Sunday, January 25, 2009

BOOKS: Reviewing the Reviewer

I have a book wishlist that is ever-evolving. I read reviews fairly regularly so that I can update the list, which is then given to my extended family two months before my birthday and then two months before Christmas. THEY provide me with most of my reading books these days. It's quite a good arrangement, easing their issues with giving me gifts and me getting a plethora of books to bide away the time not spent in front of a computer monitor or a TV tube/monitor.

Most of the reviews are of science fiction books, my greatest area of interest. But I read a lot of mystery reviews too, grateful for each one that turns me on to a new author. For practical reasons (I read the paper daily), one mystery reviewer I read regularly is Jack Batten of the Toronto Star.

Batten is also a writer of various genres, including sports-writing. If you ever get the chance, his book on Tom Longboat, the long-distance runner, is a great read. He's written plenty about hockey and even did a book on the first year of the Toronto Raptors. He's an easy read and I wish he'd write more where I could find him, on sports. He's also a good reviewer ... with a flaw.

He dotes on writers who write about depressed detectives in his bi-weekly Whodunnit column. Batten seems fascinated by European mystery novelists, especially Scandinavian ones. And an intolerable number of the puzzle-solvers feature detectives who are, frankly, a downer to spend a few hours with. Sure, it can be uplifting to find the downtrodden detectives overcoming their ennui and just plain disinterest in happier things. But the consistent championing of such books gets to me.

His Scandinavian obsession is revelatory. Scandinavians, the sunny blondes of the North, also happen to have a dark side. While generally bruited about to be one of the happiest groups on the planet, the Scandinavians who aren't happy, are really, really unhappy. The area boasts(?) one of the highest suicide rates in the world. And where there is suicide, there is also murder. And where there is murder, there is somebody out to catch them. Ergo, a burgeoning literary detective industry. With so much to pick from, there's merit to bringing it to light, over here on this side of the pond.

Which Batten does. To the almost exclusion of North American-created work. And when he does deign to write about local and American stuff, it's oft times re-issues of old works or obscure mysteries that share a too-familiar depressive approach to the mystery. He stays mostly away from 'popular' fare, save for Michael Connelly, who's works need no reviewing to prompt me adding the title to my wishlist. I 'think' Batten reviewed a Stephanie Plum book by Janet Evanovich once, but it probably prompted him to go into happiness shock for a month.

To me, it's depressing to read about depression. Sorry, but I like to consign THAT part of me to the 'let us not talk about it' portion of my life. Certainly, I hesitate to read about it. Connelly's Harry Bosch books COULD qualify as a downer. Afterall, the ususally single detective can't keep a good (and occasionally bad) woman around for long. But he's hardly the downer that his European counterparts seem to be, given my occasional forays into Batten recommendations. So I read each Batten review with the hope that his 'discovery' will be the kind of discovery that I can enjoy.

And it does happen. And it's a wonderful thing when it does. It was a review of Lisa Lutz's The Spellman Files that turned me onto that wonderful detective series. The second in that series was recently nominated for the mystery industry's seminal Edgar Awards for best myster published in 2008. And I don't think that one was as good as the first.

So, every two weeks, I read Jack Batten, looking, literally, for the happy occasion of a good mystery about a happy detective. Well, if not happy, at least not completely depressed.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

INTERNET: You've Heard About the Worm

By now, I've had three phone calls and one email about Cornficker. The latest version of this pain in the posterior is circulating and it seems to be growing at about a million PCs a day. The solution is to keep your windows updates up to date. Microsoft actually solved this one back in November. Also, run Firefox, rather than Internet Explorer and run the NoScript attachment in Firefox and never, ever, let NoScript allow Global access to scripts. Do it on a case-by-case basis. You'll know what to let in and what not to let in.

IF you want to do some reading on the subject, I was pointed to Woody Leonhard's blog on this problem at Windows Secrets. It explains (in somewhat techy speak, but with lots of pictures), exactly what this thing does. It also points to the MS site to get the patch if FOR SOME INCREDIBLY STUPID REASON you don't have the patch installed. And it also points to Scott Dunn's article on how to turn off the Auto-Run process for newly entered CD/DVDs and inserted thumbdrives. I have to tell you, Auto-Run is something that should be turned off. I hate it. And now, I have the justification for my hate. Read and decide on your own.

Lastly, Microsoft DOES have a solution to make IE running a little safer. Not enough for me, but I hate having to do recovery work, this last week being no exception. Michael Horowitz did a series of articles on explaing DropMyRights, starting with this link at C|Net. It's written for the layman and it's easy to use to put a safety net between you and the security black hole that IE is. It will even work for other internet-accessing applications. You should REALLY think about installing DropMyRights if you run IE.

COMPUTERS: Backups Good ... NOT Checking Backups BAAAADDD!

A week ago Thursday, my primary computer Popeye developed a case of Blinking Windows Desktop. The taskbar and icons would blink out. About every ten seconds or so, they would blink back into existence for a second or two, before vanishing into the ether again. Certain parts of my screen would still work ... RocketDock and StartEase, two programs I use for launching programs when I'm too lazy to use the start button. Opened programs would not blink out. And, if I was quick, I could open some of the programs with their here now, soon to be gone icons on the desktop.

Subsequent investigation revealed that this was NOT a virus issue, nor a detectable rootkit. It wasn't hardware driven, although I had updated my motherboard, network card and sound card about a week earlier. It wasn't a video-card driver issue. The problem survived starting up in safe mode running straight VGA video. Wasn't a cabling issue. I have multiple monitors and it failed using each different cable connected to all monitors, singly or in groups. I uninstalled the last five programs I had installed recently. No luck. I offered the hardware guy a chance to look, but he declined. He'd already done what I did next.

I googled for "Blinking desktop" and found LOTS of company. And about 5,000 page views later, I discovered what I think just about everybody else discovered.


One more shot. I booted up with Winternals recovery disk and got no blinking. It told me there was corruption in the NTKernel file. I tried a repair and all I got was an unbootable Windows partition.

So I did what I should have done hours earlier. I went to the backups and restored. In the process I lost some Stickies note data for reasons I'm about to explain. But otherwise, my data was intact due to my paranoia about putting it on drive C: and doing a LOT of cross-computer backups of data.

But, and it's a big but, the problem was that I didn't back up PROGRAM SETTINGS all that well. Part of it was due to missing files I needed backed up. That was the note data from Stickies, the electronic version of Post-It Notes that I use. Bad me. The other problem was that the backup program I was using to automate a good portion of the backups, Karen's Replicator, was not set up properly. REALLY, REALLY BAD ME. With a caveat. The only issue I have with KR, which is free for home use, is that when it encounters a bad configuration setting, it blithely tries and then goes on when it doesn't work. Without raising much of a fuss.

What I had done when setting up KR on Popeye was to copy the configuration files from Nuklon. And Nuklon backed up a LOT of stuff to drive F:. There is no drive F: on Popeye, as I made the decision to meld the drives E: and F: into one big E: on the newer machine. I WAS smart enough to go through the various settings that detailed backing up Popeye stuff to Nuklon and to Ollie, but not the internal stuff. Makes me wonder why anybody (is there anybody other there?) would be taking my advice!!

At any rate, I had some programs to re-install that I had installed SINCE the Drive Snapshot backup of C: had been made. That included Stickies, by the way. There were a lot of customization settings that had to be set right, again, in some programs. XanaNewsreader was a 'joy' to get just right AND to start using the existing collections of newsgroup messages. But a day later, I was operational for almost everything.

Except my programming environment, Delphi 7. The mismatch between what was now on drive E:, where I installed Delphi 7 and run it from, and the bits and pieces it expected to find on drive C: were too considerable. I had to re-install from scratch.

Again. And again. Because I got cute trying to take shortcuts in doing the install. One time, I was missing a couple of dll files because I didn't check one box. Another time, the try went south after I discovered I'd forgotten to include the database portion of the install. That's bad for a guy who makes a living programming database programs. THIRD time through, most stuff installed. I say MOST, because the new installation order seems to have resulted in some of the various third-party libraries I work with having a bad time NOW working together. They did a week ago Wednesday. And they will real soon now. But I'm CLOSE to overcoming the problem, and haven't lost anything that is important AND irretrievable.

But it would have been a LOT easier if I'd only checked the backups and the logs of creating them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

BRIDGE: I Miss Alan Truscott

In the last fortnight, I've had occasion to post a couple of comments at the blog run by Judy Kay Wolff. Judy's a feisty but gracious lady who I've met exactly once in person, and she, of course, does not remember it. It was an elevator ride at a national championship tournament in Toronto (I misremembered earlier and thought it might have been Buffalo). She was with her now-deceased husband Norman Kay. They couldn't have been more gracious to a t-shirt-wearing, baseball-cap wearing head of the ACBL's PR effort for the tournament. In some ways, it was sad I didn't make more of an impression!

At any rate, Judy brought up Alan Truscott in her blog and it brought back some of my happiest memories of the various tours I took as PR head for the ACBL. Certainly, I was a polarizing choice for the job when Paul Cohen first hired me. I dressed considerably differently that the various doyens that ran the league. At that first meeting in Portland OR, I was able to identify every friend and foe I had on the board. And I never changed a single mind. I tried. At first. Then I gave up and went about doing my job.

And that got me the respect of Truscott, the long-time bridge columnist for the New York Times.

He rewarded that respect by being happy to share stories about the various personalities within the Bridge world. Bridge is filled with people who'd I consider villains, ranging from cheating jerks at local clubs all the way to the top of the international bridge scene, both players and politicians. I make enemies easily and quickly and some very rich, nasty people have a permanent hate on for me. And me for them. On the other hand, the list of great people easily exceeds the list with screed. Judy, Norman and her current husband Bobby were amongst the group that lets me cherish my memories of being involved in Bridge at its top levels.

So was Alan and his wife, Dorothy Hayden Truscott. Absolutely the best story you can tell about the very proper erudite Alan was that he proposed to Dorothy on the steps of the Taj Majal. The stiff facade was nothing but caramel coated inside. He was funny and willing to allow jokes to be told on himself. I always found Dorothy to be more reserved in fact. Maybe it was because I looked like a hippie, to her.

Not that Alan wasn't demanding of the use of the Queen's English. I remember that at one national event in upper state New York (I'm waffling, trying to remember whether it was Niagara Falls or Buffalo), Alan had occasion to refer to something as plebian. Pronounced it pleh-BEE-an. It was like a veritable scene on The Price is Right in my head. I ... ME ...! had caught the man William F. Buckley would look to for grammatical help, mispronouncing a word. At least here on this side of the Atlantic! West Point cadets at called Plebes, pronounced Pleebs. It was a word I used occasionally too. And I always pronounced it PLEEB-ee-an.

I called Alan on it and he gave me that look. NOW, I know the look was one of pity. But all I saw was a glint of fear. I bet him the entry fee for an upcoming game he and I were going to be playing at the tournament. Alan would surely have paid for his entry and mine, had this contretemps never arisen. He always carried around a roll of ACBL scrip (like gift certificates in the Monopoly money format), to pay for such things. But I had to be taught a lesson. The entry fee for us both was to be the prize.

The only dictionary in the press room was a British one. And that wouldn't do. So we went hunting. We eventually found a Webster's and a New World dictionary. Found there were TWO spellings for Plebian (the other being Plebeian) ... and one pronunciation.

We then sat down and discussed how we were going to go about playing the game I was now paying for completely. That was when I discovered that Alan still had a few residual issues over having a convention (a set of agreements in Bridge) HE came up with, credited to a friend of Judy and Norman's, Robert Jordan. In fact, I played the Jordan 2NT convention with all of my partners at the time. He might have been bent at the shoulder and losing that fine white hair of his, but Alan's ears starting steaming. That's when I found out I had been playing the TRUSCOTT 2NT convention all along. And so it said on our convention card when we sat down to play a few minutes later.

I'd love to tell you we two Bridge journalists managed to best the field in that one and one-time only partnership between Alan and I. Or that I did something of note, worthy of being in a Times column. But neither happened. We had a good game and placed, but didn't win.

Alan and Dorothy are no longer with us. They live on in the stories that we can tell about them. The memories we can relive and enjoy. That's why, if you are into Bridge, then Judy's blog is worth your time. I'm glad somebody's taken on the task of getting as many of the tales of these people back into circulation as she can.

Even if you didn't know Alan, Dorothy, Norman or even the Wolff's, Judy will make you feel like you did. And that's a good thing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

TV: Fall 2008 ... The Fallen

With last Friday's broadcast, Stargate: Atantis is gone. Sort of. There is at least one movie in the planning and the success of life-extending movies for the original Stargate series, SG1, suggests that we will be seeing the cast and characters of the city by the bay (spoiler more or less intended) for a while to come. But I will miss the 20 episodes-a-year series for sure.

I thought the series finale was a really good hour (or 42 minutes, but you get the drift). It followed up on the CSI: Vegas send-up from the week before and contained enough twists and cameos to please this old coot. And I'm part of the minority who actually are happy Dr. Rodney McKay, the annoying Canuck genius, is growing up a little and getting into a cute relationship with Dr. Keller. David Hewlett and Jewel Staite have done a good job with something that was apparently thrown at them in the last year or so. All in all, Atlantis leaves us in a good place, looking forward to the movie (series?) and to the next Stargate series, Universe, debuting in July.

The rest of the fallen from Fall 2008 is a motley lot that doesn't include much to regret, save for Boston Legal, which tumbled to an end that included just about every rip a writer could get out about network TV executives and their complete and utter cluelessness about a TV audience which doesn't include 17-34 year old dunces. I'll eventually find a replacement for the tomfoolery that was the legal team at the heart of Boston Legal. And it'll probably be David E. Kelley's next show, whenever it comes out. So colour me a neutral sort of shade of sad.

I have no regrets over the passing of The Shield. The story had been writ large and was finished. Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey was an iconic character that could not come to any other kind of ending. And it was a satisfying ending, compared to the fadeout that finished The S0pranos. Loud and profane, but ultimately human, The Shield made an art out of the flaw. Flawlessly.

Much has been made over the demise of Lipstick Jungle. Not being the target audience, I won't miss it. I only watched the show for Lindsay Price, who I find astonishly cute and who possesses the best eye-crinkling grin amongst all current actresses. I don't feel the same way about Brooke Shields and Kim Raver, so I used the remote, a lot, when watching the show. As usual, I did find Andrew McCarthy and Paul Blackthorne fun to watch act. But ending the show seems a mercy to me.

And what can you say about Pushing Daisies and Dirty Sexy Money? I 'enjoyed' the first season of the sugary, overly artsy Pushing Daisies. But when the day I spent watching the season on DVD was done, I didn't feel the slightest urge to see season two. Loved Anna Friel, and Chi McBride is never less than great. But I OD'd on bright colours and sentimentalism. I DID stick with Dirty Sexy Money to the end, but my enjoyment was fading as they turned Zoe McLellan, my original reason for watching the show, into somebody I didn't enjoy watching. Peter Krause and Donald Sutherland did their jobs, the rest and the writers didn't do enough compelling work in theirs.

The CW came up with a couple of shows that verged on watchability, then sank when the rented-out Sunday line-up for the micro-network went belly up. I'm a sucker for love shows and Valentine had some good elements. Amongst youngish actresses, Autumn Reeser and Christine Lakin, have been found appealing. But whoever did Jaime Murray's look in the show should be shot. She looked emaciated AND harsh, all at the same time. Was actually tough to look at. And Easy Money had very little in the way of support for Jay Ferguson's lead, other than Marsha Thomason. The rest of the clan at the loan company were simply unpleasant or bumpkins. Although it was a look at a rarely-seen segment of society, there's a reason we rarely see it. Sort of feels like the slime you occasionally have to scrub off the sides of your toilet, if you know what I mean.

Ahhh, what else was there? The first casualty of the season was the Jerry O'Connell-starring Do Not Disturb. It was a loud and leering. O'Connell works best when he's endearing and this makes two comedic failures in a row. He's a new papa and should take some time off, and then find a dramedy or even outright drama to play in, harkening back to the days of Crossing Jordan, and before that Sliders. Of course, I remember him as a kid playing in My Secret Identity. I am that old. The other quick hit last fall was putting The Ex-List out of viewers' misery. As uncharitable as it may seem, Elizabeth Reaser just wasn't good looking enough. I'm sure she's a knockout personality in person, but the show had to have a knockout looker too. And she wasn't it. If they'd only switched with Alexandra Breckenridge, the sexy, tattooed teacher best friend, the show might have had legs.

I have every episode of Eli Stone and My Own Worst Enemy ever broadcast. I might even watch them one of these years. Christian Slater is almost always entertaining. Hard to believe Enemy wasn't watchable. I will probably watch it and Eli Stone and end up decrying their early deaths. But I doubt it.

Well, that's it for the belated reviews of shows you'll never be able to watch ... unless they come out on DVDs. Enj0y them if you can!

Monday, January 12, 2009

FOOTBALL: Really Thought It Would Be Chargers-Eagles

I'm not a huge football fan. I won the roto league both years we did one, but it was more inertia than anything else. That, and picking LaDainian Tomlinson each year. But I digress.

Thought I had a real Wild Card chance at winning the NFL playoff pool, since I loaded up on Chargers and Eagles. The Eagles are still alive and surely the miracle Arizona Cardinal run will come to an end at the raptors of the pigskin's hands. So, that part of the parley looks good. Unfortunately, Ben Roethlisberger turned out NOT to be so concussed as to not show up against San Diego. So it'll be Steelers-Ravens and who in their right mind can cheer for that thug Ray Lewis and his teammates. Not I. So it will be a battle of Pennsylvannia come Super Bowl Whatever Number It Is. Not up there with Manning vs. Manning. But good enough.

Maybe Andy Reid will have something good happen to him afterall.

INTERNET: Redesign Horror Part 3 (and Counting)

And the list grows. The lastest is SciFi.Com combining it's Science Fiction Weekly site with The result is useless, an opus of clicking and clicking and never finding anything of the old sfw site that made it the last thing I did during my weekend roundup of once-a-week sites.

Strictly speaking, this isn't a site redesign, it's SciFiWire taking over Science Fiction Weekly. There's a reason I stayed away from SciFiWire in the past. It's useless, ugly and not a little bit off-putting. So, I lose another bookmark.

Down to 22,198 at this point.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

COMPUTERS: The Weekly Cleaning

A quickie. Toronto plays Boston at the bottom of the hour and I still have hours of programming after the basketball break. Sooooo, here's what I do weekly to keep my computer operating as nicely as possible. Here's my folder of maintenance programs to run once a week (Saturday's usually, but it was Fridays).

At any rate, I run Crap Cleaner first. I analyze and then perform the clean to get rid of all Temporary files. Microsoft lies a lot, but most often about temp files. They stay around, eating up space and sometimes eating up programs because of the detritus left behind. My only trick is uncheck Autocomplete Form History under Windows Explorer and NOTHING under Advanced. Leave the Start Menu Shortcuts and Desktop Shortcuts unchecked, which I believe they are by default under System. Going to the Applications tab at the top, uncheck Cookies and Saved Form Information under Firefox/Mozilla. After running the Cleaner app in Crap Cleaner, I then run the registry cleaner. You will have to Scan for issues and follow the instructions two or three times. Four times is rare AND I've seen it go to six once. I don't save the registry for undoing before hand. You can if the paranoia strikes you. But generally I trust Crap Cleaner to not torch my computer. Besides, I have backups (G).

I then run Spyware Blaster and update it. Then I close it. Really simple, that one.

ShellExView is something relatively new. It lets me see what added itself to my operating system since I last ran it. The FULL display it will show you can be wide. REAAALLLLY WIDE. In fact, I've got it stretching across two 1600x1200 wide monitors! Thank goodness for row highlighting. At any rate, more for geeks than non-geeks. But it can't hurt to look (but not touch anything), if you are less tech inclined.

After that, comes runs for Spybot and Avast Anti-Virus. Rarely, if I'm feeling something's hinky and I can't get anything out of Spybot or Anti-Virus, I run Microsoft's Windows Defender. And if THAT still leaves my hairs at attention, I'll run Rootkit Revealer to see if something's gotten in and dug in deep.

I almost run Double Driver after any instance where I have changed any hardware or updated the drivers on my system. That gives me protection by copying the drivers for the hardware to another computer in another room, in case this computer 'blows up.' And MozBackup normally gets run about once a month, or whenever I want to copy data from my main machines to one of the others, to let them have current settings and bookmark lists in Firefox, email settings in Thunderbird and to-do's in Sunbird.

FileHippo's Update Checker and UpdateNotifier from Cleansoft both check my programs on the computer and tell me which have updates awaiting out there on the ether. I run both, because they catch things the other misses. I was surprised, for example, to find out this morning that 7-Zip, SpeedFan and Java Runtime version 6 were not up to date on my system. THAT's why you run these kind of utilities when you juggle three computers. AM-Deadlink gets run about once a month and it goes through my bookmarks and tells me which ones are dead and gone. Keeping my bookmark list under a million entries is a never-ending fight.

Finally, once a fortnight, I WILL run Drive Snapshot to back up my computers, one to another in a sort of chain. This is, of course, in addition to the nightly backups I run with Karen's Replicator.

And lastly, when the machine starts feeling slowly, I run Smart Defrag from IoBit. I SHOULD run it more regularly, but if you are running NTFS, it has a LOT less effectiveness than if you are running Fat32. Still, once a month seems about right.

NOT shown, is the occasional use of a DVD-burner backup, where I take off a Snapshot backup onto DVD's. Frequently to be done while watching a hockey or basketball game.

There you have it, a weekly maintenance routine. You can do it in a one-day slugfest, or run one or two of the items each day during your lunch break. The long ones (Avast, Defrag and to a lesser extent, Spybot and Snapshot), might need longer than a lunch break, depending on your storage space. I've got between 2 and 3 terrabytes of storage all told. It CAN take some time.

Gotta go, Raptors-Celtics in the first of a home-and-home!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

TV: That Remote Impulse

I have a TV in every room in the house, except the bathrooms. And that's because of logistical issues, not any more sane reason. In fact, I have more than one TV in more than on room. And I live alone. I am a TV addict most of the time. I still read a lot and that meanie guy at my main customer has me working harder than I have in years, but I'm still a TV guy.

Actually, I'm a TV guy with a remote. And I'm willing to use it.

What's amusing is see how Pavlovian I've become while watching TV. I reach for the remote at the slightest possibility the show I'm watching is about to take a break. I see a fade out starting and I'm scrambling for the remote as quickly as a man my size can do it. It's usually just inches away from my left hand, but occasionally it's elsewhere, resulting in a frantic search to try to avoid watching that most awful of all things, a commercial.

And I'm SOOO trained to do this, it even happens when I'm watching fare that doesn't have commercials. I watch sports live, which DOES have commercials. I watch shows I've recorded from over-the-air broadcasters, which sadly still do have commercials. And I watch collections of TV shows and the odd movie on DVD. (I still have VHS videotape machines, but I haven't watched one in probably six months). The collections are commercial free.

In all three of these watching situations, fade in means remote use. I hurriedly course through the other channels when watching sports. Admittedly, if I'm in a room with multiple TVs, it's the little side TV that I send channel-hopping. If watching recorded TV, the fast forward button gets extended use. On any remote, that button tends to be the first button to go. I go through a lot of remotes.

But the funniest thing is when watching a collection. There's a muscle spasm to get to the remote and then a relaxation as I remember there are NO commercials in these collections. I relax. Until the next fade out, when the process repeats itself. I KNOW I should just put the remote away and save myself these reflexive movements, but, at this point in my life, I can't help myself.

How long into watching a collection do I stop responding to the slightest darkening of the screen? About the third show, say two hours into it. Pretty sad, hunh?

BASEBALL: An Opportunity Missed

I love knuckleball pitchers. Besides the pure entertainment value of somebody throwing the pitch, I think knuckleballers perform an important task in today's pitching staff-weakened major league baseball. That task is pitching in blowouts and emergency situations. It means leaving kids in the minors to develop, rather than throwing them to the wolves in a spot start, almost certain to be confidence-hurting.

My favourite butterfly thrower of all time was Wilbur Wood, of course. When you teamed him with a young Rich Gossage, of pre-Goose fame, it was almost like it was unfair. Wilbur would come in with seven or eight innings of 69 MPH dancers and then Gossage would come in throwing flames. An awful lot of major leaguers took days off when Wood pitched. Of course, Wilbur wasn't above starting BOTH games of a double-header back in the day. Gimme a Wood today, and I'd have a four-man pitching staff regardless of the money. EVERYBODY else would pitch on a five-day rotation, basically. The Neo-Wood would start the rest of the games. Ahhh, but I dream.

The only knuckleball throwing starter of the current era is Tim Wakefield of the Bosox. I'm on record, I think he's worth faaaaar more than his salary. It's close now, but he's been a bargain for more than a decade. He's started, closed and been the long man ... frequently switching between roles during the season. And he's done all three with something between capable and outstanding success. He's not really a Wood. He throws fastballs and his floater has been 'controlled' most of the time, rather than the kind of wild darter Wood threw. But he survives alone.

That's because the Boston knuckleball factory has not exactly cloned his successor. The Bosox gave up on Charlie Haeger last year, sending him on to San Diego. And now, they've taken Charlie Zink off their 40-man roster. And nobody took the bite to grab a cheap potential surprise in the box.

And I'm really disappointed the Minnesota Twins weren't the team to see the potential of having Zink around, amidst a pretty decent collection of hard-throwing youngsters. (And yes, I know they have R.A. Dickey available on a minor league contract. Can't have TOO many options) Granted, Zink is no Wood nor even a Wakefield. But so much of baseball success is presenting other teams with problems and surprises. Much is written about teams complaining about facing youngsters fresh from the farms and 'not knowing anything about what he throws.' Sure, teams get over that issue by the second, or sometimes the third, time through the order. But 9-18 outs is a treasure trove in any game.

Zink and/or (less probably) Dickey would represent that surprise for at least the first month or two of the season. A LOT of pitchers have gotten fulll seasons out of unorthodoxy. Remember Mark Eichhorn? He almost won an ERA title throwing frisbees. And how about Hideki Okajima. Really masterful that first year, wasn't he. Not so much last year. There's other guys who's initial surprises hid the fact that they could really pitch and went on to long careers. Marichal, Valenzuela, and others had unique deliveries, AND long-lasting careers.

I've set it before and I'll say it again. With wins being precious in October, I'd invest in a line of pitching coaches for specific pitches. At EVERY stop along the way in my minor leagues, I would have one pitcher (at least) who threw the knuckleball. And I'd have a sidewinder and a sub-mariner if I could find any with potential. That would give my developing catchers experience in catching unorthodox pitchers. And, of course, I'd spend the money and go out and get coaches who could coach those pitches. Not enough for every team. But I'd make them roving instructors. I'd even bring them up to the majors periodically when one of their charges made the big show. Get Eichhorn to teach the slingers and whoever taught Wood for the knuckleballers. Phil Niekro if that guy isn't available.

I know the Twins think they've filled their unorthodox quota with Dickey. But Zink remains more of an unknown. And that's what surprises are made of.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

COMPUTERS: Is YOUR Password on This List?

Interesting list of the 500 most common passwords used by stupid people. Unless YOUR password's on the list. I will amend this to the 500 most common passwords used by 'careless' people. Nah, you have to be pretty stupid to use one of these passwords.


Well, most password crackers start by running down this list. Then they go through the dictionary. ONLY when the find you've decided not to use a common word or name do they start the potentially length task of trying to crack your password through brute force efforts of trying every combination of upper and lower case, letters and punctuation marks. You can see how the difficult jumps by umpteen degrees.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. Take a person's name who made an impact upon you as a kid and spell said name backwards. Break up the syllables of the new word with a punctuation mark and capitalize the last letter. If you want to go another extra mile, add numbers to the start or the beginning. An easy way is to 'draw' the letter on your numeric keypad. Z would be 7895123. So, if the person who made an impact on me was Zia Mahmoud, the international bridge star, I could easily go with "a/iZ7895123". Mugford would become "drof+guM1475963".

Or you can take a starting word and then add it to the letter and numbers kind of thing. Let's say I want to use bank as my starting password and I bank at the Scotiabank. I could use bank%S987456321 while over at the Royal Bank I would use bank%R14789653. Now, using bank is stupid but make it a pet's name ... say bugsy ... and you get an easy to remember password system. I defy anybody to guess bugsy^S987456321 as a password anytime soon.

And best of all, you won't have to write down your password on a notepad beside the monitor, thus allowing visiting relatives into your business, if you know what I mean !?!?!

NOTE: Computer keypads have 789 at the top. Be aware that PHONE keypads and other kinds of keypads often have 123 at the top. Just sayin' ... so no complainin'.

INTERNET: Redesign Horror Part 2 (and Counting)

Another site I visit daily has taken the plunge into becoming a useless Web 2.0 mess. BetaNews has been my goto site for keeping track of updates to current programs AND finding the odd new gem. No more. The redesign of the site, which has the same whitewashed look as ESPN and Zap2It, is beyond unuseable at the point. And just WHO thought orange type on bright white background was a good idea?

Nope, the place to get your updates now becomes FileHippo, only using BetaNews as a fall back option.

2009 is starting off as a very, very bad year.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

BASKETBALL: Dallas Trade's a Dud

The much ballyhooed potential trade sending Andrea Bargnani and Anthony Parker to Dallas for Josh Howard, Antoine Wright and DeSagana Diop, ranks right up there with the idiotic trade floated awhile back that would have send serviceable Toronto Raptors to New York for dead weights Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury. The trade does NOT make sense, doesn't fit under the NBA salary cap rules and is a non-starter.

IF the Raptors want to deal Bargnani for a wing, they will find better offers than taking on Diop's long-term contract and spare part Wright. Getting rid of the team's best wing isn't a solution to needing two wings. Howard's development into a problem child goes against the grain of trying to build a team with character, not OF characters. So, that won't be the way Bryan Colangelo goes. At least I hope not.

Seems to me, the way to go is move Jermaine O'Neal, what with Bargnani playing decently at his natural position, centre. The obvious direction is Miami, with Shawn Marion on the return flight to Toronto. That said, O'Neal's ticket and health remain suspect and he's not going anywhere until one or the other of those two things clears up. And it's not going to be the contract. Until then, Colangelo's stuck trying to improve the wing dramatically. He might trade spare parts for other teams' spare parts, hoping he gets the advantage of a new setting.

Relax, Bargnani's not going anywhere.

FOOTBALL: What Ever Happened to the Coffin Corner Kick?

Most football games these days feature at least one (or five or six) situations where one team's punter tries to kick the ball high and short ... say a foot short of the goal-line. Most of the time, the ball bounces into the end-zone. Sometimes it's caught well short of the goal-line by a return man making a fair catch. But at least once, we are entertained by players trying desperately to down the ball inside the five. And more often than not, it seems to lead to a replay.

There's an art to pooching a kick high enough to let your tacklers get there and short enough so that it doesn't go through the end-zone for a touchback, bringing the ball out to the 20-yard line. It's such an art, that few are good at it. But they all try.

So, why not bring back the coffin corner kick. Sure, it's less likely to end up on the one-inch line. But getting it to within five yards, give or take of the five-yard line shouldn't be nearly as difficult as pooch-kicking has become. Depending on the wind, the kicker should aim for the five yard line and be happy with any result inside the ten. And most times, it'll be pretty well within the ten, if the kicker figures the wind out right.

We won't end up with gigantic men flopping all over the field trying to tap dance over the goal-line and will the ball back into the field of play. But we won't get those tv commercial-inducing replays either.

Bring back the Coffin Corner from the dead!

INTERNET: Let Me Redesign The Usefulness RIGHT Out of This


It's a new year and some people are determined to ruin it for me. It's not enough that I'm behind on a big project. I can't even depend on Yogi Berra to help me through these troubled times. *I* can hear Yogi joking "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." So why can't the web designers out there do the same?

First it was the ESPN makeover. Gawd save us from idjits that want to make my life better. So, I'm not going there regularly anymore. Then,'s JAM TV Guide decided the perfectly working television listings it had, just had to be spiffed up. They use the Zap2It TV grid. And you know, whoever designed it is an ex-paper publishing kind of person. How do I know? Cuz despite having a 1600x1200 screen to view it, I can only see about eight channels at a time!!!! It's scroll, baby and roll over because you might as well enjoy it. You have no choice. Really, you have no choice.

Negative white space is a publishing term to help readers focus in on what's truly important. Say..... like the listings for ALL the bleepin' channels. But nooooooooooo, some idjit, fresh off destroying ESPN, latched onto the TV site and decided each channel listing had to have at least THREE rows to go with it, so that they can show the broadcaster's little logo, the call letters AND the channel number. And the descriptions have to be big and airy, say FOUR ROWS HIGH big and airy. So they can add red NEW for new programs and HD for High Definition indicators (here's a TIP, Start each listing with NH,_H,N_ or __. Done!).

Awfully pretty, but completely fails the 'function defines form' test. This is Web 2.0 madness run completely amok. But there's more. There has to be more.

I used to be able to set my default settings to show a four-hour grid starting at 7 pm nightly. From there I could request a different starting time. No more! Now I get a choice of three hours or six hours. Who, I ask WHO!, ever needs a six hour grid? I'm a TV addict. And *I* don't need a six-hour grid! (Tried printing out the grid. FIVE PAGES! And that was for a three-hour listing of a SUBSET of the channels available!)

Naturally, as disgusted as I was, I immediately thought about going to a different purveyor of local TV listings. Even made the mistake of trying to use my Rogers Yahoo! Home Page. Gotta love the idjits at this site even less than Zap2It. I want to see two things on my home page. A link to my mail and the TV Guide. Soooo, with my nice big monitor, I can JUST barely fit three hours of TV listings onto a maximized window, six channels at a time.

Why you ask, thinking 1600x1200 is a pretty big screen? Cuz the morons at Yahoo! enforce a multi-column layout. Whichever I choose, two or three, they share the columns equally. And that's despite me wanting ONLY A SINGLE EMAIL ICON in one column! Thus I get a 800x1200 to show the TV grid. And, because the same idjits working for the other faux Web 2.0 designers, the grid insists on running squares big enough to do verything Zap2It's does, except show the corporate icon of each channel. And that's with the SMALL fonts option selected! Try clicking the FEEDBACK button. Dare ya, dare ya, dare ya!

I tried the site, which is affilitated with Bell Sympatico and Microsoft. Turns out it is close to what I want, but really, really doesn't behave in Firefox. And who can trust Internet Explorer to such an important task as figuring out what you are going to watch and what you are going to record?

Soooooo, off I went to find yet another alternative. Surely the Toronto Star would save me. Nope. Like The Toronto Sun (, they use ... you guessed it, Zap2It! Better (Worse?), I can only get SIX channels on the first page there! Just how do users with monitors two-thirds smaller cope? And I'm betting my brother Rick with his new iTouch, isn't using the web to check the TV listings much. By the way, another of my old employers, The Toronto Globe and Mail, have stooped to linking through the Star's listings to Zap2It. So much for competition. I even tried the National Post. Sort of a bastardized version of Zap2It WITHOUT the options? Yep, even LESS options! These are information purveyors fer gawd sakes!

Everybody's in bed with Zap2It. Sometimes with partners, sometimes without. That company is now in charge of my TV listings whether I like it or not.

I have no choices. TV Guide's dead, killed for the sake of a redesign that was stupid. The newspaper grids are inadequate and their web-sites are pretty ... and ineffectual. It's like the newspapers are TRYING to die off as quickly as possible.

Just leave my stuff alone. Go play with other people's hobbies.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

HOCKEY: Proud To Be a Canuck

My brother Wayne is depressed about 50 weeks a year. But during the fortnight starting Boxing Day, Wayne lights up like a Christmas tree. It's time for the World Junior Hockey Championships and time to wear the flag and strut around.

This year's Canadian squad at the World Juniors was not at the expected strength we've come to expect from the eight-time straight gold medal finalists. Specifically, a whole raft of defencemen unexpectedly made their NHL teams, creating potential problems on the blue-line. It's been an area Canada has used to dominate teams from the northern hemisphere annually for the last couple of decades.

Instead of Luke Schenn and Drew Doughty being the shutdown Canadian pair, this year's team has Thomas Hickey and Colton Teubert. And frankly, team captain Hickey has been awful. In fact, no Canadian defenceman has been anywhere close to being the best defenceman in the tournament, although P.K. Suppan (a Montreal draftee) and wunderkid Ryan Ellis have been good offensively.

Add that to Vesa Toskala-like goaltending from Dustin Tokarski and some real bone-headed misplays by forward Steffan Della Rovere and you have a formula for Canadian disaster.

But the reason why this tournament lights Wayne's life up is that in the midst of all that's wrong with the current Canadian team, the thing's that right is that they play with passion and grit ... and luck.

Luck, the residue of effort and design, goes Canada's way. It certainly did last night in the Houdini act of dispatching the Russians by the famously lucky score of 6-5 in the semi-final game. But that luck was manufactured by Jordan Eberle, John Tavares and a crew of kids who fumbled and flounced until there was no time left to other than buckle down and win the game. Eberle's goal with a tick under six seconds left was (Paul) Henderson-esque and will put him in the pantheon of famous Canadian goal-scorers. Mind you, a loss to Sweden Monday night will put a pale on that accomplishment. But if the Canadians win (and they certainly believe they will ... and so do I), then the goal retains it's lustre for all time.

That goal effectively won the game for Canada. Sure, there was 10 minutes of obviously scoreless overtime that was mostly downhill for Canada. Then came the shootout, with Eberle and Tavares neatly depositing the puck in the Russian net while both Russian shooters failed. But there wasn't a single moment where you feared the Russians, so obviously depleted for having come up five or so seconds from pulling off the upset on Canadian ice.

And that's why you have to love this tournament. It's played by kids and kids make mistakes. The difference is how you react to those mistakes. The Canadian way is to pull the boot laces a little tighter and get on with the task of recovering and then thriving.

We Canadians might have a milquetoast reputation around the world. We are the 'nice' North Americans. But when it comes to hockey, we're anything but nice.

It's a good time of the year to be Canadian.

FOOTBALL: Donald Brown Appreciation

UConn Huskies' Donald Brown is going to be an NFLer one of these days. And I hope he does really, really well. Because he appreciates the good things in life.

Such as ketchup. Specifically Canadian Ketchup from our good friends at Heinz Canada. He raved about the ketchup to reporters last week before he led the Huskies to an International Bowl win over the University of Buffalo Bulls. I really didn't have a team in that fight, although Buffalo's long-ago principled response against racism and the team's proximity SHOULD have made them 'my' team.

But how do you go against The Ketchup Kid?

You don't. Best wishes on a fabulous NFL career Donald!

HOCKEY: Bashing Ballot-Box Stuffing

I'm a hockey fan, which is a generic term for being a Montreal Canadians' fan. Despite that, I know an injustice when I see it. And Alexei Kovalev starting ahead of Alexander Ovechkin in the all-star game, home site of Kovalev or not, is the poster child for voting injustice.

Last century, I wrote a piece for TV Guide that took on the long-time stupidity that fan voting for all-stars had become. This was in the 80's for gawd sakes. And the solution proposed then would still work today and would get around the kind of stuffing we've seen the good burghers of Montreal pull off this year. The computing power to do it was available then. Today, writing the program to handle the plan would be a weekend's work. If that.

Simply put, I'd let ballot stuffers stuff to their heart's delight. But what I WOULD do is to identify the source for all ballots. Then I (and my bank of computers) would apportion the percentage of each source's ballots according to the amount each player received. Sure Kovalev would get the maximum 100 votes (or, apparently close to it) from Montreal. However, he might not get a single vote from any other locale anywhere else in the league. So, he might total 101 votes in all (getting fractional votes elsewhere). Ovechkin would probably get the 100 Washington votes, as well as 125 or so total from the rest of the league. Instant starter on merit.

And you know, in a gate-driven league, it sure wouldn't hurt to have some of those empty Islander seats filled by Ranger fans, anxious to exercise their voting rights in 'enemy' territory. The same cross-pollination might occur in southern California or even southern Florida, although there's no guarantee that both areas will continue to have multiple teams in the future. The fun one would be Calgary and Edmonton engaging in a voting war between die-hards who see the trip to the other town during voting season suddenly having lots of allure.

Each team would get one ballot for each of a sold-out total for the time they are at home during the voting season. If the team has 10 dates and a sell-out total of 19,928, they'd get 199,280 ballots to distribute. Naturally, not all ballots would go out and I'm sure some staffer would spend his or her weekend punching six times for local lads on any that didn't go out the door to paying customers. So what? The effect on the overall voting totals in my 'electoral college' would be minimal. There'd be similar efforts elsewhere too, off-setting even the most diligent stuffers. This process would get around what I dubbed "The California Effect" in my old TV Guide article.

The California Effect came about because major league baseball had a LOT of early season games in California in those days. The Split Double-Header was still a thing of the future then. In those days, a rain-out resulted in a true double-header, which cut profits immensely. So, to avoid creating double-headers, many more games were played in California and points south during prime voting season. More games, more votes. For local players. Resulting in Steve Sax starting an all-star game in a year where he might have been the worst second-baseman in the game. MY system would even off-set the games played at home discrepancy between teams.

It's the same discrepancy that has hurt Chris Bosh in the NBA ballotting for that sport's all-star game.

There would be one extra locale, the REST OF THE WORLD, to allow for anybody, anywhere, to make their voices heard (or more accurately, their votes counted). Again, the votes would be apportioned according to percentage of vote.

In all, any player would be able to get a maximum of 3100 votes. In the BEST of years, even a Gretzky might top out at 3000 or so. Setting a record there would be a TRUE measure of the player's worth/popularity. And there would STILL be a total vote record to keep track of. In basketball, it would let the billion or so Chinese who vote for Yao Ming to feel vindicated, while stopping him from starting when he doesn't deserve it. Yao could win the overall total vote and not come near being voted a starter, as he did in a year where he didn't play much due to injury.

Let's face it, the all-star game has ALWAYS been a popularity contest. Fans WANT to see old-time faves, even if they no longer deserve the privilege (a privilege they often don't want, prefering some off time with the family instead). Okay, that's fair. What isn't fair is one town, Montreal, determining that Kovalev should start ahead of Ovechkin. That's not a preference anybody with any sense should have.

Certainly not a REAL Montreal, errr, hockey fan.