now, if they could only explain the absence of Sidorio, a nasty villain-type, in the second book chapter, I'd be a little more inclined to buy it. If introducing Sidorio and then getting rid of him off-screen between books was Somper's idea of a solution, then I'd be greatly disappointed.

This book is aimed at a narrow audience. But I think it hits that target.

SOFTWARE: Awful Page Colours

My site is green. Not eco-green, but a few different shades of green. I like it. Others might hate my screen choices. I know there are SOME places, like SciFi Chick who's colour choices of black on dark grey baffle me completely.

There IS a solution for the failure of web page designers to consider the delicate colour palette of their reader. It's a bookmarklet. There is one that I call ZAP, and it removes all colour info from the page you are currently looking at. You basically end up with black type on a white background. Links are blue on my screen, but different settings in your browser might lead to different results.

At any rate, here's how you go about having ZAP on your system. Start up a new bookmark. Use Zap for the name. Then, in the URL, paste the following into the field:

javascript:(function(){var newSS, styles='* { background: white ! important; color: black !important } :link, :link * { color: #0000EE !important } :visited, :visited * { color: #551A8B !important }'; if(document.createStyleSheet) { document.createStyleSheet(%22javascript:'%22+styles+%22'%22); } else { newSS=document.createElement('link'); newSS.rel='stylesheet'; newSS.href='data:text/css,'+escape(styles); document.documentElement.childNodes[0].appendChild(newSS); } })();

It's important to get the whole thing into that one line. Then save the bookmark. I keep this bookmark on my Bookmarks Toolbar in Firefox for easy access. Of course, you have to have javascript enabled and I can't and won't guarantee it works with Internet Explorer (I figure if you are using IE, you're probably beyond help anyway).

I originally found ZAP at Jesse's Bookmarklets site. I originally ran across the whole idea of bookmarklets at, no surprise,

Some, or even many, of the bookmarklets are no longer necessary in Firefox. Firefox add-ins now do most of the work those bookmarklets did. Still, I haven't found anything that works as well or as quick in doing the assigned task as ZAP.

So, if you don't like green on green, then ZAP away!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

SPORTS: The Rautins Flap

I find myself in an oddly conflicted position over the current flap between Leo Rautins and Sam Dalembert and the damage that flap is doing to the national basketball program in Canada.

Basically, I think everybody involved is wrong and the repercussions this program will suffer will make all of we hoop fans in this country rue the very mention of Leo and Sam.

Let's start with Rautins, who I have blasted as a colour man on Toronto Raptors broadcasts. His performance there is overly-teachy and his passive-aggressive approach with outgoing play-by-play man Chuck Swirsky was off-putting. On the other hand, I pointed out how good with kids he was and that there was not a single doubt in my mind as to how dedicated to basketball he was. So, you have my pre-flap biases straight.

Leo should not have been afforded the chance to become a first-time coach as the national coach of this country. Not that the move is unprecedented. It's rare for second and third tier countries NOT to turn to past stars to coach their squads. Leo's predecessor, Jay Triano, fit the same bill, BUT had head coaching experience in university ball before tugging on the Maple Leaf-embroidered jacket. That's a big difference.

Coaching is more than x's and o's. It's people management. As Casey Stengel once said about coaching the Yankees, "I had to keep the 1o guys who hated my guts from the 10 guys who weren't sure." It's not overstating the case. The coach has to play five and sit seven. In that seven are a bunch who think they should be on the floor 40 minutes a night (Carl English?). Giving players roles and having them accept those roles, differentiates the good coaches from the bad. The quality of the talent then decides whether a coach is good or can be great. Make no mistake about it, Leo is not a great coach because he can't be. Doesn't have the talent.

But, is he a good coach? There's no evidence to suggest it. Before Dalembert 's participation came asunder, there was the Juan Mendez issue. He started a pre-qualifying tournament game and then left the team the next day. A decent-sized wing player with a Euro game, Mendez surely could have found a 12th spot on this roster ahead of some of the youth that predominates the team. That one of those players was Leo's son Andy was a bad sign. Having Andy Rautins on the team and a useful player like Mendez not, was the first sign of the coming apocalypse. That's just visuals, but the optics were bad.

Kicking Dalembert off the team immediately, without an intermediary step like suspending him for a game, was another mis-step. It might have been popular. Other team players were sounding off on the preferential treatment Dalembert was getting and expecting. Most of that was anonymous, so how bad COULD it have been. But getting rid of Dalembert before the biggest game in Rautins' coaching career was either a gutsy move, or the latest bone-headed one. If nothing else, it suggested Rautins didn't have the gravitas to coach a difficult player. And trust me, basketball players can be the most difficult of all the team sports athletes. Most have been coddled since coaches and teachers realized the dude was big enough to be a difference maker on the basketball court. It's hard NOT to grow up feeling entitled.

So, it's Leo's fault?

No. Not entirely. Dalembert was the feel-good story from last summer. He moved heaven and earth to get Canadian citizenship in time to play in the Americas qualifying tournament in Las Vegas. Played decently, but not well enough to propel Canada through. It was the sports movie where the underdogs' winning shot at the buzzer clanks off the rim rather than going through it. Despite that, Dalembert became one of the few visiting players who'd get cheers in Toronto. Not up there with Mo Peterson, but not inconspicuous.

That'll change this year. The facts certainly need more light before announcing him a spoiled and pampered big baby. The initial reports are not favourable. If he has, in the words of several reporters, been trying to 'big-time' his teammates and coaches, then he's lost his way big time. Acting like you're a star and a difference-maker requires a winning team and a leading performance. In neither case was Dalembert putting those attributes on display in the opening loss to Slovenia. After that kind of performance, you put your tail between your legs and tell your teammates you PROMISE to do better.
Of course, he never got the chance to do better. That must have been some sort of conversation between Leo and Sam, as they vied for the honour of wrecking both of their careers completely. And in the end, they decided on self-immolation.

Whoever picks up the pieces (Gord Herbert?) better hope Dalembert WAS acting like a huge knob and doesn't deserve solidarity from other players. If he WAS wronged, then agents from the NBA and overseas will be doing everything they can to steer clients wide of Canada's national team until Rautins is history. And maybe beyond. If Dalembert was guilty and people know it, then there's a chance the team building can continue. Either way, I can't see Rautins around for the next Americas qualifying tournament three years from now.

Hey, there's a game Friday with Croatia. Doesn't really seem to matter now, does it?

TV: Summertime's Swell in British TV

To spoil an old saying, summertime TV in Britain has brought us something old, something new, something between old and new and nothing to make me feel blue.

Within the last two weeks, the fine folks that have brought us Doctor Who these last four years, have debuted the fifth season of New Tricks, the debut serial of Bonekickers and the second season of Would I Lie to You? And there's not a single failure in the lot.

New Tricks is a turn on the cold-case police squad show that has run successfully in Canada (Cold Squad) and is still running in the US (Cold Case). The British variation takes the usual sexy female lead, Amanda Redman in this case, but pairs her up with a bunch of washed up wily old veterans. Alun Armstrong's Brian Lane went bonkers, earning retirement. He's a little obsessively compulsive. Brilliant, but batty. And he's the only one with a spouse, a deliciously understanding wife played by Susan Jameson. James Bolam's Jack Halford HAD a wife, but she was murdered and the elderly grieving Halford had to end his long and distinguished career as a detective. Dennis Waterman's Gerry Standing's had a few wives. A little rule-forgetful, a little too much boozing and carousing and an inability to play politics forced Standing into retirement too early.

But four years ago, Redman's Sandra Pullman made a few political mistakes herself and got sequestered off into a corner with the cold cases. Her solution? Find the brightest and the best of the coppers who weren't coppers anymore. The result has been a great series that gets better each year. Halford's AWOL right now, and the other two stooges need his calming influence around, but I don't expect that situation to last much longer.

Oh, and by the way, Waterman's theme song for the show, "It's All Right" is an insanely catchy ditty.

I was going to pass Bonekickers by, by the way. But Adrian Lester (Mickey Stone from the first three seasons of Hustle) was in it. Couldn't say no to that. Julie Graham was in it too, WITH hair (that's a shutout to an insanely awful movie she was in last century). Completely the archaeological crew that move this TV drama around are always entertaining Hugh Bonneville and relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw, last seen in the Doctor Who universe.

What they are doing is a TV-takeoff on The DaVinci Code, replete with 2000 year-old crosses, old English churches and religious zealots. If you enjoyed the book (or heaven forbid, the movie), you'll enjoy this show. I liked the book enough to give it a positive review over at PDA 24/7, so I found myself enjoying the first of the six-episode run. Can it maintain that level? Don't know. But I'm looking forward to the remaining episodes.

And that brings us to the chat show/comedy game show amalgam called Would I Like to You? And the answer, apparently is sometimes yes, sometimes no. The premise is shockingly loose. It's a game show that keeps score, declares winners, and pays no attention whatsoever in trying to be fair. Plus, winning doesn't accomplish much, besides evading a sharp end of show putdown from emcee Angus Deayton. It features two teams of 'celebrities' captained by David Mitchell and the truly funny quipster Lee Mack. Members of each team get to tell a potentially funny fact about themselves, then try to convince their opponents that it is the absolute truth. When the opposing captain finally deems the truthfulness of the story, it's revealed whether the story is true or false. There are slight variations of that through the show, involving one person who each of the members of one team claims is his or her friend/acquaintance, and watching video clips that lead to outrageous claims of dubious authenticity. But that's it. Simple.

And very funny, despite me not knowing most of the 'celebrities,' what with being from the colonies over here in North America. Mack I know from the very funny Not Going Out. Mitchell? I gather he's an actor/comedian of some note 'over there, but he comes across as a funny Tucker Carlson, or maybe a funny, younger George Will. If you know what I mean. All in all, this is the show I'd actually like to see borrowed. But only if they keep the same political uncorrectness that permeates the show.

Dealy's role would fall to Bill Maher, who specializes in snide asides. Dennis Miller, who's fallen mightily since renouncing comedic pounding on all, to write republican-biased material only, could start the road to comeback to the comedic centre, by taking on the Mitchell role. He could still spout right-wing nonsense, while trying to be actually funny once in a while. The Lee Mack role would go to Lewis Black, who could then give up that awful Lewis Black's Root of All Evil. (in reality, I'd like Jon Stewart as the moderator and Maher in the Mitchell role, but then there would be no stick-in-the-mud right-winger to take shots and hand the odd ones out)

If you get a chance to see these shows, through DVD, BBC Canada or even downloading, go ahead. You will be entertained. Guarantee it.

BOOKS: The Blonde - Duane Swierczynski

It's an old trope, but it keeps working when the wordsmith behind it adds a new touch or two. A man sits at a bar (yet to see the reverse of this). He's drinking alone. A beautiful woman slides up to the seat next to him. In the next few minutes, his life changes. She whispers in his ear. "I've poisoned your drink."

Duane Swierczynski's The Blonde starts off in an airport bar in Philadelphia. The gent at the bar is Jack Eisley, a journalist. (I'll CLAIM the job description is the reason I got the book and that the hot model on the book's cover had nothing to do with the purchase decision. But I'd be lying big time) The blonde in question, Kelly White (at least then), gives him the bad news and promises him he has to stay with her 24/7 or he will die. He's been infected by nanobots.


Yeah, we don't get any traditional poisons with this book. It's all about the fictional little machines that cause so many problems over in the Stargate TV universe. Bit of a bane for me. Have never quit gotten the "let's survive and propagate" threat with nano thingies. They are supposed to be small computerized machines with programming to do a job, maybe two jobs. For the programming to go SO WRONG as to turn them into the mechanical version of magic monster creators ... well, somebody should get fired in the IT department.

All this is to say I had an antipathy to the whole idea from the time I read the cover copy. But there was that hot chick with the big gun on the cover. What to do, what to do? I read the book.

Now, I'm not saying I'm racing out to buy everything Swierczynski writes forever. But it was a fast-paced, action-packed thriller. Not much thinking behind anything, but you sort of wondered what fantastical turn Swierczynski was going to put Eisley and White through. There's a hit man who might or might not be government-sanctioned for at least most of his hits, on their case. And it's THEIR case, since both Eisley and White have the same familiarity problem with the nanites. Gives them a physical edge, but requires them to stay within spitting distance for most of the book.

In the end, Kowalskin the hitmann runs full-on into karma. Eisley survives, stronger and better for the experience. The nasty divorce lawyer and the soon-to-be ex, the reasons for him being at the bar at the airport in Philly in the first place, have their own showdown with karma. It's all quite satisfying.

And the book doesn't end there. At least the paperback edition doesn't end there. There's a tacked-on prequel novella. The Redhead details Kowalski pre-Eisley dealings with his beloved, the redhead of the title. Although it's a prequel, the page prior to it starting begs the reader to read the full novel before it. It's a little short of exposition of some of the things that it shares with the novel. And the warning is fully justified.

As far as I'm concerned, I got taken along for a ride and a half. That's pretty good return for the price.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

SOFTWARE: Repeat After Me, "ONE at a time!" is a place I visit daily. It lists the new downloads and I pair it with visits to to make sure I know what's come down the pipeline in terms of updates over the last 24 hours. But sometimes I miss the odd update. So, today, I downloaded File Hippo's Update Checker and one I found on Betanews, Update Notifier.

These checkers do NOT check for updates to Windows, nor do they check for most of your windows drivers. Plus, they BOTH find items missed by the other. All in all, they do a good job in tandem and it doesn't take long to run either one. And no, they don't even catch ALL of the program updates that really exist out there. But there ARE some issues.

I had Firefox up and running, but minimized, when I ran FileHippo Update Checker. It DID bring up a window of things I missed. But when I clicked on the download arrows, NOTHING happened. At least that I could see. It turns out new tabs in the minimized Firefox were opening with each click. Discovered it later when grumpily clicking on Firefox to find a help page at FileHippo to see if I could figure out what was going wrong. Of such things are blogs worthwhile.

The download links for all of the programs I saw updates for were at FileHippo. The download process wasn't as smooth as I would have liked, as simply clicking on download links tended not to succeed until the second or third page. And I dislike that FileHippo Update Checker stays running after you are finished with it. Make sure you close it from the system tray each time. Also, uncheck the box to load at startup during install. Make sure you incorporate update checking into your weekly maintenance ritual. You know, the one where you check for virii, scumware and updates to your anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall programs? You ARE doing weekly cleaning, right? Thought so.

Update Notifier is a bit of a mystery too. Copy it to where you are going to use it from, before running it. It's a no-install program. BUT, it does want to run each time you startup, so make sure that's disabled by pressing the options button. And like I said, run it from a shortcut. It has three panels for purview, the suggested missing updates, one panel for updates you want to monitor and a third panel with suggested software you don't already have. None of the stuff is bad and if you aren't using something in any category covered by the suggestions, go for it. But it really is just unobtrusive advertising. The best I've seen.

All in all, the missing updates were an interesting list. There were updates to daily-used programs like Gadwin PrintScreen, Foxit Reader, and my ATI Videocard drivers, plus Firefox (remember, I'm back to using v2). It also pointed out newer versions of InnoSetup, which I use for making install programs for my software, AM-Deadlink to show me what bookmarks are dead in my set of Firefox bookmarks (3K and still counting) and the latest Java and Flash updates. Other than Firefox, I installed all the updates at once and rebooted the machine.

I am here to tell you, THAT WAS STUPID!!!!

All the updates were okay, except for the one I KNEW was going to goof my hardware ... the video-card driver. I NEVER use the latest video drivers unless I have an issue. Being on the cutting edge of video-card drivers is for hard-core gamers who want the last little bit of oomph they can get. I know this, but still updated. I AM STUPID!

Naturally, the newer version of the product from ATI called @#($#@$(*$ (it has a real name, but that's what I call the #(@*$@#*()$ piece of software), screwed up my system. Took five reboots, one restore and lots of moving around of my two-screens worth of icons (both running 1600x1200 to afford me maximum screen real estate) to get me back to where I was, visually-speaking.

Then, I installed the other updates AGAIN, but this time one at a time. When faced with the final decision as to whether to install the video-card driver update, I thought about it for about a New York second.

Nah! It wasn't broke. No NEED to update it.

SPORTS: George's Final Bow?

Hugely entertaining All-Star game tonight. Didja ever think I would type those words?

After thinking about that question, answer this one. Was tonight's George Steinbrenner appearance his final appearance in public? He's been a huge part of the sporting life over the last 35 years, but he certainly didn't look well.

If that was it for George, who celebrated a birthday on July 4, then he sure went out on a high note.

Oh, and good-bye to Yankee Stadium. Thanks for the memories.

BOOKS: Phantom Prey - John Sandford

John Sandford's Lucas Davenport books, the so-called 'Prey' books, are never bad reads. But his latest in the series, Phantom Prey, surely rates at the bottom of the list.

I think Sandford's obvious lack of knowledge about the Goth culture is a key part of the problem. Other than describing most participants as wearers of black, and some odd facts here and there (I didn't know that there had been three waves of popularity for Goth since it largely first surfaced in the 60's), the 'setting' of this book feels phony. A disjointed beginning of the book also doesn't help.

Comparing this book to the one I read on Monday, Jeffrey Deaver's Broken Window, the narrative isn't much different. You get an early insight into the mind of the looney tunes killer. The detective finds himself somewhat divided between this new killing spree and the B Plot problem. There's a resolution to the A Plot that involves multiple bad men, and then a resolution to the B Plot that is almost as interesting as the A Plot's denouement. No question, the Deaver book accomplishes all of its goals, Phantom Prey few of them.

As hard as I am coming down on Sandford for this book, it still has page-turning capability. Davenport, who hasn't been scarred in a while, gets a new one near his privates, courtesy of a murder attempt. He has a fair bit of interaction with wife Weather, who we find hen-pecking him more than usual. That's entertaining. One character in the book describes him as a thug, and there's a lot of that buried in him. It's always amusing to see his wife handling with such little effort.

The B Plot has everything from the movie, Stakeout, except Davenport getting up close and personal with Heather Toms. Still funny stuff. Balancing that was Davenport's adopted daughter Letty behaving more like a member of his squad, then a teen-aged girl.

Bluntly, I think Sandford wrote this one on contract. He REALLY wanted to write another Virgil Flowers book. He probably mentions Flowers a half-dozen times (Kidd from Luellen & Kidd gets another handful of mentions, suggesting there might be a story for THAT series in the future). He always refers to Flowers with an alliterate expletive.

Well, quit swearing about Flowers. Get writing! You've used your mulligan on this one.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

BOOKS: Plague Ship - Clive Cussler

I am an unabashed fan of Clive Cussler's work. I remember him pitching Raise the Titanic on a radio show last century and went out and bought it. And subsequently, everything else he's written in novel form, and the two non-fiction books too.

Granted, I'm a little fatigued with his main series star, Dirk Pitt. And Kurt Austin, star of his secondary series is really Pitt with a slightly different supporting cast. The tertiary series, The Oregon Files, however is still young and vibrant. And the latest in that series, Plague Ship, was a pleasure to read today.

The Oregon Files are about the good ship Oregon and it's black ops company of good men, led by the Chairman Juan Cabrillo. The one-legged Cabrillo is every bit the superman that Pitt and Austin are, but the cast is more diffusive than those surrounding Cussler's main series stars. This book is as much about Max Hanley as it is Cabrillo. He gets the last line of the book. Hanley's role is normally Scotty to Cabrillo's Kirk, but he has to step away from his engines to rescue his son, who's joined a cult.

Like all cults, there's a veneer of reasonability behind Responsivism. Dedicated to cutting down the explosive population growth its founder figures will lead Earth into ruin, the cult acts like a passing fad amongst Hollyweirdos and liberal do-gooders. Like many cults, the veneer hides a rotten core, one determined to unleash a modern-day plague upon Earth, rendering half the world population sterile, forever.

The means for doing so is simultaneously brilliant and yet clumsily handled. A timer-released set of their viral bombs would have worked perfectly fine. But no, Cussler had to construct one of those Bondian strongholds for the villain to push a button and launch death and destruction. There also had to be the requisite hero-capturing and escape from said stronghold before it's destroyed. Contrived? Yes. Still a page-turner? Absolutely yes!

There isn't much missing from the stock Cussler surrounding material. There's a brutish Serbian thug who gets his in satisfying fashion. Plenty of underwater theatrics. But, and this is a BIG but, this not being a Pitt or Austin novel, NO sudden appearance to save the day in some fashion by a character called Clive Cussler. I had that little peccadillo we've seen from Cussler over the last half of his career more than words can communicate. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it.

So, in the absence of it, or any other major blemishes, I have to save, liked it, liked it, liked it!

Monday, July 14, 2008

BOOKS: Broken Window - Jeffrey Deaver

Jeffrey Deaver's Lincoln Rhymes novels feel comfortable ... if you can call the series of battles between the brilliant criminologist and a lengthy list of crazed killers comfortable.

Broken Window is the latest in the 10-year old series that started with the media hit The Bone Collector. It was the one that was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington. 'Nuff said about that mistake. However, Broken Window is a pretty good book, possibly right up there with Cold Moon as the best of the series. Cold Moon happens to be the other Rhymes novel that deals with the Watchmaker. He's a peripheral participant in Broken Window until literally the last page in the book. That page gives the reader one last cold chill down the spine.

The personal data mining business is the heart of Broken Window. Repeatedly, readers should be feeling a little panicked at how little privacy they truly have in this computerized world. One after another of the shields we 'think' we have are battered down. It's the completeness of the inspection that eventually allows for the rescue of Lincoln's other half, police detective Amelia Sachs. She once again charges into the foray sans backup and spends a chapter or two as the loon's prisoner. THAT might be getting a little old, the only downbeat in the story.

Otherwise, we get a decent list of potential suspects to measure against the chapters narrated by the loony-tune killing people. He's a hoarder, along with being an expert at taking advantage of society's total reliance (and acceptance) of computers. He's killing people, planting enough physical evidence to lead to the incarceration of others and their convictions. With no one looking for him, he's free to kill. And kill again. And again.

Until he picks one patsy too many. Lincoln's cousin Art, a real piece of work, plays fall guy and Lincoln comes to the rescue. Well comes to the rescue might be overstating it. He is, after all, a quadraplegic, trapped in a gussied up wheelchair, when not in bed. But he sends for the usual cast led by Sachs and the now recovered Ron Pulaski. Pulaski suffers more than Sachs in this book, although getting shot and losing her prized Camaro certainly leaves Sachs sad.

A good development that could have been handled horribly sees Amelia's almost-ward Pam do some growing up. It's a mark of Deaver's deft touch that the two women aren't simply men in dresses ... or at least form-fitting jeans.

There's a lot to like about Broken Window. It was a good kick off to this summer's reading week.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


I curse the day somebody thought of the Who Shot J.R.? campaign. To the best of my knowledge, the Dallas season-ender to season three spawned plenty of publicity back in 1980 and one of the most unfortunate trends in television history.

John Doe, which had a GREAT cliffhanger and no pay-off, isn't the only or even the latest offender to the sensibilities of viewers wishing for closure (aka END of the story). It seems just about every episodic TV show wants some hook to bring back the viewers come fall (or whenever 24 comes back). Isn't just producing good entertainment enough to guarantee returns? I can live with 'To be continued ..." for shows that have guaranteed return dates. But for shows on the bubble or headed for inevitable cancellation, a cliffhanger is a breaking of a covenant with the viewer.

I watched the season set for October Road over the last couple of nights and there isn't a reason in the world that the show deserved a third season. EXCEPT, that the creators didn't dump a cliffhanger on we few people who watched the show (even belatedly). That's respect (or at least foreknowledge of impending cancellation doom).

The show had its moments, but had a severe flaw in having boy coming back for the girl, only to have the girl against all intelligence decide to marry the town jerk. The fact that boy is probably the father of the girl's young lad seems to play against that decision, but the whole show is basically predicated on it.

When the last musical montage rolled over the last few minutes, I was content. There was more story to tell if the show was renewed. Would the girl still marry the jerk? Would the boy's new girl friend continue to pick him over his brother? Would the boy's father survive a bout with cancer? Would the shut-in escape his self-made prison? Would the high school heartthrob forgive his girlfriend's moment of weakness? Not a single one of those questions was vital. In fact, I probably won't be thinking about them at all about 48 hours from now.

And that's all right. A story was told. It had a beginning, a muddled middle and a sort of ending. No one was in peril. No emotional investment left unspent. I can live with this ending.

But I sure would have hated the show and its creators a whole lot had Brian Greenberg's character not turned around and came back to Knight's Ridge to be with family and friends. THAT would have been a cliffhanger to add to the list of infamously failed final shows.

Let's suggest a new law. No renewal notice from the network, NO CLIFFHANGER!