Tuesday, September 30, 2008

SPORTS: Feeling Good About My Twinkies

Well, I could have done without Alexi Ramirez's record-setting grand slam for the White Sox Monday as they bested the Detroit Tigers to earn a playoff rematch with my Minnesota Twins today. The game's going to be a bear to play. Cold, windy and an unneeded distraction on the way to Tampa Bay.

Nick Blackburn's going to prove he has ice water in his veins in more ways than one today. It's going to be cold and blustery in Chicago, regardless of whether ChiSox manager Ozzie Guillen blows up or not. The guy was warming up Bobbie Jenks with a four-run lead Monday night, KNOWING he had another tilt today with the home-and-resting Twins. Whatever magic Guillen once had, it's gone. Now, it will be a case of the old Chicago fogies against the kids from Minny.

Normally, I'd take age, experience and treachery over youthful exuberance. But the Twins aren't all wet behind the ears. Justin Mourneau, my fellow countryman, will get an extra shot at overtaking Josh Hamilton for the A.L. RBI crown. He enters the game one ribbie behind. A.L. batting champ, Joe Maurer, has proven the previous hitting title wasn't a fluke, which I honestly though it was. My PARENTS weren't born when the last catcher before Maurer won a batting title. But when you do something twice, you can remove fluke from the conversation.

The Twins were left for dead two weeks ago, and now they detour to Chicago to prove the dead can rise again. And again. And again.

Say, is Thursday's tilt between the Twins and Tampa Bay on against the vice-presidential skewering?

MISC: Ahah!, You Telephoning Miscreants!!!

At 12:03 am this morning I entered my phone number at the Canadian National DO NOT CALL Registry. On a night where I answered the phone only to hear that mental midget from the National Gift Registry, plus another pitch to do my doors and windows, I answered sweetly, "For the LAST time, I do not want to hear from you again. Please be aware I am registering with the Do Not Call registry tonight at midnight. And from now on, your voice at the other end of this line will cost you money, 'cuz I'll be REALLY QUICK to register complaints with the service. Enjoy the rest of your life. Good-bye!"

Of course, the schmucks will continue calling throughout October without much risk of the government reaching into their pockets. But come Halloween time, their worst nightmare will be calling me. I will make it my life's purpose to clobber these cold-callers, especially with those lying pests from that Gift Registry. You know, the ones that start with "You or somebody in your family filled out a survey ..." THOSE guys I don't just want fined. I want them maimed and made incapable of procreating.

And while you at the task of making your life more peaceful, don't forget to drop by Michael Geist's iOptOut.ca site and send a message to those folks that get exceptions from the Do Not Call Registry and stop them before they take advantage in the break in the litany of supper-time phone calls.

Now, if we could only find a way to get a minority government back in place, Canada would be in GREAT SHAPE!

Monday, September 29, 2008

TV: Don't Cross Out The Border

As surprises go, I have to say I really like a show returning tonight for it's second season premiere. And it's Canadian. And it's NOT a comedy. The Border is a smart piece of Canadian drama that snuck up on me last week.

I've had a recorded set of the show since it went off the air in the spring, just waiting to bubble to the top of my viewing pile. And with neither the Argos or the Blue Jays enforcing the sports-first rule on the tube, I finally managed to get through the 13 episodes over the last few days. It's GOOD stuff that looks American quality and doesn't hide the fact that it is about Canadian policework.

That's not to say that there isn't key American content. I only recorded it because Sofia Milos was the imported star and Milos is usually very watchable. And besides, you have to love the accent. But it turns out, she wasn't in all of the shows, including missing the pilot. That didn't turn out to be a problem.

The Canadian cast was largely unknown to me, save for Catherine Disher, who's graced the screen up here back to her engenue days on Forever Knight. She's a woman of substance these days, in more ways than one, but she seems to be the one the squad at Immigration and Customs Security sends in undercover. Charming in a way. And let me tell you, Disher does more with a look out over glasses perched low on her nose, than most actors do with a minute-long dialog.

Male lead James McGowan was controlled and mostly worked. The only clunker of an episode was the one where he quit to save his daughter getting hit with a bogus charge, but later saved the day at a nuclear plant. He had trailed his daughter and her wacko boyfriend to the plant, where he defused a bomb with seconds to go. Otherwise, Major Mike Kessler was stalwartly Canadian throughout.

The rest of the squad is a mix of good character actors, including Mark Wilson, Graham Abbey and Nanzeen Contractor. The latter two are the 'hot' young 'uns. I believe this is Contractor's first TV role, but she plays the Muslim agent as a lot less of a token role as it might have been. Again, it's just good stuff.

However, all of the preceding cast pales before computer hacker extraordinaire Heironymous Slade, played by Jonas Chernick. It's a cliched role in many ways but has more depth than most of the hacker depictions I've seen. His dalliance with guest star Sarah Podemski (one-third of the fabulous Podemski chicks -- their description, not mine) elevated him from total nerd-dom. That Podemski's character broke his heart, crushed it really, was something you could really feel. Kudos for casting Podemski and having her hook up with Chernick rather than say Abbey's Gray Jackson.

And more kudos for casting Grace Park for half of this season's episodes, although I do NOT believe she is in tonight's return. The mini-cliff-hanger ending from last year will probably dominate the screen. It's best to leave the impending battle between Park's and Milos' characters until later.

And to the imagination.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

BOOKS: Simon Hawke's Time Wars Series

Simon Hawke is a prolific science fiction writer predominantly rooted in the past, while writing about events centuries ahead. He's written a fair bit of Star Trek material and his books about a revived Merlin in contemporary times, the so-called Wizard series, were all entertaining.

But there's a downside to being proliferate. It's possible to burn out readers. Until that happens, the readin's purrty good, though.

Case in point. The Time Wars series. Take a bunch of time traveling commandos. Insert them into historically famous situations, anxious to observe, participate AND keep the flow of time intact by leaving no lasting effect of their presence. That it's the equivalent of a War Games battle scenario is the tough pill to swallow. But it does make sense in a convoluted way.

What you get is an interesting re-telling of various historical stores, usually from other viewpoints than those used in the original material. And it works, until you get tired of the same basic plot, who's ending you suspect BEFORE reading the first page. THAT's when you have to set aside the remaining books while you go off and read other series, three or four books at time.

That's right, the King of Series-reading (me) now suggests reading no more than three or four books in any particular series at a time. In a near-future post, I will tell you how well it worked for me with the Monk books by Lee Goldberg.

I got four books into the Time Wars before reaching out to grab Artemis Fowl and the Time Paradox by Eoin Colfer. (Afterwhich I needed the non-time paradox hilarity of Goldberg's writings). Review in a few days.

Back to Hawke. The best part of the books, twelve in all, all released in about a year's time, was the chance to revisit old classics. And some of the classics were ones I never read!!!

It started with The Ivanhoe Gambit and continued through The Timekeeper Conspiracy, which took me back through the Ivanhoe stories of England and then the Three Muskateers era in France. Immensely entertaining. Time Commandos Lucas Priest and Finn Delaney made an entertaining lead duo, eventually teaming up with Andre Cross, aka Andre De La Croix. She's one of the few forward time-jumpers in the original quartet of books. All in all, reliving the adventures of Ivanhoe, Robin Hook, Richard the Lion-Hearted and D'Artagnon and his Muskateer mates was great fun.

Things actually got better in the third book when The Pimpernel Plot retold the tale of The Scarlet Pimpernel, a book I have NEVER read. It was all fresh. Thus, I could forgive the continued use of the same backstory grafted onto the old classic. The Pimpernel was arguably the world's first book about a Batman-like super-hero. I believe it predates Zorro. At any rate, I'm going to read the original someday. It's about a yard deep in the reading pile. But it's there.

The same new exposure to an old classic happened with the forth book, The Zenda Connection, obviously a re-telling of The Prisoner of Zenda. That one I HAD 'read' as a comic. One of the old Classics Illustrated, if I'm not mistaken. So I knew the basic plot. Thus, there was a lot less wonder as I read this book. The introduction of Drakov, the illegimate and angry son of the commander of Temporal Intelligence Agency, seemed forced and uninteresting. When I started the fifth book, The Nautilus Sanction, and saw Drakov was back for more mirthless mayhem, I decided I could wait for awhile before continuing.

I think these stories would be a great one-at-a-time fallback for when you need something familiar and different all at the same time. We all know most of the stories Hawke is basing the books on. It's refereshing to get different point of views and the puzzles are, for the most part, entertaining. It's the constraints of knowing the outcome that makes them so. The old time periods are not overly romanticized and you do get a growing affection for Finn and, to a certain extent, out of time Andre. Lucas tends to be more of the cliched leader in training.

All in all, I would recommend the Time Wars series. Now for you, in the future for me.

MISC: The Elusive Search for McDonald's Apple Pies

Things have changed at McDonald's. I love their french fries still. But the OTHER reason I used to love Mickey Dee's, was for their apple pies. They USED to serve apple-y gooeyness inside of a tempura-like pillow. The shell dough had sugar and cinnamon, matching the apple-filled interior.

And the pies were hotter than hell.

I guess the 'hot coffee in the lap' fiasco led to a change in McDonald's pie formations. The shell was replaced by a doughy crust that had air holes throughout it. The result was a warm, pleasant-tasting concoction that ran virtually no risk of scalding parts of your tongue.

Even before that calamitous decision (Thanks, you litigating morons), I was on the hunt for a home supply of the pies. My niece did her turn at McDonald's long after the great pie switch, so couldn't ask where they got them. And when I occasionally inquired about them elsewhere, when I saw some fast food joint selling them, I didn't get much positive information. I got even less information from food stores where I would stop the occasional manager to ask about the pies.

I DID find out that they were McCain's pies. I have great respect for the New Brunswick family business. It's fed me for years, as I've generally preferred their frozen french fries to all others. And I eat a LOT of french fries.

Inspecting their website, I didn't see any listing for the apple pies. I sent emails and eventually found out that the company doesn't sell to the public. Arrrrggghhhh!

So I stopped investigating. I kept WONDERING why the company wouldn't sell to me. I would think a dozen pies in a box would be a great seller. But I guess liability was some sort of issue. That said, I'd ask friends in the food biz every now and then about fronting me a box. I never got anywhere.

Until just recently. Now, I have to avoid telling you where, in the same way a man with a great secret fishing hole has to remain mum, but I now have a supplier.

Getting lunch recently in an otherwise empty fast food place I frequent, I innocently asked the long-time counter lady where she got the pies arrayed behind her on a shelf. She asked the manager and found out where. And then casually offered to sell me the extra box that was sitting back in the freezer! It was like the opening moments of the theme to Love American Style! Rockets were going off and exploding amidst a sky full of fireworks. EUREKA!!!

They even sold me the box at cost. And let's say the cost for a box of 60 (that's right, SIXTY) was downright reasonable. The only issue was that it was a BIG box and I have a small freezer. I tend not to buy food five months at a time, which is what I figured it would take to get through 60 desserts. Plus, I was going elsewhere after lunch, not straight home.

Took me all of ten seconds to scupper my afternoon plans and take the prize home before anybody stopped the dream in progress.

When I DID get home, I discovered the big box had LOTS of plastic trays inside. Taking a tray out and putting them carefully into plastic bags (five to a bag), made them an easy fit into the freezer space I DID have.

I fired up the deep fryer (unfortunately, baking these things won't work) and tried my first home-owned and cooked McCain's Apple Pie. Took five and a half minutes. The grill chef at the fast food place suggested I keep the pie only slightly immersed in 375 degrees hot oil, but I decided to risk this first experiment without personally watching it cook for all 330 seconds. He also suggested a dead flat minimum cooling time of one minute, ten if I wrapped it in a paper towel and let it rest on the cutting board. I took the second route.

Ahhhhhhhh! What delicious lava-hot goodness resulted. Perfect first time out.

Since then, I've done SOME experimenting. Not letting it cool enough DOES result in burning your tongue. Cooking two at a time is okay, if you have two people to feed. Two pies at one sitting for one person is sugar overload. I THINK the crust is rice flour, infused with sugar and cinnamon. Water makes a better companion that milk. Otherwise, this has been a GRAND experiment.

And the best news? The source for this happiness will be only too happy to order me a box come spring, when I expect to run out of the current stash!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

SPORTS: Heads Gotta Roll

It's abundantly clear that the Toronto Argos are not headed back to the playoffs. In fact, it's likely that the Argos will finish last overall. And I don't think its too soon to start clearing out the old guard.

Frankly, one of, if not both, of GM Adam Rita and offensive co-ordinator Steve Buratto, should be fired after tonight's debacle in the home half of a hack-to-back with the Calgary Stampeders. As was mentioned during the game, there is very little to recommend downgrading player personnel to match a system. It's ALWAYS best to put the best player on the field and then change the system to suit the talent.

Toronto hasn't done that.

First, Buratto has presided over a diminishing offence that has had most, if not all of its best results, when Buratto was NOT calling the plays. Buratto's offence has stifled what offensive talent Toronto does possess, trying to harness quarterbacks Kerry Joseph, Michael Bishop and Cody Pickett in a pocket protected by arguably the league's least talented offensive line. Add to that a litany of dropped passes by a fumble-fingered receiving crew and you have a series of sub-20 point offensive efforts that has managed to go under 10 points a handful of games. What's one definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

Frankly, Buratto has not demonstrated a whit of offensive flair in getting game-breakers like Arland Bruce III, Dominique Dorsey and even Joseph into good positions to use their talents. Hiding the O-line's weakenesses with shifting pockets and misdirection seems beyond Buratto's scope to teach.

However, throughout the analysis of Buratto's failings, it is also obvious that the Argos have a talent deficit, largely caused by the sudden aging of defensive stalwarts (Steinauer, Shaw, Fletcher, O'Shea and others) combined with a truly misguided trade for Joseph. I imagine the latter was done at the urging of the ownership group, who were disenchanted to not play host to the home team in the Grey Cup last year. But Rita shouldn't have given in. It's hurt his club badly in a number of ways. Not the least of which was trading Jordan Younger to Edmonton to help pay Joseph's salary. Compounding that mistake by giving Bishop away, turning the trade into Bishop AND a badly needed Glenn January for Joseph, should make Rita's hotseat combustible.

First, Bishop, 11-1 in the regular season last year, had half the room in his corner. Maybe more. Joseph didn't come in and OUTPLAY Bishop, but he got the starting nod and didn't lose it until well after Bishop was traded away to try and take one distraction out of the room. I think you can safely say that Joseph still hasn't put together eight good quarters of ball this season. And four of those were in one game. On the other hand, if you could dream up a worse offensive scheme for Joseph to run, I would be shocked. You cannot make a scrambler become a pocket passer when his talents are simply unsuited for the concept.

Without the signing of Joseph and the 400 grand he takes up on the payroll, would the Argos have had the money to sign an American lineman or two, let alone keep all-star DB Younger? Of course they would have. Would keeping Bishop have ensured offensive success? Of course not. But Bishop has won more often than he's lost, by a wide margin in this league. He was commited to Toronto. He was maturing. AND he fit the offence Buratto was building. No square pegs in round holes. He fit everything but management's ideal of a Grey Cup-winning quarterback.

There's something noble about GOING for it, not accepting being very good, but being willing to take the risks it takes to be the champion. (See Tannenbaum, Larry of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment ... NOT!) But this seemed completely and utterly too big a risk. Add to it the inability to convince Michael Clemons to stay on the sideline, rather than moving to the President's office. The installation of a rookie head coach, the now-fired Rich Stubler. The installation of a rookie defensive co-ordinator, Kavis Reed, who keeps off the firing line simply by being less worse than the two firing squad candidates already talked about.

It's all added up to a team in disarray. One that Don Matthews should start building towards next year. Right now. This season's lost.

So play Cody Pickett and trade/release Kerry Joseph. Or play Joseph and change the offence. That means dumping Buratto and installing a Matthews offence tout suite. Trade Michael Fletcher and offer Mike O'Shea a chance to play elsewhere or retire an Argo. Give Canuck kids like Jeff Johnson and Andre Durie and Brian Crawford playing time and chances to outlive mistakes. Bring in new linebacker candidates until you have four starting quality candidates and a backup or two. Mayes and Pile look like half the solution. More athletes are needed. Find American linemen, too small for NFL teams outside of Denver, but quick enough to play the Canadian game. start raiding other team's practice rosters, forcing them to roster the player or let him try out in Toronto. If that means re-assigning Rita to scouting, then do it.

The one thing the Argos can't do, is adopt the head-in-the-sand policy favoured by the Leafs and the Blue Jays. Things won't get better, JUST because they are TORONTO's teams. There's nobody legislating success for the double blue, blue and white or the hated black and blue. You have to EARN it. And as good a guy as Rita is (and Buratto probably is), the only thing they've earned, is a pink slip.

Friday, September 26, 2008

SPORTS: A Last Plan for Blue Jay Happiness

As I enter my last weekend as a Toronto Blue Jay fan for the foreseeable future, I guess it's time to map out the off-season in the vain hope that Blue Jay management will see this, realize how complete a failure GM JP Ricciardi (with the abling provided by similarly incompetent president Paul Godfrey) has been.

The Blue Jays have floated from the depths of the standings to as high as seventh overall in the American League during Ricciardi's tenure. He has covered up that now league-standard for playoff futility (for current reigning GMs) by citing injury, year after year. It ignores the fact that injuries happen to other teams too, but when the Blue Jay ownership, and until recently, too much of the Blue Jay fan base, concentrated on navel gazing, they were allowed to shout "Woe is us" to the point of absurdity. Heck, we've already got built-in excuses for next year based on injuries.

Injuries happen.

Other teams have talent pipelines that cover injuries. Toronto doesn't. A direct result of Ricciardi's mistakes learning on the job. He's done better of late, but he's a slow learner. For example, he's gotten over his phobia about drafting high school kids. But he was STILL a dedicated moneyball-er until the day the management told him to hire Clarence Gaston, and most especially, get rid of flunkie Gary Denbo (who preached the Ricciardi line on batting to his own detriment) and replace him with a new coach and a new hitting philosophy. That's when the club's biggest failing stopped being that.

Okay, enough dragging the self-admitted liar and destroyer of Canadian Olympic team hopes through the ether. He's a lousy person and somewhere between a lousy GM and a slow-learning, slightly-less than mediocre GM. What to do with next year?

The Jays can tread water. And will, in all likelyhood. A smart GM would do something to get the Jays off the island in the middle. The contracts the club has handed out have hamstrung the squad to a certain extent. The lack of imminent talent (it's two years away, with the exception of Travis Snider) hurts worse. And the injured talent leaves holes that might self-heal in a year's time. That tends to indicate blow-up mode probably doesn't make sense. Boldness is required.

I've said my piece on the proposed Alexis Rios for NL Cy Young candidate Tim Lincecum. It was an interesting trade for the two teams, but WRONG for both teams. Take Rios out of the line-up and the woeful Blue Jay attack in the spring would have turned positively funereal. And adding Lincecum to the Blue Jay pitching staff would have let the team move up in the pitching standings how? You can't improve on first overall.

Soooooo, how do I start the off-season? By exploring trading Rios. I don't have any idea whether he has no-trade protection, but I'd sniff around. The SF deal is off the table after Lincecum actually exceeded the high expectations of him. But there might be other deals out there where a solid #2 starter with some remaining up-side, might be worth exploring a trade for Rios for. I don't think I'd move Rios for Matt Cain, the return SF offered in response to the Toronto trade offer last winter. I WOULD see if they'd swap Cain for Adam Lind and a Toronto infielder (the only excess inventory the Jays have). But since Milwaukee is allegedly offering Prince Fielder for Cain and surplus, I'm thinking that's the kind of trade that won't fly.

By the way, the difference between this winter and last, is that Snider IS major-league ready. I don't expect him to bat a gaudy .333 next year, but I think a bold Blue Jays could live with Lind and Snider surrounding the gold-glover Wells. Plus, the whole plan is expecting big returns next year from Scott Rolen, Lyle Overbay and Aaron Hill. (They call trifecta's money losers in the pony betting game. But we've already decided on BOLD behaviour and expectation).

With SF out of the picture, the team I like a lot for dealing with is situated in Florida. No, it's not Tampa Bay, who could definitely use Rios or even Lind. The target team is Florida. That's the team with excess pitching and outfield needs. Rios could answer a LOT of questions for the Marlins. He WOULD be expensive, but the Marlins are REAL CLOSE to being a really good club again, after the latest rebuilding phase. I like the idea a lot of taking on troubled Scott Olsen (a lefty), a decent pitching prospect and heavy-hitting DH candidate Mike Jacobs for Rios and Joe Inglett. That might give the Marlins the ability to deal Dan Uggla and/or Jeremy Hermida elsewhere for a group of good youngsters and tread water OR keep 'em all and go for it. And yes, substituting Lind for Rios and excluding Jacobs should also be discussed.

Make no mistake, Olsen's an all or nothing gamble. He would replace Burnett, or not be as good as Gustavo Chacin. He's been both. But whatever the Jays do, they will gamble on health, overpaying or underperforming with ALL of their acquisitions.

Excising Rios for Olsen and Jacobs would save a few million. It might be enough to rehire AJ Burnett. That would mean the team comes back with the same team that started last year (three/four spots in the rotation taken, with one TBD), with Snider and Jacobs replacing Rios and Thomas. That might be a wash. However, there's a few bucks still in the kitty to play with. (No Thomas, Stairs or Zaun money to pay-out)

Another outfielder would be needed, possibly one that could spell Wells (the biggest down side of dealing away Rios). I really wonder if the Yankees might give Melky Cabrera away for a good middle-reliever. Might Jason Frasor and Brian Tallett add up to a discarded Cabrera? Would either be worth weak-hitting speed demon Brett Gardiner? Ultimately, if no trade opens up, then there is free agency.

Since we are adding only a third/fourth/fifth outfielder (I still think Wilkinson has some worth), that shouldn't break the bank. The focus on upgrading then falls on the catcher spot, with shortstop as a secondary situation. I'd be willing to offer Paul LoDuca a minor-league deal to earn sharing time with Rod Barajas, but I'd also sniff out whether the Rangers might take David Purcey for Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Josh Bard might be available at the San Diego Padres fire sale. And Yorvit Torrealba's numbers in Colorado might make him available. I don't like any free agents, although I'd certainly be interested in being used by Jason Varitek to drive up the price of his eventual re-signing with Boston.

So that leaves shortstop. And, while I love the John McDonald/Marco Scutaro pair, nobody else does. Besides Scutaro might be required full-time at second base, if Hill doesn't come all the way back. So here's where I spend the money on a home-run shot. I'd sign Edgar Renteria, soon to be an ex-Detroit Tiger. His price will likely be reasonable, he's had a year to get re-acclimated to the AL and he's not necessarily a defensive liability to go with decent offensive numbers.

Let me see if I've got the 25-man roster set:
C: Barajas, Torrealba
1B: Overbay
2B: Hill
SS: Renteria
3B: Rolen
IF: McDonald, Scutaro, Bautista
OF: Snider, Wells, Lind, Cabrera
DH: Jacobs
SP: Halladay, Burnett, Olsen, Litsch, (Jansen/Parrish/Richmond ... McGowan)
RP: Carlson, Downs, League, Camp, Wolfe
CL: Ryan

Obviously, excising Burnett would leave enough money to overpay a free-agent pitcher. Burnett's preferable to Ben Sheets, for instance, because he's a known quantity to Gaston and his coaches. But there ARE options starting at 12M and going to about the 17.5M I imagine it would take (per a four-year contract) to keep Burnett. He'd make more in pinstripes, but might like pitching here rather than there.

Is that a championship team? No. The upside IS the playoffs and the downside considerable. But it's a reasonable set of players (and trades to get them), within the likely team budget.

Mind you, I won't be cheering them on. I'm a fan of the Minnesota Twins at 9:01 am on Monday. GO TWINKIES!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

MISC: The Good News ... A Couple of Years Late!

I am writing this yesterday for publication today, regarding an event last week that occurred days after writing the post I posted here yesterday and refers to events from months ago. Have I got you confused?

Okay, some posts I write and then hold for publication for a few days. Up to two weeks. Yesterday's posts about my extended softball family was actually written almost two weeks ago. I wanted to hang on to it to see if anything needed changing after the first blush of putting out soooo many words of personal history. Turns out something DID happen, although I ultimately decided to leave yesterday's post as is.

I was leaving the Castle of Confusion to take a computer to a customer. The computer was in the car and I had just turned back to lock and shut my front door. I turned around to see a van pulling up in front of my house. A man emerged and starting walking up the driveway towards me. "Do you remember me?" asked the man.

On sight, no. But as soon as he asked me the question, I knew immediately who it was. It was John Payne, former high potentate of boys' softball, and somebody who I hadn't seen in 20-25 years! On second look, he looked amazingly well-preserved and, although my senior, in far better shape than me. I SHOULD have recognized him, he'd changed so little, other than a lot more grey around an always trim haircut. But I didn't, until I heard the voice. It brought back memories instantly, memories I had been writing about only a few days previously!

John and I yakked a bit. As always, I was only too eager to relate my life story (heh, I write a blog for nobody's interest save mine!). When I finally shut up and asked "So, how've you been doin'?," I got a gigantic shock.

Turns out, the better part of three years ago, John and Evelyn had been in a car accident. The paper the following day had refered to the couple as having been KILLED! You can't trust everything you read in a newspaper, says the ex-journalist. Evelyn spent five months in a coma and each spent months in rehab, more than a year in Ev's case. They now had a regular nurse (the same young girl who conned me into a paddle boat, their daughter Penny) for Evelyn, who's still on the road to complete recovery. But John looked as hale and hearty as when I last saw him more than two decades ago. He invited me to drop by and see the family. I took him up on his offer. That afternoon.

After dropping off the computer, I found my way over to the C section for the first time in a long time. At that, the car almost drove itself to the right house, a cavernous corner lot, immaculately cared for. The whole family was sitting on the verandah, save for son Chris, who runs a sports store down London way. John and daughters Penny and Robin were on hand. I suspect I was interruping a birthday celebration. But being a social boor has never stopped me before.

Evelyn was sitting in the shade in the corner and had a contented grin on her face. In many ways, she could pass for my mother's younger sister. The resemblance is quite remarkable. For a lady who spent a year and a half getting back to where she could socialize and hang out people-watching, she was doing remarkably well. Her wit was there and I couldn't seem to find any holes in her memory. She's written about the ordeal for a magazine article coming out (hopefully) in the next month or so. She's corresponded with famed actress Olivia deHaviland, thanks to a connection through her therapy workers.

We talked about softball. John coached Chris into the juniors, playing for Pickering and Oshawa after Bramalea stopped fielding junior teams. But he'd gotten weary of the travel and packed it in. Chris went on to play in both national and world congress championships, picking up two titles along the way. We also talked about some of the ... interesting people ... we had come across back in the day. I thanked both he and Evelyn for more or less shepherding me through a time when I was all too willing to put my foot in my mouth. I really did appreciate it, more now, as seen through the lens of time.

And we talked about the accident. They were stopped at a red light when a garbage hauler came barreling through. The car in front of the Paynes saw the accident coming and scooted off to safety. Stuck beside a truck, the Paynes never saw the first collision that resulted in a car being used as a cue ball by the hauler to crush their car. While it took Evelyn months to come to, John was up quite quickly. The first thing he asked when peering through half-open eyelids at a bright light down a dark tunnel, "Am I in Heaven?"

That's when Penny knew her father was okay. The lights were on the ceiling of the hospital room. Took awhile to match John and Evelyn up again, but faith and determination has a way of winning out in the end.

So the answer to the question "So, how've you been doin'?" was simple. "Great!"

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

SOFTWARE: The Not-So-Good News About Delphi 2009

Any software programmer treats major releases of his or her programming environment with enthusiasm and trepidation at the same time. Within the last fortnight, Embarcadero released Delphi 2009, a nicely-wrapped enticement to leave Delphi 7 behind and take up the 21st-century's best development language.

I downloaded the 14-day trial and let it sit there for a week and a half, blaming work and my computer kerfuffle of the last week as an excuse NOT to peek under the wrapping. I knew that I did NOT want to 'want' the upgrade. Expenses are a little tight right now, and buying the upgrade and then the obligatory upgrade to all my purchased third-party libraries would be expensive. Thousands of dollars. But better, faster, prettier and possibly more capable beckoned.

The update this year is centred around the internationalization aspects of Delphi. The first Unicode-smart version of the language has been long lusted after by many, many programmers. Delphi is very popular all over the world, save for the place it was invented, America. (I lump the USA and Canada in this case). Unfortunately for me, as a raison d'etre for an upgrade, I'm uninterested. Closest I get to a foreign language is my Point of Sale software running a comic book shop out in Atlantic Canada (Halifax to be precise).

Other new features were put on display over the two weeks preceding the release of Delphi 2009. Nothing important to me, wasn't already available to venerable old v7, thanks to my copious collection of third-party libraries, acquired over the years from literally every corner of the globe. I knew all of this going into testing out the trial. But I had heard rumours.

They were going to let users have the old classic undocked interface back!

THAT's been my biggest reason for turning thumbs down to earlier incarnations of the studio version of Delphi, which first came out in 2005. I HATE the Microsoft Visual Studio-inspired multi-document interface. I HATE it, I HATE it, I REALLY HATE it! If I wasn't afraid of Angela or AJ stumbling on this blog, I'd have a slightly stronger way of saying I %#*(%_)#*( HATE having everything showing up in one window, one form or code editing panel at a time. Afterall, I bought multiple monitors for the specific purpose of having many, many windows open at the same time, copying things from one to the other, using line of sight. I want the form right there beside my code, NOT REPLACING the window with the code. I can hover the mouse over controls and get their names, important when I might have two dozen forms and thousands of controls strewn all over them. I HATE the interface, I HATE the interface, I REALLY HATE the interface!

But I had hope. Hope that was dashed seconds after I clicked the option to change to the "Classic Undocked" desktop. Liars, Liars, LIARS! Sure, I could spread the supporting pick lists, the Tool Palette, the Class Explorer, etc. and move them to the second monitor. But guess what I couldn't do? That's right, I STILL couldn't separate form designer from code. And I couldn't float the separate forms. Aarrrgh!!!!!

With MDI still a reality until Microsoft abandons it with some future release of Visual Studio (rumoured to be a fact in the next release), I suspect Embarcadero's CodeGear arm to stick to the concept well after it's Best-before date. But maybe, just maybe, they'll give me the true SDI interface from my Delphi 7 as an option. I know OTHERS like MDI and I know MOST people think the true stumbling block to acceptance of MDI is the tool palette. I could care less. I think the 2009 Palette is okay. It's useable. I prefer the Delphi 7 format, but I even fool around with the default format of that. So, that's just smoke. The CONCEPT of the MDI is what's stopping me cold.

There were other little things that I didn't like. For example, after setting up a menu in an application, in Delphi 7, I can click on the menu as if it was live. Clicking on a live item then takes me to the code behind it. In Delphi 2009 (and for all I know, every version since 8), you have to open the menu editor. It's a little thing, but it's annoying. Some of the default options seem anti-Delphi until you turn them back to Delphi or Classic Delphi.

The database end of things moves along, without tools for moving people away from the deprecated Borland Database Engine and into spiffier stuff. Bluntly, as much as I detest MDI (Did I mention how MUCH I HATE it?), I'd probably make the big jump if there was something that was drop-in and replaceable for the current BDE data connections. I have talked with David Intersimone of Embarcadero Codegear about this. He seems to think it's easy, although he hasn't replaced 400 plus connections like I am facing in my major application. I also addressed the issue with Gerrit Beuze of Modelmaker fame to see if he might concoct a tool. He thinks its easy to write too and suggests *I* do it! Maybe if they got to know me, they wouldn't type such silly things!

Given the previous litany of outrage, you'd think I've lost faith in Embacadero and it's Codegear brand. Couldn't be farther from the truth. If you are designing a one-form application and can write code form-unseen, then this release is REAL GOOD. Lots of little helpers. The overall help system, a burr for the last three years, has improved greatly. The install took me less than an hour (that report turned out to be factual). That's an improvement of ohhhh, say two hours over the other studio versions I trialed. The guides when laying out forms is as good as it gets in the programming business. It compiles quickly and lays out compile errors in an intelligent way. The code it produces isn't assembly-language lean, but it shames the Microsoft Visual Languages code's bloated size.

I would recommend ANY new programmer to pick up Delphi. Being self-taught, I can attest that you can make a decent enough living with the language. On the other hand, if you are a Delphi 7 programmer thinking about making the move out of your comfort zone, I have a different reply.

In the immortal words of the leather-lunged fan in the bleachers who has just seen his beloved baseball team eliminated from further contention, "Wait'll Next Year!!!!"

SPORTS: JP and Blue Jays Headed for LV

When it came down to it, the folks in Syracuse had had enough of the failures of JP Ricciardi and the Toronto Blue Jays. I have no idea whether he managed to offend them as thoroughly as he's offended Blue Jay fans, but there was no question that when it came time to choose which MLB organization to throw down with, the Chiefs decided to go with the woeful Washington Nationals, ending 31 years of affiliation. And don't let anybody tell you it was Toronto wagging this dog of a story. Syracuse filed for affiliation 'divorce' three weeks ago. Most of the time since has been spent on wooing the New York Mets, before settling on the Nationals.

That's right. Syracuse 'switched' leagues and took on a losing organization to avoid pairing up with the Blue Jays for another two years. Instead, Toronto gets to partner up for the next two years with the consolation prize in the game of Franchise Musical Chairs, Las Vegas. The 51's aren't a bad lot, but play at a bad stadium and get their players up close and personal with temptation. The Dodgers were ecstatic to get out of town, moving their minor league affiliate to Albuquerque. Nobody wanted Las Vegas, Toronto included. But when you are the only two left standing at the dance, you get paired up.

As for the long-rumoured hookup between the Jays and the Buffalo Bisons, a logical partnership that would feature cross-promotion and ease of travel between the bigs and the top affiliate, the Jays were up against the Mets in currying the Bison brass. No contest there.

Let me also point out the dichotomy of Syracuse wanting to bail, JUST as the so-called talent pipeline is supposed to fill up with excellent Toronto AAA prospects. That means one of two things are true. Either the talent isn't as good as Ricciardi blows smoke about to the media (a good bet). Or Syracuse can't stand working with the Toronto management (of which Ricciardi is the star PITA). That's also a good bet. Both are probably true in equal amounts.

Just how bad did it HAVE to be for Syracuse to prefer Washington? Obviously, PLENTY bad!

MISC: The Coaching Years

Familiar names have been in the sporting news of late. The Don, Don Matthews. David Murphy. These are familiar names to me, although the names belong to other people than the newest head coach of the Toronto Argos and the Texas Rangers' outfielder.

For me, the Don is Don Benoit. And David Murphy is the goofy kid who played catcher for my earliest softball rep teams. They are part of the extended family I met through softball.

As a kid, I tended not to share many hobbies with my father or either of my brothers. As softball (fastpitch, really) was my sport of choice, I naturally hung around with the kids on the teams I was playing on. In my earliest years of playing ball, that meant hanging out with Randy Hargreaves and his younger brother Kirk. Their dad, Russell, was my coach and I spent a LOT of time over there. So much so, that Mr. Hargreaves figured I ate enough and often enough over there to have chores. Hard to believe now, with my disinclination towards physical labour, but I was considered a Hargreaves for ordering around purposes. When the Hargreaves moved out of town when I was ten, it took me awhile to recover.

I really didn't play all that well for other coaches after that. A second-baseman by trade, I was good enough to play on rep teams. But I was a nasty piece of business. I played more like Ty Cobb than Aaron Hill. They say of somebody who was overly competitive, "he'd try to trip his own mother rounding third base with the winning run." I never got the chance, but I would have. Trust me. I had particularly bad run-ins with the teams from Huttonville. And I got tossed from games for cursing those yellow-bellied sapsuckers. I have a legendary ability to carry a grudge.

Eventually, I found an outlet for my aggression by coaching. My pals, Jimmy Hughes and Glen McGonnigle, had coached in atom house league the year before I turned 14. They convinced me to take over the Longines Witnauer team in the atom league that season and I found out I liked coaching, even if the kids were only eight and nine. It was fun and we did occasionally win games. Not too many to scare the adults coaching the other teams. But enough to keep me coming back for more. It was that first season coaching that I met The Don, Don Benoit.

The Don was a force of nature. His real-life job was handling the scheduling of lakers, shipping boats plying the Great Lakes. This was in the days before computers. He could change skeds all in his head. As bright as many of the bridge players are that I have come across (and that includes double professorships), Don Benoit might have been the brightest guy I ever met. As I've gotten older, I gotta tell you, I have come to look a lot like him. He was always hanging around, slightly sloop-shouldered and stockily built. He was perpetually in a baseball jacket and dockers, with a few days growth of beard. His first words of advice to me were, "Son, remember that the kids are here to have fun first, second and third. Winning comes last." It took me awhile to find out how right he was.

One more thing before I put the subject of The Don behind me. The man had a great sense of humour. Hey, he let me babysit his kids, Joe, Darren and Mary! But the surest sign, was the sign on the front door of the house. "The Benoits, a Division of Molson's Breweries. Professional Drinkers since 1879" I might have the year wrong. Never saw the man drunk once in all the time I knew him, but he was plenty happy to let people have a chuckle at the expense of underestimating him.

The next year, I coached in atom again, with a lot more success. I was asked to help coach the the atom Selects, who played a handful of tournaments against other town select teams. It wasn't an organized rep league, just a series of tournaments. It was a lot of fun coaching with Ken Hills, who's boy Patrick, was probably the dominating pitcher in Ontario for the age group. That would largely continue to be the case until about Midget, where Patrick decided to concentrate more on hockey. Bramalea and Alderwood split most of the titles that year, Alderwood having their own big pitcher in the form of Ed Kastelic, who DID eventually make it to the NHL with the Whalers and the Capitals. The Alderwood team was coached by Bob Rose, like me, hailing from Newfoundland. For competitors, we became good friends. I also became quite close to the Hills family over the next three years.

I wasn't even 16 the next year when I got the phone call. Hugh Pitcher was offering me the head coaching spot with the Squirt Rep team. Actually, my name was the last one on the list, meaning if I said no, there would be no team. It didn't even have a sponsor. Also, there would be no Etobicoke Softball Association, since Eringate and Alderwood needed at least a third team to have an actual season. And they needed a league to be eligible for Ontario championship play. I was oblivious to this and full of piss and vinegar. "Of course," I said. Didn't give it a thought. Actually, I spent more thought on naming the team and coming up with a logo, a life-long hobby of mine. Thus were born the Bramalea Buckaroos.

Pitcher made LOTS of mistakes over his years as a softball exec, not the least of which was getting me to coach. But he hit a homer in finding me an assistant coach. Barry Murphy was a senior men's player of less than stellar ability. He hustled his way onto squads, saw lots of bench time and learned what worked and what didn't work when it came to softball. With son David exhibiting interest in his dad's game, it was time to start coaching. It helped that Betty Murphy, his wife, was one of those perfect coach's wives. She was enthusiastic, smart enough to cheer for everybody and smart enough to probably know more about the game than her husband, and keep that fact under wraps.

With me being still short of driving age, I was part of the baseball baggage the Murphys would haul to games. We ended up talking ball a lot. I more or less became David's older brother. As with my other visits into extended families, I wouldn't have traded that time for anything. The Murphys were, and still are, some of the best people ever.

We didn't win a lot initially. In fact, we only won one league game that first year, thanks to my friend Bob Rose at Alderwood. Although THEY were fighting tooth and nail with Eringate to win the league title, they voluntarily forfeited a game at Victoria Park against us. This was back in the days before the re-entry rule. Alderwood was thumping us but good, again. Bob had emptied the bench and had nary a reserve available. When his catcher, a top-notch player named Phillip, threw a temper trantrum after being called out, Rose benched him and forfeited the game. His kids were NOT going to misbehave without repercussions. As it turns out, Alderwood eventually won the league title anyway, but his kids always played with class.

I think the team was something like zero and 11 before we headed for Woodstock for a tournament. I was quite sure I was the worst coach of all time by then. Fortunately, for the first time all season, we didn't play either of our league mates (we'd even drawn them in two tournaments). When we finally got fresh meat, it turns out we were okay. In fact we won the consolation title at the event. By season's end, I would have put us in the top eight in the province. Not that that did us any good. We drew Owen Sound in the first round of the provincials, one of the few teams to give Alderwood a tussle. We lost. Alderwood won the Ontario title. As it should have.

From being a head coach, I turned to being an assistant coach. I was still a teenager, too young to drive, and I needed an adult to temper some of my more creative ideas. I had some doozies. I actually made a presentation to the softball association to have all tee-ball players hit left-handed. As I pointed out, they were too young to know differently and would swallow any coach's request to hit from the first-base side of the diamond. I envisioned a complete roster of left-handed hitting rep teams in a few years. Left-handers are two steps closer to first base in softball. And that makes a difference. But I was denied on the motion. Curses!

As an assistant coach, I got a chance to work with Dave Murphy, who was rounding into possibly the best catcher in the province. He loved throwing the ball and we worked out the limits to his pickoff attempts. The outfielders had to be in coverage and the runner had to be too far from the bag ... OR having turned his back to David. Some of the best plays I saw David make that year came when a runner was only a step off the bag. He'd turn his back and make the lazy step to the base and find the ball in the fielder's glove awaiting him. It was comical at times. The best part was involving the outfielders who knew David caught even OUR guy by surprise at times. Outfielders didn't sleep on our teams, making it less of a drudge out there.

I assisted on several teams during my late teens. I was obviously helping out with Barry and the squad that I'd coached the year before. John Fleming gave me a chance with the older kids, the bantams. Clinics I coached in, in the spring exposed me to the girls' game too. Some of those kids at the first clinics, like Connie Mitchell, later became the squad that represented Canada at the inaugural World Junior Championships in Edmonton in 1981. I also came across the coaching talent of Grandpa Bob Sorenson. Nothing Grandpa did looked dynamic. Everything he did worked though. He looked like he should have been in a rocking chair while still embarrassing senior men's teams with his baffling array of drops and curves. Most fun watching pitch that I have ever seen in the game. And that includes Eddie Feigner. And he was better as a coach.

Turning into my 20's, I was needing my extended softball family less and less. I was with Murphy and the peewees when my boys' coaching career came to an end. I enjoyed that team as much as any I had ever been involved with. Still, I had a problem with a pitcher on the team, who's dad was a long-time executive in the association. He'd behaved well until the day after we had our roster frozen for the rest of the year. At that point, the hidden away Damian surfaced and I found myself actually thinking about doing physical harm to a kid. I quit on the spot, handing over the coaching reins to Ted Menzies. I remember going to my car and getting some pictures of the kid in question out of the trunk. These were left-over extra black and whites our photographer at the Brampton Guardian newspaper (I was assistant sports editor) had printed up so I could give them to the kids. The particular kid in question was due to get two shots.

I tore them up into small pieces, tossed them into the garbage can and drove away.

Naturally, I ended up watching most of the team's remaining games. I sat out in centre-field and growled at anybody who came near. It was with great pleasure that I watched Barry and Ted guide the kids to the league title. I was finished coaching.

Well, not so fast. Although I proudly wore my 'Retired Coach' shirt all of the next year, I was as busy as I could be. Gerry Harvey got me to help him out with the bantam girls. I helped in the peewee house league with a boys' team. And the new president of the softball association, John Payne, asked me to work all the local tournaments. A fairly smooth-talking insurance salesman, John knew which buttons to push to get me announcing and helping officiate the several tournaments that the association ran each year. I had designed the model they used, which was a round-robin affair guaranteeing each team three games. Made us VERY, VERY popular, since most tournaments only guaranteed teams two games. Since this was my baby in a ways, John succeeded in inveigling me into helping out. He and his wife Evelyn became the last of the families to become part of my extended softball family. They even had a young daughter who became the last person in the world to succeed in getting me out on open water, when she pulled the big sorrowful eyes routine to con me into doing most of the legwork on a paddle-boat trip on the local lake.

Eventually, I had to give up my extended softball family. There was one last hurrah at the world championships, as I traveled with the team to Edmonton. I had coached or coached against more than half the team. Some of them, I had coached brothers of. One's brother was my best friend at the time. But when the last out was called in a quarter-final loss to Japan, I was on my way out the door. I was done with softball.

Seems I had developed pretty severe August grass allergies. Never have figured out why they call them August grasses. I start wheezing and popping pills no later than my birthday in mid July. I then pray for the first frost, economic consequences be damned. Not being able to breathe does have a negative effect on my desire to coach. So I stopped. Didn't even go back to watch. With the exception of announcing at a 1984 Olympic prep tournament, I haven't been back since.

I miss softball. I miss the people. But I had a chance to get to know some REAL good people, and for that I am thankful. They made an impact on my life. I hope I left them a little bit better off for it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

SOFTWARE: Default Dumbness

This week's Chaos Manor Reviews over at Jerry Pournelle's site, talks a lot about the basic concept of installing Windows programs to the default locations. There's very little to recommend in the practice and lots to recommend NOT DOING IT.

I tried, and failed, to set my machine up correctly during the initial setting up of Nuklon. I knew the default install of Windows would take between 2 and 4 gigs of space. The pagefile file would be equal to my memory, so that was another 3 gigs. And temp directories would take another 4 gig chunk, about the size of a DVD. Thus, I needed 11 gigs. I upped it to 15 gigs just in case.

THEN, I installed all my programs and data on OTHER logical drives. D: ended up holding most of my data and F: held most of my programs. I simply did not install anything to C:, leaving it as pristine as could be. And yet, somehow, C: ended up running at near capacity because no matter WHERE you say to install to, most installation programs still leave detritus strewn all over the C: drive. And it's not just Microsoft that ignores your wishes. Firefox, the browser you SHOULD be using to read this, installs lots of itself on C:. And heaven forbid you try to change where it's email cousin Thuderbird resides.

When I DO eventually transition fron Nuklon to Popeye, I will be upping C:'s space to 50 gigs. That should buy me between 2 and 3 years of some peace in terms of not over-flowing C:

Some reasons why to NOT install programs on C:

Bluntly, the less you have on C:, the easier it is to backup. If it doesn't take anytime at all, you will backup more often. And C: is the most fragile of the drives on your system. It gets the most wear and tear. It has the boot sectors. And malevolent programs frequently screw up that partition. It is SO EASY to simply go back to the most recent backup you have and tell it to restore the C: drive, rather than fiddle around trying to recover files, programs and your life as you know it from a crashed C: drive. Trust me. It happened earlier in the year here, and I was 15 minutes from laughing in the face of disaster.

Also, the scum-sucking dregs of society that send out virii and trojans, often depend on your programs being exactly where they install by default. You can save a few bytes by assuming Microsoft Office is in the default area, if you are writing a macro virus for those programs. Oddly enough, that assumption is as good as a good anti-virus program in those cases. And we all know how many virii used the default Outlook address book in the default location over the years to spread their little bundle of no joy.

Separating data from programs means leaner, meaner backups. Meaner as in quicker. That's good. Also, if you have a family who shares, it's a lot easier to share the D:\Data folder than arrange for each other to get access to some Stygian level of folders in that MyDocuments catchall. Setting up your OWN sub-directory structure instead of trying to read the mind of whoever makes decisions on things like this at Microsoft, is a winner for quickly finding what you want to find. For example, I think I have a logical structure to my data folders and tried to convince my Dad to follow my rules. Not only did he ignore me, but he set up his music folders in a manner that would make a World War II Enigma Code Breaker sweat. But he can find any of his music whenever he wants. Works for him. And HE's the one using the computer.

As much as installers want to install stuff you don't want to know about in a location you don't approve of, at least installing into an APPS folder, like the one I have on Drive F:, means you have a reasonable chance of tracking down just what is installed on your computer. For me, the Borland Database Engine program was installed to F:\Apps\BDE, making the administrator program for that easy to find. On the other hand, I could have installed it to the default location, which puts it in: C:\Program Files\Borland\Common Files\BDE. Dontcha just love Microsoft's new-found penchant for putting spaces in folder names? Makes writing batch files way more interesting than it should. Regardless, as with data, install programs to a hierarchical system that makes sense to you. Don't assume Microsoft knows better.

It doesn't.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

SOFTWARE: Firefox 3 OK, Just in Time for Update

I have been using Firefox 3.01 and I'm just starting to feel comfortable with enough to recommend its use. The timing could be better, since version 3.02 is supposed to be out two days from now. But this is where the time to review it showed up.

Firefox 3 IS faster and uses less resources than version 2.x. It has MOST of the add-in extensions of its predecessor and more ones that aren't and never will be available for the 2.x series. Let's walk through these add-ins and make sure you can fine tune your browsing experience for the maximum in security, ease and entertainment.

The full list and links are included below. I won't be talking about them all. But you can try them all out. The MORE you add, the slower startup in Firefox gets. Not horribly, but be aware that there IS a penalty in startup time to be paid for setting these up. I'll just go over the must-haves.

I honestly believe that everybody should be running NoScript. NoScript, which is updated several times a week, is the solution to being as secure with a web browser as you can get. You set Javascript to automatically run in your Firefox settings, then use NoScript to handle it on a case-by-case basis. It automatically shuts down any javascript! You then allow it on a case-by-case basis. There's a NoScript button on the status bar that you can click and see what sites want to run scripts on the web-site you are looking at. Surprisingly, you will almost ALWAYS find that google analytics and other sites are running on the one you are looking at. You can enable any particular site forever, or just for the session you are on (which is a good situation when just browsing new places). After allowing forever, you won't be required to do it again. This is the choice for your bank site and other 'trusted' places. How can you tell that you need to check NoScript? Well, if huge chunks of the page are missing, THAT's a good sign. Or it's your first visit. It SOUNDS like a lot of effort, but it isn't. And the little bit of effort is a small price to pay for the increased security.

Staying with the same theme, add AdblockPlus and Adblock Filterset. Dozens, if not hundreds, of annoying ads will disappear forever. And you can add individual ads that annoy you. You should also install NukeAnything Enhanced. You can then highlight text and elements on the page and use the right-click menu to make them go away. Perfect for some pre-printing editing.

After that, I think NoSquint is a requirement. What that add-in does is allow you to set the size of the page (and now the text separately) and REMEMBER your settings. I ALWAYS had problems with the type on Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manner, for example. I could use the Ctrl-SCROLLWHEEL to resize the text, but had to do it every time. Now, NoSquint remembers the last setting at each site and I've got everything looking just right at my commonly visited sites.

I also like a minimal set of toolbars at the top of the screen to maximize the depth of the window I am looking at. Less scrolling is good scrolling. So I run the Classic Compact Options add-in, along with Tiny Menu. This reduces the menu down to ONE word, Menu, that I can click to see the whole old menu. I use the former add-in for fine-tuning the look of the standard default theme that I use. I then moved a LOT of toolbars to the top row where menu used to be and turned off the Navigation toolbar. The result looks something like this:

Once you know what buttons do what, the small buttons work just great. I don't need that big keyhole backwards button, the small back and forth arrows do me just fine. And in the meantime, I have easy access to as deep a browser window as I can arrange. By the way, download ToolbarButtons to give you one-button access to many Firefox functions. Before you do that, install PrintPreview, a sadly missing default feature.

Firefox has a great ability to remember passwords and such. I want something a little more involved, so I use InFormEnter. It lets me remember forms all right. But it also lets me remember bits of information to be entered in new forms I encounter. Such as my name, email and address. It will show a little blue arrow beside fields and I can click it and automatically fill in the information. Takes a LITTLE setup, but after that, you can save oodles and oodles of typing.

SaveFileTo does exactly that. I can right click on a picture and save it to a list of folders I have created. So, I can put baseball pix in BBALL, basketball pictures in HOOPS and funny pictures in LAUGH. Saves having to save the picture to your download folder (heaven forbid, it'd better NOT be your desktop) and then move them.

When you decide to download a file, PDFDownload and DownloadStatusBar are REAL good ideas. The former steps in when you click on a PDF file and offers to download it or to run your PDF viewer within Firefox. Starting up any PDF viewer is a slow pain in the butt. If you have any intentions of saving the PDF, this does it without the issue of looking at it within the browser. Tools for specific tasks. As for the DownloadStatusBar, it shrinks the old window-masking Download dialog box into the status bar area. You can browse and monitor no problem. Highly recommended.

The actual browsing experience is aided by a few things. I like ImageZoom a lot, even though FF3 has some built-in image handling. Image fit is a REAL good thing. I also need an on-line dictionary at times and DictionarySearch is my current choice. I also have a new text highlighter that actually remembers BETWEEN sessions. WiredMarker has some rough edges, including a sub-sub-menu where one shouldn't exist, but it works a charm. I also use StopAutoPlay to prevent videos and music from playing immediately upon loading a site. Some of that stuff is obnoxious. Some of it needs to await my arrival on the tab. Since I load as many as 75 at a time, that might be awhile. Yes, it adds another button click, but it's a small price for control.

Which brings me to the final section of must-haves. I long used All-In-One Sidebar, TabsOpenRelative and AgingTabs to handle my FF2 work. The sidebar was an easy to use, easily hidden and retrieved repository of bookmarks, add-ins, download info and places to stash more buttons in a vertical format. TabsOpenRelative let me click on links on pages and have the tabs open up immediately to the right of the tab I was on. And AgingTabs let me colour the current tab green and the others various shades of yellow depending on how long they had been open. Great stuff!

But AIO Sidebar doesn't work correctly in FF3. Specifically, middle clicking on a folder in the bookmark list does NOT open the tabs, which is only slightly less problematical than the default FF3 behaviour of right clicking on a bookmark folder AND THEN MOVING TO IT! Sort of gets in the way of my being able to right click a bunch of folders and have them loaded in proper order when I come back from reading the morning paper. So, I had to switch to TabMixPlus for FF3. And it won't work with TabsOpenRelative and has it's own tab colouring feature. So, out the other two went, although I keep them around to monitor updates. I would, in fact, immediately go back to the old arrangement if the three add-ins worked as they do in FF2.

TabMixPlus lets me arrange many, many aspects of how tabs are opened and created in FF3. It can be a little bewildering. One thing I DID discover, is that I have to middle click on the folders I wanted opened in the REVERSE order of how I want them open. It keeps 0pening new tabs to the immediate right of the current one, not appending to the right side. Ah well, it's a small price to be paid, one which I hope won't last forever.

There are other links listed below. Check them out. Some might be features I use that you will want to use too. At the very least, NoScript, Adblock and either TabMixPlus or TabsOpenRelative.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

TV: Endings Without Endings

There was a day in time back in the pre-TV era when there were such things as Serials. Each ended with a cliff-hanger and movie goers were urged to come back next week and see just what was going to happen to Flash Gordon as he attempts to prevent Ming the Merciless from Conquering the Universe.

There were others, but Flash Gordon seemed to be the king of serials. You'd go to the movie theatre to catch this week's flick and would be treated to an episode from the long-running series at the same time. A couple of weeks later, a new episode of the serial would be out, to run with the same movie or a new one, if the old movie wasn't a hit. There was a certain amount of follow-through on the cliff-hangers, as audience-goers would expect a quick resolution to whatever mess Flash had gotten himself into.

The time for serials passed about the time of World War II, when the slots alotted for the serials were taken up by film from the war front. The subsequent advent of TV made their disappearance a long-term thing. Until Dallas came along with the Who Shot J.R.? season-ending cliff-hanger in the 80's. It lead to a whopping audience rating for the first episode the next season. And ever since, in every increasing numbers, TV producers have condoned the practice of ending on a cliff-hanger.

I hate every one who participates in this.

It's even snuck over into the book publishing world, where you can't possibly assume the book you are reading has an ending. I read mostly science fiction, and non-endings have become derigeur in series SF. I've mentioned my disgust with the ending to Weapons of Choice by John Birmingham, when it stopped rather than ended. It was only THEN that I found out it was the first volume in a series. Same thing happened with one of the Star Trek books I bought. I DID buy the conclusion to that duology, but haven't bought a single Star Trek book since then. Something about once burnt.

Subsequently, I will buy series complete, before starting on the first book, trusting book reviewers to keep me from mistakes. Such as the one I made with Samurai Girl, where a decent first book was followed up by bad, badder and worst.

Getting back to TV, I had occasion to watch a couple of BBC six-episode series over the last fortnight. The first was a 10-year old new take on vampires called Ultraviolet. In six episodes, that show developed an interesting universe, populated it with interesting (but flawed) people, and drew the story to a conclusion. All the while, allowing for a second season that never came. A story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Delightful.

Ten years newer, the recent series Spooks Code 9, kicks off with an interesting premise, fumbles it for two shows and finally pulls together a good group of episodes to end the series' first season. It had better be the first of at least two seasons, because the ending is a cliff-hanger. There are unresolved questions and I don't think the reviews or the ratings for the show make it any lead-pipe cinch the show is coming back. And this new attitude on the part of series creators to push for audience demand for more, is self-serving at best, riot-inducing at worst.

Let me get back to Ultraviolet for a second. Vampires were a lot less prevalent then, then are now. The take on vampires in the show was fresh. The gimmicks to fight the vampires had a good retro futuristic vibe. No Buffy-esque everybody knows karate conceit. Just guns with cameras to help determine which people in front of you did NOT show up on electronics. The individual episodes were solid and the overall arc mystery resolved in proper smart manner. And the show featured Colette Brown in a supporting role. Which was a very good thing.

If this one does hit the DVD store or gets replayed on one of the BBC export channels, catch it.

Spooks Code 9 is an outgrowth of the venerable old Spooks franchise in England. Spooks, called MI-5 over here, has put out five outstanding series. But I guess a now-famous cast has gotten too expensive and the creators decided to do a Next Generation of sorts. And they got an interesting premise to start it off. What if terrorists exploded a nuke in London during the 2012 Olympics? Surely, most of the intelligence network would be in town, as would be most of the nation's bigwigs.

The Bomb changes everything. Lopping off the head of the security services means the service has to be rebuilt, mostly with people on the tenth page of the manual teaching the beginners on page one. It's actually a pretty neat idea.

But the result just doesn't work initially. The gang that's assembled are so green that the creators decided to admit it by naming the new head of section Charlie Green. They are all in the twenties and range from convicted felon to a survivor of the bombing who has a death sentence from radiation poisoning and a desire to make her relatively short remaining life mean something. Getting the only existing veteran spook out of the way so the kiddies takes over, is accomplished with a lot of quick cuts through quite a distopian world.

And that's where it almost lost me. I just can't see Britain falling apart like that. Afterall, this is a country that withstood the Nazi barrage. Stiff upper lip and all that. And would the world really stand by and let England fall apart like that?

Okay, assuming the distopia happens. The police state seems pretty well ineffectual. Most distopia's have REAL good police forces. They sort of go hand in hand. For three episodes we generally see that ISN'T the case in Code 9. Then, the show rights itself and does standalone episodes that work well, while furthering the overarching mystery of who the MI-5 traitor is that set up the actual bomb attack. The traitor is revealed with minutes to go in the series' sixth episode and the second bomb found with a minute to go. Another mystery is developed over who the guru is that turned the traitor.

And then the show ends.

No resolution to whether the bomb was stopped. No future details as to the manipulating mastermind in the background. No knowledge of whether Rachel survives and Charlie gets it through his thick mathmatician's head that she loves him. AAARRRRGGGHHHH!!!!

Of course, if the series never returns, we DO have an ending of sorts. The bomb went off and everything was obliterated.

Maybe they'll eventually do Spooks Code 9: The Next Generation.

Friday, September 19, 2008

SPORTS: It All Started with Arland Bruce III -- Spidey!

I hate grandstanding idiots at football games, and no, I'm not talking about the clowns who get all liquored up and do a runaround until tackled by policeman. No, I'm talking about self-aggrandizing idiots on football teams. Most of them are receivers. They scheme and pray for a chance to do something post-touchdown that will end up with their mug splashed all over the sports show nightly highlights. They put themselves above their teammates in doing this, although inevitably these days, they have help in showing how big of an idiot they are.

The Toronto Argonauts are not having a good season. But it was an okay season right up until a moment in the team's last win--over similarly woeful Hamilton--when Arland Bruce III, an oft-forgotten superstar receiver this year, needed some attention real bad. He scored a touchdown, then went into a huddle near the endzone wall, from which he emerged wearing a Spiderman mask. Leaving aside the trademark infringement, it was a classless act from a player I'd thought pretty classy up until this Terrell Owens'-level act of narcissism.

And please spare me the attempts to legitimize this and acts like it, as increased entertainment. Football is a team sport. Possibly the ultimate team sport. For one player to act like the cock of the walk while the guys who protected the guy who got him the ball walk to the sideline in relatively poor-paid anonymity, is vanity run amok.

Apparently, the act has divided the team. Half the team suffers the fool for being sublimely talented, the other half, the real old pros, hope he breaks his head real soon. It's embarassing to see a teammate carry on like he'd never scored a touchdown before. Since that time, the Argos have played like a team divided, costing several people their jobs and embarassing the whole city, no less the team. Openly, it was discussed if the Argos would benefit just cutting Bruce from the team, assuming no self-respecting CFL side would want to trade for arguably one of the three best receivers in the league. Bruce remains. That's sad.

Of course, Bruce is just mimicking the nauseating behaviour of the enfants terrible from the NFL. Chad Ochocinco or whatever name he's chosen for the spotlight has helped the once-promising Cincinatti Bengals plunge to the nether regions of the league. My solution to that issue would have been to issue the former Chad Johnson sweater 13 when he showed up for work this fall. And the newest idiot in the receiver set, DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles, has proven he has an IQ roughly equivalent to his sweater number. Showing off by throwing away the ball on an apparent long touchdown, replays showed he pulled the stunt BEFORE crossing the goal-line. And this ignaramous has actually done this BEFORE. So, it's not like he's going to learn from doing it this time. Scorn just olls of this dummy's back, never stopping to stick between the ears.

This is the universe Terrell Owens has wrought. Hope he rots in hell when he inevitably goes.

HARDWARE: Description's The Same, Otherwise ...

In the midst of all the hullabaloo of replacing Nuklon with Popeye, I also have now used my new Logitech Cordless Optical Trackman long enough that I will use it long-term. I won't be combing the back lists of eBay for another Microsoft Trackball to replace the one that went belly-up just before the great computer fooferaw from early this week.

That's not to say I'm completely pleased with the Logitech. The first itch is the 'wireless' aspect of the trackball. I understand the need for this with mice, but the trackball stays right where it is most of the time. If a cable was hanging off the front end and weaved through the nest of similar cables occupying the space between my keyboard and the back of the computer, I doubt I would even sense the cable moving when I made slight adjustments to the Trackman's positioning. It adds cost and flakiness, since the reception seems to halt every now and then. Might be the batteries in the box are near their end, but it's an unneeded costly feature for the product.

The scroll wheel placement is a REALLY, REALLY FAT man's finger width away from the big marble that you maniuplate with your fingers. As such, it's almost TOO far away to be used comfortably. Check that. It IS too far away for comfortable use. I REALLY liked the old MS Trackball Explorer because I used the fingers to move and used the thumb to depress the left and right click buttons and the scroll wheel in-between them. The ONLY issue was the occasional scroll and click (probably the first sign the thing was dying).

The Logitech Trackman has more buttons (and what gadget-lover doesn't love MORE of anything?). They are generally kind of useful. The left button is well-placed and the bifurcated button above it has a smaller thumb-top button that I have made the middle-click button that works well. I'd like the lower thumb-pad section of the button to be my right-click button, but I don't have that choice. That's not horrible, because the pinkie-placed right click button is easy to get to and hold down when right-dragging stuff.

When you DO use the scroll wheel, it moves easily, clicks easily and there are buttons atop and below the scroll wheel that you can set for automated scrolling. AND there's a little lock that serves as an aid for when you want to move groups a LONG way on the screen and don't want to accidentally drop the group somewhere along the way. Quite neat.

This trackball device is certainly useable. It's got some heft, although it ways less than my original NON-wireless Logitech Trackman and considerably less than the doorstop that was the Microsoft Trackball. Still, it feels comfortable. And given that the only other legitimate scroll-wheel enabled trackballs out there were the featherweight Logitech Trackman Wheels (of which I have three), it's the best deal out there.

But shop around. Indeed I did get Staples to match the Tiger Direct price, which was 19 bucks less, before tax. Judge whether that means I have a good guy running the local Staples or that Staples makes so much money on the product, that they could still sell it to me for 25 per cent off without blinking an eye.

I honestly don't know which.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

TV: Samurai Girl Writers Are Miracle Workers

I knew I shouldn't have watched it. I'd read the novels that comprise most of Carrie Asai's Samurai Girl series and had hated every word of every book after the first one. The original opening volume was a fairly well-crafted story, allegedly aimed at teen girls with an interest in action, combined with some wistful unrequited love.

An earlier post here describes how the books went off the rails, leading me to stop with the fourth book still 20 pages or so from completion. I didn't even touch the fifth and sixth books. That's how mad I was for the author screwing up the good start.

Along the way, I WAS aware that the series had been optioned as a TV mini-series. The good news was that the TV shows were going to be based mainly around the first book. It was a hopeful thought. But really, could they salvage Asai's material?

The answer, much to my shock and chagrin, is a resounding YES!

If you told me that the creators of the TV show randomly picked four chapters out of the first book, say 1, 2, 13 and 25, and then discarded EVERYTHING ELSE, I would now believe you. So very little of the original vision remains, that this mini-series, shown in three back-to-back two-hour episodes, might very well have eschewed the title as well. In a way, I am glad they didn't, since the series DOES in fact star a girl, who is MUCH more of a mystical Samurai, then does the book version which concentrates so much on training and straining in the love area.

Kudos to Leslie Morgenstein, Bob Levy and Luke McMullen for creating this tiny little refashioned pearl.

Now, let's also admit that this isn't Emmy-winning material. There are some plot holes and some groaners. But generally, every step McMullen, Levy et al took away from the source material was a move in a positive direction. The story still boils down to a modern-day pampered Japanese teenager (bordering on adult hood), leaping out of an arranged marriage during a ninja attack and subsequently finding out her adoptive father is NOT a good guy. She gets help from an American-based sensei (the lust object) and moves along the path of becoming a modern day Samurai, as has been foretold for many, many years. Along the way, she battles the bad guys (Daddy, ninjas, Yakuza and her sensei's ex-girlfriend) and forms a bond with her bunch of Scoobies. Entertaining throughout.

Jamie Chung is a very pleasing Heaven Kogo. Although I believe she is of Chinese extraction, which might tick Japanese off, I bought her in the role. She had a sense of naivite and enthusiasm, that when mixed later with confidence and a sense of purpose, made you cheer her on. The Heaven of the books basically became a stupid whiner that you sort of hoped would actually get knocked off by the ninja armies she battled.

Brendan Fehr is certainly NOT occidental. His character IS Japanese in the book, but the one-time Roswell co-star had no problem playing the enigmatic, mostly uncommunicative sensei on TV. His was the most known face in the show and I had no complaints.

The Scoobies in the show, Saige Thompson's Cheryl and Kyle Labine's Otto, appear in the book, but are nothing like they are in the books, past the original meet cute. Labine scores extra points for being a Canuck. The Kogo family, most of whom looked a little young to have an almost adult daughter, generally did their part. Anthony Brandon did a good job at getting over the obsessiveness of Chairman Kogo.

Karen, the traitorous ex-girlfriend of Fehr's character, was never going to be an appealing role. In the book, she's a pathetic little jealous creature, beholding to Heaven for her life and willing all the same to sell her out. The TV version of Karen was played by Stacey Keibler, the ex-WWE pretty face. Her obvious bad girl vibe goes uncovered for way too long, the biggest blemish on the show's logic. The girl fight to finish off the last show wasn't exactly Jackie Chan-esque, but it was good enough.

This is a DVD I want when it comes out. The show might be worth re-watching and the kids will like it. But mostly, I want to hear the extra director and writer commentary tracks. Those will be worth the purchase price alone.