Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Human Sacrifice in India

The Sydney Morning Herald reports on another horror committed by someone to appeal to the gods. Rajesh Hembram of India beheaded his 10-year-old granddaughter and mixed her blood with seeds to appeal to the gods for a bountiful harvest. The curse of religious superstition continues its history of bloodshed, both in major wars and on a personal level. Little Bernaka Kandulana has paid with her life for her grandfathers religious beliefs. Whatever evolutionary advantage was gained by beliefs in deities has long been superceded by the suffering and bloodshed it visits upon humanity today.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Deluxe Reading Playmobile

People always remember their first car. My first real car was a 1963 Rambler Classic 660 station wagon. I will always remember it with great fondness.

However, years before the Rambler, I had another "car". In 1961, the Deluxe Reading Toy Company sold their Playmobile dashboard in supermarkets and drug stores. I remember seeing it on display at what was then an A&P store at the corner of Old Richmond Road (now Bissonnet Street) and Beechnut Street in Houston. Boy, with all the shiny parts and look of a real car of the era, I really wanted this toy. I remember telling my parents I wanted it, but I also saw that it cost $19.95. To me, that seemed like a fortune. It probably wasn't that inexpensive for my parents back then either. Still, when Christmas morning came, there it was under the tree, glimmering and shiny with the colorful tree lights reflecting off of it.

The Playmobile had a car key, sun visors, tinted windshield with working wipers, rear view mirror, and all kinds of gauges, knobs, and switches. Oh man! I must have driven a million imaginary miles at the wheel of my Playmobile!

I guess I always liked driving toys though. One of my very early memories of my life was a big steering wheel that was installed in the playground of a park in Norman, Oklahoma. I must have been about 2 or 3 years old, and I still recall how much I liked playing there and pretending to drive.

Maybe that is why I still love road trips, and am somewhat a road geek all these years later!

Au Revoir, Chief Pontiac!

First it was Oldsmobile. Now the weakened state of General Motors has brought us the demise of another great American automotive brand. GM will eliminate the Pontiac from its stable of cars.

During the muscle car performance days, Pontiac said "We build excitement". The "Wide Track Pontiac" was touted as a better handling car than its competitors. The Bonneville, Grand Prix, and Sunbird gone forever. Who can forget Burt Reynolds as "The Bandit", driving his performance Pontiac Firebird from Atlanta to Texarkana and back, being chased by Jackie Gleason as Sheriff Buford T. Justice of Texas?

Yet, it was the even older Pontiacs that I have a fondness for. The 1950s versions with their light up hood ornament of Chief Pontiac has to be the coolest auto decoration ever made. The very first car I remember riding in as a very small child was my parents' old 1938 Pontiac. I used to love sitting in the back, looking out the small triangular window near side rear of the passenger compartment.

So off to history Pontiac goes, joining not just the Olds, but Plymouth, DeSoto, Cord, Hudson, Rambler, Studebaker, LaSalle, and others that once owned America's streets and highways before anyone had ever heard of a Toyota or a Hyundai.

Evolving Technology and Static Words

It has been said that the only constant is change. This is very observable in our technology. A prime example is the telephone.

I was thinking about how I can still remember some of the phone numbers we had in my early childhood prior to the switch to all digits. The funny thing is, I can easily recall the early numbers that used the exchange names, but cannot recall any of the ones comprised of only digits. For example, when I was 5 years old, my telephone number was MAdison 3-9975. Later, while living in the Sharpstown area of Houston, it was GYpsy 4-2931. My paternal grandparents had ORange 7-9716, while my maternal grandparents originally had WHitney 4-2931 (later changed to SUnset 4-2931). To place a classified advertisement in the Houston Chronicle, you would call "Miss Classified" at CApitol 4-6868.

Consequently, telephone dials (remember those) had letters on them to accommodate dialing the phone numbers of mixed alpha and numeric characters. Today's keypad dials carry on the tradition, even though exchange names are no longer used in the phone number. Of course, this has proven to be a useful marketing tool for businesses, as the letters have taken on a new life in numbers such as 1-800-CAR-RENT, or 1-800-DOMINOS. With mobile telephones, the letters are used to "text" friends. (Yes, yet another example of a noun being repurposed as a verb.) This makes me wonder if young adults today have any concept of there ever having been a different reason for those letters on their phones. Or if they wonder why the punching in a number is called "dialing" the phone.

There are other examples of this phenomenon. How many people using a TiVO or other DVR, which record digitally to a computer hard disk drive, say they are "taping" a program? We still talk about "rolling down" or "rolling up" the windows in our cars, even though crank handles and manually rolling down the window has just about totally been replaced by electric windows. We even still occasionally hear someone saying "crank" the engine of a car, although cranks to start cars disappeared many decades ago, long before I was born.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Fourteen Years

The Field of Chairs at the Oklahoma City National Memorial

Today is 14 years since the mass murder of 168 innocent men, women, and children at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It is fitting that we never forget the worse incident of domestic terrorism in American History, not to glorify the evil men who conspired and committed the crime, but to honor the victims who needlessly had their lives snuffed out in a moment of horror.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Polish Sausage

Fifty-three year old Marian Milczarek of Poland got into a disagreement with his best friend, Wojciech Sowinski, who wanted to borrow his trailer. A scuffle ensued, and Sowinski wrestled Milczarek to the ground, pulled his buddy's pants off, bit off Milczarek's penis, and swallowed it. The victim's wife called an ambulance.

Any hope for these friends to make up? Probably not.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Truthfulness In Advertising

There are pictures all over the Internet of unintentionally funny or ironic church marquees. This particular photo comes from here, but its message is one they probably didn't mean to convey. However, I cannot disagree with the literal meaning of the sentiment expressed.

It is a fact that to accept something on "faith" means to suspend the requirement for any evidence, and just choose to believe something without, or contrary to, any evidence. Why is that an admirable quality? In all areas of life except in matters of religion, the prevailing opinion is that we reasonably expect there to be credible evidence before something is accepted as true. Faith is just the opposite. So, why would anyone think acceptance of a hypothesis without supporting data is a good quality? What if your doctor, rather than basing his or her treatment on scientific data, told you to put a leech on yourself and rub the intestines of a frog all over your body as treatment for cancer. Would you take it on faith that this is a reasonable course of action?

So yes, reason IS the greatest enemy of faith and the best way to test the truth of a proposition. Thomas Paine wrote,"The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other , and I trust I never shall." Or as Mark Twain succinctly wrote, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

So on this day when people around the world have suspended their mental reasoning abilities to believe a man/god came back from the dead; and celebrate the rebirth of the "son" on a day co-opted from pagan religions that celebrated the rebirth of The Sun, and fertility; let's celebrate instead the benefits bestowed upon humanity by reason. Happy Easter!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Here's Your Sign!

Comedian Bill Envall does a comedy routine about how stupid people should be required to wear a sign warning the rest of us. His catch phrase when someone does something dumb is “Here’s your sign!” The Orlando (FL) Sentinel reports on a woman who is without a doubt, in need of such a sign.

The Orlando Police Department dispatcher received a call from this woman saying that her car’s electrical system was malfunctioning, and that she was locked inside her car, and that she was getting very hot and not feeling well.

The dispatcher asked her if she could manually pull up the knob to unlock the car. After saying she would try, the woman responded that she was able to do so and open the door. Yet another life saved by the quick thinking heroes of the Orlando PD!

To the survivor of this ordeal…Here’s your sign!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

It Was 30 Years Ago

A couple of weekends ago, we had the things that have been in our storage unit brought over to the house. Among the things that arrived are several boxes of my old audio cassette tapes. I have not gone through all of them by any means, but did find some old chestnuts that are reminiscent of days gone by.

So, by the magic of recorded audio, let's go back to the summer of ’79. The Susan B. Anthony dollar is introduced. Jimmy Carter directs secret aid to the anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan. The Shah of Iran is spending his last summer in power before the Islamic Revolution. Chrysler asks for government aid to avoid bankruptcy (some things never change). Disco was hanging on for dear life, and hip-hop was still a future phenomenon. And if you were to tune in to AM 790 in Houston, you may have heard this young, 26-year-old disc jockey on the radio. (Flash plug-in required)

Will Cross-Ownership Save the Newspapers?

Media Daily News is reporting that FCC commissioner Robert McDowell is asking the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia to quickly decide on the legitimacy of new cross-ownership rules which would allow broadcast outlets to take ownership of newspapers, given the number of papers that stand on the threshold of failure and ceasing to publish. Already this year, we have seen the collapse of several papers, notably the Denver Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Remaining papers are fighting for advertising dollars and readership, as news consumers are getting more of their news from online sources, including those run by the papers themselves.

Will allowing radio and television companies the ability to buy struggling papers the answer? Broadcasters are facing some of the very same challenges that the newspaper publishers are facing. TV stations are forming market duopolies, where one company programs two stations in town, much as Denver’s KDVR-TV/DT has combined the news operations of rival KWGN-TV/DT, a CW affiliate owned by the bankrupt Tribune Company. (The mess they have made of KWGN, and the ridiculous rebranding of the station as “The Deuce” is a subject for another post.)

Yet, the Media Daily News is also reporting that FCC commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein is arguing that allowing two failing business models to combine won’t save either one. Local radio ad revenue suffered a 10% decline last year, and accelerating to 13% during the fourth quarter, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau. TV is also showing declines in revenue.

Are there any economies of scale to be found by say, combining the newsrooms of Radio/TV/Newspapers? Can synergies be found by sharing back office functions, such as accounting, sales, and editorial boards? Prior to the change in regulations in 1965, it was common. In fact, the Tribune Company, publisher of The Chicago Tribune, and owner of the aforementioned KWGN-TV/DT, also owned the WGN radio and TV stations in Chicago. In fact, it’s call letters stood for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”. The former owner of KPRC radio and TV in Houston also owned the now defunct Houston Post. KPRC represented Post Radio Company. Other cross-ownership of publishers and broadcasters was common.

The jury is still out on if such a plan will work today. I am skeptical, and I also hate to see a further concentration of editorial voices in fewer and fewer corporate hands. To me, it is a travesty that we see media companies owning hundreds of radio stations, including up to eight in one market. Back when ownership was restricted to seven AM, seven FM, and seven TV stations nationwide, we had a real diversity of local programming that, as required by the FCC, “served the public interest, as a public trustee”. Now we get the same syndicated junk from coast to coast. No longer is local radio the community voice. Nor is it the training ground for the next generation of broadcasters. We will have to keep an eye on this and see what happens next. Whatever occurs, I doubt the public’s best interest will be at the heart of any decisions.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Good Enough?

When new technology first becomes available, it is typically bleeding edge and not very user friendly. Over time, four things inevitably occur; the technology becomes more stable, more user-friendly, and features are added, and price comes down. Not all of these things are mutually compatible, as two of them are at odds with one another.

Today we see many tech gadgets beginning to bifurcate into two distinct classes. The first is the high-end, feature-rich versions that people who demand the best quality of products and output demand. The second is highly-reliable, easy-to-use versions that skimp on features in the name of simplicity and priced for mass market appeal.

We see this phenomenon time after time during product life cycles. On example of this was photography. Early photography required a whole lot of tinkering, specialized equipment, and self-processing of photographs. As the technology became more mainstream, cameras began to be made in two classes. There was the high-end, interchangeable lens models with adjustments for shutter speed and exposure time that required light meters and skills beyond the everyday user. But most people wanted a way to simply take decent quality pictures with little fuss or expense. So cameras like the once-ubiquitous Kodak Brownie brought “point and shoot” snapshots to the average weekend picture taker.

Today we see the same forces at work in the digital video and photography realm. Digital technology has continually come down in price, and yielding many advantages to the average photographer. The immediacy of the once-popular Polaroid Land Camera coupled with the ability to take thousands of shots very inexpensively has caused traditional film photography to become a niche market of hobbyists and Luddites.

Yet there are those who strive for the best quality, both in their gear and in the pictures they take. So now we see digital single-lens reflex cameras available at top dollar, with lenses that cost more than several consumer grade digital point and shoot cameras. Some of the best equipment is difficult for the consumer to justify for personal use, and remain the domain of the professional who makes a living with his or her photographic equipment.

The consumer market has benefited immensely from the market forces of competition, and once high-end features coming down in price as economies of scale in the production process, have brought sophisticated technology to the masses. Still it is not always an easy proposition for the manufacturers to combine ease of use with a plethora of features and functions.

This has led to the market for super simple, basic featured models that are gaining in popularity. Surely, the problems in the macro economy help drive this, but equally at play is the demand for something that is utilitarian and just works. Consumers are wanting products that do one or two things that cover the majority of their needs, and do those things simply and do them with exceedingly well.

In the photography realm we have been examining, the most evident example of this “simpler is better” approach is the Flip camera. This device records still and full motion video onto flash memory, in a device with a form factor not much larger than a deck of playing cards. It has a flip out USB connection to easily move photos and video to a computer, as well as software to make it easy to upload to web-based services such as YouTube or Flicker. It is also then easy to do post processing work on the computer, although the market for the Flip and similar devices are not likely to do much of that. If you are looking to make the next feature film, replete with digital effects, the Flip is not for you. On the other hand, if you like to have a camera to capture the impromptu event with no preplanning or setup required, and like to share these events with friends, family, or the general population, these are terrific cameras.

Another example is in the world of telephony. The USA had what was called the best telephone system in the world. During the days when The Bell System and an interconnected network of smaller independents provided our phone service, they were regulated and guaranteed a positive rate of return. In exchange, they used the money provided under a regulated monopoly approach to deploy rock-solid technology, whereby phone service became not only universally available, but as reliable as any technology ever devised. The simplification occurred with the rollout of things like “Direct Distance Dialing” which permitted people to bypass the long distance operator; and the technology of Dual Tone Multifrequency (DTMF) dialing, more commonly known as its original brand name, Touch Tone, which ultimately eliminated the rotary dial from our telephones.

Today, telephone service is rapidly moving off the older circuit-switched technology, where every conversation had a complete circuit connecting the call; to Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, where voice conversations are digitized and sent as data packets in many different directions, either over the Internet (as with Vonage), or on private networks as many telecom companies are doing.

Is VoIP as reliable as the older technology? In this writer’s opinion, not yet; but it will likely get there with its broader deployment. Just as cell phones still drop calls and have dead spots with no signal available, the convenience of them override the imperfections in the technology as it currently exists. People are moving in large numbers away from the reliable old landline telephone service to the cheaper, but less expensive and more mobile VoIP and cellular services to the point that traditional phone service is a shrinking market. The telcos are finding it necessary to build their future on Internet access and wireless technologies rather than the dying cash cow of traditional land lines.

Then we have music. MP3 files are definitely not high-fidelity, yet their portability and small size gives them benefits that standard CDs don't offer. The same goes for Sirius/XM Satellite Radio, which offers a large number of music and talk formats, but at the expense of audio quality, since to extract such capacity, the stations are multiplexed and highly compressed.

So while I appreciate the tradeoffs, I hope we do not become a society where good enough is always good enough. There is a place for quality over quantity or utility.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Passing of Great Internet Citizen

You may not have ever heard the name Richard J. Petnel. But many of you use his work every day. You see, Richard has been the man updating filters for the best browser add-in ever devised...AdBlock Plus, which blocks ads from web pages.

While reading one of my very favorite blogs, John Walkenbach's J-Walk Blog, I learned of Richard's untimely death at age 56 after a brief illness. Richard's obituary is here.

John, thanks for the heads-up on this. To give John Walkenbach a plug, he has authored many Excel books, and my library holds several of them. John is also a banjo player, music afficianado, and a fellow freethinker.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Life is Tough All Over

This weekend, as we continue receiving April snowfall here in Colorado, the neighborhood birds and mammals are having to resort to ingenuity to survive. This evening, returning home from a run to the local Costco, I saw one of the little rabbits scrounging in the snow underneath one of our bird feeders to get seed that had fallen on the ground.

This morning, another fellow was availing himself of birdseed in my next door neighbor's bird feeder. I grabbed my camera and got some incriminating pictures of the crime in progress.

This hungry squirrel had found that he could not only reach the bird feeder, but could actually open the top to get to what little bit of goodies were left inside. I watched him for a while, and thought that maybe I should put out some squirrel food.

And don't let the blue sky in the picture fool you. It is snowing like crazy again tonight.