Thursday, June 29, 2006

skillfull incompetence

Watching the PBS documentary
FRONTLINE: The Dark Side, made me understand the Bush white house; it is run by people who are brilliant at getting what they want and incompetent at handling what they get. The documentary details the ways in which Cheny and Rumsfeld played skillful office politics to push the country into war with Iraq. Along the way the bungled the possibility of capturing Bin Laden and lead us into a disastrous war. This is in keeping with the president, who plays the political game brilliantly but simply is incapable of running the country. And I suspect it has a lot to do with the quality of the world in general. People get ahead not because they are good at their job but because they are good at manipulation and kissing up. And under Bush's remarkably incompetent leadership the entire country is now in the hands of such people.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Can righteous indignation prevent smoking?

I like the series of anti-smoking campaigns put out by They're the people who did that series of sitcom parodies in which tobacco executives would pitch utterly insane ideas to market tobacco which turned out to all be culled from actually tobacco industry documents. They just started a new commercial in which someone asks a doctor if he has Zephyr, which is revealed to be the code word for cancer used in Tobacco industry documents.

These ads are intriguing, but I always think it's a rather odd approach to getting people to stop smoking. Because many of the ads don't actually tell you cigarettes are bad for you, and when they do it's often in a somewhat indirect way. In the case of the Zephyr ad, the fact that smoking causes cancer is sort of mentioned in passing, but the real goal of the ad, as with many ads, is to point out that Tobacco companies are sleazy.

I keep wondering what the rational is behind such ads. Would teens stop smoking cigarettes because tobacco companies are sleazy? I mean, if I learned chocolate chip cookie manufacturers had internal documents talking about campaigns to present cookies as healthful and non-fattening it wouldn't actually stop me from eating cookies.

Maybe this approach does work. I hear the tobacco industry, which was forced by a legal ruling to fund these ads, is claiming the American Legacy Foundation, which is behind, is in breach of that agreement which stipulates that the ads cannot "vilify" tobacco companies. Since the ads do almost nothing but that it's amazing wasn't shut down long ago.

Personally, I think what's going to kill smoking is just the difficulty of finding a place to smoke. I love the fact that people can't smoke in restaurants in New York (it's one reason I kind of like Mayor Bloomberg), and I can't wait until the city stops people from smoking in parks as has apparently happened in a lot of towns in California. Of course, once no one can smoke in public I won't care if people smoke or not (in the same way I don't care if people shoot heroin), except for my friends, who I would prefer not smoke so they don't die.

UPDATE: Years later, I read an article in the Times that says this: 'But educating people about the tobacco industry’s marketing efforts can have a big impact. “We now have empirical evidence that people who don’t like the tobacco industry are about five times as likely to quit, and a third to a fifth as likely to start.”'

So it turns out that yes, righteous indignation can stop people from smoking. Go figure.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

My list of essential Windows add-ons and utilities

Recently I got a new computer. So I began a list of all the essential programs I needed to install on it. Not big things, like Microsoft Office and Firefox, but all the little utilities and shell extensions that make my life easier. It’s such a good list that I thought I’d share it with the world. Most of these are freeware. If I don’t provide a link (through laziness) search for it at downloads.comand if that doesn’t work just google for it.

Shell extensions (shell extensions are generally programs that when installed add an item to the right click context menu. If you don’t know what the right click context menu is you haven’t experienced half of the Windows experience. Right clicking your mouse button on most things – files, documents, whatever – brings up a handy menu)
cmndline: This is for programs that allow command line switches. For example, when I was having problems with my reminders always popping up in Outlook I used the switch cleanreminders. With comndline you simply right click on the executable, choose comndline, put in your switch and run it, saving you the trouble of running the program from the DOS command line.
clipname: Right click on a file and you can use clipname to copy the file name, the path or the DOS path, the latter of which is very important when dealing with programs that don’t understand the Windows naming convention (like some Java programs)
Windows power tools (link is same as TWeakUI link below, and is for Windows XP, although there are power tools for older versions on microsoft’s site):. Microsoft created a number of handy add-ons for Windows. One lets you open a DOS window in the folder you have open, another lets you resize your images. Many others, take your pick.
Startcop (or startupRun ): This is a utility created by PC Magazine that shows you all the programs that Windows loads up at Startup and lets you delete ones you don’t want. Great for getting rid of crap that slows down your system. Run it and you’ll be amazed to find software you never even use is loading itself every time you run your PC. It might be hard to find the free version of Startcop, since they later created a paid version, but NirSoft's StartupRun is just as good. Free.
Infotag magic: This causes a tooltip to pop up when you hover your mouse over a file that shows a lot more info than the standard tool tip. Gives tons of detail on media files, basic information on shortcuts and previews of text files. Free.
OpenTarget: Quick way to open the folder containing the file a shortcut is pointing to. (Microsoft used to have something similar as one of their power tools, but for some reason they don’t have on their website any more.) Free.
Everything: This desktop search application is far faster and simpler than Google Desktop Search. Results are almost instant and the simple interface uses Windows Explorer (although you can set it to use another file manager) so it works just like it's a part of Windows. It lists all file types without plug-ins. Everything only searches file names and folders, so it's no good if you want to find text inside a file, but if you're looking for a filename, which is usually my case, nothing could be better. It will also only search NTFS drives, but if like me all your drives are formatted in NTFS that's no problem and I don't think it searches files internally. One note: it wouldn't check my external USB drive until I went into the options and checked some check boxes. Free.
roboform: Browser add-on that lets you fill in forms with the click of a button. Free, no ads.
DiskKeeper: Nice program that constantly keeps your hard drives defragmented, speeding disk access. Put it on “set it and forget it” mode and never think aboug defragmenting again (if you’ve never thought about it before you especially need this). Costs something, don’t know how much.
QuickZip: This is to uncompress zip files (and other compressed formats). Since I have Windows XP, which will open a compressed file as a folder and has its own way to uncompress them, I don’t need this a lot, but it does let you use the context menu to extract data from one file or even extract from multiple files into one folder. Free.
Launchy: There wasn't much I liked when I installed Windows Vista, but there was a cool feature that allowed you to run any program by typing the first few letters of its name, and when I went back to XP I hunted down something that did the same thing. The answer is Launcy, a nifty little program that can be called up with a key combination. Free.

easycleaner :Fantastically useful free collection of tools. It’s got something to find unnecessary files to make more room on your PC, something to clean out dead entries in your registry, something to find duplicate files, an Add/Remove program utility that loads faster than Windows’, and some other good stuff. Better than many commercial products. Free.
TweakUI: A Microsoft product that lets you customize pretty much everything in windows. For example, you can create a shortcut that doesn’t have “shortcut to” appended on the front and choose which sorts of files can be created with the “create new” folder command. Free.
Treesize: Really handy when you are out of room on your hard drive and need to find out what’s sucking up the space, this shows how much space each folder on your PC is using. If you’ve got one folder using up a gigabyte and it’s not even anything useful (like the uninstall info for Windows XP SP2 that Microsoft stupidly leaves behind even though once you’ve got it working you’re never going to uninstall SP2) then Treesize can tell you where it is. I have the paid version, but there’s also a free version. Easycleaner has a similar tool but it’s not as good and unlike Treesize doesn’t let you run it on any folder from the context menu.
Tidy Start Menu: This lets you organize your Start Menu, good for people who install tons of stuff. Free limited version, haven’t tried the paid version.
pop3 preview: Sometimes my mail browser just won’t download something, usually because it’s too big. So I use Pop3 preview, which lets you see what’s on your mail server and read and delete it. I don’t need it often, but it’s worth having. Free if you only want to check one account, I think there’s a pro version for multiple accounts.
Everest or Aida32: Tells you everything in your PC, what kind of motherboard, what kind of memory, what kind of BIOS. Very handy if you need to know that stuff. Free. Everest was designed by the guy who did Aida32 and it looks the same to me, but it's more recent so in theory it would be better.
Gspot codec identifier: Tells you what codec is needed to play a video file. Good if you download a file and your media player doesn’t know what to do with it. Once you know the codec you need you can go to and download it. Free.
Virtual Folder: This will allow you to create one virtual folder pointing to multiple folders. For me the main advantage to this was I could create a virtual folder that pointed to various folders with related items and then search all these folders as though they were in the same place. Free, although you apparently get more features if you pay.
Virtual Clone Drive: If you have DVD images (like a file with an "iso" extension) this will allow you to use that file as though it was an actual DVD disk. Free.
Nfodiz: text file reader. Unlike notepad, this can translate ascii art, which is often used in the hacker/cracker community. Free.
FolderGuard: Allows you to password protect certain folders. Useful if you want to hide stuff on your PC from family or co-workers. Not hard-core security – you can bypass it by booting in safe mode – but useful for those in need of light security. $

GOM Media Player: Straight ahead media player, without all the elaborate, bulky crap of WIndows Media Player. For a long time I used Media Player Classic, which is patterned after the lean media player Windows had before they created WMP, but I always kept an eye out for something better and that something is GOM. Simple, fast and has shortcut keys to skip forward and other stuff that Windows had in their old player but didn’t bother with for their new one.) Free.
uTorrent: I used to do all my peer 2 peer downloading through programs like Shareaza and Limewire, but then I started realizing that, if you know of a good, reliable torrent site like Mininova you get much better results.
A different sort of peer to peer program that is a great way to find things like television shows. If I miss an episode of Gilmore Girls I can usually find it as a torrent file and download and watch it on my PC. I used to use Bittorrent, but it kept resetting all my preferences. uTorrent works better and also allows you to select individual files from a torrent with multiple files. You can also add search engines for sites like Mininova; it's still not quite as integrated as LimeWire, but you get much fewer duds and fake files.
Foxit: This is a PDF file reader. Of course, most people use Adobe's reader, but it's terrible. It's big, slow, and the last version I used insisted on taking several seconds to load something I didn't need without any way to turn off the option. Then I discovered Foxit, a small, fast PDF reader that blows Adobe away.
DOSBox and D-Fend: This is for people who like to play old DOS games that won’t run on a Windows PC. DOSBox is a DOS emulator, D-Fend is a front-end that makes DOSBox much easier to use.
Easy Duplicate Finder: This is the best program I've found for searching your computer to see if you have two of the same file.
Weather Watcher: This puts the current temperature on your taskbar; click on it and you can see a daily or hourly forecast. Much more streamlined and friendlier than the similar weatherbug. Free.
Memento: Puts post-it notes on your desktop. There are a number of programs like this, this is the best of the ones I’ve tried. When I was originally making my list of essential Windows utilities and add-ons I made the list in a Memento postit Free.
Media Monkey: The best media player I've found, although it's taskbar controller needs work. Still, it organizes files well and has the ability to find duplicate songs and other good features. Also, while the freeware version is good, if you want it to automatically scan your music folders for new songs you have to pay something, whereas Windows Media Player will do that for free.
VuePro: Of the image viewers I’ve tried I like this one the best. It’s simple and lets you quickly crop images. It costs something, so if you want a good free image viewer try the Farstone Image Viewer. Be warned though that even though it lets you crop images and has a save file command, you can’t actually crop an image and saved the crop image, as far as I can tell.
Thumbsplus: I don't use this anymore, but I recall it was a very good image cataloger. Costs something.
ACDSee: Also an image viewer, I only use this for one thing, to rename related files into a consistent naming scheme. There are other freeware programs that do this, and someday I'm going to sit down and find the best one, but for now this will do. I think this costs something, but I’m not sure, I’m using an old version I’ve had for years.

Free online backups:
IDrive and MozyHome: This are two services that will back up files on your computer and give you some free storage space (and the option to buy more space. Of the two IDrive seems easier to configure and work with, but I actually use both under the theory that the more backups of my important documents, the better. Both are free.

Microsoft Outlook add-ins (I don't use Outlook anymore - I've moved to Thunderbird, so I can't say if these are still current)
AttachmentOptions: Outlook will not let people send you certain types of files. It’s fine that it won’t let you receive executables, since they’re dangerous, but for some reason it also won’t let you receive links to websites (although you can cut and paste a link into the message text). AttachmentOptions lets you choose which files Outlook will and will not accept. Free.
spambayes: Excellent Bayesian spam filter (Bayesian means it looks at what you consider spam and tries to filter out similar emails).

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Pink's emotional middle ground

On Pink's new single Who Knew, she has a line that strikes me as a perfect summation of her public persona. Who Knew is a melancholy song about the discovery that when someone says forever, it doesn't mean it's going to be forever. It's a thoughtful song with no anger and even some fondness for her ex.

The line that struck me is:

If someone said three years from now
You'd be long gone
I'd stand up and punch them out
'Cause they're all wrong

It's an interesting comment, because in a song about loss and heartache she talks about beating someone up (although not my favorite Pink line, which is actually "What happened to the dreams of a girl president
She's dancing in the video next to 50 Cent"). That is Pink's persona, an introspective tough girl.

This for me puts her neatly in between two of my favorite singers, Carly Simon and Janis Joplin, who for me have always represented the two poles of personal songs.

I've always felt an affinity for Carly Simon as a songwriter, because I feel her somewhat distanced approach to describing her emotions is similar to mine, even though I wrote comedy songs that no one ever hear and she wrote serious songs that were on the radio. Still, like me, Carly can stand outside and describe her feelings. No Secrets is the complaint of an intelligent, self aware woman thinking about the ramifications of honesty. That's the Way I Always Heard it Should Be is sad but keenly observed. Many of her early songs were sad, but there was always that sense of observation. It's interesting that he saddest, purest emotion she ever expressed in song was a description of her state of mind years earlier.

Janis Joplin, on the other hand, was always engulfed by her emotions. When she was in pain she was like an animal in a trap gnawing on its own foot. She was pure emotion, happy or sad or angry, and that was it. That rawness was what made her so emotionally powerful.

Pink, as I say, is somewhere in between. Like Carly Simon, she can get enough distance from her emotions to see what's going on, but while Carly seemed able to cooly step outside herself and observe, with Pink it is more like she is making a mad dash from her emotions while they nip at her heels, ready to swallow her up again. She runs looking backward, describing her fresh wounds, unable to glance forward to see the emotional disaster waiting up ahead.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Scalia follows a typically illogical train of thought

A Times Article on a Supreme Court ruling that refused to throw out evidence the police obtained when the didn't knock before entering with a search warrantincludes this paragraph:

But Justice Scalia expressed confidence that there was an 'increasing professionalism of police forces, including a new emphasis on internal police discipline' that minimizes the need to deter misconduct by excluding evidence.

A typically moronic remark from Scalia. First off, I've heard the argument that we don't laws because people are better before; I knew a guy who said labor laws are no longer necessary because corporations are more moral than they were back in the days of child labor and 15 hour work days. If you believe that you are surrounded by a wall of stupidity that nothing can pass through.

Are police trying to keep their excesses in check? Yes. Why? Because if they don't, courts will throw out cases. If they can do what they like and their cases don't get dismissed, they will do what they like.

Expect a lot less knocking.

This isn't the most upsetting thing in the world to me. I mean, if they break down the door rather than knocking I think they should replace the door, but if they've got a warrant they're going to come in and a pause just gives you time to hide evidence, which isn't what anyone wants. But Scalia's comment is just so laughable that it makes me a lot madder about this ruling than I would be otherwise.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

It's just one of those white things

It’s not that I haven’t noticed that rap and hip hop have become a part of white culture, but I never quite realized how thoroughly white America had adopted these as their own until yesterday in Washington Square Park.  There a group of 30 or 40 Christian Teens from Dallas who billed themselves as Broken Ground gave a free performance to sell New York on Jesus.  The show was actually pretty good, they had a lot of spirit and did some fun dance numbers in the style of the musical Stomp, using trash cans and folding chairs as rhythm instruments and the like.

The music was a mix of rap, soul and gospel, the dancing was pretty much all hip hop or the Stomp-like numbers.  And even though the group was 95% white, seemingly composed primarily of slightly chunky blonde teenage girls (who ran up to audience members after the show eager to chat), the entire entertainment was drawn directly from black culture.  And when it gets to that point, it means you’ve got a generation who no longer thinks of rap and hip hop as a product of black culture, they are just THE culture.

I realize this is what people who witnessed the beginnings of rock and roll eventually saw.  First it was black music.  Then a few white singers chimed in.  Then it became so much a part of white mainstream culture that it was hard to remember a time when rock was considered truly edgy and dangerous.

I’ve started wondering when black people are going to ditch rap.  I mean, rock went from being 100% black to perhaps 95% white in maybe 20 years or less.  Perhaps it’s time for black people to invent something new for white people to appropriate.  Maybe it’s already happening; I’m not that hip, so I won’t know about the big new musical style until years after it hits the streets.

Of course, black musicians never deserted jazz, and white people never totally appropriated soul, so nothing can be said for certain.  But it is fascinating to watch this happen, to see that in one form or another this always happens and to realize that Africa, without intending it, has had such an incalculable effect on the world’s culture that it is more influential on how the world was shaped than all those Christians flooding the planet in a determined effort to remake the whole world in their image.

Monday, June 12, 2006

These kids are going to get so depressed in a few years

Interesting story in the Times about a cellphone ringtone only
audible to youngsters. As we age we lose the ability to hear certain tones. Some company in England created a product to make an annoying high-pitched sound that adults couldn't hear as a way to drive teenagers away who were hanging out in front of their stores. But someone realized if you used it as a ring tone then kids could keep their cellphones on in class and teachers wouldn't know it.

So kids are all really happy about this right? But they'll start not being able to hear their ring tone around age 18, on average. So really, this is just another invention to drive home to people that they are getting old, and all those kids feeling they've put something over on their teachers are going to have to face the hard, cold reality of the decline in their physical abilities earlier than ever. Poor kids.