Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Month That Was - August 2007: I have failed miserably, so you get a short shrift this month. I took a weeklong vacation in the South Dakota Black Hills region, but there is no way I'm going to have it written up for you very soon. As you'll see below, I have run into all sorts of technological snags when trying to get anything done this past couple of weeks, culminating in the purchase of a new laptop. But being computer-less, even for a few days, put a huge dent in my writing time, most of which had to go to my football column. (Yes, that is starting again. You can read the Pre-season review, AFC preview, and NFC preview, if you’d like.)

To top it all off, at one point I committed about three hours worth of writing to my flash drive and promptly found the file to be corrupted when I got back to it. There is little more disheartening than irretrievably losing hours of work.

So since I got so fouled up, and without my computer there is no way to edit the pictures I took, many of which are excellent, the trip report is delayed. If I finish it mid-month I may post a special update. Otherwise, next month for sure.

John from Cincy and HBO
Mad Men and Memory
SNAFU This month was an extended lesson in the origin and nature of screw-ups. To wit:

Comcast - For the past year and a half Comcast has been double billing me for internet service. You see, when I signed up for the Comcast digital cable/high-speed internet combo I got a deeply reduced rate for my first six months. I knew, in the back of my mind, that after six months my rate was going to go way up and it did. I just didn't bother to look at the itemized bill. It came every month for the same amount and I paid it.

Then, I went to the Comcast kiosk at the Mall to check out an offer for a new deal and the guy pulled up my bill and told me I was being charged for two high-speed internet connections. What followed was pure farce.

I called Comcast and got a message about there being extraordinary call volume and I should try to use the Comcast web site to resolve my problem. I got on the Comcast’s online chat room with a Internet Billing rep. After a while this rep confirmed that I was being double charged, but said the second internet charge was coming from the Cable TV department not from the Internet department so I would have to get in touch with Cable Billing to resolve it.

So I got on the phone to Comcast again and received a familiar automated message: that the phones were very busy and I should try using email support. So I used email support -- I sent in my rather lengthy explanation of the circumstances and I got a message back from Cable Billing the next day to tell me that they couldn’t resolve my issue over email and I would have to call.

So I called again and waited past the message telling me to use their web site and I got an offer to have a rep call me back as soon as one was free, so I left my number. Ten minutes later I got a voice mail. It was from Comcast, but not a rep. It was a recorded message telling me I should press some button if my problem was not resolved. Huh? In what way will press a button in response to a voice mail get any information back to Comcast? I'm not on the line with Comcast, it's my own voice mail.

So I called Comcast back and this time I actually waited on hold until I was actually talking to a real person.

Turned out to be a very helpful person who verified my story and said she’d call back. And she did, and got my account credited (let's just say I won't have a cable bill for a while). Advice: when dealing with Comcast it is worth the wait to talk to a live person. - is my hosting service for my two book sites (Read Apple Pie and Read Business As Usual). Now, I have touched neither of these sites in ages, although changes are coming Real Soon Now. Suddenly I am getting messages about being over my disk usage limit. The limit is 250 meg and what I have up there amounts to little more than a 5 meg. WTF?

So I send an email to Support asking the WTF? And they reply that I have over 250 meg of mail messages. I registered these sites many years ago and along with the site registration comes a free email account. But, I never used it. Never did anything to configure it. Never gave it out to anyone. Just pretty much forgot it ever existed. My status remains at WTF?

Well, despite it never being used or published spammers found it. And over the years they were loading up the inbox until they hit my storage limit. 250 meg of spam! Do you have any idea how many messages that is? I tried to clean out the messages but there were so many it took my whole system down. I finally had to ask to delete all the messages, then I promptly disabled the mail addresses. Sheesh.

Kernel Panic - Most people are familiar with the Blue Screen of Death in Windows. Basically the system just totally freaks out and tells you need to reboot and start over. It happened fairly regularly in early versions of Windows, although I have never seen one in later versions of XP or Vista. In the Mac world the equivalent experience is something called a Kernel Panic. I love the descriptiveness of that.

Anyway, after just shy of two years with my iBook, I started getting kernel panics. They were intermittent. Sometimes the thing would shut down before I could even log in. Other times I would get a day or more of up-time before the crash. Naturally, this all started when I was half way across the country, so I really didn't have many options for staying connected which was a pain since I really needed to be connected.

Upon my return I ran all the diagnostics and reparations I could find but to no avail. So I turned it over to a Mac repair shop and told them to have at it. As I write this, they are still having at it. I couldn't wait, however, and decided it was time for me to move up to a new laptop. If they fix it, fine, I'll have a spare -- maybe keep it permanently hooked up to my receiver to play iTunes. Other than that, I'm moving on.

My new friend is an HP Pavilion Verve Edition. With Vista. Yes, I now officially a re-switcher. The Mac was nice, and for a long time it was solid. But I never got used to the navigation, having spent so many years with Windows and still having to use Windows at work. Plus, there is software you miss out on with the Mac. In my case, I'm a heavy MS Office user and I found Office for OS/X to be a little eccentric. And I love Google's photo utility Picasa, which is not available for the Mac. (Picasa seriously rocks, and it's free. It's not comprehensive enough to replace a real photo editor, but it’s great for organizing and viewing photos.)

Of course, I was promptly reminded what a mess a fresh MS based system is -- all the pop-up tips, the warnings, the reminders, the intrusive demo software. Ugh. And the MS approach to security is silly. On a Mac, whenever new software is being installed, the system asks for your login password. Makes perfect sense. That stops unwanted software from getting installed maliciously from the web, and from strangers who may find your laptop unattended, and from friends and family who just want to check their email. In Vista, you don’t have to enter a password but you do need to click through about four or five "Are you sure?" type messages. That is poor design. Oh well, at least the keystroke navigation that I have burned into my brain cells works again.

Anyway, they key thing is that I am up and running again and can continue to get work done. At least until the next SNAFU.
Back to Cincinnati With You: John from Cincinnati finished up and left people who watched the whole series more confused that the Sopranos ending. HBO is not renewing it, so we'll never know if it would have become clearer to us. At the end, David Milch gave an interview to a blogger at Variety about what he was trying to achieve.

"Each character has the opportunity to generate God by his or her behavior. All of us are the mother and father of God, to the extent we accept the limits of our humanity."


"My understanding of the way the mechanism of storytelling works is...whether or not the audience is conscious of the process, apart from the audience awareness that there is a process, any story is constantly appending specific values to the meanings of words, and of the actions of characters. And the fact that story uses as its building blocks words or characters that the audience believes it has some prior recognition or understanding of, is really simply the beginning of the story, but not its end.”

To which, like the Geico Caveman, I can only respond, "Uh...What?"

J from C was, then, a story about how the characters defined their personal view of God from within their own experiences. To emphasize this self-definition, Milch attempted to divorce the words and actions of the characters from their meaning allowing the audience to self-define the entire show, giving them latitude to allow the characters to define their view of God based on the viewer's personal view of the characters. At least, I think that might be it.

A curious experiment. It may have worked if we (the viewers) were prepped to go into it with that mindset. But we weren’t, we were told it would be another great David Milch drama. I am half tempted to re-watch the entire ten episodes with the knowledge that I am supposed to self-define the narrative, but I just don't have time. I am reminded of James Joyce, who believed his readers should devote their lives to understanding his work.

I certainly wouldn't call J from C a failure. I would have probably continued to watch ad infinitum just because I so admire the fact that someone has the guts to use the English language in something other than a utilitarian way. I also thought it was drop dead funny in parts, which, to me, is worth more than all the philosophical experimenting in the world. But many of the characters were not very complete or consistent and a lot of their "conflicts" were on the cliched and contrived side. Gotta let this one pass and call it a learning experience.

At least now Milch can get back to finishing up Deadwood, although it sounds like Ian McShane is holding up the stagecoach.

Entourage and Flight of the Concords finished up last week, but Curb Your Enthusiasm begins so we'll have our comedy fix. The final season of The Wire doesn't start until January so drama-wise we are left with something new called Tell Me You Love Me which looks absolutely excruciating. Without seeing anything but the trailers, my guess is that it is essentially Thirtysomething (What about myyyy needs!!!!!) with lots of lurid sex and shock talk which gets pumped as "groundbreaking." Ugh. But that’s just a guess...
The Times Aren't a-Changin': The best show on TV at the moment is probably Mad Men, AMC's original series about the personal and professional goings-on of execs in a high-powered ad agency in 1960. I'm pleased that, now that the whole period-piece culture shock has been covered, they are really digging into the characters, some of whom are remarkably well shaded. The acting, in some instances, leaves a bit to be desired, but the stories come through and even though it's already a fine show, I have the sense that they have yet to really hit their stride.

One thing that must strike anyone who sees it is how much things have changed since that time. In and of itself, that's no big deal. But to someone like me, who still has memories of those days (not 1960 strictly speaking -- I was only just born in 1960, but I remember the way of life described in the series vividly) it's a bit of a shock to see them again, this time as a historical representation.

The changes are almost certainly for the better, I believe. Of course, the basics remain in place -- they always do; humans are still humans -- but the spin and surface are very, very different. (I described a bit of this last month's Tube Notes.) My first reaction to the magnitude of change is to not see it as something out of the ordinary. My instinct tells me that, although the full effect of it can only be seen after-the-fact, social change proceeds at a pretty much constant pace. It's going on right now, but we just don't have the perspective to realize it, and if we try to distance ourselves enough to see it, we usually get it wrong because of our contemporary prejudices.

But then I read this observation from Gregg Easterbrook about the movie American Graffiti:

It's haunting to think American Graffiti, which surely depicts the perfect high-school-days summer night that [director George] Lucas never actually had -- was made in 1973 and portrays small-town California of 1962. Just 11 years had passed, yet American Graffiti was received as a nostalgic trip into a bygone era of music and social mores that could never return. Think if you made a movie today that was intended to be a wistful voyage 11 years into the past: to 1996. Hardly anything would seem different, except for the lack of cell phones, and there'd be no haunting sense of a simpler lost era. Is there even one single person who would pay $8 for cinematic nostalgia about 1996?

Haunting is right. Maybe the second half of the 20th century really was a time of accelerated social change. Or maybe the contemporary times stand out for their lack of social change. I don't know, but I certainly need to rethink the idea of social change at a constant pace.