Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dare you install Windows 7?

Of all the operating systems available for the PC, Windows 7 provides the best balance of performance, features, and usability. Windows 7 is so good, in fact, that any further improvements would require the services of three wolves and the Moon.

Like so:

While Win 7 is great, several of its improvements are only apparent if your computer has the processing power and hardware to support them. Because of this, many older PCs will be better served by sticking with Windows XP. This guide will help you decide whether Windows 7 is right for your computer by answering a number of common questions about the new operating system.

Will my computer run Windows 7?

Before we get to you whether should upgrade to Windows 7, we first need to find out if you can. Microsoft provides a free utility called the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor that checks your computer for compatibility, and indicates any specific issues it detects that might prevent you from installing the new operating system successfully. Potential issues include lack of sufficient memory or hard disk space, or system devices that do not have Windows 7-compatible drivers.

The advisor will also make some suggestions that would make upgrading your PC easier if you choose the "upgrade" option (only available on certain versions of Vista) as opposed to performing a fresh installation. (For example, it might recommend you uninstall a program with known compatibility issues.)

I am running Windows XP. Should I upgrade to Windows 7?

Windows XP is actually a really good operating system, especially for older computers. It's small, fast, and secure if you set it up properly. While Windows 7 introduces some nice interface and usability enhancements, they come at the cost of additional memory, disk space, and processor usage. The good news is that Windows 7 also introduces some performance enhancements that make up for the operating system's increased heft- but the potential bad news is that not all computers have enough processor power or memory to take advantage of those improvements. An old, slow computer might end up even slower on Windows 7.

In order to know whether you should upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7, you need to answer these questions:

Do I have at least a dual-core processor?

Windows 7's performance improvements mostly have to do with multithreading and multitasking; your computer's ability to do a lot of things at once. The more processors (or "cores") your system has, the better Windows 7 will be able to manage all its tasks. These improvements are only possible on systems with at least two processor cores to work with. If you don't know how many cores or processors your system has, you can do the following:
  1. Right-click a blank area on your task bar and click Task Manager on the shortcut menu.
  2. Click the Performance tab.
  3. If you only see a single bar graph under CPU Usage History, your computer only has one single-core processor. If you see several bar graphs, that means that you have at least a multi-core processor. Most modern computers have 2 or 4 total processor cores. Most computers more than 3 years old only have a single-core processor.
Do I have at least 2 Gigabytes (GB) of RAM?

A fresh install of Windows 7 with the proper drivers installed will eat up 500MB of RAM just sitting there, which is about 200MB more than what XP requires (but about 200MB less than what Vista uses). Both Vista and Windows 7 introduced some performance improvements that rely on "predictive caching;" they load files you frequently use into memory before you actually need them, based on your common PC usage patterns. This saves time, because fetching data from memory is much faster than fetching it from your hard drive. The problem is, you need to have lots of free RAM in order for Windows 7 to be able to cache enough information to make a difference. (There's another minor performance improvement in both Vista and Windows 7 called ReadyBoost, which lets you use SD cards or USB flash drives to supplement your cache without impacting your RAM, but it's no substitute for having more real memory.)

If your computer doesn't have at least 2 GB of RAM, you won't be giving Windows 7 the memory it needs to keep your system fast while you've got various programs open. To see how much RAM you have installed, right-click the My Computer icon on your desktop (or open the System control panel), and look at the General tab. Under Computer, you should see what kind of processor you have and how much RAM is installed.

If you have 4 or more GB of RAM you'll need a 64-bit version of Windows 7 to be able to use all of it. We'll talk about that later.

Will my computer support Windows Aero?

A lot of the visual enhancements in Windows 7 are part of what Microsoft calls "Windows Aero," which is really a combination of desktop theme and various technologies. Even if a computer is capable of running Windows 7, it may not meet the heavy graphics and system requirements for Aero. Unfortunately the exact requirements are quite complex and difficult to confirm on your own, but the Windows Upgrade Advisor will inform you if your computer will not be able to use Aero, and it will give you recommendations of things you can do to fix the problem.

If you're less concerned about system performance than you are about usability, you'll be missing a lot if your system isn't Aero-capable. It might not be worth it to upgrade if your system's not going to be able to use the new OS to its fullest.

Do I use my computer primarily for 3D gaming?

If you have at least a multi-core processor and at least 2GB of RAM, Windows 7 outperforms Windows XP in almost everything except boot-to-desktop and 3D games. The problem with 3D games is that most of them are primarily "single-threaded" applications. In other words, they are written to do most of their work in a very tight, linear fashion that is immune to Windows 7's multitasking performance enhancements. Windows XP uses less memory and processor time than Windows 7, so demanding single-threaded applications, including games, tend to run better simply because of XP's lower system overhead.

If you play a lot of CPU-and-graphics-intensive games and you like squeezing every bit of performance out of your PC, you will be better off sticking with XP for now. Microsoft did a sneaky trick of limiting their DirectX 10 and 11 technologies to Vista and later... but for now there aren't many (if any?) games that require those technologies. In the future you might HAVE to upgrade to Windows 7 if compelling games start capitalizing on the various features only available in DirectX 10 or 11. But by that time you'll probably have a better computer anyway.

I am running Windows Vista. Should I upgrade to Windows 7?

Oh my yes. Vista is the slowest, most memory-and-resource-intensive operating system Microsoft ever produced. It is slower than both Windows XP and Windows 7 in all benchmarks I have ever seen, and now that Windows 7 is out, there is almost no reason to keep running Vista. Almost.

Device drivers (the software that makes your computer's hardware features and accessories work inside Windows) that are written for Vista are supposed to work just fine under Windows 7. I, however, have personally encountered three different cases where the Vista driver for a given device was not acceptably stable under Windows 7, resulting in device failure or even "blue screen" operating system crashes. In two of those three cases, I found updated Windows 7 drivers for the problem devices that fixed the issues, but in one sad case, I was forced to uninstall Windows 7 because my PC was unacceptably unstable, and I could not find any Windows 7-compatible drivers that would fix it.

So my complete advice for Vista users is this: Upgrade to Windows 7 and look for the very latest Windows 7 (or Vista) drivers you can find for all your devices. Give Windows 7 a week or two. If you find that your system is still stable, stick with it- you'll be glad you did. Otherwise, move back to Vista (or XP) until you replace your computer or new drivers come out for your problem devices.

Should I upgrade my existing installation, or should I do a fresh install?

If your computer is currently running XP, you don't have much of a choice. Your only options on an XP system are to reformat your hard drive and install Windows 7 fresh, or to install Windows 7 on a separate drive or partition, resulting in a "dual boot" setup, where you choose which OS to load when you power up your PC.

If you have Vista, however, you might have the option to do an "upgrade" install, which keeps all your programs and data, and simply replaces the operating system. You need to have matching editions of the two operating systems (for example, you can't upgrade a Vista Home installation with Windows 7 Ultimate, or 32-bit Vista with 64-bit Windows 7), but once you've established that you're able to upgrade, it appears to be a pretty stable way to go.

I have upgraded three different Vista PCs to Windows 7, and I didn't have any problems with them at all. I ran the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor before-hand on each system, and every time the advisor recommended I uninstall a few specific programs- which I did before performing any of the upgrades. The upgrade process takes a lot longer than a fresh install (it can take several hours), but it is almost completely automated, and the end result is that you have a computer that works just like you're used to, without requiring you to re-install a bunch of applications and back-up/restore all your files.

One thing to be aware of, is that Windows 7 always enables the User Account Control (UAC) feature upon install, even if UAC was disabled in your Vista installation. I always turn off UAC first-thing, because it can cause very hard-to-diagnose problems with many application and driver installers. It can prevent them from working without telling you that there's any problem. You disable UAC in the Users control panel.

Which edition of Windows 7 should I get?

There are a number of different versions of Windows 7 available to consumers. I will only talk about the consumer versions available in the USA. Wikipedia has the best comparison of all the different editions. Here are my recommendations for the various choices that you might face when buying a new netbook or computer, with the understanding that each subsequent version I discuss includes all of the features of the previously-mentioned versions:
  • Windows 7 Starter - This version is only available as a pre-installed product on low-end computers and netbooks. It is frustratingly limited- you can't even set a desktop background or use Fast User Switching, so it's no good for a computer that's going to be used by more than one family member. This is also the only edition that is not available in 64-bit. Skip this one if you can (see the note after this list if you get a netbook that comes with it pre-installed).
  • Windows 7 Home Premium - This is the most common version available on new computers, and is usually the "free" operating system option when purchasing a new computer online- but like Professional and Ultimate, it is also available for individual purchase in stores. If you don't plan to use your PC as a Remote Desktop host (see the other editions for details), do not need Windows "domain" access, and you don't have any mission critical XP applications that might have Windows 7 compatibility issues, Home Premium is a pretty solid choice. It features Windows Media Center, and even includes the ability to play store-bought DVDs- something which used to be an "Ultimate" feature on Vista. One minor caveat about Home Premium- this edition (and Starter) will only use one physical processor in your PC if you happen to have more than one. Most people do not have multiple processors; 99% of new computers in peoples' homes have only a single processor with multiple cores. Even Starter will use multiple cores, but neither Home nor Starter will make use of any additional physical processors installed in your PC.
  • Windows 7 Professional - This version adds the ability to connect to Windows domains (a kind of network usually only used in large-scale businesses, almost never at home), and the ability to enable "Windows XP Mode," a downloadable feature that actually runs a full-on copy of Windows XP inside a "virtual machine" environment, which lets you install old XP-based applications that might not operate properly in Windows 7 inside a safe environment. The performance in XP mode isn't as good as running the application natively, but it provides 100% XP compatibility to those who need it. (Note: XP Mode will only work on PCs with hardware virtualization support. This is a relatively recent technology that not everyone has.) The most important feature introduced in Professional, for me, personally, is the ability to operate as a Remote Desktop host. With this feature, you could have your Windows 7 computer in one room of the house, and connect to it from another computer in the house over your home wireless network, and control it as if you were sitting right there. I use this feature all the time for cases where I want to access or share a file stored at one PC but I'm too lazy to actually walk over to where that PC is. I use Remote Desktop all the time, and this feature alone is worth my money. Professional has every feature that I need in an operating system.
  • Windows 7 Ultimate - Ultimate is only slightly more expensive than Professional, but not a single one of the additional features it includes are anything that I will ever use. If you have a choice between Professional and Ultimate, you seriously won't be missing out on anything big if you go the cheaper route.
All Windows editions below Ultimate should offer an "Anytime Upgrade" option which unlocks the features of a more advanced Windows version for a discounted price. For example, I bought a Dell netbook that had Starter edition installed, and used the Anytime Upgrade feature to upgrade my system to Windows 7 Ultimate. The whole process took only about 10 minutes.

Should I get 32-bit or 64-bit Windows 7?

This is the toughest question of them all. For most people, for most applications, the only real reason to use 64-bit Windows is to ensure that you have access to all your physical memory if you have 4GB or more installed. Most people are going to be just fine with just 2-3GB on Windows 7, and 32-bit Windows offers the most compatible and stable situation right now. If you have or think you will someday need 4 or more GB of RAM, though, you need to think seriously about 64-bit, assuming your computer will even support it (not all systems do). It's a complicated matter, though, because 64-bit Windows actually runs best with 64-bit applications and requires 64-bit drivers. Let's look at these issues individually:

32-bit programs are different from 64-bit programs, and not all applications are available in 64-bit versions. Microsoft has put a ton of work into making sure that 32-bit programs function in a 64-bit environment, but there are some very strange side-effects that can cause hard-to-diagnose problems. For example, a 32-bit application that stores settings inside the Windows registry actually saves its information in a different "ghost" registry that only 32-bit programs can see. The same goes for 32-bit files in the Windows folder; Windows separates 32-bit and 64-bit files into different places on your hard drive, but this behavior might confuse certain applications expecting their files to be stored elsewhere. The ideal situation is to find a 64-bit version of important applications you use. This situation will improve over time.

If you don't have 64-bit Vista or Windows 7 drivers for your devices, your devices simply won't work. The newer your computer or peripherals are, the better chance there is that you will find 64-bit drivers for them (remember, 64-bit XP drivers don't count; they have to be for Vista or Windows 7). If you plan to install 64-bit Windows on an existing computer, make sure you have 64-bit drivers for all critical components before you upgrade Windows.

So, short answer: Get 64-bit Windows if you need access to 4 or more GB of RAM, you have 64-bit drivers for all your hardware, and your computer is capable of running 64-bit Windows (that's the next topic).

Can my computer run 64-bit Windows?

64-bit Windows requires special CPU features that aren't present in many older PCs. The best way to determine if your computer is capable of running 64-bit Windows is to run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. Once it has checked your computer, it will create an additional "64-bit" tab if it determines that your CPU has 64-bit support. If you do not see the 64-bit tab, you're stuck with 32-bit, whether you like it or not. (For the time being, consider that a blessing. The compatibility and reliability issues with the current generation of 64-bit drivers and applications result in endless headaches.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Walnut Hills Class of 1989: Where Are They Now?

After making some interesting discoveries while flipping through the 1989 Class Directory that was distributed at my 20-year high school reunion, I wanted to visualize the WHHS Diaspora; to actually see where everyone ended up. I used the information provided in the directory to pinpoint last-known residence of each alum who provided contact information (380 in all). The result is an interactive map where you can see who is located in each city. Important: The map does not show people's actual addresses and is not linked with any contact information; it just associates a name with a city.

Click the picture of the map below to go to the actual interactive map. (Note: It might take 30 seconds or so before all the placemarkers load up.) The placemarkers are colored according to how many students from our class are located in a given city:
  • Red - 1 student
  • Yellow - 2-5 students
  • Green - 6-10 students
  • Blue - 11 or more students

In fact, there's only one city with more than 10 former classmates, and that is, of course, Cincinnati, with an impressive 161 folks still taking up residence there. The next most populated city is Brooklyn, with 8 of our classmates. I also posted a worksheet of the raw data I used. It's basically the same as from the directory, with some minor corrections.

To move the map, click and drag it. To zoom in and out, use your mousewheel. Click a placemarker to see who lives there.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pimp My History

Why does the average MySpace profile look like an electronic facsimile of baby diarrhea? Is it because the large amount of control MySpace users have in terms of layout and design is perverted in the hands of users unversed in the fields of visual design and typography? Is it the sub-literate non sequiturs that constitute most of the "content" of the typical MySpace page? Or is it the bling?

A cottage industry has blossomed around MySpace where websites offer tools and services to help users make their profiles even more unreadable and appalling. One such website is Blingee, where you can upload photographs and pimp them out with decorations, text, and simple animations. You can then post your blinged-out images wherever you like. (Please don't.) Below is a typical example:

While considering the MySpace Question (that question being, "Is MySpace horrible, or just the things people do with it?"), I wondered if the situation was similar with Blingee: Was it possible to use Blingee technology for anything other than evil? What if we could use it to make something boring more interesting- history, for example? Wouldn't that justify Blingee's existence if it stimulated interest in the minds of our young? Let's have a look.

Winston Churchill and Bernard Baruch

English heroism and resolve meet American capitalism and diplomacy in this famous photograph. The average teenager would have fallen asleep two words into that last sentence, since those concepts (and, frankly, any word with more than two syllables) are well outside the modern adolescent's ability to comprehend. With Blingee we can portray historical figures in a context that today's kids understand.

The Hindenburg Disaster

In the post-Bruckheimer era, black & white photography simply doesn't convey the horror of that historic night in New Jersey. With Blingee we can deliver an experience every bit as visceral and evocative as a Michael Bay movie.

The Kiss in Times Square

It was a kiss that captured the nation's collective elation, relief, and joy on V-J Day in a single, iconic image. But in today's tough economic times, where schools are understaffed and overcrowded, teachers are expected to teach kids more with fewer school days and less pay. With Blingee we can make a single historical document a visual aid for other topics as well. Health, Sex Education, Self Defense, and Biology for starters.

The Saigon Execution

In 1968, Viet Cong operative Nguyễn Văn Lém was executed in front of an American photojournalist... or was he? Don't kids see enough violence on TV these days? With Blingee we can soften the blow of History's darker chapters.

Current Events

Sometimes stock photos alone aren't adequate to sufficiently illustrate a news story.

The Future

We can dream, can't we?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

San Francisco Travel Diary

I always tend to find any given business trip to be a Barton Fink-esque experience. Whenever I'm away from home, weirdness just seems to envelop me. Here are some notes from my most recent business trip to San Francisco, where I demonstrated some new features I've added to our Intel® My WiFi Technology product.

  • When the clerk at the car rental place asks if I need directions to the hotel, I proudly respond that I don't, because I've brought my very own GPS. She acts impressed, so prepared and worldly am I. In the car I tell the GPS to guide me to the hotel, whose address I had uploaded into the unit the previous night. (So. Goddam. Prepared.) I confidently follow the calming, feminine electronic voice into the bowels of San Francisco. After about 20 minutes, just as the GPS announces, "You have reached your destination!" a pod of meth addicts shuffles zombie-like across the street in front of my car. I look around and notice that nearly every car parked along either side of the road is occupied by a solitary, menacing driver in a hoodie or a fitted cap, staring silently into nothingness. I also determine that my hotel, the 38-story San Francisco Westin, is nowhere in sight. Perhaps I could have used those directions after all.

  • I locate the hotel several miles away (apparently it's the other 50 Third Street in town). The only on-site parking the hotel offers is $50-a-day valet, so I find an underground parking garage nearby and walk my luggage around the block to the hotel lobby. On the way I am approached by at least three panhandlers who make direct eye contact and demand, simply, "Yo, gimme some money." I am aghast at their poor marketing skills. Not one of them attempts to weave a sympathy-building tale, and there's not a whimsical or heartbreaking hand-scrawled cardboard sign in sight. Well, except for the guy with the big sign that says, "MY WIFE HAS BEEN KIDNAPPED!!!" but I'm not sure what's going on there.

  • I check into the hotel and find my room to be unbearably hot. The thermostat indicates the current room temperature to be 72 degrees, but the fact that I'm drenched in sweat wearing nothing but a t-shirt and boxers would contraindicate that assertion. I angrily stab the down-arrow button until it reaches a target temperature of 62 degrees. Doing so makes no difference at all, and I consider my theory that hotel thermostats are really just placebos to be confirmed.

  • After unpacking I retire to the bathroom for a scalding hot shower. The tub fills with water even though the plug is up. The next day, when I desire a bath, I discover that the Westin has furnished my bathroom with a tub that in fact defies physics. It leaks when it's supposed to fill and fills when it's supposed to drain. I find that removing the plug from the drain completely allows me to finish my bath at my own pace.

  • Gary and Roald have lunch at a restaurant across the street from the conference center one day. While they are dining, a panhandler comes in off the street and interrupts people at every table in the restaurant, asking for money. Roald, who lives in the city, explains that business owners are virtually helpless to prevent this sort of thing. I'm sure that's really great for business.

  • The bathrooms at the conference center are disgusting. Every toilet seat is drenched with urine, and not a single toilet I encounter has been flushed before my arrival. Every person attending this conference is either an engineer or a physicist who has mastered the electron but apparently cannot operate either a penis or a commode.

  • As I'm walking back toward the hotel after a day at the conference center, a nicely-dressed man bolts past me at a frenzied pace. At first I think it's because he's trying to catch the bus, but he just runs past the bus and then disappears around a corner. I stop at a 7-Eleven to purchase my dinner of snack chips and sports drink. Just as the cashier hands me the receipt, the nicely-dressed man I'd seen before materializes to my left, screaming, "WATER! WATER!" The vietnamese cashier recoils in terror, squealing, "WHAT YOU WANT? WHAT YOU WANT?" until Nicely-Dressed Man dashes back out of the store and vanishes into the night.

  • The first couple nights at the hotel, I wonder why so many military jets keep wooshing over the place. The room shakes a little whenever they do it, and it seems to happen every few minutes. It makes me worry that there's some kind of national security issue going on that the public doesn't know about yet. On the third day I discover that the only thing between my room and the elevators is a linen closet, and I realize that it wasn't military jets at all I'd been hearing all this time. Somehow this revelation makes the constant rumbling and wooshing more annoying by a factor of about 10.

  • One morning, while setting the room service tray out in the hallway, the door to my room accidentally locks behind me. I am embarrassed when I take the 32-story trip down to the lobby to request another key. I am more embarrassed when I take the 32-story ride back up only to discover that my wallet- and thus my key- has been in my pocket the entire time.

  • One night on my way back to the hotel from the conference, a hooded man bearing more than a passing resemblence to George Clinton glares at me and shouts, "LAPTOP!!!" I am not impressed with his deductive powers- it's pretty much a given that a guy shuffling around San Francisco with an Intel shirt and a backpack is concealing a laptop somewhere on his person. My hooded friend actually has no idea how right he is, however, for at that moment, my backpack is stuffed with not one but three laptops and their respective power supplies and accessories. In fact I am so top-heavy at the moment that if he had just tapped my chest with his pinky I'd have toppled onto my back, unable to right myself, much like a flipped turtle.

  • The conference is at once exciting and demoralizing. Almost without exception evey person I speak to about our WiFi technology is impressed and excited by what we've done, and wants to know when it will be available to consumers. The thing is, the technology actually debuted on the market nine months ago and is installed on tens of millions of computers. Nobody knows it's there, and nobody understands what it does until I demonstrate it to them. I discuss my observations with our Marketing team, and their experiences corroborate my own. The Marketing guys also believe they know why no one knows this feature exists: "Shitty marketing."

  • This conference has taught me three things: 1. Our product is cooler than I thought it was, even if no one knows it exists. 2. I'm pretty good with strangers in this kind of setting; 1-on-1, conversation with a purpose. 3. My body was simply not designed to stand for hours at a time. Even after the first day my feet and calves ache from overuse. Over the course of the week I am consoled to find that all of my peers are having the same problems. Each night we limp home like a band of retirees escaping from the assisted living center.

  • There are no chairs on the showroom floor, nor is there any appropriate seating anywhere else in the city-block-sized conference hall. There are some weird cushiony cubes on the 3rd level, but they are unstable and offer no back support. I am overjoyed when I discover some benches on Level 2, but I quickly learn why no one is sitting on them. They are constructed of brushed aluminum, and built in just such a way that if you attempt to relax in them you slowly slide out of the bench and, ultimately onto the floor. The benches were intentionally designed to keep you from sitting on them. This reminds me of the terrible cookies my grandmother always bought to fill her cookie jar. When my dad and his siblings asked Mama why she always got such wretched cookies, she responded matter-of-factly, "Well, if I got good ones you'd eat them." The Moscone Center in San Francisco has shitty benches because if they had good ones you'd sit on them.

  • There is a booth at the showcase demonstrating a technology for computer-assisted driving. They have a demo where you can sit in a carseat and drive a simulator with a realistic steering wheel. I spend a lot of time at this booth, and I bring several of my peers along with me for repeated test runs. The folks running the booth believe we're there because we're interested in forming a technical partnership with their company, but really we're only at the booth because the simulator's the closest thing to comfortable seating in the entire convention center.

  • On my repeated treks between the hotel and the conference hall I observe dozens of people avoiding eye contact with the panhandlers and ignoring their demands for spare change. I believe it's rude to ignore people, so whenever someone accosts me for donations, I look him directly in the eye, shake my head sympathetically, and reply, "No." I do this about three times, and after each encounter I hear the men I've turned down emit low, bestial growls; ticking time-bombs of rage. Apparently it's more acceptable to simply be ignored than being unequivacally, flatly rejected. Like the rest of San Francisco, I decide to pretend that these guys are simply not there.

  • It's my second-to-last day in the city and I'm walking back to my hotel for a break between showcases. While I'm halfway across 4th street, a gray-haired woman walking beside me in the crosswalk turns toward me and screams, "You want to make fun of me?" and pulls up her green sweater to reveal her naked, deflated bosoms. She only flashes me for about two seconds, but it is long enough for me to notice that her breasts resemble half-full sacks of oatmeal. I don't, in fact, want to make fun of her- truth be told, I hadn't even noticed she was there until she began screaming at me. But since she asks, I reply, "Nice mudflaps, grandma," although I am smart enough not to utter these words aloud. The strangest thing about this unprovoked display of rage and sweater meats is that, unlike the raving street maniacs crowding the streets of San Francisco who LOOK like they'd do this sort of thing, this woman appears completely "normal." She looks like somebody's grandma. I've seen somebody's grandma's breasts.

  • My final day in the city is uneventful, as is the plane ride home, but things become awkward once we land in Portland. I have lost some weight over the past two months and the pair of boxers I'm wearing at the moment are probably a couple of sizes too large. As I head toward Baggage Claim I can feel the boxers slinking down my cheeks and dipping into my pantlegs, finally draping over the inner crotch of my jeans. While the sensation of my sausage swinging freely in my jeans is not altogether unpleasant, it is novel and I feel naked. I don't have a chance to address the matter until the airport shuttle deposits me back in the Economy lot. I sneak between a couple of SUVs and discover that my boxers have disappeared so deep into my pantlegs that I have to unbuckle and unzip my pants just to retrieve them. I hope there are no security cameras aimed in my direction as I make things right, and then resolve to retire this particular pair when I get back home.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Night

The Fourth of July is unique among USA holidays in that it does not stem from ancient pagan tradition, has limited commercial appeal, and the only requirements for participation are that you be American, drunk, and eager to blow things up. We celebrated the occasion this year by traveling to the far reaches of our driveway and lighting firecrackers in the street with our friends, Cindy and James.

Charlotte and James had both gotten giant party packs of fireworks, which were probably as good as you could get, considering the lame selection of recreational explosives legally available in Oregon. If you've ever wondered whether states that outlaw the purchase of large fireworks for Independence Day are somehow less patriotic than states who allow it, well the answer is yes- they absolutely are.

The pack that we got included two boxes labeled, "Rising Flag," and featured an image of the American flag waving majestically amid a colorful swirl of smoke. It looked like a damned patriotic way to start off the evening.

"Firew Orks."

Charlotte broke open one of the boxes, positioned a Rising Flag firecracker out on the pavement, and lit the fuse. Once the fuse burned all the way down to the center, two miniature flares on either side of the device ignited and whistled, producing a twisty coil of gray smoke. After a few seconds the flares died down and the thing smoldered quietly for a moment before unceremoniously burping out a miniature American flag which, within less than a minute, was entirely consumed by flames.

As the last ash of the miniature Old Glory blew away, Charlotte wondered aloud whether a firecracker that burned the American Flag was appropriate for the 4th of July. We quickly moved on to less blasphemous fireworks, such as the regrettably named Golden Shower.

As the celebration continued, I pondered whether the Rising Flag that Charlotte lit had worked as designed. Perhaps it was just an unholy fluke? The next day I decided to find out. I retrieved the rest of the (unspent) Rising Flag firecrackers from the trash bin and lit them, one after another. While I was unable to find another that set the flag alight, in nearly every case, the flag ended up badly singed, and sometimes even dropped to the ground. Was this by design?

The Stars 'n' Bars. Extra crispy.

I inspected the things more closely and thought I'd found a clue when I noticed that on each of the firecrackers, the word "Flag" was actually printed on a little sticker that appeared to cover some different text underneath. I peeled off one of the stickers only to discover that the label had been placed to cover a typo.

Unless, of course, "Flrg" is something meaningful in one of this product's target markets.

Like everything else in the USA, the fireworks were manufactured in China, and it was when I was collecting the ashen debris in disappointment that I noticed some Chinese text printed on the bottom of the box in which they'd been packaged. With a sort of muted hopefulness, I entered the text into Google Translate, at which time the true function of the Rising Flag firecrackers was revealed. It said:

"Produces, desecrates American flag; goes peepee in your Coke."

Somewhere, deep in the freshly-empty warehouse of a Chinese fireworks factory, a little man is rubbing his hands together and snickering, "Just as pranned..."

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bots on Icing

Forgive my profound sadness as I mourn the end of Cake Season 2009 for our family. I won't enjoy the sweet perfection of another cake until my daughter's birthday in December. My figure-conscious mother's August birthday doesn't count, because she only celebrates the occasion with a decadent (for her) treat of two pecans and a spoonful of whole milk. At least today's cake, in honor of my son's sixth year on this Earth, was as delicious as it was beautiful. It is a small miracle that this cake turned out so well, however- we just didn't realize it until the cake was actually sitting on our kitchen counter.

If you've ever browsed a catalog of cakes at a bakery, what you likely saw were ads for various "cake kits," which bakers use to produce themed cakes featuring all manner of licensed properties, from Barbie to Winnie the Pooh. The kits basically consist of a handful of accessories and a photograph of the finished cake. It is up to your bakery to provide all the edible portions of the cake in that photo. Well, this year, our son wanted a Transformers cake, and he knew such a cake existed because he and I had once spotted the below design at the bakery of the grocery store up the street.

Given that there have been two blockbuster films based on Transformers in recent years, and they've released new toys alongside the films, one would assume there would be a variety of Transformers cakes to choose from, but until just recently there was only the one kit. The kit's contents? One toy, one cardboard backdrop. Period. Now, the flames do look pretty badass, but it's otherwise kind of a chintzy design when compared to the unmitigated awesomeness of the Pirate Ship 3D Super Sized Cake. (Guess what I be havin' for my next birthday, maytee...) I could be selling the Transformers kit short, I guess; after all the purple stool that kids experience the next day might be a delighter that proves this cake to be more of a grower than a shower. There's just one problem, though- no one seems to know how to replicate those goddamn flames.

Every once in a while I pop over to the Cake Wrecks blog to facepalm at the complete ineptitude of cake decorators around the world, and there just happened to be a recent article there on Transformers cakes. There was the picture of the kit I had seen before... and then there were the jaw-droppingly bad attempts by various bakeries to replicate the cake in the photo. Below is just one example (see the article for more).

I wonder if the decorator was a Cure fan?

It was late on Friday night, and I knew that my wife would be picking up OUR Transformers cake that Saturday afternoon. I slept uneasily that night, wondering what horrors awaited us the next day. When Charlotte arrived from the bakery the next evening with our son's cake I was not only relieved, but quite impressed by the results:

Notice it looks absolutely nothing like the official kit. When I told Charlotte about the Cake Wrecks post I'd seen, she mentioned that when she was placing the order for the cake earlier in the week, they told her that while they knew a Transformers kit existed, they refused to make that cake because it fell below their standards. They actually went to Fred Meyer and bought some real Transformers toys for Henry's cake and created a desert landscape with icing dunes, plastic palm trees, jellybean boulders, and cookie-crumb debris. It was a chocolate cake with white butter cream frosting, and chocolate butter cream filling between the two layers. They also decorated the front edge of the cake with a number of exotic symbols, including the Autobots logo. It was a post-apoCAKElyptic desert dessert! (Sorry, that last sentence was really out of character. You have my permission to punch me in the balls the next time you see me.)

Whether they refused to make the kit cake because the flames were too hard or the kit was really too crummy we may never know, but these folks have done nothing but stellar work for us before, and Henry absolutely loved what he got. (This was at Bales Thriftway on Cornell and Saltzman, for you Portlanders, by the way.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My Top Five Top Fives

Application spam is the cancer that is killing Facebook. The Facebook home page is now just a busy, homogeneous stream of effluvia where a posted article such as this one, which takes several hours and at least two satanic ritualistic sacrifices to compose, merits no more real estate than an application-generated spamlet that was created in a few seconds with a few clicks and little more than a passing thought. I am not bitter, though, and Facebook's Twitter envy is far too transparent for me to have any hope of a concise, uncluttered front page again any time soon.

So it is in a spirit of reluctant acceptance that I decided to give that omnipresent Top Five application a spin. I will leave you with the results. Please note that because I fail at Blogger templates, you must click the large-assed thumbnail below in order to view the actual top five lists in all their mirthful wonder.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

If Michael Bay Designed Christian Web Sites

Like the cover letter of a resumé, a web site's Flash introduction makes a statement. It establishes the site's owners as domain experts, setting them apart from their competition. Also like cover letters, Flash introductions are typically angrily skipped in favor of actual relevant content. But woe unto thee who skip the intros of the following pages. I will offer links to the sites and the apparent statement that their Flash introductions are intended to communicate to new visitors.


Upon visiting this page, you will likely ask, "Is this web site for a church or the Space Army?" Well I do not know the answer to that question, but whatever it is SIGN ME THE FUCK UP.

Apparent statement: Calling all Deathbots (and Christians)!


Twin brothers Keith and Karl Edmonds, "silently interpret contemporary Gospel music with dramatic gestures and animated facial expressions, portraying man's resistance of life's evil temptations and His transformation from doubter to believer." Because the best way to spread the Good Word is to, you know, not use any words at all.

Apparent statement: The only thing we hate more than Satan is epileptics!


This was the website that led me to the discovery of this whole universe of krazy kristians on the web, and it may well be the most impressive. ICCM isn't really a church at all, but rather a corporation that provides tax-exempt status to small churches who wouldn't otherwise qualify. What's that? You'd like to run a tax-exempt church but you don't even have any ministerial credentials? NO PROBLEM- they will make you a minister! (I shit you not.) Wait, why are you scoffing- you think this shit's not legit? They send you a motherfucking lapel pin, what more do you need?

Apparent statement: We evade the SHIT out of taxes!


All of the above sites (and many more) are the work of self-described "Visual Historian," Marcus Shepard. He holds a Masters degree in Computer Arts and an unquenchable desire to decorate the SINternet with spasm-inducing Flash animations. Curious what led mister Shepard into a career of creating what is probably best described as "digital meth on crack," I phoned him for a brief interview:

OUTSIDER: So, Marcus, how did you get into the web design business?

SHEPARD: I-I-I first [metallic clang in background] dev-v-v-eloped [screeching cat followed by stampede of footsteps] an interest in w-w-w-w [glass breaking]
w-w-w-w-w [industrial machinery] w-web design in c-c-col-col-c-c-c-college
[clown whistle and circus music] w-w-when...

OUTSIDER: Thanks so much for your time, Marcus, and God bless!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

She's Mine... All Mine!!!

Long have I awaited this day. I now possess my own miniature facsimile of Yarna D'Al' Gargan, Jabba the Hut's six-breasted concubine from Return of the Jedi. That's right- the mind that brought you jawas, ewoks, and *shudder* Jar-Jar also conjured up a giant slug's sextuple-teated sex slave. (Hrm, perhaps the "sex" part was my contribution.)

Yarna IRL.

Kenner actually prototyped Yarna way back in the mid-eighties, but it is said that Lucasfilm objected to the idea. The fact that she was one of only two Star Wars figures that were modeled but never released lit a fire in the tidy little hearts of collectors (well, maybe not all collectors); the Yarna Figure became the many-nippled grail of the PVC Star Wars universe. It would be over two decades before Hasbro (current toy licensee of the Star Wars brand) revisited the idea of a Yarna figure for their Legacy Collection line of toys. Hasbro ran a poll asking fans what their most desired Star Wars toys would be, and a Yarna figure topped the list.

And now, with my Collector's Anxiety momentarily sated, Yarna stands on my desk, poised to entertain me with her alien wiles... and daddy like!

Shake 'em babeh. Shake ALL of 'em.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dear Nintendo

Dear Nintendo,

I congratulate you on the amazing and continued success of the Wii and DS. You've really changed the way that people think about video games and introduced some true innovations in an industry increasingly notorious for risk avoidance. I also want to apologize for writing the DS off as a "gimmick" and for making fun of the Wii's name. (Although I think you missed an opportunity when you chose to name the Wii's built-in Nintendo Entertainment System emulator "Virtual Console" instead of "WiiNES.")

I was curious, though, Nintendo- do you ever sort of get the feeling that you're successful despite yourself? Allow me to clarify:

Why don't your first-party games have voice?

Even though you adopted DVD-ROM as the storage medium for Wii games, all in-game dialogue in Nintendo-produced titles is printed on-screen, rather than spoken. Now, I like to read as much as the next person, but since your games are designed for standard definition television sets, you can only fit about three words per line on the screen. Also, you apparently think players like to watch every single character individually rendered on-screen as we're trying to read... as if a little Mario is packed inside each Wii, dilligently typing out every word. A typical gameplay session with a first-party Wii game usually goes something like this:
[Press Start]
[Watch cutscene]
[Wait for page 1 of text to render and press A to continue]
[Wait for page 2 of text to render and press A to continue]
[Wait for page 3 of text to render and press A to continue]
[Wait for page 4 of text to render and press A to continue]
[Wait for page 5 of text to render and press A to continue]
[Wait for page 6 of text to render and press A to continue]
[Wait for page 7 of text to render and press A to continue]
Three seconds of gameplay! Wewt!
[Wait for page 1 of text to render and press A to continue]
[Wait for page 2 of text to render and press A to continue]
[Wait for page 3 of text to render and press A to continue]
Did you know that this actually isn't fun? Well, that's not completely accurate. It is fun, but perhaps less so than undergoing unanaesthetised dental work. Don't you guys do focus groups or anything? Do people who playtest your games understand that they're intended for entertainment, or do they think you're designing thumb-torture simulators?

Why do all your first-party games have General MIDI soundtracks?

I remember being really blown away the first time I ever saw a home video game that used the power of MIDI to generate its soundtrack, but the novelty wore off sometime in 1988. Is this just a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it?"

Did you know that it is now possible to actually record music digitally and then play it back inside a video game? Take a look at, say, every video game produced by anyone other than Nintendo in the past 17 years for an example. I thought that maybe you were just cramming too many standard-def, low-poly graphics onto your game discs to accomodate digital music, but I looked at a bunch of your titles under good lighting and it's obvious you're nowhere near filling your discs to capacity, so what gives?

Why does the Wii Shop Channel suck so bad?

The first time I ever bought a Virtual Console title through the Wii Shop Channel, I thought, "Gee, entering all my credit card and address information with the Wiimote really sucks ass. At least I'll only have to do this once. Right? RIGHT???" But no- every single time you purchase anything from the Wii Shop, every Wii user must fumble through the process of providing complete credentials and payment info with probably the least appropriate text-entry device ever. Dude, Steven Hawking has an easier time entering text than the average Wii user.

And yes, I know that there are now keyboards you can plug in to the Wii- wait... I bet you call them "Wiiboards," don't you? But even websites remember customer information, and websites can work from any computer. You only access Wii Shop from your own Wii- there's no excuse for you to not remember who your users are, is there?

Why isn't the new Animal Crossing game any different from the first one?

Ususally the idea behind a game sequel is, "Ditch the things that didn't work, keep the things that did, but make them better." Oddly, the idea behind Animal Crossing: City Folk appears to be, "Put the original Animal Crossing disc in a new box." Seriously, after seven years of development you can't evolve the gameplay or graphics at all, other than make the player character look like less of a serial-killing clown?

This franchise is in dire need of a reboot. Let's just pretend City Folk never happened and release a true "Animal Crossing 2." As you're obviously starved for ideas, let me recommend how to bring this game up-to-date: The new game will be an open-ended stealth action FPS sandbox thriller with occasional first-person parkour segments. You're an undercover vice detective and the guitar-playing dog K.K. Slider is your in-game companion (controlled by AI in single-player or your friend in co-op mode). Together you go into deep cover in Tom Nook's megastore chain, investigating his textile sweatshops and alleged prostitution and drug trafficking operations. This should serve as a good jumping point; contact me if you need more detail.

Oh yeah, and what the FUCK is up with bringing back Resetti? It's not bad enough it takes 10 minutes just to load a goddamn game of Animal Crossing (even if you DO save before turning off your system) but you have to continue torturing players once the game finally loads? Just for this, I am officially putting you on notice: If I ever see Reggie Fils-Aimé in person I am totally gonna punch him in the piinis.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I Was Only Trying To Make Conversation

I was third in line, behind a woman and a man at the soda fountain in the cafeteria today. The guy in front of me observed the woman pressing the little square button that dispensed only unflavored carbonated water into her cup, and the following discussion ensued:

Man: Oh, I see you like the bubbly water there!

Woman (somewhat embarrassed): Oh, uh yeah I just kind of like the carbonation, I guess. I don't know why...

Man: You know, in Italy when you ask for water in a restaurant, they give you sparkling water by default unless you explicitly ask for tap water.

Me: Well, that's because their tap water gives you explosive diarrhea.
They both kind of shot me big-eyed stares and wandered off in opposite directions.

And people wonder why I rarely speak up at parties. *shrug*

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

iTunes Plus Library Upgrades Failing Massively

I was stoked about the news that the iTunes Music Store was getting rid of DRM and offering unlocked, higher-quality tracks to replace the protected songs that customers had already purchased. Stoked, that is, until I actually attempted to upgrade my library. When I click the little Upgrade My Library link at the iTunes Store front page, I'm presented with the option to buy the Plus versions of 96 individual songs and 11 complete albums for $61.80 USD. (By the way, it kind of blows that you can't pick and choose which tracks to upgrade. Apple is only offering complete library upgrades- well as complete as possible, since the labels haven't turned over all the DRM-free songs yet.) When I eagerly click the big silver Buy button, I'm presented with a little message box that says: "Your iTunes Plus upgrade is now processing" and instructs me to wait until I receive an email containing download instructions.

Well after 20 minutes or so, the email arrives and it always says the same thing:
Your iTunes Plus Upgrade Could Not Be Processed

Your iTunes Plus music upgrade could not be successfully completed because there is a problem with your payment information. To go to your iTunes Account Edit Payment Information page, please click the link below. Please check your credit card information, ensure that it has not expired, and check your billing information and then try your upgrade again.
So I return to iTunes and open up my account information, only to find that my payment information is not only intact, but correct. I have bought hundreds of songs in the past year alone with exactly the same information, and the card's good for another few years. Supplying the info for a second card didn't work either.

As the day wears on it's becoming clear that I'm not the only one. The Apple Support forums are filling up with posts from people all over the world having the same problems. It's nice, I guess, to know that I'm not the only one, but what's frustrating is that we have no idea what the issue specifically is, and whether Apple is even aware of the problem. There is no apparent way to submit a support ticket. (Clicking the Report a Problem button in iTunes simply loads your purchase history.)

Not everyone is having the issue. When it works, the tracks just queue for download automatically- no email involved. From the several successful reports I've seen, it appears that the upgrade is working better for people with fewer than 100 songs to replace. My own failed attempts involved 244 songs, and most of the complaints I've seen on the Apple forums seemed to involve triple-digit song counts.

I presume that Apple is just plain overwhelmed with upgrade requests and the system is just failing in bizarre and misleading ways. Anyway, if you are having similar problems to what I've described here, just know this:
  • You're not alone.
  • It's probably not anything with your payment information- especially if you've recently bought stuff through iTunes and the card's still valid.
  • It's not regional; it appears to be a global problem.