Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Month That Was - September 2007: Finally, the story of my Black Hills trip is up. Lots of photos in that one, including the one I'm currently using for my desktop background. I also updated my guided tour of upstate Michigan, Dodging Disney, which I re-read and hated and so decided to make it even longer.

This month is highlighted by more technological misadventures. Sorry if I went on about them, but I do permit myself a bit a catharsis now and then, and frankly, it's how I spent my month.

The End of Aubrey/Maturin
Movie Round-up
Everything is Broken
Comcast is on Crack
Bon Voyage Jack, Stephen, and Patrick: I am about to start the 20th, and final (except for a partial rough draft of 21 found after his death, which I doubt I will read), book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, and O'Brian clearly running out of steam. Or maybe I am. He had an excuse though: he was near the end of his life, and even if he wasn't, for God's sake, he had written 20 novels with these characters. He lost a lot of the beautiful subtlety and delicate dramatization that informed the earlier novels and was meandering into minutiae and irrelevant sidebars -- basically just taking the characters through the motions; motions we had seen before. Still the decline in quality is not so steep that I am going to stop. And the fact that the series was well into the teens before it started to tail off is amazing in and of itself.

Should you read these books? Maybe. Certainly anyone with a dedication to exceptional literature should. Until the last few, they are striking well written. They are certain to quicken the heart of anyone who really loves masterful writing. But the fact is, they are not remotely colloquial. The formal style may make you feel as though you are reading Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. Which is to say, they won't do as a casual read for most people.

And if you are looking for a nice, expository, linear narrative -- A does B that leads to C and makes D do E, and so forth -- you'll be frustrated. Passages, and whole books, are meant to be appreciated only when they are over. Often characters are introduced without fanfare, they hang around on the periphery of the attention of Aubrey or Maturin, and only many scenes later do we see their significance. Events, people, even inanimate objects must regularly be tracked by the reader until they are revealed in full. I found this to be an attraction once I got used to it. O'Brian trusted his readers to have patience and allow uncertainty to temper their assumptions about the nature of things for extended lengths without bailing. That takes guts in the modern world of congenital ADD. And talent.

Yet another thing that stands out against the modern world is that the way of the universe in these books is very much ancient Greek. For centuries now, we have been in the thrall of Shakespearean heroes and anti-heroes who guide events and set their own fates for better or worse through their own decisions. Although Aubrey and Maturin are certainly men of action who take stands and fight good fights, they are, at all times, dependent upon luck and providence. The gods of their time are not Zeus and Apollo, but the weather and the Royal Navy -- both are arbitrarily beneficial or detrimental, both are destroyers of design and granters of wishes, and both will not be denied by the puny acts of men.

Part of the reputation of these books is that O'Brian fills them with technical details of sailing in early 19th century. That, I'm afraid, is true. O'Brian knew his audience and there was a portion of them -- perhaps a large portion -- who were mavens of historical dramas of the Horatio Hornblower genre. You'll have to either get comfy with the language or get comfy skimming over the particulars of shipboard life. Either way, the stories will not suffer.

If you saw the movie and liked it, is that a good indicator? Uncharacteristically, I think yes. I found the movie to be excellent and true to the spirit of the books. You should be advised that the movie, complete title Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, is based on an amalgam of events from several books. Master and Commander (book 1) and The Far Side of the World (book 10) are just two of them.

Lastly, and in contrast to the majority of contemporary literature, these are books about, and for, men of a certain type. Courage, honor, and duty play major roles in the motivations of many characters, to an extent that is no longer seen on the 'new releases' shelf at Borders.

As a final warning, I reiterate that there are 20 novels, all fairly dense. If you get hooked, plan on partitioning off a healthy slice of your life for them.

As for me, I now find myself snickering at the people who are having Harry Potter withdrawal after a whopping six plainly written books. You have no idea. I have decided to move on by going in the opposite direction as a shock to my senses. I'm thinking of returning to some Peter DeVries satires. I have also been thinking about reading Kerouac's On The Road, since it would be about 180 degrees in contrast from Patrick O'Brian.
Movie Round-up: I managed to catch a number of movies on some of the five billion cable channels I now have.

  • The Departed -- The latest Scorcese gangster flick. It reminds me of Gangs of New York: flashes of brilliance, but poorly cast and it brings nothing new to the table. Jack Nicholson is only fair. Matt Damon is way off. Martin Sheen sticks out like a sore thumb. Dicaprio does well; I am actually getting to like his work. Alec Baldwin takes a great turn as well. He's found a niche as the arrogant, annoyed hard guy. In general, I get the impression they just decided to take a fair-to-middling mob script, make everyone talk in nearly indecipherable Boston accents instead of like Sicilian wise guys, let Scorsese bring in the big names, call it a movie, and bathe in the resulting money and Oscars. Can't blame 'em, I suppose.

  • Hollywoodland -- The story of the suicide of George Reeves (Superman from the old TV show). Excellent performances from Ben Affleck as the handsome and good humored, but ultimately bland, Reeves and Diane Lane as his desperately aging sugar mama. The story was sold as a murder mystery but there really isn't one. It's the story of a cynical man (Adrien Brody) who, for personal gain, trumps up a murder mystery where there was none and the consequences that follow. Nicely done.

  • Wonderland -- A harrowing, and a little gory, account of the Wonderland murders that were likely set up by a desperate and drug addicted John Holmes (pornstar Johnny Wadd) who may or may not have been involved in the actual murders. There's a presentation of differing views of the events, Rashomon-style, but in the end there is little doubt what happened. Like most films about low-lifes, it's probably more sympathetic to the characters than it should be, but Val Kilmer does a good job of capturing the combination of self-delusion, desperation, and naivet‚ that characterizes most pornstars and ultimately leads them to hell. The fall of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights was obviously heavily influenced by this story. It moves well and holds your attention thoroughly.

  • Superman Returns -- A handful of cute moments, but otherwise worthless. Half way through I was jumping back and forth with Seinfeld reruns.

  • Miami Vice -- Pathetic. I gave it twenty minutes, then I realized life was too short.
Everything Is Broken: What do you do when a piece of equipment fails shortly after the warranty is up? Case in point: my iBook. It is dead. When it first started going into Kernel Panics (see last month) I naturally did a web search to find out what steps to take and I took all of them. Still the Panics came. So I let the local Mac shop have it for a few days. After a while they claimed they had fixed it by doing exactly what I had already tried. Naturally I got it home and it immediately Panicked again. I could, and may still, bring it back to the Mac shop, but it's pretty clear that they do not have the ability to do anything I haven't already done. So, for all intents and purposes, my iBook is toast. (For the truly geeky out there, I am pretty sure the problem is with the PRAM. If you flash the PRAM the damn thing works for a few days before it goes back to persistent Panics.)

Now my iBook was getting obsolete pretty fast, and it never had really enough juice to do photo-editing other than at a glacial pace, so I decided that rather than pay whatever it would take to find and fix the issue, I may as well bite the bullet and get a new laptop. But how could I get another Mac?

I liked my iBook. The new Mac laptops are even better. But how can I go back and support a company that sold me a product that failed in less than 2 years? Isn't that like rewarding Apple for a bad experience? I know Apple has a stellar reputation when it comes to laptop quality, but wouldn't buying another one just make me a sap. I wanted another Mac but what kind of tool gets a smackdown like that and gives that company another chunk of profit? In such circumstances, you are pretty much compelled to go elsewhere. It's a shame, because you can't get a Mac anywhere except from Apple, so now I am back to Microsoft and Vista (which is more than a little flaky, btw) on an HP. Dell was out because they sold me a pile of crap laptop prior to the Apple. Sony has nice laptops, very cool looking too, but there's quite a premium over HP. Lenovo was another choice, but I got a discount on the HP through my day job.

Next in line for breakdown was my wireless router. As with laptops, I have been through three, abandoning manufacturers as they betray my trust. My first router was a Belkin. After about month of use it ceased to generate a signal stronger than one bar even when my iBook was right next to it. It was replaced with a Linksys which served me for about 14 months. Then it developed exactly the same problem, it just ceased to generate a strong enough signal to be read. It worked fine with a wired connection, but not wireless. I have two wireless devices -- my laptop and a Roku Soundbox -- neither could get a signal so I am sure it wasn't the wireless card. So now Linksys is on the feces list. I have ordered a new router, this one an SMC.

So for those of you scoring at home, the feces list now contains Dell, Apple, Belkin and Linksys. On the bubble are HP and SMC.

Oh, and my wireless mouse ceased to function. It's about 3 months old. Add Logitech to the feces list.
Re-Switcheroo: One good thing about re-switching back to Windows is the broader range of software available. Picture editors in particular. I use Adobe Photoshop Elements primarily. If I had the time, I'd master editing to the point of needing full-on Photoshop CS (although that may be in my future). Photoshop Elements, like its big bro, is available for Mac of course, but what is not is Google's Picasa which is not so much an editor but a viewer and manager and has become my new best friend. It's truly slick, even more so than the freely provided MS picture editor; even more so than the freely provided Mac picture editor iPhoto. Recommended.

Also not usable is OS X are many of the music sites, especially the subscription ones. I have been intrigued by subscription music services -- you know: $XX a month and play anything you want, but you don't have anything to keep. On the Mac, you pretty much only get iTunes, which has no subscription option. I've purchased stuff off iTunes Music Store, but I often wonder if I would use a subscription service more. I could probably figure out a way to have the subscription stream through the Roku Soundbridge, then, for a small monthly fee I would have literally hundreds of thousands of songs I could play through my stereo without having to manage a truckload of .mp3 files.

Another cool thing about Windows is the availability of better file manages. OS X has Finder which is pretty lame. Windows has Explorer, which is marginally better. But in OS X if you want something more capable you have to shell out money for Pathfinder. In Windows there are a ton of free options: Free Commander, ExplorerXP, File Ant, etc. All have different little bells and whistles.

Actually, if MS did just a couple of things with Windows, it would have no obvious shortcomings versus OS X.

• Fix the security model: this is not to say it's insecure (Vista is, I think, petty darn secure) but the OS X way of verifying actions is much better. On OS X, you just enter your login password anytime you are going to do something that a shady program might want to try to do without your knowledge. In Vista it's an are-you-sure verification message or two, or three, or four. I don't doubt that it keeps you functionally safe, but it is awkward, ungainly and annoying.

• Stop with the pop-up messages, suggestions, and bloatware. This is truly obnoxious. A lot of this you can turn off after you see it the first time, although sometimes it's not exactly clear how to do that. And not only does MS get to be a busy body, but the bloatware freebies that are pre-loaded get to annoy you too (although that may be HP's fault, not MS). I would pay a small premium to a notebook manufacturer who would ship a nice clean Vista install with all the intrusions shut off.

Clarity is not MS strong suit in their software design. The very best example I can give you of why people tend to appreciate OS X for its simplicity and elegance is the file overwrite warning message. On a Mac, in Finder, if you are about to copy a newer file over and existing one (an act I do almost daily in backing up my current work to a USB drive) you get a confirmation message along the lines of, "An older file with the name foobar.txt already exists, do you want to overwrite it?" which is just about perfect. You get a verification that the file you are about to wipe out is older than the one you are about to save, which is the key verification because lord knows I've had a file up in two different finder windows and have accidentally tried to copy the older over the newer more than once. You can either go ahead or cancel out of the action and figure out what it was you meant to do.

In Vista, the message is:
There is already a file with the same name in this location.
Click the file you want to keep

Copy and Replace
Replace the file in the destination folder with the file you are copying
Size 10k
Date Modified 9/30/07 (newer)

Don't Copy
No files will be changed leave this file in the destination folder.
Size 10k
Date Modified 9/28/07

Copy But Keep Both Files
The file you are copying will be renamed "Foobar.txt(2)"

Ye Gods! Let's make a simple task stunningly complicated, shall we? I'm sure it seemed to someone at MS that offering three options instead of just yes/no was very clever, but it's mostly just noise. In the exceedingly rare instances where you want multiple copies of a file, would you really think to do that by just dragging and dropping a copy into the same folder as the original? And the fact is, I don't need to know the size and the name of the file or even the date. We can assume, I think, that I knew what I was doing when I initiated the copy command. I just need some reassurance that I am replacing the correct file. Why do I need a paragraph on "Don't Copy" when I have a cancel button? The single piece on information I need in that text is "(newer)." If I see that I know I'm doing what I meant to. Instead, I have to read War and Peace to get there. Oh and by the way, you are not "clicking the file you want to keep" like the instruction says, you are clicking the action you want to take. Can Bill Gates not afford an editor?

Now, this is not an enormous deal. Once I know what is going on I can zero in on the information I need. And as a software development manager in my day job, it probably bothers me more than normal people. It's just one of those graceless, awkward things that keeps companies like Apple and Google in business.
Comcast is on Crack: Still speaking of techno-problems, I have documented my trials and tribulations with Comcast before. The latest has been over my DVR. It occasionally just stops working. The screen goes blank and it no longer responds to the remote or any of the buttons on the front panel. I have to unplug it, then re-plug it in, then once it powers up, the on-line guide takes about 15 minutes to rebuild.

So I called Comcast to ask what to do and they quickly arranged an appointment so that I could take a half day off work to wait for the cable guy. By the way, they no longer will call you when they are about to get to your place, you have to take a half day off and wait for them. Welcome to ten years ago.

The guy was supposed to appear between 9:30 and 12:30, and he showed up at about 10:45 -- not bad. I thought he would just swap out the DVR for a new one. I'd lose my TIVO'd stuff but at least I would constantly be jumping up to unplug the DVR.

I was wrong. He simply held two buttons on the front down (the 'power' and 'select' buttons) simultaneously while he unplugged the box and re-plugged it back in, which is apparently how you do a super-duper top-secret ultra-mega reset. Then he called for a signal to be sent from Comcast. Then he had me sign a paper. Then he set off a seven minute demo on how to use the DVR that they are required to do with every visit (one of the most monumentally stupidest policies in history). Then he left.

Apparently the folks at Comcast think I am incapable of holding down two buttons on the device while unplugging it, so they make me take a half-day off work rather than instructing me over the phone. Absolutely un-friggin'-believable. And naturally, the fix didn't last. I still have the same problem so now I am likely up for taking another half day off work to wait for the guy to come back and put in a new DVR, another task I could accomplish in my sleep. Words fail me in trying to fathom Comcast. I should register the domain I'd make millions.